The high price of fashion: Sena SMH10R review
By Loz Blain
February 26, 2013
The Sena SMH10 Bluetooth headset we reviewed in December was absolutely fantastic – but it's certainly a bulky unit to have on the side of your helmet. If that's a concern for you, Sena has just released the SMH10R, a similar unit designed for "sports riding" with a much slimmer profile to aid with "aerodynamics." And when I say "aerodynamics," I mean "looks." But while the SMH10R is certainly nicer to look at, and works well, it suffers in comparison to the chunky SMH10, which is functionally superior in almost every way.
Let's get one thing straight – the "sporty" new SMH10R works very well. It does more or less what it says on the tin, and if I'd never tested the SMH10 I'd probably think it was the bee's knees. Looking at it in the Sena catalog, the R version looks cooler and sleeker and funkier than the SMH10, which looks rotund and dorky. But this test has more or less put them back to back, and the R version clearly compromises a lot of function in search of a racier form.
To start with, the installation process takes a lot longer, and it's much more permanent than the clip on, clip off convenience of the SMH10. The SMH10R separates the components out so you have to find separate places to put your control unit, battery, earpads and microphone. The three-button control unit attaches to the side of your lid with 3M adhesive or Velcro, and the battery sticks on the back.
There's a lot of wires to hide, which for me meant getting out the gaffer tape. There's also a choice of a boom or a pad microphone – I needed the boom, as my helmet is a flip-up. I couldn't find a very good spot to velcro the microphone boom into my Nolan N104, so it feels a little loose. It's not a big issue, it's just not as good as the SMH10.
The SMH10R has three buttons – plus, minus and a center – which are used in various combinations to control a wide variety of functions from Bluetooth music streaming to intercom and phone functions.
This is an area in which the SMH10 really shines, with its big chunky jog dial button and thumb-activated phone button. Unfortunately, the SMH10R falls prey to the problem I've had with every low-profile Bluetooth unit I've used – you just can't tell which button is which with a gloved finger. Adjusting volume up and down is pretty easy, but finding the middle button to switch your intercom on and off or make a phone call can be very hit and miss when you're on the road.
Also, with only three buttons, the SMH10R puts you back in that position where you have to hold button X for a certain number of seconds to access function Y – and when you're not completely sure which button you're pressing in the first place, that becomes pretty annoying – even if the voice prompts do chime in to help you out now and then.
You get used to it – it's not a big issue, it's just not as good as the SMH10.
The intercom functions are more or less the same as the SMH10's, with the ability to pair up with up to three other Sena units to have a group conversation as you ride. The intercom is loud, clear and audio quality is great.
Armed with two SMH10s and one SMH10R, we were able to have a three-way conference intercom all the way through a grueling 10-hour ride, in which a couple of small disasters made the intercom feature very handy. The best way to set up a three-way conference is to pair the two riders most likely to stay within sight of one another, then pair the other rider in. This is because the three-way conference all works through the one primary headset – if the primary headset goes out of range, the two others who may be right next to each other are left unable to communicate.
Setting up a three- or four-way conference is a slightly hit and miss process. But then, the battery life on both the SMH10R and the regular SMH10 are long enough that if you start the day fully charged, you can leave them on during breaks to save fiddling about when it's time to roll again.
It's also worth noting that while the SMH10R has virtually identical intercom range as its chunky brother, both units will lose range fairly significantly when more than two units are paired. One-to-one, you'll get about 500 meters (1,640 ft) – which is well under the advertised 900 meters (2,953 ft), but in a conference setting it's more like 300 meters (984 ft). Also, all units must be in direct line of sight; go behind a building and you're incommunicado.
Having said that, this doesn't significantly effect the ride experience – most of the time when you're chatting, you're on a highway anyway, and riding in a smallish group. When the pace picks up in the twisties and the group starts spreading out, most people seem to prefer less talking anyway.
The SMH10R is rated for eight hours of talk time, or seven days on standby. That's more than enough for a day on the road – in fact, you'd probably last a two-day ride if you turned the intercoms off every now and then. We never found the battery life to be a problem – but having said that, the SMH10's battery lasts about 35 percent longer.
It's also worth noting that while the battery itself is velcroed on to the helmet, you can't really remove it to charge it. This is because you need the main control unit to plug your USB charger into. You could theoretically remove them both, but there's so much fiddling around with wires on the original install that once it's on, you're not going to want to move it.
So in order to charge the SMH10R, you need to drag your helmet over to your computer or wall socket USB and sit it there to charge. Again, not a big issue, but the SMH10 is better.
Are you sensing a subtle theme here? If I hadn't been playing with the SMH10, this would have been the best Bluetooth intercom jigger I ever used. And looking at the two in the Sena catalog, I would have gone for the R version in a heartbeat; the SMH10 looks a bit bulbous and dorky.
So when it comes to looks, the R version has it hands down. But here's a quick list of the compromises you have to make in the name of fashion:
- Reduced battery life (~35 percent)
- Significantly harder to install, and a lot of loose wires to clean up
- Can't remove the intercom to charge it
- Three button interface is vastly less intuitive to use than the excellent jog dial on the SMH10
- Can't be quickly and easily thrown on a friend's helmet before a ride
And here are the upsides:
- R version looks a bit cooler (although there's a weird battery sitting on the back, you have to tape the wires down, and nobody ever came up and said to anyone "hey, cool intercom" in all of motorcycling history)
- Negligible aerodynamic advantage (I couldn't notice any drag or wind noise from either system to be honest)
- The R version, since it doesn't come apart, could be more effective for adventure type tourers who have reported that under dusty and dirty conditions, the SMH10's removable unit starts to deteriorate
- Possible slight waterproofing advantage.
Both sets cost the same (US$219 direct from Sena) and both are available now, so it's up to you. Both make a very positive difference to your riding experience, and both are reliable and high quality gear in my experience.
A lot of people are already raving about the SMH10R on forums and review sites, and lots of people will be very happy with this unit. But for my dollar, the slightly less funky SMH10 is streets ahead. In this case, for me, the price of fashion is too high.
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