Gear review: Sena 10U intercom

Five years ago, I rode across the US wearing a Schuberth C3 Pro helmet with a built-in Cardo communication system.

Previously, I’d used bolt-on communication systems — the aftermarket units that attach to the side of your motorcycle helmet. The trip to Arizona and back was enough to convince me a built-in design was superior. It was quieter, and the streamlined button interface was easier to use than the more complicated units. It’s also less likely to get knocked off your helmet by a branch while riding through the woods, and you can’t accidentally release it from its mount and send it flying down the road (which may or may not have happened to me a while back …).

So, when I got my hands on an Arai Quantum-X helmet this summer, I noted Sena builds an integrated communication system for this helmet, and requested they send one to CMG. Mark and I have had decent luck so far with Sena’s technology, particularly the 20S communication system (though Mark’s had some other issues), so I figured it would be worth putting the 10U to the test as well.

The majority of the Sena 10U’s bits are hidden away inside the helmet.

The details

The Sena 10U comes in several different versions, aimed at integration into specific helmets. The version I acquired is built to fit into Arai full-face helmets; there are also versions available for Shoei and Klim helmets.

Standard helmet comms systems will have one self-contained module that contains the battery, the brains of the unit, and the controls, attached to a pair of headphones and maybe a microphone or antenna. The 10U looks different, but has all the same pieces. It’s U-shaped, to fit into the collar of your helmet, with a battery at the back (over your neck), a pair of speakers, and a set of volume controls. Out of the helmet, it’s a bit fragile-looking. But when you install it into the helmet, it all integrates quite nicely, and nothing feels too flimsy.

Make sure to download the Sena app to your smartphone, and update your communicator unit.

The installation procedure itself is straightforward, at least for the Arai Quantum X. Pop some of the internal padding out of place, add some sticky Velcro for the earphones, run a wire forward for the mic attachment inside the chinbar, and run the wire for the antenna into the top of the helmet, under the padding.

Snap the 10U’s collar into place, lock the control module into place, and you’re in business. You can snap the padding back into place once you’ve installed the system.

I’ve seen different installation configurations for the two-button control module. For some helmets, it installs under the visor. To use the buttons, you’d have to lift the visor.

The advantage to this configuration is that the buttons aren’t sticking out in the airflow, creating wind noise, and if you like to use the voice-activated controls, you won’t need to use the buttons that frequently anyway.

However, for my Arai, I installed the buttons on the outside of the helmet. They’re fairly unobtrusive, so I don’t think this would be a major disadvantage over the more streamlined installation on Schuberth and Shoei helmets.

Before you use it, make sure you connect the 10U to your computer to update the firmware. It will most likely need to be updated, and the changes can considerably improve the unit’s usability. At time of writing, the latest firmware update adds a simplified configuration menu, improved volume control, and general inter-device connectivity improvements.

The 10U can connect to three other units at the same time, for four-way communication. It can even connect to non-Sena units via Bluetooth 4.1 (very handy!), and connectivity range is supposedly more than 1.5 kilometres (or one mile, if you’re American) under ideal conditions. Radio and talk time is up to 10 hours.

This two-button module is the only piece of the Sena 10U that sits outside the helmet.

How well does it work?

For the most part, the Sena 10U offers more or less the same functionality as every other comm system I’ve used. After you’ve had a few of these systems, it’s not terribly tricky to get them running and connected to other devices, and it was the same for the 10U.

Audio from the 10U was clear for phone calls, and good enough to hear music at low speed, like  any other communication system. And, like any other communication system, the bass was pretty anemic when listening to music. Like every other comm system I’ve used, the volume wasn’t loud enough at highway touring speed to really enjoy listening to music. This is incredibly frustrating, as I’ve been using comm systems now since 2012 and still, nobody’s got this solved. We will probably have to wait for helmets with active noise cancellation for this.

The battery life was excellent, good enough for a full day in the saddle while touring. I used the 10U on multiple trips over the summer and always found it had enough juice to last from dawn to dusk.

Inter-device connectivity was fine; other Sena devices integrated with no problem, and Bluetooth devices (phones, or even other non-Sena communicators) were no problem to connect.

Sena has a different installation configuration depending on your helmet.

However, once you start rolling, it becomes obvious the claimed one-mile interface range might be a bit optimistic. To be fair, Sena claims that range is for ideal riding conditions. But when riding in rain last summer, with a buddy using a Sena 20S, we had the communicators break their link when no  more than 300 metres apart.

I had a couple of other peeves as well. The FM radio function was practically useless, as it struggled to pick up local radio stations when scanning frequencies. Sometimes you can get around this problem by pre-programming local stations, but when you’re touring, that’s impractical. A lot of riders probably don’t care about FM radio function, but I very much appreciate it when touring, and was disappointed it wasn’t implemented very well.

The two-button interface takes some getting used to, and is awkward; the jog dial interface on the 20S is far superior, and it’s too bad Sena didn’t build a modified version of that for this comm unit. However, I think the 10U is really intended to use voice-activated interface, so the two-button system is much less troubling if you use that.

As you can see, the Sena 10U is much more streamlined than most communication systems.

Overall, the best way to describe the Sena 10U is to say “It is what it is.” There’s no earth-shattering technology here; it’s a conventional helmet intercom that’s been repackaged to fit neatly into the helmet shell, and for the most part, it works fairly well.

However, once Sena and other companies bring noise-cancellation systems more into the mainstream, I think we’ll see a huge step forward with these devices, as the audio will be much better at speed. To me, that’s the progress we really need at this point.

The Sena 10U will cost you about $320-$350 CAD, and is available for a wide range of motorcycle helmets; different retailers may carry different versions, so if you don’t find your helmet listed at your favourite store, shop around.

3 thoughts on “Gear review: Sena 10U intercom”

  1. I have one of the setups that don’t make my Bose QC20 earbuds exhibit the dreaded “pop”. These, combined with a SMH10 unit are borderline bliss. Not cheap, but man, do they work well…

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