Review: Sena 20S Bluetooth headset – now with 2 km range and audio multitasking
By Loz Blain
July 17, 2014
I was a big fan of Sena’s excellent SMH10 Bluetooth headset when I first tested it back in 2012. It really transformed riding for me. Since then I’ve taken a combination of those and the SMH10R "sportsbike" units with me on pretty much every ride and tour I’ve been on – and they’ve been fantastic.
So I’ve been looking forward to getting my hands on the upgrade – and I’m happy to say that Sena seems to have improved the product in just about every way with the new 20S.
InstallationThe 20S is as quick and easy to install on your helmet, or a friend’s, as the SMH10. Standard mounting uses a clamp that pushes up between your helmet’s shell and liner, grabbing on tightly with the help of a couple of hex bolts. The regular boom mic then bends up under your chin piece to rest at your mouth, and you velcro a couple of speaker pads in the indentations where your ears go.
The process takes all of two minutes, which is significant, because it means you can wire up a riding buddy before they have second thoughts. And once they’ve ridden with a good intercom, most folks quickly drop their "I go riding for the peace and quiet" prejudices and get on board.
With the 20S Universal Kit, there’s also a separate wired microphone that you can velcro into your helmet, which takes up less room, plus a separate wired boom mic that keeps the entire boom within the helmet for better aerodynamics.
Unlike the SMH10, the 20S also includes an adhesive mount, so for helmets like my Nolan N104, where you can’t get the clamp into the side, you can now stick the unit on. This makes me very happy.
One problem I started running into with the SMH10 and 10R models was that the wind socks on the microphones weakened with age, and would often fall off when you took your lid off. Once the sock was gone, wind noise became a huge issue for anyone you were riding with. The 20S addresses this by adding a pair of spiky barbs that hold the windshield on – good thinking! There’s also three replacements for each mic in the kit.
Setup and pairingWe paired the 20S to Android and Apple phones in less than a minute via Bluetooth. Each platform now has its own Sena app, which lets you manage your settings, your speed dial and FM radio presets, and the list of other intercoms you’re paired with.
Pairing two SMH10 or 10Rs as intercoms could be a bit of a hit and miss process; it’s much easier with two 20S units. Detach the main units from the helmets, shake them up and down to put them in pairing mode, then hit the button on the master unit. It’s significantly quicker and more visual than the old process – mind you, you can use the old process as well, by holding down the jog dial and going into "intercom pairing" mode.
The older units were able to have up to a 4-way conference, managed through a master headset. I found this tended to reduce the range significantly, but it’s fine for the long, straight sections where everyone’s pretty much riding together anyway.
The 20S can conference up to 8 headsets at once. As we’ve only got two to play with, we haven’t tested this feature yet but that sounds like absolute bedlam, at least with the goons I ride with.
Furthermore, if you pair with a number of other headsets, you can selectively initiate a conversation with a specific other rider. For instance, if Booga was third on my pairing list, I’d tap the jog dial three times to jump straight into a conversation with him. This is where the pairing list in your phone app becomes handy – you can rename each paired headset to help you remember who’s which number.
RangeProbably the biggest (claimed) improvement on the 20S is its range. The SMH10 claimed a 900-metre intercom range in open terrain, with line-of-sight. We tested it at closer to 500 m, and that range was reduced when multi-conferencing with three or four units. It was still a very usable range, although you’d lose contact with the next rider as soon as there was a corner or two between you.
The 20S is claimed to have a gigantic 2 km range – again, in open terrain and with line of sight. This is achieved via Bluetooth 4.0 and a little pop-up antenna on each unit.
Our initial test was patently unfair to the 20S – we were in a giant urban thoroughfare with a lot of traffic, trees and electrical interference from trams. Despite this, the 20S still managed nearly a kilometer range before it started breaking up, hundreds of meters after I lost sight of the other rider. Very impressive! We’ll be following this up with a test in a more open environment, but I’m already confident enough to say that it’s a significant leap forward from the SMH10.
With the antennas down, performance suffered quite a bit, dropping down around the 600-m mark. I tend to ride around most of the time with the antenna down, because even though it feels pretty solid, the potential to snap it off worries me a little.
Once you’ve gone totally out of range, the connection is cut off until you’re back in range, with the older units, you had to wait until you were within maybe 100 m of one another to re-pair, but the 20S reconnects from a lot further away.
ControlsOne of my favorite things about the SMH10 was its jog dial control system, which is basically unchanged on the 20S. I ride a lot in winter gloves, and it’s hard to find poky little buttons like those on the SMH10R while you’re on the move.
The jog dial on the SMH10 and the 20S is a lot easier to find and to use. Twisting it forward and backward you can raise or lower the volume of whatever function is playing at the moment. You can press it in as well, which activates or deactivates the intercom, and you tend to find inexperienced users will accidentally cut themselves out of a conversation when they’re trying to change the volume.
At the back and accessible by your thumb is the "phone" button, which you can use to access voice control through your phone.
New to the 20S is an Ambient Mode button that shuts up whatever is going on, and activates an external microphone so you can hear what’s happening outside your lid. While the button takes a bit of fiddling to locate, this is a really handy feature that lets you have conversations with other riders or pedestrians at the lights instead of making you sit there pointing at your ears and shaking your head like a fool. Mind you, it gives you nothing but wind noise once you’re moving.
The 20S also introduces another extra control – tapping the main body of the unit. Tapping twice is meant to activate voice control, but it almost never worked for me until I started tapping it THREE times. After that, it worked fine.
Voice ControlsThe 20S features a beefed-up set of voice controls aimed at keeping your hands on your handlebars. Instead of tapping the body of the unit, you can activate voice control by saying “Hello Sena.”
From there, there’s a list of simple voice commands you can use. “Music” starts to play whatever was last paused on your phone, be it music or a podcast app. “FM Radio” gets the radio going, after which you can say “next” or “previous” to switch between your saved channels.
“Intercom 4” will start a conversation with the 4th intercom in your pairing list, “group intercom” will start the conference function.
Voice controls work pretty well, either stopped or at speed, but they’re a bit more hit or miss than Siri or Android’s voice control. Still, very handy.
Audio MultitaskingYou’ll often have quite a bit going on in your headset, and the 20S has a nice feature that lets you keep your music going while your intercom is active. Using dual Bluetooth modules, it can simultaneously connect to two devices at once, making the 20S “the most advanced Bluetooth communication device on the market,” according to Sena.
This means you can ride along with some music going until your ride partner has something to say. It’s a nice feature – with the old units, you had to choose between music and intercom.
You can also select the volume you want to duck the music to when the other person is talking, from total cutout to totally unchanged.
Likewise, GPS instructions no longer have to interrupt your music – provided they’re coming from different devices. Multitasking works very well and will be a big bonus for a lot of riders, particularly if you like a bit of music going as you ride.
Audio QualityIn a word, fantastic. The SMH10 and 10R had high quality audio for phone calls and outstanding wind noise reduction. The 20S is even better. Have a listen:
At 100 km/h (62 mph) on the freeway, there’s a staggering lack of wind noise on the microphone, even when it’s deafeningly loud in your helmet. In fact, if you raise your voice so you can actually hear yourself speaking, the person you’re speaking to on the phone frequently tells you to stop yelling at them. It’s pretty amazing.
The voice quality through the intercom is significantly beefed up too, although it’s harder to tell when you’re going out of range because instead of the signal degrading into the strange “digital soup” of the SMH10 and 10R, it just starts cutting out.
Battery LifeThe Original SMH10 units were rated for 10 days’ standby and 12 hours’ talk time, and I found that to be more than enough for a day’s riding.
The 20S is rated for a slightly longer talk time at 13 hours. We haven’t tested it for longevity as yet. Either way, if you take the 5 minutes to hook your bike up with a cigarette lighter socket, you can charge your headset with the included curly cord as you ride. If you’re planning to cover a lot of distance, that’d be your best bet.
Overall impressionsI’ve used the old units for two years now, and I think they’re fantastic. The 20S is noticeably better in pretty much every way ... and a lot better in terms of range.
They’re a fair bit more expensive at around US$500 for a pair as opposed to the SMH10 or 10R, which you can now pick up for less than US$300 a pair.
The riding experience isn’t Earth-shatteringly different between the two. The older ones are still brilliant, so your decision is really going to be based on whether you want the extra range, the ability to conference with eight bikes instead of four, or the ability to keep your music going behind a conversation.
Product page: Sena 20S