Gear: Sena SMH10R and SMH10 Headsets

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Gear: Sena SMH10R and SMH10 Headsets

I’ve been experimenting with Sena’s low-profile, Bluetooth SMH10R and standard SMH10 headsets for the past four months, and they’ve alleviated what I consider a major negative about riding a motorcycle—isolation. A common concern is that in-helmet audio can cause general distraction, or that an errant sound from the headset might startle them at an inopportune time. I used to think that too, at least about on-bike music. Now I’m a convert.

My thoughts wander everywhere when I’m on a motorcycle. Sometimes I sing aloud to myself, and sometimes I wish I could record a monologue about traffic patterns. I weigh my options when I’m running late—stop to call the person I’m meeting to tell them I’m late… or keep riding full-tilt toward them. If you’re my passenger or riding buddy, I’ll be wondering if you’re hungry or chilly, or if you have to pee.

It’s a strange feeling, the first time you put your helmet on and hear Sena’s female voice coo “hello.” It’s the first time, you realize, that you’ve heard anything clearly inside your helmet. With a smartphone connected via Bluetooth, music comes through crystal clear, though without much bass. Phone calls seem clearer than normal too. The person on the other end won’t believe you’re inside a helmet.

The lower-profile SMH10R
Pictured here is the lower-profile SMH10R. Top image is the SMH10.

The headsets are attached entirely to the helmet—no wires connect to the bike—and take about ten minutes to install. On the three helmets I’ve put them on, only one needed to have the interior modified. Adhesive-backed Velcro pads go in the chinguard and next to your ears. On the SMH10R, the intercom and battery are separate, and they use Velcro or adhesive to attach to the helmet. On the SMH10, a mount clamps to the outer helmet shell (there’s also an adhesive mount) and the one-piece intercom and battery unit clips to the mount. The speakers and microphone Velcro onto adhesive-backed Velcro pads that stick inside the helmet. Once they’re mounted properly, you won’t feel the speakers or microphone at all when using the helmet. It takes about a minute to connect the headset to your phone over Bluetooth, and each time thereafter connection is automatic. Connecting the headsets to each other is easy, too.

On the bike:
The SMH10 is easy to use — even with gloves. It’s clear that Sena put a lot of thought into making the button and wheel interface intuitive. Depress both and the unit powers on or off. Depress the wheel to connect the intercom with another 1, 2, or 3 headsets. Depress it for longer to turn on music. Rotate to adjust volume. Depress and rotate to change tracks. Click the button to make a phone call. The low-profile SMH10R has three buttons, and is a little trickier to use with gloves, but I’ve gotten used to it. The SMH10R does have advantages, though. You needn’t remove it from the helmet—ever. I was always paranoid that someone would walk off with the SMH10 transmitter if I left it on my helmet, or that the thin clip which attaches it to the helmet would break if the helmet was dropped. The SMH10R would also be better if you’re riding off-road, since there’s less of it for branches to catch on.

The speakers can be cranked up to earsplitting levels. Behind a sportbike fairing, music loses clarity at about 90 mph, and intercom conversations sound windy above about 65 mph (at least without neck gators—see below). The intercom can, however, be set to voice activation rather than “always on.” In all other conditions—whether it’s stop-and-go traffic or a more reserved highway run—the ability to listen to music or chatter away on the phone feels amazing.

If you’re an Audiophile:
To get the ultimate sound quality, use noise-attenuating earbuds with the special SMH10 mount that sports a 1/8” headphone jack. This mount, combined with a set of PlugUp’s S-Plug earphones, allows for concert-quality sound on a motorcycle. Bass response is terrific, and it’s even possible to listen to quiet classical music and have it be astonishingly clear on anything but a highway. The effect is surreal; any ride feels like the opening sequence to a movie. Only a wire protrudes from your ear, so the S-Plugs remain reasonably comfortable when worn under a helmet. PlugUp has a 30-day money back guarantee.

The lure of quality in-helmet audio merited further experimentation. Because the SMH10R can’t be used with earbuds, we used a neoprene helmet skirt called the Windjammer II to keep turbulent air from entering the helmet. The advantages are two-fold: significantly less buffeting around the microphone, and about 20% less noise for your ears. In the winter, the Windjammer keeps cold air out of the helmet. A reusable adhesive coating keeps it attached to the helmet. It works only with full-face helmets, and only with the SMH10R—the SMH10 mounting bracket occupies the same real estate as the Windjammer.

My Setup:
I ride on short trips every day and go for longer rides every two weeks. My preferred setup is an SMH10R and a Windjammer II. The Windjammer II does a great job of stopping wind buffeting around the microphone. Ideally, Sena would offer setups for both the SMH10 and SMH10R that could work with both speakers and earbuds—then it would be possible to use earbuds on rides longer than an hour and keep the convenient in-helmet speakers for running around town.

Final thoughts:
Now I can ride and phone loved ones, natter away at up to 3 riding buddies, and make work-related phone calls. If necessary, I can even follow a car while calling 911. The Bluetooth connection also lets me listen to Trapster alerts and Google Navigation directions via my smartphone.

On both units, battery life was about 12 hours. Fit and finish is superb. The intercoms come packed with microphones for full and open-faced helmets, exhaustive manuals, and USB and cigarette-lighter chargers. Sena is a Korean company, and the headsets are made in Korea. I like using the SMH10R because you never have to take it off the helmet and you can use it with a neck gator. The SMH10’s jog-wheel is nicer to use, and the intercom can be moved from helmet to helmet very easily, if both helmets have mounts

For me, the best part thing about on-bike communication is being able to listen to riding partners. On a ride through Brooklyn, a riding buddy told me an in-depth story about his family’s speed-camping techniques. After two or three minutes, the story started to feel like a podcast, and it surprised me when he mentioned something related to our immediate surroundings. I looked over at him and realized that, for the first time, I know exactly what was going on inside another motorcyclist’s head. It was a revelation.

Laws vary by state. I feel safer receiving phone calls on the road than on the side of it.

  • Stephen Mears

    Love the SS!

  • Soph Tsangarakis

    I’ve had both. Started with the 10 and upgraded to the 10r. What you miss in functionality and ease of use with the 10r, you gain in appearance. For a daily helmet its an ideal add on.

    • Ian

      Earlier in this thread, someone asked the size of the battery pack for the SMH10R, I would be grateful of this information as I would like to use this system and mount the battery inside my Scorpion EXO 1000 – can anyone help please ?

  • http://www.facebook.com/electricbike Troy Rank

    Great Writeup. I’ve tried a bunch of different isolation earbuds. My favorites are the old-style JVC marshmellows. Don’t bother with them if both left and right are symmetrical, the old style has very definitive headbuds for the left and right side. Just another cheap option if you run across them.

    • http://www.facebook.com/electricbike Troy Rank

      Also for long trips I prefer the regular style headphones in the pocket, and a pair of earplugs. I haven’t found any headphones that really have enough isolation for long highway trips.

  • atgatthd

    This is a very useful and well written review. Thanks!

  • http://twitter.com/bloodfalcons motoguru.

    Nice write up! I have a Sena SMH10 Dual and Scala G9 Powerset. They’re both great. The ease of use and all around performance of the Sena is tough to beat. The Scala has too many buttons and it gets tricky with gloves on. The Scala is a bit louder, so it’s better for the long hauls at freeway speeds when using ear plugs. It also has a speed/noise compensated volume feature which I love/hate depending on the situation. I use them 98% of the time for music and the other 2% for phone calls or talking to another rider or passenger. I like the fact that I can make/receive a phone call if I have to.

    • yerallnuts

      Sena claims to have a noise-adjusted volume control – the good news is that it doesn’t work wit earphones.

  • mid40s

    Thanks for the great review. It’s also good to hear someone who shares my belief that riding while listening/talking can be safe. I use my Scala Rider every time I ride. Via bluetooth and my iphone and I can use voice prompts to control the music and phone, send and receive calls without ever touching the phone. However, by far the most amazing thing with these units is talking with my buddy on his Scala while we ride together. This really takes motorcycling to a whole new level in my opinion. If you haven’t tried it, you are missing out.

  • http://twitter.com/KeyserBroze JB

    Can I talk to a rider using a Scala or another brand of comm device through the sena?

    • http://twitter.com/bloodfalcons motoguru.

      Nope.

      • http://twitter.com/KeyserBroze JB

        Bummer. If wbw is to be believed, the old Sena devices we’re cross compatible with other brands. That seems like a smart business move.

        • http://www.facebook.com/stempere Sean Tempère

          My thought exactly, around here (France), Scala’s are the only ones you ever see, people often call these things scala’s even if they’re not (like any mp3 player is an ipod for most).
          I prefer the Sena, but at least half a dozen rider friends have Scala’s .

          • yerallnuts

            in which case your only options are to buy a Scala or to have everyone else buy Sena or for all of you to buy VHF or UHF radios and connect those to your intercom systems using a Sena SR10 for each user.

        • nick2ny

          As el_jefe mentioned, there is at least a way to connect Senas and Scalas. Read more at WBW.

          • yerallnuts

            Nope – that discusses the SR10, which is a universal adapter – you still can’t ‘talk’ between brands directly. What you CAN do is to phone someone or to implement a CB/FRS/GMRS or whatever radio system and use that to speak between bikes.

    • el_jefe

      There is no industry standard for Bluetooth intercom, unfortunately. The best way to communicate with riders on different sytems is with FRS/GMRS radios, (they have the added benifit of longer range too.) which can be integrated into the Sena with something like this http://www.senabluetooth.com/products/sr10.php?tab_menu=overview

  • http://twitter.com/DirtCrasherJB Joe Bar

    Be careful. This is illegal in many states..

    • yerallnuts

      IEMs can be illegal, but not speakers – then again I use IEMs.

  • Jon Cibelik

    Great review. Just bought the SMH10 a few weeks ago, and it’s a really solid product. Definitely going to check out these s-plugs, thanks.

  • T Diver

    A Chatterbox changed the way I ride. With people, you hear about road hazards, cops etc. When alone you have music. Some people I know pull the headphones out of a pair of Skullcandys and used those instead for better sound quality. They have bluetooth and a 5 mile range. Maybe they are more expensive. The sound for talking to other people depends on both mic placement, and the wind noise of the helmet. If these other brands had the capability to do “CB” radio communications (thus the 5 mile range), I would consider them. The Weakness I have found over time tends to be the plastic clip. Otherwise a great product. I ride with groups where up to 50 people are on chatterboxes. Plus I crashed once and heard someone say “bike down” in my helmet while I was flipping through the air. That was fun. The main thing is the music though.

  • http://twitter.com/TheVeeTwin Damo Von Maciel

    Great write up. While isolation is my favorite part of riding, the more I ride long distances solo, the more I wish I had some means of quick/easy communication. I keep eyeballing the SMH10.

    • nick2ny

      Yeah, that’s the thing. I like the isolation too. I like stretching my hands inside my gloves and roaring away from work, or rolling on the throttle to dispatch a line of cars on a country road, or linking together several turns. The reason I eventually got into these systems is because I was always visiting a friend 50 miles away on the highway, and it got very dull. There is not public transportation option, and I don’t have a car. I missed talking on the phone and listening to music. The next time I drove a car (a mid 80′s Volvo 240 I borrowed to pick someone up from teh airport), it felt unimaginably luxurious. Music. Heat. Wind protection. Safety. The ability to make a phone call or talk to a passenger in a quiet voice. I started looking around and trying to figure out ways to replicate that experience on a motorcycle.

      You dont have to talk on the phone or listen to music all the time. But these headsets are perfect for when you’re running errands or for long distances on the highway. If I’m riding spiritedly on backroads, I don’t use them.

      • socalutilityrider

        Exactly my thoughts. I use my motorcycle for work, which involves a lot of navigation through the city to places I don’t know how to get to-the spoken turn by turn directions are awesome. And then of course clients call before I get there for help or whatever, and I don’t have to pull over to talk to them. This is huge.

        I thought I would be bummed out about losing the isolation aspect of motorcycling, and I probably would if I just used it as a toy, but if you’re using it as daily transportation, these things are awesome. And you can always just not turn it on. I ride like that frequently.

  • KevinB

    Try out some Shure SE215′s…by far the best noise isolation and sound I’ve found yet for the bike.

  • el_jefe

    I bought the SMH10 and SMH5 last summer and was thoroughly impressed. My passenger was able to listen to her music while I listened to mine. A simple press of the button connects the intercom right away and pauses the music. Also, with Siri or other voice activated system, you get total control of your phone for music, texting, calling, etc with one button push. I’ll still pull over for a call or text but man is it nice to just sit there without removing helmet. For this reason the SMH10 now stays on my helmet at all times.

    By the way, the SMH5 is sort of in between the 10 and 10r size wise. It’s much more compact than the 10 but still has the jog wheel. And since its mounting bracket is integrated, no worries about it disappearing from your helmet. Only reason I bought a 10 was the aux input for GPS.

  • stopeject

    Unfortunately Sena SMH10 earbud implementation has a serious design flaw. It can’t reproduce stereo sound.

    • yerallnuts

      Wrong

      • stopeject

        Sena admitted that this is a real issue. Try it yourself.

        • yerallnuts

          I have this as my setup; SMH10 with the SMHA0304 for all my users – I use Westone UM2 IEMs and the reproduction is indeed stereo.

          • stopeject

            Have you played a stereo testing track or simply listened to some music?

            • yerallnuts

              I was a recording engineer for 10 years – trust me, it’s stereo. Are you paired using the A2DP profile? HFS is mono (and low bit rate), A2DP implements a full rate stereo codec,

              • stopeject

                Really? Trust you or my own lying ears? I am not the only user noticing the poor stereo reproduction and Sena tech support agrees that this is real. As a former electronics tech and TV engineer I have a very good understanding why this issue exists and can’t be easily rectified.

                • yerallnuts

                  Really? How does this issue exist? If the speakers can deliver stereo, why would you think that IEM versions, which use the same circuitry and simply deliver their output to a 3 pole earphone jack can’t?

                  Of course, the fact that adjusting the balance control on the player causes the image to move from center to left to right might be a pretty good indicator that it works for me (and most others).

                  As to Sena’s support people, I have little faith in them. I just went 5 rounds with them trying to get a definitive answer about what their ‘audio booster’ was since it is an icon on the feature list, but not mentioned in the documentation.

                  I guessed that it was probably a noise sensitive adaptive volume adjustment and asked what it was and how it worked. They repeatedly said only that ‘it comes like that from the factory and cannot be adjusted’ without saying what it was. In the end I ran my own tests and it turns out that they sample the speaker outputs and use the differential to drive the gain controls (apparently the sensitivity is not user adjustable) – but when using IEMs the feature doesn’t work because earphones don’t pick up wind noise.

                • stopeject

                  That differential amp is the source of the problem. They drive speakers with + and – outputs of the amplifiers. For the earbud version they simply connect the – outputs together, and it creates all sorts of weird stereo issues, related to the level and phase nuances between the channels. Search “stereo channel test” on youtube, play it through Sena on your smartphone and you will hear. I tried to connect the common earbud wire to the ground instead. It fixed the stereo problem, but introduced some noise leakage from the digital section.

                • yerallnuts

                  I can see how this could be an issue – though each earphone is still getting the full output of it’s op amp – I’d have to assume that it is AC coupled, so that the ‘commoning’ would have no significant impact on the image. It certainly wouldn’t show up with a simple balance test. On the other hand, the issues would be undetectable by the general public, and even then, only if you are looking for it, especially in the high ambient noise environment of a motorcycle – heck, if you’re willing to deal with the aliasing associated with MP3s transcoded to the digital BT link then phase induced distortion is likely the least of your problems.

                  I went over to Sena’s forum and looked – there are no items there about this problem you report.

                • stopeject

                  Yes, the problem is not very obvious especially while riding. In fact I wasn’t aware of it until someone else pointed it to me and I started to investigate it further. The thing is, once you know it is there you always notice it :)
                  There is no separate topic dedicated to this problem on Sena forums, it’s been discusses in the “combination speaker/ earbud clamp” topic and on advrider.com

  • Kr Tong

    Has this thing been submerged in water yet? I had two blinc m1s, returned both. First one just stopped working 3hrs into ownership. Second one could t take the only rainstorm the bay got this year.

    • nick2ny

      They certainly look waterproof and both have worked flawlessly for me in HUGE downpours.

    • http://www.twitter.com/seanmacdonald sean macdonald

      i used my smh10 for the past 2 weeks on my trip to seattle and back. got rained on plenty and had no problems with water interfering with the headset. got through 2 audiobooks.

      • JerseyRider

        I’ve read a couple of times that you guys are fans of the Icon Airmada and recently purchased it because of the recommendation. I love the helmet but was wondering if you knew whether or not the SMH10R fits on that helmet due to it’s limited space between The shell and EPs foam.

        • http://www.twitter.com/seanmacdonald sean macdonald

          It’s been a while but, if i recall correctly, that was the helmet we had to use the sticky pad to attach the Sena to the helmet.

  • http://www.facebook.com/scott.otte Scott Otte

    Being able to use my own headphones is Huge. I was looking for something like this before my last road trip, I gave up since most don’t have a standard headphone jack. I refuse to not wear earplugs and being able to listen to music on long motorcycle trips is a big deal.

    I’d also chime in with the Shure SE215 as being some damn good sound isolating earbuds.

    • nick2ny

      Check this out–they can be modified to use either headphones or speakers.

      • yerallnuts

        They’re about to start shipping a universal back that supports both speakers and IEMs (one at a time) – like the universal mic kit, the speakers and the earphone jack are plugged into a socket wired to the back plate.

  • Conor Scolard

    Any chance you can post the dimensions of the battery for the SMH10R?
    I’m looking to see if it will fit in the Sharks Helmet battery compartment.