Years ago, my buddy Dave and I bought a pair of Nady helmet intercoms so we could talk to each other while riding. This was sometime in the 1980s and the Nadys were the size of bricks, stuck to the sides of our helmets like blocky grey growths. They didn’t work very well and we soon found we really didn’t have anything to say to each other except “hello – can you hear me now?“, so we gave up on the Nadys and went back to singing to ourselves in the solitude of our helmets.
Those Nadys are probably why I’ve always avoided helmet intercoms. I don’t like listening to music while riding unless I’m on a boring interstate, and I certainly don’t want to be connected to the rest of the world when I’m trying to escape.
I used a pair of Scala Rider Q2s about a decade ago when I was making some road trips with my young sons, so I’d always be aware what was happening on the pillion. They worked fine, though their battery life was fairly short. It was advertised as “up to eight hours” but in practice, they usually fizzed out before six hours, so I had to pick and choose when to have them on during a day’s ride.
I was quite happy in the silent, non-connected state of my helmet, but then a couple of years ago I was riding in New Brunswick one morning with our own Costa Mouzouris and he suddenly pulled over to the side of the road. He was taking a phone call in his Bluetooth-fitted Schuberth, and his girlfriend Roxy was telling him she’d just been admitted to hospital in Montreal after an accident. He hung up, told me, we said goodbye, and he was gone. Later that day, I called him, still on the long road north to Quebec, and he told me of the updates he’d been getting by phone, while riding. If he’d not been connected, he’d have still been hours away, riding around with me.
So when Sena offered to supply Canada Moto Guide with its super-duper 20S system, which retails for about $350 each unit, I figured I should probably give it another go. I’ve been using it all summer with family and riding friends, and now Zac is trying it out for himself and has some comments of his own at the end of this article. Here’s my take on them mid-way through the season.
Editor ‘Arris and Zac reviewed the Scala Rider G9 back in 2013, and then Mr. Seck reviewed the Sena SMH10 system the following year. ‘Arris and Zac were iffy about the Scalas, while Mr. Seck loved his Sena. I was keen to see if the 20S was really that much better.
The 20S is an improvement on the SMH10 in most of the ways that matter: better Bluetooth (it uses the latest-generation 4.1 system), longer range (up to 2 km if there’s nothing in the way, like curves through the woods), longer talk-time (13 hours) though standby time is the same (10 days), and an eight-way multi-intercom (instead of just four).
The 20S can also be paired with up to nine Bluetooth devices, though I can’t figure out why you’d want more than three or four: your phone, your passenger’s phone, your GPS and your GoPro. But they’re there if you want them, maybe if you’re the high-powered type who carries multiple phones, or if you want to hook into the devices of your riding friends using non-compatible units.
Important for me, the Sena was really easy to fix to my helmet – it uses a little clamp that’s held tight around the helmet’s lip with tiny screws. As with other systems, the actual unit clips on and off the clamp easily, so it can be removed simply for recharging. And for what it’s worth, the clamp itself comes off simply too, if you want to swap around between helmets. It can also be glued for permanence.
Setup was simple, which is just as well because I’m a simple sort of guy and don’t appreciate complicated stuff. Just fit the clamp with its speakers and microphone onto your helmet and you’re ready to go. The unit connected quickly to my iPhone by just holding down a button, and two units connected to each other by turning them on and shaking them.
Using the 20S
It took a while to make the speakers comfortable inside my helmets, though. Most modern helmets now come with pre-shaped spaces inside for speakers and the thin units have to be placed precisely or they’ll start digging into your ear. My first ride became painful after half-an-hour; subsequent rides were fine for the first hour or 90 minutes, but even now, I can’t find a placement that lets me forget the speakers are there halfway through a day’s ride. I have a large head that fits into an XL helmet and it can sometimes be a tight squeeze; others didn’t have the same complaint.
My buddy Andrew used the second Sena 20S unit on his Honda Varadero and we rode together chatting easily. We had lots to say, compared to those old days with Dave, and the intercom was definitely an improvement over frantic hand-waving and light-flashing. Finally, I could let him know every time he left the indicator flashing on the Varadero, instead of the usual two-minute wait.
Andrew and I also went away for a weekend of trail riding with our friend Dan and all three of us were hooked up to Sena 20S units. The Senas really came into their own on that ride. The three of us could all talk at the same time and we always knew what was going on, even when one of us was far ahead, or busy crashing in a puddle. There could have been eight of us on the ride and we’d have experienced the same clarity and ease of use.
Battery life wasn’t an issue. We rode all day for a couple of days, recharging each night, and were never concerned about losing battery strength. I’m sure 13 hours is a reasonable claim.
Once switched on, the Senas are on standby until somebody speaks. You don’t need to ever press a button for standard chatting back and forth. You just ride along and when you want to say something, you speak and it’s transmitted to everyone linked to your unit. What’s more, it’s clear as the proverbial bell (but not always Bell), with barely any extra wind noise into the microphone at all, even with an open helmet.
Volume is easily adjusted with gloved hands by turning a large dial on the outside of the unit, and there are just a couple of separate buttons to push: one lets you make a phone call, the other turns on “ambient sound” to let you better hear noises outside the helmet. This is handy when somebody’s speaking to you outside of the system, such as a gas-station attendant, or a cop, though I couldn’t really notice much of a difference.
There are lots of other clever features to the 20S, of course: the smartphone app that includes an exhaustive user’s guide, the firmware upgrades, the multitasking that keeps the music going while you’re chatting to your friends and listening to GPS directions, the FM radio and outside noise control. You can double-tap the unit with a gloved hand to prep it for voice commands, such as calling up Siri or your GPS. You can even hook up your 20S to a GoPro or Prism camera, so it will record your live commentary over the camera’s video. Read all the details on Sena’s own website here.
A couple of problems
There’s no doubt the Sena 20S is an all-singing, all-dancing piece of technical wizardry. For me, though, there were some issues that I couldn’t get around.
The main problem, for me, was the hookup to my iPhone to listen to music while riding. The volume was so low that I couldn’t hear the sound properly. I cranked the volume on the phone, which is an iPhone 7 Plus, but if I rode without earplugs then the sound of the wind drowned out the sound from the speakers, and I don’t want even louder noises anyway. With earplugs, everything was muffled. I have a nice, quiet Shoei RF800 and the sound was better with it, since I don’t need earplugs so much in that helmet, but even so, I could barely hear the music and ended up just switching off the Sena.
I twiddled and tweaked both the phone and the 20S, as well as repositioning the speakers, and never did get to play music at a comfortable volume. My buddy Andrew had less of a problem but he did admit the sound was quite low – he had to have everything cranked to the max and it certainly did not sound like music played normally through earbuds. We’ll find out soon enough if Zac has the same experience.
Also, I never did get the speakers quite right. My Shark Evoline Pro Carbon has cutout areas for Sharktooth speakers and they fit comfortably, but the Sena speakers seem to be just a millimetre too thick. They hurt the tops of my ears after an hour or two from the hard pressure against them. I can probably dig out some more of the helmet padding at the back of each speaker, but I’m reluctant to do that for now. Andrew, with a smaller head, has no such problem.
For me, I would use the Sena whenever I’m riding with others and want to hear what they might have to say. They’re great for groups. My wife and I would use the Senas sometimes – we’ve been married more than 20 years; Andrew and his wife use his intercom system all the time – they’ve only been married a couple of years. If I had a long trip to make on my own and I want music, I’ll thread my earphones into the helmet from my iPhone and the music will be much clearer.
(That said, in going over the various specs for this system in order to write this interim review, I see the 20S has both an MP3 port and an earbud port. Doh! I can hardwire the phone to the unit and bypass the Bluetooth, which should not be necessary but might improve the sound considerably. Watch the comments below later in the week for my experiences with that.)
Are they worth it?
There are plenty of other motorcycle communicators on the market, and you’re welcome to tell us of your experiences with them in the comments. The Sena works with all of them that offer Universal Intercom protocol. This is good, because my buddy Andrew went out and bought himself a Cardo Scala Smartpack that he found on sale. It’s a pared-down version of the Packtalk system which only works for smaller groups of up to four riders, and it was considerably more tricky to set up out of the box, but it was also much cheaper: he paid less than $500 for two units, compared to the $700 needed for two Sena 20Ss.
Andrew’s got the right idea. Motorcycle communicators now offer so much that it really comes down to what you need, and there’s no need to overpay just to get the latest and greatest. Sena offers a variety of systems, including the $300 10S that’s more of the equivalent of the Smartpack, so make sure to read up on all the specs before looking for their reviews.
Ultimately, communicators are a remarkable accessory for any motorcyclist. They let you listen to music (apparently), take phone calls, and stay in touch with others on the ride. You can talk with your pillion passenger comfortably and easily all day long as if they were in the seat next to you in the car.
And the greatest thing of all? You can turn them off if you want to, and enjoy the solitude and silence inside your helmet whenever you want to get away from it all. And if you need to stay connected, they’re right there with the touch of a button.
Mark sent me a pair of the Senas last month, and I’ve been fooling around with them since.
Installation was similar to the Cardo and UClear units I’ve had in the past; a few minutes of wrestling with your helmet liner, a few twists of an Allen key, and you’re in business. Like the other units, the earphones don’t necessarily lineup exactly where you want, so be prepared to make some adjustments to your helmet liner; at the least, you might have to purchase some industrial-strength Velcro patches to secure the earphones, once you stick the supplied bits in the wrong places and have to move them around.
I was disappointed to find these units suffer from the same problem as the Cardos and UClear; as Mark noted above, they just don’t pump out enough volume. At highway speed, I found it almost impossible to hear over the wind noise. I ride with ear plugs at highway speed, and I’m not asking for a bone-shaking racket, just enough that I can tell what’s being said on the intercom, or the lyrics to music I’m listening to.
At lower speeds, you don’t need ear plugs, and you can hear much better (there’s less wind noise to compete with as well).
Plugging in earbuds isn’t a great solution, since they don’t typically offer any hearing protection. If all I wanted to do was hardwire myself to my phone, I don’t need a comm system to do that.
I also found the radio reception incredibly weak, far weaker than the Cardo units I’ve tested (the UClear has no FM radio capability).
However, I was happy with the Sena’s easy and intuitive control system, and its ruggedness. If you (theoretically speaking) accidentally hit the quick-release button at speed and see the Sena bounce down the highway behind you, you might be surprised to see it functions just fine after hitting the pavement at high velocity. Theoretically speaking, of course.