Review: Sena SMH10R Bluetooth Helmet Headset

I recently started using a Sena SMH10R bluetooth helmet intercom on the motorcycle. It replaced an older Autocom wired intercom. I chose the Sena over the Scala or Chatterbox based on initial feedback from others. This is a review of the unit based on a couple months of use.

2013-08-08 00-47-08 IMG_3836 (1)

Overview

The SMH10-R headset is a helmet-mounted, bluetooth compatible headset that allows you to use your phone or other bluetooth device while riding your motorcycle. It’s also an intercom that can pair with other Sena devices for two-way communication with a passenger or riding partners on their own biked. Finally, it has a secondary bluetooth channel that allows you to connect a second phone or GPS in addition to the primary device.

2013-08-08 00-45-32 IMG_3831 - Version 2Sena has several models with similar functionality. For comparison, the SMH10 (no R) is nearly the same device but in a different form factor. It uses a jog dial and is a bit bigger. It’s simpler to install with the integral battery. But because of the clip mount, it may not work on all helmets.

The SMH10R is unique in that it’s a thin module that is surface mounted rather than clip on. To enable the lower profile, the battery is external and is therefore replaceable. For all of these reasons, I chose the SMH10R as I felt it was the best fit for my helmet as well as aesthetics.

SMH10-R Key Features

  • Bluetooth intercom for pairing with up to 3 other Sena headsets
  • Stereo bluetooth audio on primary channel, for pairing with a smartphone or GPS in full stereo for music.
  • Mono bluetooth audio on secondary channel, for a second device. The secondary channel can also do stereo, but only one channel can do stereo at the same time.
  • Comes with helmet speakers and both a boom mic and stick-on mic pod.
  • Charges via micro-USB
  • 8 hrs talk time, 7 days standby
  • Full specs on Sena’s site

It comes with all the connectors and cables you could need, including a 12v car adapter and right-angle USB charge cable.

Installation

Depending on the helmet, installation is pretty straightforward. If you don’t have a headset now, you’ll definitely want to check your helmet for appropriate locations for the speakers. The speakers are roughly an inch in diameter and a quarter inch thick. They need to be affixed to the shell or foam in your helmet. They have a velcro backing on them and come with both a thin or thick adhesive pad to affix to the inside of your helmet.

My last helmet, a Shoei RF-1000, proved to be a poor receiver of helmet speakers. There’s no accomodation for them and I ended up having to dig out a little foam to make my last headset fit. Fortunately, it was time for a replacement helmet.

Enter the Nolan N85 full-face helmet. This helmet comes with pre-molded speaker cavities which fit the Sena speakers perfectly. (Nolan also sells a headset system for their helmets that is a bit more plug-and-play, but I liked the Sena feature set and price better.) I really like the helmet, and consider it a fantastic bang for the buck. But that’s a blog entry for another day.

Removal of the cheek pads allowed access to install the speakers. Once the speakers were mounted, I routed the wires under the trim and liner of the helmet.

Then I installed the battery. This is done on the back of the helmet, right over the DOT sticker. A velcro pad is attached to the helmet and the battery’s curved back sticks to it. The battery wire also goes into the helmet liner. This allows the battery to be replaceable, but due to the wire routing I wouldn’t consider it something you’d want to do other than to replace a completely failed battery. Still, this is one of the reasons I chose this version of Sena’s headsets.

I used a small piece of black Gorilla tape to secure and protect the battery wire on the back of the helmet. I could imagine the wire getting worn when setting down the helmet. The Gorilla tape is like Duct tape but softer and stickier. It’s working well.

You can also see that the battery module is reflective, a nice touch.

Now for the control module:

2013-08-08 00-45-32 IMG_3831

It’s attached to the side of the helmet using another adhesive pad. You have the choice of a double-sided pad or a velcro pad. Extras are included in the box. A flat cord runs from the module into the helmet liner and connects to the three wires for speakers and battery.

The Nolan N85 has a wide plastic trim piece around the base, and rather than just go around it I opted to drill a small hole in the plastic for the wire and install a rubber grommet to protect it. I think it made for a slightly cleaner install.

It took me about 20 minutes to install the unit and get the helmet all buttoned up.

Basic Operation

Unlike the larger Sena units, which use a jog dial, the SMH10R uses a three-button control unit. Two up/down buttons for volume, and a center button for functions. It’s more complicated to describe than it is to use:

  • A brief press on the center button activates the intercom.
  • A longer press (~2 sec) triggers pause/play on your phone.
  • A still-longer press (~5 sec) activates voice control for your connected device (Think Siri).
  • A very long press (~10 sec) enters the configuration menu.

Each of these is prompted with tones and voice prompts. You get used to it very quickly. Even navigating the configuration menu is easy, you use the up/down buttons to navigate and the voice tells you where you are as you go.

It also has two LEDs that blink red and blue to indicate whether it’s on, and what mode it’s in.

Turning the unit off and on is the trickiest part, and it’s not bad, but it requires pressing the middle and up buttons at the same time. I have found this to take some getting used to with gloves on. This is where I believe the jog dial to be a better interface, but because it’s quite a bit larger there is a trade-off.

Pairing is simple with all the devices I’ve tried. You enter the menu, select pairing on the channel you want, and pair from your other device. It tells you when the device is connected and it’s ready to go.

Updates are handled via software on your computer (PC or Mac!). You can update the headset just by plugging it in to a USB port and running the utility. Sena seem pretty active in releasing updates that improve functionality, around every 2-4 months at present.

Bluetooth for Phone and Music

My primary requirement is to connect my iPhone. If you have a Zumo there are several ways you can get things hooked up between GPS, phone, and headset, but I opted to connect  the phone directly to the Sena on the primary bluetooth channel. This allows me full control of the phone using Siri voice control, so I can play music, Pandora, podcasts, check the weather, read texts, etcetera etcetera.

The Zumo, by comparison, is touch enabled but a fantastically crappy music player. So with this headset I’ve now relegated the Zumo to navigation only.

Once paired with the iPhone, I have had zero issues. With my phone in my pocket or bag, I put on my helmet and turn on the Sena. It says “Hello”, and then a moment later tells me “Phone connected”. After this I’m able to engage Siri using a long-press on the Sena, to tell her to play my Lady Gaga playlist or text my wife that I’m heading home.  Siri is still Siri though, which is to say maddeningly broken in random ways. It helps to have the phone in a visible position, like a clear tank bag pocket, so you can see what she’s doing.

On the subject of voice, the trick with speaking to the Sena is to talk more quietly than you think you need to. I ride a sportbike with a tiny fairing, so there’s a lot of wind. This makes me feel like I need to talk loudly into the mic, but it doesn’t work well when I do. Just speak at a normal volume and it works really well. Talking on the phone is quite doable, and most people won’t even know you’re booking down the road on a bike. It’s a little scary!

In addition to voice, the buttons give you full audio control for play/pause, next track, etc.

Volume is plenty loud enough. The volume-up button will beep at you when you’ve reached the limit, and on the freeway with foam earplugs I do turn it all the way up. But at that point it’s loud enough to enjoy your music or even spoken word audio like podcasts.

Audio quality is fair. It’s about as good as you could expect from a motorcycle helmet. At lower volumes and slower speeds it’s actually quite good, but at full volume on the freeway you lose much of the bass and there’s a tiny bit of distortion. If you ride a bike with more wind protection than mine I think you’ll be amazed at the audio quality. And even for me it’s far better than the Autocom it replaced, both in volume and sound quality.

Intercom

When paired with another Sena unit, you get two-way communication, with a claimed range of up to 900 meters in ideal conditions and up to three other people. I have not tried this function (“forever alone” I guess) but based on my reading the range is generally limited to the next bend or two in the road in the real world. But certainly good enough for a couple of people riding together in most circumstances.

A single button press on the Sena starts the channel. Alternatively, there is a VOX (voice activated) mode.

If you need more range or need to communicate with non-Sena users, using FRS radio is probably a better choice, for which you can purchase a bluetooth adapter from Sena called the SR10.  The SR10 offers several other features, and I use one for my radar detector.

Hey, great segue!

Radar, GPS

I currently use a Garmin Zumo for navigation and an Escort radar detector. If I didn’t have radar, it would be a simple matter of pairing up the Zumo to the secondary bluetooth channel of the headset and Bob’s your uncle. But the radar isn’t bluetooth capable, and besides that the headset only has one secondary channel and thus couldn’t connect to both Zumo and radar at the same time if you’re already using the primary channel for your phone.

The SM10 and SR10.

The SM10 and SR10.

This is where the Sena SR10 comes in. This is essentially a bluetooth bridge that allows you to hard-wire two audio signals to it, which it then pipes to the headset over bluetooth. It has several other key features, notably FRS radio connectivity, but I’ll save that for another post.

I use short 3.5mm audio cables to connect the GPS and the radar to the SR10, which lives in my tank bag. This is then paired to the secondary bluetooth channel of the headset.

I will mention a few caveats on this approach:

  • The SR10 opens the audio channel to the headset on-demand. When there is audio from the GPS or radar, it opens the channel to the headset, and then after 20 seconds of silence, it closes the channel again. Opening the channel takes a moment, so it’s common to miss the first word from the GPS notification, or more importantly the first second of the radar alert. When you’re listening to music on the primary channel, the audio stops immediately as the SR10 connects, so you do have an immediate warning. Basically, when the music stops, I glance at the radar detector, and then I get the audio a second later. If you’re not listening to music, well, you lose a second of warning!
  • I have had two instances where the radar doesn’t seem to drop its audio signal, so the SR10 keeps the channel open. When this happens I power cycle the headset which just takes a few seconds, and everything rights itself.
  • The SR10 only supports the Voice (mono) profile for bluetooth audio. If you want stereo music on the secondary channel, have a look at the SM10 instead of the SR10.  You give up FRS but gain stereo audio.

Otherwise, it works fine. If you’re listening to music on the primary channel, the GPS will interrupt the music to give you directions. Then after 20 seconds, the music comes back.

As I mentioned there are other ways to do this if you have a Zumo or similar device. You can pair the phone to the Zumo, then pair the Zumo to the headset, giving you a nice touch-enabled screen on the Zumo for making calls. I chose my approach based on the primary goal of getting music from my phone on the headset. I often don’t even have the Zumo with me.

Life with a Battery

2013-08-08 00-46-01 IMG_3835New for me is the need to charge my helmet. I set up a USB charger near where I keep my helmet, and it’s become second nature to plug it in when I get home. I have a small concern about the charging port on the SMH10-R: It’s covered with a little rubber flap that I doubt will last too long. And I hope the port itself holds up to regular use. So far so good.

The battery is claimed to last 8 hours of talk time, a little less than the bulkier SMH10’s 12 hours. In my use I’d say it meets this claim. I’ve used it for multi-day rides and with charging each night it’s good to go the next day. The only time I have run out of juice I’d estimate I used it for about 7-8 hours of talk time (actually listening to music) over the course of three days. Charging is slow. I haven’t timed it exactly, but it takes at least a few hours fully charge.

A few more points:

  • When the battery eventually dies, a replacement is available from Sena, and it will be a simple swap.
  • I really appreciate that Sena used standard USB connectors.
  • Also, if you’re ever in a pinch, you can charge it while you ride (and use it) if you have a suitable power source on the bike. I like this SAE to USB charger from Deltran, the company that makes Battery Tenders.

Summary

The SMH10-R is a full-featured, reliable unit, capable of all but iron-butt battery life. It offers a world of difference for those used to wired setups, and an even bigger new world for those without any previous experience with helmet audio. It works quite well with my devices. Some people swear off using any audio devices on a motorcycle, but I love it. The Sena has exceeded my expectations, particularly for the price. It’s an amazing product for the money.

Also worth noting is that the company behind it really seems to have their act together. They are pretty consistent in releasing updated firmware for their devices, and these are not just bugfixes but serious new functionality. For example on 2/27/14 they released version 5 of their firmware that makes my year-old headset universally compatible with other makers’ devices, as well as adding improved noise cancelation. Refreshing to see a small company making such innovative, high quality products and supporting them well. Hard to find much information about this South Korean company, but they have under 200 employees according to LinkedIn.

If you have specific questions about something I didn’t cover, please comment below and I’ll do my best to answer you. Or check the Sena website.

Thanks for reading. Here’s a complete gallery with all the pics:

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There are 9 replies to “Review: Sena SMH10R Bluetooth Helmet Headset

  1. Marc

    I have a Nolan N90 and want to get this Sena SMH10R. From your pics, it looks like the Sena will not fit flush inside that Nolan N-com knock out if the panel was removed? Did you try experimenting placing the unit in or around the knock-out before you settled on mounting it on top? Thanks! Great review!

    Reply
    1. sebastian Post author

      Hi Marc, the knockout is a different shape so there’s not much you could do with it. I just mounted right over it and it’s fine. It could be possible to mount the Sena a little higher and put the cable through a hole cut in the knockout, but I was pretty satisfied with the way it worked out as is.

      Reply
  2. Xander

    I love my SMH10R. It took a bit to get it wired into my Shoi RF-1100 (I’m still trying to deal with a place for all the excess cable). The biggest issue I’m having is the length of pressing to activate Audio or Siri. Have you found any way to change this? I don’t need/want the intercom, so I thought if I turned that off it would allow me to alter the button press (no luck).

    Reply
    1. sebastian Post author

      I haven’t found a way to change that, and I don’t suspect it exists however, when I did finally use mine as an intercom it worked out great and I was glad that I had easy access to intercom versus Siri.

      Reply
      1. Xander

        Yeah, I can see how it would be nice to have while using the intercom, but it makes it really complicated to quickly activate Siri. Even worse (for me), since the first isn’t audio there is no way to send 2 short bursts to the phone to skip a song. We are pretty much stuck with on/off for music.

        Reply
        1. sebastian Post author

          Ooh! Try a long press on the volume up button to skip forward, same for volume down to skip back. Works great.

          My only real complaint with this setup is that Siri flakes out and can’t find what I want to listen to or won’t respond at all. But that’s an apple complaint.

          Reply
  3. Kevin Bearden

    Howdy Sebastian..just a quick note to say thanks for your reviews..you’re a bright guy are put things in the terms we need to hear..and you don’t get all wrapped up in the jibberish that many do..I read your review on the Sena SMH10 Bluetooth headset system as well as the one on the XP Antigravity batteries..both were very informative..now I’m going to go and continue reviewing your list and see if there’s something else I’m interested in..
    Thanks again! -Kevin

    Reply
  4. Jose

    Hey Sebastian,

    Found your website while searching Sena SMH10R helmet install. Great write up!! I just purchased the dual pack for my GF and I, I have a Shoei X11 and she has an AGV K4 Evo. I think my helmet should be ok, but I am worried about her helmet because the bottom collar pc of the helmet is not removable so not sure how I will get the battery cable into the helmet. I hope the speakers work in the helmets, but I also ordered the adapter cable in case we rather use our own earbud headphones. I am mainly interested in the intercom feature, but I guess it’s kind of cool to sync up to cell phone and be able to take calls!! Thanks.

    Reply
    1. sebastian Post author

      Hi Jose, thanks for the comment. If the collar can’t be separated from the shell for the cable you might need to put a small hole in the collar to route the cable through. It’s likely removable somehow, although I’m not familiar with that helmet.

      I use the phone feature infrequently, and it works amazingly well, but my biggest use for the headset is just for music, Siri, and radar audio.

      Thanks again for the note and happy riding with your lady!

      Reply

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