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Thread: Three Sena bluetooth intercom reviews.

  1. #1
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    Default Three Sena bluetooth intercom reviews.

    I've been using Sena products for a while. Since I've regularly seen people posing (on various online resources) about which Sena product to buy and I've extensively used several iterations of their communications devices, I thought my experiences might be of some use to others looking at investing in bluetooth intercoms.

    First of all, while I'm aware that there are other manufactures out there, this product evaluation doesn't address the alternatives simply because I don't have experience outside Sena. Furthermore, the reality is that nearly any high end bluetooth communication device will be relatively similar when it comes to reliability and suitable audio quality, range, and battery life. So whatever you end up purchasing, I suspect you'll end up being happy with.

    Now, for a little background. Four+ years ago when I started to look for a way to communicate with my passenger, the price point for most dual-pack (pilot to pillion) bluetooth communications systems on the market was prohibitively high. Somewhere along the line, Sena released the budget conscious SMH-5 at half the price of their, then, top of the line SMH-10. I actually managed to pick up a dual pack for less than the price of a single SMH-10 because I have a very good relationship with my local Family Yusa. Both units of this set still see regular use by my passenger. I personally needed more battery life though, so when I was offered a used SMH-10 unit here on the forum (thanks cmac), I snapped it up. This lasted for two years (story on that later) until I picked up the latest 20S, and I've been using that for several months now.

    My routine use case is probably fairly typical of many riders. My primary need is for listening to GPS directions from either my Zumo 550 or my Android device, secondary use is for communicating with my passenger while running around town or during two-up single day trips (occasionally multiple day trips as well), tertiary use is for connecting to my phone for being able to make a post accident emergency call and also to receive phone calls if/when necessary. Another important thing here is that I'm a year round, all weather rider so all of my headsets see, or have seen, plenty of adverse weather conditions.

    In addition to the above, during longer commutes I occasionally use it for listening to music streamed from my Android device. I have two Android devices: a first-generation Sony Xperia which I use for voice calls exclusively, and a more modern Aquos 7” phablet which I use for GPS directions and streaming music. I encourage others with Apple devices to chime in below, but I've had a pretty trouble free experience with Android and Sena.

    I've also used all three units on separate extended multi-day tours for rider to rider comms in very mountainous terrain.

    Finally, I was once pleasantly surprised by being able to make use of the “universal intercom” pairing feature (available on all three models I'm reviewing). I successfully paired to a generic phone handsfree bluetooth headset which allowed me to keep an intercom channel open with a friend of mine in a car.

    Click on the links below, or scroll through the thread to read the individual reviews of each headset.

    Sena SMH-5 review
    Sena SMH-10 review
    Sena 20S review
    Last edited by dmizer; 25-05-15 at 10:11 AM.

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    Default Smh-5

    SMH-5:
    My first, and longest lasting, purchase was the SMH-5 dual pack. This is the early version which was shipped with lower grade “slim” speakers and without the more current locking connector. The current model dual-pack (with better speakers and locking connector) can be had on Amazon for around 25000 yen, and single for around 15000 yen.

    The good:
    Both of these units have been ultra reliable despite seeing lots of rain and helmet drop impacts. The smaller size is nice as well, while still being easily manipulated even with winter gloves on.

    The feature set (with current firmware) for the price point is very good, including “universal intercom”, “music sharing”, DSP filter, multi-point pairing, speed dial, and upgradeable firmware.

    The advertised range is 400 meters, but it essentially amounts to a little less than line-of-sight range. Still, it's a very useful range even for bike to bike comms. Really, if you tend to get separated for anything more than a KM or two, you'll need something with more range (more like an FRS radio) than any of the current market bluetooth based communicators anyway.

    I also like the USB like speaker/mic connector much better than the pin style on the SMH-10.

    The bad:
    My biggest personal complaint for these is the battery life. My passenger and I occasionally ran out of battery on longer trips. Once I purchased my SMH-10 though, that was resolved because now my passenger carries both units and just swaps them out when one dies. She's even been able to manage this swap while on the fly, with summer weight gloves on.

    Also, it's not possible to listen to both the intercom and GPS directions. You must manually switch between the intercom and GPS.

    I highly recommend this unit for someone looking for a budget entry into bluetooth intercoms. It would also be good for someone who wants better communication connectivity during commutes, or as a dedicated unit for a regular passenger. While it can be pressed into service (and fairly reliably) as a bike to bike intercom, if you suspect you'll be doing a lot of bike to bike comms, you'll be better off with the SMH-10 or 20S.

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    Default Smh-10

    SMH-10:
    As I mentioned before, I picked up my SMH-10 unit used. It was the second half of a dual-pack setup, and I purchased it knowing that the SMH-5 battery life issue would be solved for my passenger. This unit has also seen plenty of abuse, and very bad weather. The single pack unit can be had (new) on Amazon for around 28000 yen. Note here, if you're buying used, there is an early version of the SMH-10 with a non-USB power connector. Avoid purchasing this unit since it is not possible to upgrade the firmware.

    The good:
    The feature set here is marginally better than the SMH-5. But the best addition here is that GPS directions are automatically switched. What this means, in practice, is that your intercom is interrupted when your GPS talks. The other feature is conference intercom. While I've only used this once, I have to admit that it was very handy and increased the total range between the three riders we had patched together.

    Speakers are large and loud enough to hear GPS directions or voice comms at expressway speeds with earplugs in. Music is a bit tinny but tolerable.

    The advertised range of 900 meters is superior as well, but again, this is essentially line-of-site in real riding conditions. If your riding partner disappears around a bend even well within that range, your comm will drop.

    Battery life is much increased with an advertised 12 hours of talk time. In practice though, I didn't get that much. Probably closer to 9 or 10 hours. Still, that's a very full day of riding.

    I never personally used it, but some people may also find the audio-in port useful as well.

    The bad:
    My biggest complaint here is the pinout connection style. The device connects to the helmet mount (and its attached speaker and mic) via two rows of pins. These pins make contact with the helmet mounted base via some flat contacts. If you're not careful, the pins can be easily bent and/or the contacts damaged by abrasives or use. After lots of use, I needed to replace the helmet base because I'd worn out these contacts.

    I'm also not so happy with the weather resistance since that's what ultimately led to me replacing it. After extensive use, the rubber USB power connector cover had worn out and wasn't sealing well. Water primarily got in through this point and rendered it useless. I pulled the unit apart to see if I could restore it to service (I was successful in this respect – rice is awesome) and discovered that the weather proofing design isn't that great. Even without the weak USB cover, water could have easily gotten in.

    The comparatively (to the SMH-5) large size was also a problem sometimes, as I occasionally hit the jog dial with my shoulder, thereby causing some action to occur. Usually, that just meant my comm was dropped, but other odd things did happen like starting my phone music.

    I recommend this unit for a fair weather rider looking for more battery life, or someone who regularly rides with groups. While I recognize that there are riders on this forum who have used this unit in lots of bad weather, I strongly suggest using caution during extended rides in heavy rain.

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    Default 20s and conclusion

    20S:
    The 20S has a lot of really attractive features, and I've been eying it for a while. Lots of people have been posting online about how buggy it is. Some people say that most of the issues have been solved after the first firmware update. Others are still complaining about issues. In fact, when I first purchased my unit, it worked fine for a while, but then it started going bonkers with requesting group intercoms and simply yelling at me incessantly. I couldn't even get it to calm down long enough to shut it off.

    One of the “features” of the 20S is that it has motion sensing. The motion sensing allows you to initiate functions by knocking on your helmet. In practice, this means that anything the headset senses as a knock (including rain drops/bugs/stones hitting your helmet) starts the function. After disabling the motion sensing, the headset has been working flawlessly. This is an in-the-wild example of “it's not a bug, it's a feature” and I suspect it's a source of a good portion of the complaints I've seen online.

    The good:
    I'm going to bullet point these, because there's just too many.

    • I can hear both GPS directions and listen to any number of audio inputs including my passenger intercom.
    • I can select which bluetooth device gets priority.
    • I can pair my Android phablet as a GPS device.
    • Connects to paired bluetooth devices the instant you turn it on. I've actually felt my phone ringing in my pocket during a ride, realized my headset was off, turned it on, and still managed to answer the call before it dumped to voicemail.
    • Sound quality is outstanding.
    • Beyond line-of-site range in real riding conditions.
    • With the phone app, I can easily change settings mid ride.
    • The headset locks to the helmet clamp so you can't accidentally knock it off.
    • The battery will outlast your most epic of epic one day rides (12 hours in the saddle from Yokohama to Kitakyushu) .
    • I can give an intercom pair a unique label, select which intercom gets which channel, and individually delete old unused pairs.

    This last one's big enough that I want to spend a bit more time on it. With the SMH-5 and SMH-10, every new intercom pair is placed into “channel” 1. Older pairs are moved up to the next channel until the headset memory is full at which point the pairing is deleted, creating a “5 bears in a bed” scenario. What this means in practice is that the more riders you encounter with a headset, the more often you make a new pair and it's impossible to keep your regular riding partner(s) or passenger(s) in channel one.

    This is a problem for a couple of reasons. First, because you select your intercom channel by tapping the jog dial. One tap for channel 1, two taps for channel 2 and so on. I have a passenger who rides with me multiple times a week. I got tired of having to select her intercom channel by tapping on my headset 3 or 4 times.

    The second problem this causes is with re-pairing once the pairing has fallen out of memory. My passenger only rides with me, while I ride with lots of other riders, so she's always paired with me, but I'm not always paired with her. This prevents me from re-pairing with her later after her pairing has fallen out of my headset's memory. The only way for me to pair with her again is for me to do a factory reset on both units, thereby dumping all pairing information, along with all bluetooth pairs. So, after I join a group ride, my passenger and I do this little dance where we do the factory reset, pair our intercoms, and then stand around re-pairing to all our bluetooth devices. The 20S fixes this small but annoying issue.

    The bad:
    Biggest negative here is the initial payout. There's no beating around the bush, these things are expensive with single units selling for close to 40000 yen. No doubt the price will come down over time, and used units will start to become available before too long. But for now, that's a pretty painful pill to swallow.

    The motion sensing feature is essentially useless. I understand some people have had success by turning the sensitivity down, but shipping this thing with motion sensing enabled and with the sensitivity maxed out created a real headache for me and nearly caused me to return it.

    Voice activation for voice commands is useful, but more often than not, the activation phrase “Hello Sena” is met with silence because the device is in standby mode. Comically, the only way to bring it out of standby mode is to hit one of the buttons, making the voice feature essentially redundant and rendering the whole “hands free” safety aspect moot.

    The 20S retains the pin/contact connector from the SMH-10, and while it's a vast improvement in design (the pins are on the helmet base clamp and protected so they're unlikely to get damaged or bent), the possibility of wearing out the contacts is still a concern for me though.

    I highly recommend the 20S for riders who regularly ride with different groups of people, and/or who want to be able to listen to GPS or comms all day without having to charge, and who are willing to pay more for a better overall product.

    Conclusion:
    My two best buys from Sena were the dual-pack SMH-5 and the 20S. The SMH-5 wins hands down on feature::pricepoint and is probably more than adequate for a majority of riders especially since current SMH-5 units are shipping with improved speakers. The SMH-10 is the only one of these three which have succumbed to the elements. The feature set is marginally better than the SMH-5, but not so much so that I feel like it justifies purchasing one NIB. The 20S really so far outshines anything else on offer by Sena that I feel like the significantly higher price is money well spent.

    Here's the feature comparison chart so you can see them side by side: http://www.sena.com/product-comparison-chart/

    Thanks for reading.
    Last edited by dmizer; 26-05-15 at 03:59 PM. Reason: Cannot update through the phone app.

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    Thanks for the detailed reviews. Quality content that really helps the forum.
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    Default Three Sena bluetooth intercom reviews.

    Thanks, very interesting and helpful.
    My SMH10 works for me, but I try to avoid heavy rain. It lasted the 13 hours Twistybutt for GPS instructions from my Zumo550.


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    Quote Originally Posted by RedSquare View Post
    It lasted the 13 hours Twistybutt for GPS instructions from my Zumo550.
    Keep in mind, that's not talk time. Unless you're listening to music or have a comm channel open, the time between GPS directions is spent with the headset in standby which extends the life of the battery. The 20S lasted me 12 hours with constant use and very little time spent in standby mode.

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    Good reviews. Thanks for posting.
    I also have used and still have all 3 and am happiest with the 20s.

    The SMH5 has the smaller speakers and relatively puny range. It is light, smaller and cheap though.
    Due to the smaller speakers, it is an earlier unit, I have had to slow down for phone conversations due to not being able to hear or be heard though. This is with a quality full-face helmet. I would say it is a speaker problem but the SMH10 has the same problem.

    The SMH10 is a truck! It is large and utilitarian but has good battery compared to the 5, a larger 'around corners' range and being bigger makes it easier to operate in winter gloves. I did find myself slowing down for phone conversations due to not being able to hear or be heard.

    The 20s has brought so many upgrades it is in another league to the 5 and 10. Most notable would be the ability to simultaneously listen to music or an extra audio feed while in intercom mode. This reduces boredom and uncomfortable silence meaning the intercom channel can be left open. This did seem to reduce battery life though.
    The 20s range has also been a disappointment. When the stars align, it is far superior to the other two. However, it seems to be picky about which units it gives greater range to. In many cases it has been less than the 10 which was far more consistent in this respect.
    And finally, the noise cancellation and superior speakers make high speed conversations absolutely possible. I can't attest to ridiculously fast but at a good clip, a conversation is possible.

    Dmizer made the point about the motion sensor and VOX(voice initiated commands) not being optimum and I have to agree. But, having used a supposedly good VOX system in the past, Starcom, I turned this feature off as you can't say much without setting it off or ending up compromising your attention trying to activate it. I've found using the base button to initiate the voice commands to be a great compromise. Push the button, bounce some confirmations with Sally Sena and all is good.
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    Quote Originally Posted by cmac View Post
    The 20s range has also been a disappointment.
    I've read about lots of people complaining about the 20S range, but that's not been my experience. With Alban here in Kyushu and with several other riders over multiple day tours, the 20S range was consistently superior to what I experienced on my SMH-10. I wonder what's causing some riders to experience reduced range.

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    Yes, it's odd. At one stage I had poorer range 20s to 20s than to SMH10r.
    On another occassion with Penguin Knife Fight 20s to 20s we had exceptional range with antennas up.
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    Default Three Sena bluetooth intercom reviews.

    Quote Originally Posted by RedSquare View Post
    Thanks, very interesting and helpful.
    My SMH10 works for me, but I try to avoid heavy rain. It lasted the 13 hours Twistybutt for GPS instructions from my Zumo550.


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    I wished my twisty butt only took 13hrs... I would need nearly 2 charges for my slow arse riding.

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    Quote Originally Posted by cmac View Post
    Yes, it's odd. At one stage I had poorer range 20s to 20s than to SMH10r.
    On another occassion with Penguin Knife Fight 20s to 20s we had exceptional range with antennas up.
    I have noticed that range is usually about as far as the best device can reach. So if you're talking from an SMH-5 to an SMH-10, you'll get pretty close to the range of the SMH-10 between the units even though the SMH-5 is weaker. Battery strength can effect range as well. Is it possible that one of the two 20S units didn't have updated firmware?

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    From experience between SMH5 and 10, have found that receiving distance depends on the sending unit. So, an SMH5 user can hear an SMH10 speaker when going out of range but not the other way around.

    The two 20s units I initially noticed the limited range with are both using 1.4 firmware. With antennas up they were about as good as my SMH10.
    Last edited by cmac; 25-05-15 at 06:28 PM.
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    Quote Originally Posted by cmac View Post
    The two 20s units I initially noticed the limited range with are both using 1.4 firmware. With antennas up they were about as good as my SMH10.
    Humm, I haven't updated to the firmware version 1.4 yet. Still using 1.3.

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    Great reviews dmizer! Thanks!

    I've been using my SMH10 A, as in the one with the mini coax jack, as opposed to the later B model with the micro USB. The 10 A is sadly not upgradable, so I've been stuck on the firmware version it shipped with. Having said that, it has worked well for my use cases, which include talking to other riders on a ride and connecting it with my Android and iPhone devices for music and phone calls.

    I think I'll wait for the prices to start to drop a bit on the 20S to get a unit or a set.
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    This thread's been dormant a while but anyone try the new 30K Sena or 10C Evo with built in camera?

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    I don't think the 30K is out yet. Just in preview mode. It's going to be around $350, which should push the 20S prices down while they are still in stock. I recently picked up a 20S for a bit over $200 on Amazon. It's nice, but my helmet is way too noisy for use on the freeway. Can't even listen to music at freeway speeds. I'm currently employing a Bell Star (the older version). It's strange though because the Bell actually has built in pockets for the earphones that come with the 20S. \_(ツ)_/

    The new 30K.

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    Quote Originally Posted by G-rider View Post
    This thread's been dormant a while but anyone try the new 30K Sena or 10C Evo with built in camera?
    As noted by ToraTora, the 30K won't be out until at least lat May. To me, unless you're looking to regularly do large group rides, this headset is probably not necessary. It does, however, have audio multitasking, which means that you can listen to GPS directions and have an intercom conversation at the same time. I think that for most riders, especially riders in Japan, the audio multitasking feature is probably the nicest thing to look for.

    I don't personally have it, but a friend I regularly ride with has the 10C. He seems to have a lot of trouble getting it to record intercom voice when we're riding together. He said it's no problem for just recording him riding. Feature wise though, I think the biggest missing feature on the 10C is audio multitasking. Again, not being able to listen to GPS directions during your intercom conversation is a no go for me. As indicated in my SMH10 review, without audio multitasking, GPS directions can be heard, but they interrupt the intercom.

    Quote Originally Posted by ToraTora View Post
    I recently picked up a 20S for a bit over $200 on Amazon. It's nice, but my helmet is way too noisy for use on the freeway. Can't even listen to music at freeway speeds.
    Do you not wear earplugs? If not, you should wear earplugs. I have no problem carrying on an intercom conversation at highway speeds. I have a Shoei GT-Air which certainly isn't the quietest helmet.

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    Yup I always wear ear plugs. :)

    And I agree they very important!

    The Bell, at least for me is a noisy helmet. I'm super pleased about the fit, comfort, cooling, and crash survival (I've actually tried that out!), but the wind noise is significant. I'm not using the most recent Star, but the previous one.

    Oh and because I haven't said it previously--great write up! Helped me decide which one to get. ;)

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    I can't imagine the level of noise you're talking about. Unreal. Of course, highway speeds here are lower so maybe that has something to do with it. I'm looking forward to the Sena noise canceling helmet. Wonder how much that's going to cost.

    Glad to hear you found the review useful. I rather enjoyed putting it together.

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