Element Barryvox- Avalanche Beacon Review

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Avalanche Beacons

Avalanche Beacons

WildSnow Beacon Reviews Intro and Index

The Element Barryvox (Mammut’s official somewhat backwards nomenclature) avalanche beacon is very similar to the “Basic” user profile option of its sibling Pulse, and with only a single button on the housing. Translation please? The Element has three antennas along with marking/masking capability for multiple burials, plus other features, all at a lower price of $350. The Element is likely to offer broad appeal across many different types of users, all at a price point that is becoming increasingly competitive and capable.

Interface and Controls

To switch the Element to Transmit mode, depress and then slide the three-position switch on the top edge of the beacon so that it is flush with the housing. A battery icon will display in the top left corner of the screen along with a two-digit battery percentage readout. How to tell at a glance the beacon is transmitting? Look for the three-position switch to be the flush with the housing and look for the blinking light (all of which is clearly visible with the beacon in its pouch).

To switch over to Search, depress and then slide (which is possible with one reasonably dexterous hand) that same switch even further (i.e., so that it protrudes from the other end of the housing).

The search interface is relatively simple. An LCD arrow rotates among nine different positions over a 180-degree span, with a distance readout below. (Below a 10-meter reading, the second digit is displayed in a smaller font size, so as to further distinguish XY meters from X meters plus Y tenths of a meter.) Up to three victim icons appear on the left side of the screen, with a “+” symbol for more than three. A U-turn arrow will appear on the right side of the screen if the Pulse senses that the distance readout is increasing (instead of decreasing as it should), but otherwise will never appear.

A large easy-to-press (but not unintentionally so) single button for marking is on the right edge of the housing, as compared to the Pulse’s two buttons. And note that the Element’s discrete screen elements described above differ from the full-text screen of its sibling Pulse, even though at first glance the beacons look identical to each other but for their color schemes. The Element LCD screen also lacks a backlight, which would be a problem if conducting a search in the dark without a headlamp. (Rather unlikely, but more and more backcountry skiers go on night missions, and a headlamp could get knocked off during a rescue.)
To revert to Transmit, bump the end of the switch. The Element Pulse also reverts to Transmit after 8 minutes of Search time without any use of the marking button. Upon switching back into Transmit (whether manually or via auto-revert), the Element will hold off while counting down from 5, and then emit a warning signal once it starts to transmit again. This is to alert the user in case of an unintentional switch to Transmit, and if the beacon is switched back into Search during this five-second countdown, all the search details will be restored (i.e., as opposed to starting the search anew).

Take care to avoid letting any water drip into, and then freeze, the switch at the top edge of the beacon. My Pulse – with an identical switch – once froze so firmly that back at the trailhead at the end of our tour I was unable to switch over into either Search or Off until after a minute or so of bare-hand warming. I have also replicated this with a few drops of water and a short amount of time in a home freezer. (By contrast, the occasionally seen assertion that the Pulse – and by extension the Element – can be turned into Transmit without truly being locked into Transmit is misleading: This requires a delicate action to achieve such a fine balancing point, plus the feel of the switch when locked into Transmit is so unmistakable that anyone who mistakes this small no-man’s-land for being locked into Transmit is probably so otherwise incompetent as to be incapable of using any beacon in a search anyway.)

Upon start-up the Element runs a self-test and allows for an optional group check mode in which the search range is radically shortened to a single meter with analog acoustics (although such analog acoustics are not available during regular searching). And like some of the competition, both the Element and Pulse will report an error for a transmitting beacon whose frequency has drifted out of spec.

How It Works: Initial Signal Acquisition > Secondary Search Phase > Final Search Phase

Initial signal acquisition is via LCD distance readout, LCD 180-degree nine-position rotating arrow, and digital acoustics. Upon initial signal acquisition, the Element emits a distinct warning tone to get your attention. Also, the digitized acoustics take on a distinct tone upon flux line alignment (i.e., when the arrow is pointing straight ahead). Within 3m (as measured by the distance readout), the Element stops displaying its rotating arrow, substituting a static “Airport” graphic.

Does the “Airport” static graphic mean to prepare yourself for the usual route of remembering not to bring any Gu packets through TSA security, waiting forever at the gate for your flight departure, and then worrying whether you and/or your checked baggage will make your connection? No, it’s just a static graphic designed to encourage unpracticed users to head straight in and not spend forever in the final search phase wandering around scratching like chickens.

How It Works: Multiple Burials

The Element automatically locks to the strongest signal, with additional victim symbols shown in a vertically arrayed list on the left side of the screen. When a beacon is found, the user can then mark/mask it, and the Element will automatically switch the search to the next-strongest signal. The only way to unmark/unmask a previously marked/masked beacon is to turn the beacon into Transmit then (after the five-second countdown is complete) back to Search.

Unlike its Pulse sibling, the Element’s secondary W-Link frequency is currently used only for firmware upgrades (i.e., essentially in lieu of a USB port). However, that could change in the future. But the vitals data transmission function of the Pulse will never be available in the Element, since it lacks any ability to detect fine body movements.

How Well It Works: Initial Signal Acquisition > Secondary Search Phase > Final Search Phase

Initial signal acquisition range is on the upper end of the latest triple-antenna beacons, and comparable to its big brother the Pulse in my latest range tests.

The combination of digitized acoustics (with tone change for flux line alignment), nine-position directional indicator, and typical distance readout is very straightforward. The “U-Turn” indicator (for when the distance readout is increasing instead of decreasing as it should) is very attention grabbing (and hence good!), although somewhat conservative in appearing. (That is, sometimes during my testing while going in the wrong direction and watching the distance readout increase, I thought the U-Turn indicator already had enough consistent information that it should have appeared a bit earlier.)

In the final search phase, the Element has a third antenna that eliminates all nulls and spikes. And the box size (i.e., the area over which the distance indicators are unable to differentiate the remaining distance to the target) is very small (essentially zero).

And the “Airport” static graphic? As mentioned above, yes, it’s just a static graphic. So on the one hand it’s not really doing anything, and isn’t any different than the lack of anything at all shown by most beacons in the final search phase (other than the distance readout of course). As for the idea it’s trying to convey, I agree with the goal that Barryvox is trying to reach, since when teaching beacon searching skills to my avalanche course students I’ve seen far too many searchers rotate or pivot the beacon in the final search phase (a big no-no) and/or spend far too much time moving both forward and back as well as left and right trying to pin down the location to within a few centimeters.

So the landing strip aspect of the graphic (with some relatively small left<>right elements) is intended to prevent searchers from rotating/pivoting the beacon and from going left and right in addition to back and forth. But sometimes a little bit of left and right will aid significantly in the subsequent probe strike. On the other hand, the searcher is still free to go left and right — as noted earlier, it’s just a static graphic intended to convey a searching strategy in the final search phase, not a limitation upon the beacon’s capabilities.

How Well It Works: Multiple Burials

The marking/masking feature is as reliable as any such feature can be, essentially substituting a series of single-burial searches for a confusing search among multiple signals.

The Element (and many competitors) essentially substitutes model-specific familiarity for more general beacon searching skills. In other words, hand an Element with no prior explanation to a user highly skilled in resolving multiple-burial searches on a beacon that has no special features, and the user might initially be confused with the concept of the marking feature. By contrast, a user familiar with the Element (which takes only a few minutes of practice) can usually solve multiple-burial searches as if with x-ray vision. The analogy that comes to mind is the difference between a driver in an entirely unfamiliar city yet skilled with the latest vehicle GPS system versus a driver with a good map and a general sense of a city’s layout trying to navigate through an unfamiliar neighborhood. (That is, assuming the GPS has the latest and thoroughly accurate maps.)

But the Element is still not perfect, as is the case with the signal separation competition. Why? For the very same reason that your own human ear can have trouble discerning the presence of more than one beacon signal as the different signals can overlap. Eventually, the signals’ different timing will cause them to diverge from another, and the Element will correctly identify the number of beacons. This resolution is usually very fast, typically before I even reach the first beacon, but outliers do occur.

Furthermore, the beacon transmission spec was never designed for such a purpose, although some intentional randomization among modern beacon signals can help. And older F1 beacons can cause more persistent undercounting and even ghosting. (And many F1 beacons – once the most popular beacon world-wide — are still out there in use.) When the Element is uncertain, it will helpfully (from my perspective at least) display a “+” symbol next to the number of beacons. For example, when searching for three beacons, often I will at first have two victim symbols, with a “+” to indicate that the Element is working on determining what it suspects is a third signal. And the relatively rare ghosting incidents are almost always denoted with a “+” instead of an additional victim count. Personally, I like seeing the “+” symbol to indicate possible uncertainty or “working on it . . . ” status as opposed to the “either/or” nature of the victim count on some of the competition.

In my new “5-25/5-20 Walk-the-Line Test” (as described more fully in my test notes), the Element did reasonably well for a beacon that marks/masks so reliably. That is, although the Element locked onto the Near Target and then the mark/mask function worked instantly (as it should), the subsequent strides and time needed for the signal of the Far Target to be acquired was typically just around ten seconds or so.

Overall: To What Kind of Person Does This Beacon Appeal?

The Element is likely to offer broad appeal across many different types of users, all at a price point that is becoming increasingly competitive and capable (e.g., BCA Tracker 2, Ortovox 3+, Pieps DSP Tour).

For more customization and features, another $140 buys you the big brother Pulse. The Pulse can also be operated in a “Basic” profile that is very similar to the Element. Either way, both models from Barryvox are very capable, and while the Pulse in its “Advanced” profile can be overwhelming to a first-time user still trying to figure out the entire concept of following a flux line with directional indicators, the “Basic” profile allows the Pulse to offer even broader appeal (although at a higher price).
Overall: What Thoughts Go Through My Mind If a Partner Has This Beacon?

“My partner should be a whiz at solving a close-proximity multiple burial.”

“Although in general I sure hope my partner is not an idiot, I’m feeling good because he has a highly idiot-proof beacon with a very simple user interface and a minimum of distractions.”

“It’s night, I hope my partner has a headlamp because the LCD screen of the Element lacks a backlight.”

Barryvox Element Manual (although note that currently only a very brief quick reference guide is available

Shop for Barryvox Element avalanche beacon.

WildSnow Beacon Reviews Intro and Index

(WildSnow guest blogger Jonathan Shefftz lives with his wife and daughter in Western Massachusetts, where he is a member of the Northfield Mountain and Thunderbolt / Mt Greylock ski patrols. Formerly an NCAA alpine race coach, he has broken free from his prior dependence on mechanized ascension to become far more enamored of self-propelled forms of skiing. He is an AIARE-qualified instructor, NSP avalanche instructor, and contributor to the American Avalanche Association’s The Avalanche Review. When he is not searching out elusive freshies in Southern New England or promoting the NE Rando Race Series, he works as a financial economics consultant.)

Comments

22 Responses to “Element Barryvox- Avalanche Beacon Review”

  1. Matt Kinney January 9th, 2012 9:16 am

    I read the fine review, but could find no reference to the range other than you did a range test that was ok. Can you put a number on your “range test” for signal acquisition? How does this range compare to others like the DSP, etc…

  2. Rick January 9th, 2012 1:04 pm

    There is always this info on range testing:

    http://beaconreviews.com/transceivers/RangeTestResults.asp

    that is rather comprehensive and describes in some detail the test method.

  3. altis January 9th, 2012 1:36 pm

    I’m not sure if I entirely believe that range test table. My own tests recently gave the Barryvox 3000 as 45m(A)/35m(D), the Arva Advanced as 50m(A)/40m(D) and the Ortovox M2 as 100m.

    I wouldn’t be suprised if this was just due to variation within the models. My M2 has just come back from Ortovox for repair.

  4. Jonathan Shefftz January 9th, 2012 2:12 pm

    Although I have a spreadsheet with results for over 500 trials of initial signal acquisition tests, as explained a bit here:
    http://www.wildsnow.com/1609/jonathans-wildsnow-beacon-test-notes/
    … I shy away from emphasizing quantitative results, especially since the differential (on average) among many beacons is more than offset by the differential among firmware versions, test days, test locations, and even individual trials (i.e., back to back, separated by less than a minute).
    With that aside, the Element and its sibling Pulse in my most recent test were pretty much duking it out with the Pieps. I suspect though based on prior range tests that the Pieps would have a small yet noticeable edge if I kept repeating these tests into the future (which unfortunately I’ll have to keep doing — the plus side is that the temperature also seems to drop partway through the test, which makes for a nice albeit unintentional and unpleasant test of how easy a beacon is to operate with number fingers).

  5. Mark January 9th, 2012 2:34 pm

    One day you’ll be able to play Angry Birds on your transceiver.

  6. Nick January 9th, 2012 6:11 pm

    Have to say that I am rather disappointed by the performance on multiple beacon search practices in my local beacon basin. On several occasions after masking the first target my Element picked up another target, guided me partway to it and then became thoroughly confused and REPEATEDLY told me to stop. This despite me trying to avoid any fast movements. It seems particularly prone to this in the final fine search when less than 3m from the target. On one occasion it completely lost the signal from the target despite being almost on top of it. I found it easier AND faster to do multiple target searches with my F1 Focus (OK I am a lot more practiced with it). I understand that masking will always be a problem when transmitting targets are pulsing nearly synchronously – perhaps the beacon basin is particularly prone to this?

    I’ve come to the conclusion that I am going to have to be VERY prepared to turn to transmit and back to turn off the masking if I ever have the misfortune to have to search a multiple burial.

  7. Jonathan Shefftz January 10th, 2012 6:30 am

    altis, the variation is most likely not within production batches of the same model, but across different test setups. Like the BeaconReviews.com notes state, one range test showed a 50% increase over prior tests.
    Also note that BeaconReviews.com publishes range results only for optimal coupling, even though search strip width is established on that exact opposite.
    As for an M2 consistently acquiring a signal from 100 meters, I’m highly skeptical.

  8. altis January 10th, 2012 7:08 am

    My tests were carried out in the local park over a period of perhaps a couple of hours. In turn, I tested each transceiver against the two others – a total of six tests. The transmitter was set at waist-height at the front of a plastic table mounted on a camera tripod so that it pointed out across the park. I walked out in the same direction with the receiver until I stopped hearing the pings. Then I walked back in until it started to receive again. I repeated this a few times with each and the consistency was good – even between different transmitters.

    Certainly, if I set the transmitters at 90 degrees the range of all tests will be worse but I wanted to get a feel for the relative efficacy of each model so kept everything aligned each time.

    I also tested a Child Out Of Range Monitor. This cheap transmitter/reciever pair will bleep when they are too far apart. It will use one of the licence-free ISM bands that are much higher in frequency so will perform poorly thru snow. However, the best range I achieved in the park was around 80m.

    My background is as an electronic engineer with a bias towards communications. I think it is this that provides me with a strong resistance to digital transceivers that employ ‘masking’ using a happenstance difference between transmitters to asist this life-critical activity.

    IMV, this is all wrong and we should be seeking to modify the standard:
    http://www.etsi.org/WebSite/Technologies/AvalancheBeacons.aspx

  9. Jonathan Shefftz January 10th, 2012 7:11 am

    My understand is that you need to turn the beacon back to Transmit before you walk out of range. Then once out of range, turn the beacon to Search and keep walking steadily until you pick up a signal.

  10. Preston January 13th, 2012 8:34 am

    Just wondering, but how user friendly is this beacon, compared to a Tracker 2.

  11. Jonathan Shefftz January 13th, 2012 6:35 pm

    User friendliness is of course subject to personal preferences. That said, I think the BCA Tracker 2 really stands out for user friendliness in single-burial searches. ARVA Evo3+ and Ortrovox Patroller Digital would be roughly tied for second place. After that, it’s the crop of new price-point marking/masking beacons, especially for a multiple-burial search: [in no particular order...] Barryvox Element, Ortovox 3+, and Pieps DSP Tour (basically the regular DSP but with only one button instead of three, although a comprehensive review is coming up soon). The new ARVA Axis is another direct competitor to these three, but with the complete user interface of its more expensive Link sibling (which is already busy enough), it definitely falls off on the user friendliness department. (Complete reviews of all three ARVA beacons will be coming up soon.)

  12. Michael January 15th, 2012 7:10 pm

    Just my 2 cents – new to the backcountry so maybe in the “real world” I won’t care, but one thing that surprises me about reading various beacon reviews is that I find very little mention of ergonomics when talking about user friendliness.
    I would think in a real search, the last thing I would want is to be thinking about how my beacon doesn’t sit comfortably in my hand – for that reason (among others) I am definitely leaning toward the Mammut Barryvox beacons over Pieps, Ortovox & and Tracker beacons. Especially the Pieps and Ortovox chassis seem to be un-naturally square and awkward to hold.
    Can anyone offer me any “speaking from experience” advice on that particular thought?

  13. Jonathan Shefftz January 15th, 2012 7:15 pm

    Michael, I agree entirely with your concern. But that is such a subjective evaluation, so I refrain from commenting on that issue.
    Two exceptions though. First, the BCA Tracker 2′s Transmit/Search switch, which I commented on at the time, and which I commented recently in both the T2 review and the more recent overview post:
    - “[...] running tests for initial signal acquisition. This entailed manipulating TransmitSearch switches something like 150 times. And with very numb fingers toward the end. The ergonomics of the T2?s switch were even more appreciated at that point!”
    Second, as you’ll see in my upcoming reviews for the ARVA Link and Axis (same housing and controls), I found them rather complicated and hard to manipulate.
    All other beacons are just kind of in a vast in-between area where personal preferences play a much bigger role than any comments I can provide.

  14. gringo January 16th, 2012 5:00 am

    @Michael,

    MY 2 cents for your real world feedback. When I was unfortunate enough to need to do a real search for a buried compaion the last possible thing that would have entered my mind would be ‘gee, my homie can’t breathe, and may already be dead from trauma, but man these square edges sure are cramping my style….’

    I will say that it took a few days after that recovery for all the aches and pains I incurred to surface. I had a few strange brusies and scrapes from throwing myself over a rockband in order to reach the depsosition area in the fastest possible way. Personal ‘comfort’ on the part of the searcher is a non-issue in my opinion.

    If the beacon does not jump out of your hands when you active SEARCH with your gloves on , it’ll probably be just fine.

    again, just my 2 cents.

  15. Lou January 16th, 2012 5:18 am

    I’d agree with Gringo. Also, for me, I tend to prefer something that’s small and easy to carry. Less bulk.

    Yet in the end, the best beacon is still the one that’s carried and practiced with.

  16. Jonathan Shefftz January 16th, 2012 8:30 am

    Size and weight vary very little among beacons, especially with their harnesses included. The only outliers in this area are the beacons that lack a pouch, and instead use an all-strap system (ARVA Evo3+ & Ortovox Patroller Digital).
    But *shape* varies considerably. And what shape you prefer, well, that’s your personal preference.
    One exception though is the ARVA Axis pouch – nice soft neoprene, and very small. Unfortunately too small for the beacon. Removing the beacon from its pouch in a panic-prone situation with cold numb fingers enclosed in winter handwear could be a disaster … but sure is nice to wear until then!

  17. Kam Ilkhanipour January 22nd, 2012 1:17 pm

    Greetings to the wildsnow gurus. This is my first posting on your great website…and of course, a question. I am looking to upgrade from my Ortovox M2 to one of the newer, fully digital beacons. I’ve narrowed the choices down to the Element or the 3+. The Element review is great, and I am leaning towards that model because I have found several postings on other websites…including Ortovox’s own, re: problems with the 3+ failing to perform, or sometimes even work at all. Have not seen many, if any user reviews on the Element. Wondering if you guys had a recommendation on one or the other…or has anyone had any issues with the Element/Pulse? thanks,kam

  18. Lou January 22nd, 2012 3:39 pm

    Kam, no way I can recommend one good beacon over another other than our attempt to recommend one choice out of each brand for a sort of “average” shopper (see beacon overview), your choice needs to be based on numerous factors such as size of beacon you prefer, your needs in terms of your style of touring, budget etc. Mostly, any normal beacon shopper can rest assured that the best beacon is ANY good quality modern beacon that they learn well and practice with at least several times a year. Regarding those two beacons, I know of no issues with either than should be a deal breaker, In my case, I do like the form factor and seeming simplicity of the 3+, but I’d be very happy with the Element as well. And I’d be totally happy if my partner had either one of them.

  19. Kam Ilkhanipour January 22nd, 2012 4:50 pm

    I understand Lou, and thanks again for the follow up.

  20. Jonathan Shefftz January 23rd, 2012 11:54 am

    The Element and 3+ are definitely direct competitors, both in terms of price point and feature sets. The decision between them all comes down to personal preferences. Some notable differences though are the Element has a long search range, although the 3+ can have a longer transmit range albeit in only very specific burial configuration (i.e., long axis is vertically oriented and short axis is oriented toward the searcher). I have seen many reports (including my own of course) on how the 3+ sometimes is extremely jumpy in its directional indicators toward the end of the secondary search, but that’s pretty fleeting and it doesn’t affect all searches. I read the comments on the Ortovox website (and thanks for pointing that out – didn’t notice that they had added that feature) about units that seemed to be DOA, but that just be a few units out of however many zillion they’ve shipped. (Probably a good idea with any new beacon to put it through its paces upon receipt just to make sure everything is working as it should.)

  21. Lou January 23rd, 2012 12:09 pm

    I’d also point out that any reported “jumpiness” of various beacons has little to no effect if the searcher has even a tiny amount of practice. When you use these things, you quickly learn that if the arrow momentarily jumps you just keep on keeping on. In my view this sort of thing is more a psychological problem than anything, as you don’t want to be hesitating and delaying your progress. I’ve found everything I’ve tried recently to be incredibly effective and easy to use, including 3+. REALLY, the problem you’ve got with an avalanche burial is how you’re going to dig your buddy out fast enough to save them — nearly any beacon now available will get you to the important but over-rated point of shoving in a probe at your fine search. In other words, the most important result is when you expose the victims face, and a lot more than a few jumpy arrows are delaying that process.

  22. Kam Ilkhanipour January 30th, 2012 10:25 am

    Thanks again guys. Ended up getting the Element and using it for 3 days last week in the Wasatch. Comfortable and worked very well in single beacon practice searches.

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