Updated: Jun 16
Zello is Blackline's communications tool for both long-range and command/control messaging. You can read about why and how we're employing it at our other blog post here. While there are a growing number of Zello accessories, not all are created equal and it has been an ongoing battle to find trustworthy devices over the past few years.
This post is a living document (Last Updated February 2020) designed to be updated with new products that seem to be meeting the demands of outdoor airsoft and milsim events. It also covers a few of the promising items being released that make Zello even more useful in the field.
**Full disclosure - We will be super clear about what products we're using and our experiences with them. If you make a purchase based on our experiences, Blackline may receive compensation from a vendor or site.**
Using Zello can be a zero dollar investment if you want it to be. By itself, your phone screen acts as the PTT button and the internal speakers and microphones are more than equipped to handle communications. This isn't a very tactical approach to comms, so one of the first things to do is to plug in your standard earbuds. You can use the inline phone controls on your earbuds but these often work in a 'toggle' mode instead of a true push to talk function. You'll have to click them once to engage Zello, say your message, then press them again to turn it off. If you want to spend less than $20 on hardware, this is your best option although you may not see all the benefits Zello has to offer with this approach.
PUSH TO TALK (PTT) BUTTONS
One of the least expensive options to use is a small PTT button. These Bluetooth enabled devices are the trigger for your Zello app. They work in 'press and hold' mode which is how most PTTs operate but can be switched to 'toggle' mode if desired. The Bluetooth technology can be a bit temperamental at times, and if you lose pairing because you separate your phone from the PTT it can take a bit of effort to reconnect them. You'll still need a pair of earbuds or a Bluetooth earpiece if you want to keep the comms covert.
Cost: ~$50 to $60 CAD
Tested: YES (2 participant recommendations)
These small PTTs are good options for people just starting out with Zello. The cost is relatively low (~$60 CAD) which means if you decide Zello isn't for you, you haven't dropped $400 on a speaker microphone. We've used this PTT with Zello running on Android and iOS devices, and they're the authors 'go-to' device for low profile and covert taskings. They come in blue or black and they come with a piece of velcro that allows you to attach it to your fighting kit, or to wrap around your finger and hide in your palm. The other noteworthy point about these devices is that they seem to be made by three or four different companies. Some of our players have the Pryme version, and others have the NEXTAV one. Both of these seem to be working well for players. We can't yet verify if other companies are making them to the same quality standards. We'll reach out and update this post when we have more information.
This model with the recessed button (Pryme BT-PTT-Z Mini or NEXTAV NXPTT-Z) is particularly nice to protect from accidental activation in rural settings. The catch with this model is that the on/off switch in inside. You'll have to open it up and flick it to '1' with a small pointed object before it pairs with your device.
Josh Q Cyclist - Pryme BT-PTT-Z button to chat on the bike (YouTube)
Cost:~$50 to $60 CAD
Tested: YES (2 participant recommendations)
The other reliable Zello PTT button we've used is this slightly raised version. Like the NXPTT-Z and BT-PTT-Z, it seems to be made by Pryme and NEXTAV. We're still not sure what the difference is between the two versions. Tested on Android and iOS, these still work in the 'press and hold' and 'toggle' modes and also come in blue or black colour schemes. A small benefit of this model over the NXPTT-Z is that the power switch is external. This makes it easier to turn the device off when it's not in use. In our experience, the function is identical to the NXPTT-Z except that the button is raised which may make this a better choice for covert urban work instead of rural operations.
A small word of caution when purchasing this model. There appear to be multiple attachment options, including are lanyards, rubber finger rings, or velcro straps. We'd recommend the velcro strap for versatility as you can adjust the strap to fit around your finger or attach it to fighting gear. If Amazon is to be believed, that's the NXPTT-U2 option.
The next category up from basic PTTs is a speaker microphone. These are definitely more expensive than fob-style devices. However, you end up getting a speaker which often includes a 2.5mm or 3.5mm earpiece jack. That means you won't need to run a headset for your phone. Many of these options are IPxx rated for environmental protection and the Bluetooth connected versions mean your phone can stay dry and secure in your kit.
Cost: ~$170 to $180 CAD
Tested: YES (3 participant recommendations)
When we went looking for a recommendation for accessories from our regular participants, we found an overwhelming number of positive recommendations for the NEXTAV / PRYME Bluetooth PTT Wireless Speaker. One of our regular participants started using Zello for work after we introduced it during our events. After trying a few different versions of speaker microphones, he settled on this one. It is "very reliable and has worked amazingly non-stop every day at work."
We found a half dozen other players using this device and they told us it's their go-to. The NEXTAV advertises 40 hours of talk time but based on the feedback we heard a more reasonable number is probably 18-24. The metal clip on the back received some praise as well for its sturdiness and secure latching. An internal battery can be charged via the micro USB port, but participants haven't tested if the mic operates while it is charging. The device also claims IP56 environmental protection, but we haven't put it through its paces in the rain so this feature is still up for confirmation. Similar to the PTT buttons, both Pryme and NEXTAV seem to manufacture this product and both seem to be ok. Again, we'll reach out to the manufacturers to see if we can understand the differences.
Price: ~$270 CAD
The Voice Responder has a bit of a futuristic look to it, but it's made an impact with some local companies. We know that at least one security provider equips their team with these speaker mics. There may be a good reason for that. The Voice Responder has a number of buttons beyond the standard single PTT toggle. In fact, the device has seven buttons with some allowing programmable functions. If they're capable of mapping to specific channels or work to cycle through comms networks, it would be a serious benefit for those playing command/control or RTO roles.
Like many of the other devices in this category, it advertises 24-hour battery life and an IP67 rating. Actually, the list of certifications is quite extensive and is best viewed on the AINA website page for the device. It comes with the standard 3.5mm headphone jack for your earpiece and a micro USB charging port. This is another device that we haven't had a chance to test yet so we can't verify how well it matches the marketing claims.
Manufacturer: OTTO Communications
Price: ~$300 CAD
When we wrote our post on the exciting products we saw at SHOT Show 2020, OTTO Communications Revo NC2 was on the list. One of the first companies we bumped into, we were surprised to see such a well known military manufacturer building devices specifically to work with Zello. The Revo NC2 has a more standard military appearance when compared to the AINA voice Responder. A few of the features OTTO promotes are the high environmental protection (MIL-STD-810G), the option for a 2.5mm or 3.5mm headset jack, 200,000 cycle life on the PTT switch, and an integrated/replaceable battery that is charged by USB. One of the possible downsides is the 12-hour battery life during regular to high use. We haven't used one of these yet so we'll have to wait until we can put one through a standard event to determine if this will be sufficient.
Mike Griffiths from OTTO told us they're expecting to start shipping product by the end of February 2020. One small drawback with the NC2 is that it currently only works with Android devices. iOS support is due at the end of March 2020 but if you're in a rush, you may have to consider other options.
Not everyone wants to haul their phone into rugged environments. To solve this problem, a number of companies have started to produce devices called Network Radios dedicated to Zello. There are mobile models that resemble CB or HAM radios, and handheld models that copy the familiar UHF radio form factor. The handheld versions differ from ruggedized cellphones in that they do away with cameras and big glass screens. They're usually running an Android OS and use a sim card to connect to the cellular data network. Using a device that isn't your phone has some other added benefits. The nightmare of losing your cellphone somewhere on a square kilometre of rural terrain may be worth this moderate hardware investment.
Manufacturer: Telo Systems
Cost: ~$280 to $400 CAD
We haven't used one of the TE390's yet, but we're trying to get our hands on one for testing. There are a few reasons why we're excited to try one out.
First, these have a similar form factor to Baofeng and Puxing radios (11 x 6 x 3 cm) which suggests they'll fit nicely into existing radio pouches. Second, they're rated for IP67 environmental protection which is really desirable in the conditions we expose our players to. Finally, the standard M5 connection means compatibility with a larger number of military-type accessories. We can't give you a ton of details yet, but you can expect a full review once we put one of these through its paces.
Almost every device listed above requires power. While all have internal batteries, not all of them will last a 24 or 36-hour event. Battery packs to support phones and accessories must be backed to ensure communications can be sustained.
Cost: ~$30 to $40 CAD
Tested: YES (1 Recommendation)
There are many external battery packs on the market but this one has been serving the author flawlessly for over three years. The 10000 mAh is packed into a form factor that is a bit smaller than a phone and puts out enough power to charge multiple phones and accessories for the duration of an event. Charging seems to go faster than other batteries as well. Testing has shown they deal well with humidity and dampness, but the PowerCores are not waterproof and for safety, you should store them in a plastic bag.
OPEN CALL FOR SUGGESTIONS
This is a living article, so if you have a Zello accessory you're using and that is serving you well, let us know in the comments below.