Sena 20S Review
“The Rolls Royce of” is a clichéd expression, but in the case of the Sena 20S Bluetooth Communication System, it’s actually applicable. The 20S is Sena’s top-of-the-line communicator that clips to the side of a helmet – and it really does have all the bells and whistles.
Main functions include listening to music, receiving GPS navigation instructions, making and receiving phone calls, a rider/passenger and bike-to-bike intercom (with a small fold-up antenna to extend the intercom range), and – surprisingly to me – even an FM radio. If necessary, the provided stereo cable can be plugged in for an MP3 player wired connection instead.
Functions on the device are accessed primarily through the large jog wheel and integrated center button as well as the “phone” button on the rear of the device. A third button underneath the helmet clamp cuts everything and allows the user to hear the ambient sound around them.
The 20S also has full voice command functionality, and in stand-by mode simply say “Hello Sena” or double tap the surface of the main unit to enter the voice command mode. That same movement detection allows either tapping or shaking the unit (the sensitivity can be adjusted) to then perform certain functions. This includes Bluetooth pairing with other intercom units – just shake the units and they pair.
The Sena 20S also supports NFC (Near Field Communication) – pairing is easy if if your phone is NFC enabled. Simply place your mobile phone over the back of the 20S, and once pairing is complete, reattach the 20S to the clamp unit.
When I first opened the box I was amazed at the quality and choice of contents; it seems Sena has thought about every possible variable when it comes to fitting the intercom into any type of helmet, both full and open face. The individual components are clearly of the highest quality. Included are different size sponge pads to help ensure a good fit for the earpieces, and other types to help damp down microphone wind noise. Velcro pads are included for an ensure a good fit, as well as different charger (USB and cigarette) options, and various types of audio cables as well. The standard boom type microphone (which works fine with a full-face helmet) can be swapped out for one of the wired microphones; I opted for that as it’s a little less intrusive inside the chinbar of my Arai Corsair-V.
The unit comprises two parts: the helmet clamp (with wires to earpieces and microphone) and the communicator itself. The clamp works well enough, but it hangs down below the rim of the helmet. You’ll possibly need to experiment with the placement to avoid catching it on the shoulder of your jacket when turning your head. On occasion, I found it could also nudge the Ambient Noise button under the clamp unit and interrupt whatever I had got going on. Needless to say I found both problems a bit off-putting and ended up moving the unit just over halfway back around the helmet rim.
Compared to many other systems the 20S communicator itself is quite large, and if you’re not a lover of the look then you’ll probably prefer the SMH-10R slimline model that sticks unobtrusively to the side of the helmet. I prefer the looks of the more subtle/low profile units, but I love the functionality of the 20S – it’s a happy compromise.
The install on both helmets went well. It’s not the easiest thing in the world, and it is a bit intimidating to pull apart a nearly new $900 Arai helmet; but in the end I got away with folding the sponge earpieces back a little without actually fully removing them. The process is not one I look forward to, but I admit that once completed it is simply not that hard. Arai helmets have cut out earpieces in the padding, and the speakers fit well. They position perfectly, so thankfully (and surprisingly) I didn’t have to futz around with placement at all.
Once the clamp, speakers and mic are fitted, and the two small screws on the clamp are tightened down with the provided (of course) Allen wrench, the communicator then slides into place on to the clamp unit. It’s a fairly tight fit and easy to think the communicator is in place – it isn’t. Make sure you squeeze the communicator firmly down until you hear and feel a slight click from the metal release button on the clamp unit. If there’s no click, the communicator will quickly work itself very slightly loose – without actually looking like it – and you’ll wonder why it starts cutting out intermittently or completely.
Here at the Ultimate MotorCycling offices, I made exactly that mistake, and after a few hundred yards on my first ride the communicator suddenly went dead. It was only after some experimentation I discovered the problem. Another staffer made the same exact same mistake and even went as far as complaining that the Sena 20S was faulty; when I mentioned I’d had the same problem and offered up the fix, all was well.
Once installed and fully clicked into place, the Sena 20S is an absolute marvel. The performance of the electronics is outstanding – the best I’ve used. And I don’t say that lightly. I was immediately struck by how quickly it boots up, and then how rapidly it pairs to my iPhone; it is almost immediate.
Secondly, the sound from the speakers is noticeably very clear, and a conspicuous improvement over other systems I’ve used. When talking with other Sena users bike-to-bike, the noise-canceling circuitry is excellent, and at around 45-50 mph it literally sounded like we were driving together in a car. That’s an astonishing feat. Thirdly, the volume is excellent, to the point where I could actually listen to music at 80 mph on an unfaired bike—while wearing earplugs.
The function buttons are easy to learn, aided considerably by the function wheel on the side of the unit. Pushing the center of the wheel for a couple of seconds starts and stops the music. Rotating the wheel forward actually decreases volume, and if you press it at the same time it then goes back to the beginning of the music track, or the previous one. Rotating backward obviously does the opposite. Interestingly I found this a little unintuitive; if you’re looking at the unit from the side it makes perfect sense – turn the wheel clockwise (right) to increase, the opposite to decrease—but when attached to a helmet it’s actually a “forward” or “back” turn, and to me (despite the way a motorcycle throttle works), turning forward should be to increase, backward to decrease. I have got used to it, but I find the point interesting.
The “phone” button on the rear of the unit works well; it is easily accessible and found even by a heavily gloved hand. One long click-and-hold starts the intercom function; one quick click wakes the phone and with my iPhone, starts Siri. To my surprise Siri is eminently usable, and some of that credit has to go to the microphone placed on the inside of my Arai’s chinbar as well as Sena’s noise-canceling circuitry. Forget it at high speed, but at speeds up to about 40 or 50 mph I could instruct Siri to do various things including creating and sending text messages, reading texts, and initiating phone calls.
As motorcyclists we’re all very anti-distracted driving and of course I share that, however with a significant other who worries about my safety when on the bike, she likes to receive brief texts during the day that all is well. Of course I often forget, and then suddenly remember as I ride off that I hadn’t sent a reassuring text to her. With the Sena 20S it is problem solved. The communicator cuts the music when she replies and I simply instruct Siri to read her brief response.
I confess I have taken the occasional phone call, and all I can say is: beware! This is not a reflection on the Sena unit, it’s simply that talking on the phone while riding is dangerous, and I do not recommend it. Again, as with the texting, it has proved useful in a low-level emergency kind of way, but for sure don’t socialize on the phone while riding. People on the other end said that the sound quality was decent, not stellar, but certainly good enough that they could understand and reply to me. Again, microphone placement is fairly critical and the more effort you make with it the better your results will be.
Listening to music is by far my most common use of the Sena 20S, however talking to fellow riders is a close second especially because of the Sena’s sound quality. You can share music with your passenger if desired (or less likely with another rider, bike-to-bike) using Bluetooth stereo music during a two-way intercom conversation. When you stop music sharing, you can go back to the intercom conversation. To start or stop sharing music, press and hold the Jog Dial for 3 seconds during an intercom conversation until you hear a double beep and the voice prompt says, “music sharing.”
The 20S is pairable with up to eight other headsets at the same time, although I only used the unit with one other person (bike-to-bike). Essentially more “friends” can be added to either the first (head) friend or last (tail) of the paired chain of intercoms. Talking to different people along the chain doesn’t sound that simple as you need to tap the jog dial once for the first guy, twice for the second, three times for the third person, and so on.
This type of grouping can also be set up using the excellent Sena App (available for all typical phones). Simply browse for your friends in the App, and select up to seven other people you want to group with. Press “Connect” to send the data to your 20S headset, and then press and hold the Ambient Mode Button (underneath the clamp unit) for 1 second, or use a voice command to initiate Group Intercom.
Incidentally, the Sena 20S will also pair with other brand Bluetooth devices using the HFP (Hands Free Profile) that makers are now starting to adopt. So not only does the 20S work with GPS devices, radar detectors, and so on, but you can also connect a two-way radio (walkie-talkie) using the accessory Sena SR10 Bluetooth adapter. Frankly it sounds easier than connecting eight Bluetooth devices as well as having the much longer range needed for a big group of riders that gets spread out.
Assuming you’ve got all your own various devices paired up properly, the 20S has an “interrupt hierarchy” that gives each device priority in the following order from highest to lowest: ambient mode (accessed via the button under the clamp unit); mobile phone; voice command mode; intercom; music by audio cable; Bluetooth music sharing; FM Radio; and finally Bluetooth music.
A lower priority function is always interrupted by a higher priority function. For example, stereo music is interrupted by an intercom call, and an intercom conversation is interrupted by an incoming mobile phone call. Incoming audio from the two-way radio will not interrupt an intercom conversation but is heard in the background, and this is useful when you have an intercom conversation with a passenger on the back seat and use a two-way radio for group bike-to-bike communication.
In practice, I found myself using only some of the Sena 20S’ capabilities. But the functions I used – listening to music and communicating bike-to-bike – were handled so competently by the Sena that I simply don’t want to use any other communication device. At speeds of up to about 50 mph, the clarity and volume of the Sena’s audio is so good that I cannot imagine how it could be improved. To say the staff at Ultimate MotorCycling is impressed with the Sena 20S is an understatement!