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 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.
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.
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.