Sena SMH10 Redux

Back in June of last year I evaluated the Sena Bluetooth SMH10 and panned it here.

Back then, prior to 4.0 firmware, Sena had some issues with this product.  Sound quality and volume were in a word absolutely horrible compared to the Starcomm I was using.

This now that Sena was up to firmware version 4.2 I thought I’d reevaluate them.  I knew I was also picking up a new helmet this year and waited before installing the.   I added the Sena to the Nolan N104 the day I got it.  Which was a bit disconcerting since you have to cut a slot for the mounting tab in the bottom of the helmet.

My primary reasons for wanting the Sena were bike-to-bike intercom.  But since that represents less than 5% of my riding I wasn’t willing to give up any audio quality to get that which is why I passed on them last year.

Once mounted up, the speakers dropped (or pressed) right into the helmet where the Nolan BT stuff would normally go.   I used it for a few days.  

Again, I wasn’t happy.  Sound quality blew, and volume was probably 80% of where it needed to be.   I wear earplugs when I ride, wind noise over long distances is very fatiguing.  For a definition of a long ride see the prior post: Mason-Dixon 20-20 Rally Report.  Again I was disappointed in the audio quality with my Zumo 665 via bluetooth and again, phone quality with the iPhone 4s paired with the Zumo was equally bad.

After poking around, asking on some boards, reading blogs, etc.   It became clear that this is more likely a problem with the Zumo Bluetooth and not the Sena.

Even with the Garmin Zumo 665 paired as the phone so that it uses the higher quality A2DP bluetooth magic, it wasn’t always good.   It was good sometimes, sometimes it seems the Zumo would just choose to use the Hands Free Profile or basic headset profile.  When using those modes, again, audio sounded like listening to an AM radio through a pillow.   Not good.

After discussing with Sena Tech support, I paired with the iPhone directly as a phone.  Wow, audio quality was there.   The volumes wasn’t quite there, but audio quality was.

I then paired the Zumo as a multi-point device, and GPS Audio turn directions were good enough.   Not high quality but that didn’t matter.

So we’re making progress.    More research indicated that the low audio volume problem is well known.   One solution is to use good earbuds instead of speakers.   So I switched up the mount to the Sena Earbud mount and put together a pair of EarFuze custom ear plugs.   Yep, the volume was there.   Now we’re cooking.   The Earfuze are good but not great.  Upgrading those to a pair of Westone UM2’s and we’re there.   Awesome sound quality from the iPhone and more than adequate volume.

So now phase two, intercom testing.   My riding buddy put a Sena on his helmet, we paired them up and went for a ride.   Impressive.    I never had really good luck with intercom with the Starcomm even though that’s what it was designed to do.   It always picked up too much wind noise and I spent way too much time trying to ‘tune it’.  But for single rider use it was pretty awesome.

With the Sena, I can’t wait to ride with my wife or one of my kids and have the ability to chat with them at the same time.

But I now had new problems.   Manipulating an iPhone while riding with gloves on isn’t an easy task.   Yeah the Sena kind of does that but I didn’t find it to be super-reliable.   I’m really hoping they fix that with Firmware 4.3 (hint hint).

A buddy turned me on to a small inexpensive bluetooth remote.   This one.   It works as advertised.

So now I get:

  • Really good, high quality audio through the iPhone with the ability to listen to podcasts, something that I couldn’t easily do with the Zumo.   Getting them, converting them to mp3’s was a pain.   Then Zumo didn’t know the difference so when you’d shuffle music you’d get the occasional pod cast or audiobook.
  • Good enough GPS audio for turn by turn directions.
  • Really good phone call audio.
  • Rider to Rider intercom that actually works, up to about 1/4 mile.

Now using it for the first 800 miles was pretty good.   But there were a couple of problems.

1) I could initiate an intercom with my buddy but he couldn’t “usually” initiate the intercom.   I was streaming audio from the phone and I think the Sena doesn’t know it’s not a phone call so it takes priority.   He was using audio piped in via the mp3 jack, from his mixit so that he’d have music (from an older zumo) and radar.

This wasn’t a deal breaker though, inconvenient yes but not a deal breaker.  He could wave and point to his helmet and I could always call him.   GPS directions from the multi-paired Zumo interrupted the intercom.

2) At the end of our initial ride, my buddy’s Sena just died.  Wouldn’t charge and won’t charge up.  We rode through a crazy amount of rain.  But these things are supposed to be water/rain resistant. 

Luckily we were able to borrow one for the rally ride and for 1440 miles we had the ability to communicate and that was huge.

I’m in the process of testing their warranty at the moment and will add how that goes.   But for now I’ve pulled all of the Starcomm stuff from my bike and plan to use the Sena from here on out.

We got a good 14 hours of use before charging was required.   Thankfully they work while charging so a portable battery in the breast pocket of my jacket kept us going through the rally.  In the future I’ll have one in the tank bag charging or charged and I’ll just swap them.

So as of right now I’ve found a good compromise.   I am disappointed with Garmin and their Zumo 665 BT stack.  This was allegedly broken with the Zumo 665 2.9 firmware update.   I’ve downgraded to 2.8 but that didn’t seem to fix it.  Maybe I’ll roll back to 2.7 and see if that helps.

For now, the Sena dual pack at $300 average retail if you shop around, it’s a bargain.

Read the folding bike reviews for more info.

Sena BlueTooth vs. StarCom 1

OK, since 2007 I’ve had an intercom system in the bike.  StarCom1 Advanced to be exact.


It allows me and a wired passenger to talk.   The intercom part of the StarCom has always been a bit of an issue for me.  Mostly tuning it.  To get the VOX just right, so that we can talk clearly w/o wind noise holding the conversation open when not necessary.

Fortunately or unfortunately I haven’t had to use the intercom portion all that often since Claudine just doesn’t ride with me that much.   When she does they are normally short trips and not worth messing with the intercom.

That being said, I use the StarCom every day on every ride.

It is my audio interface to my GPS (Zumo 550, then 665) and it’s my entertainment center (mp3’s from the Zumo and formerly XM via the Zumo) and when appropriate Radar detector audio.

At one point it also served as my interface to the phone.  Both times, phones connected to the Zumo via Bluetooth and the Zumos hard-wired into the StarCom.

Previous to the StarCom I simply used a MixIT, to be a portable amplifier for iPod/XM and to Mix in the radar detector.


The Mix-IT worked well, but created a mess of wires going into the tank bag where I kept it.  When I decided I wanted an intercom I passed it on to a friend and he still uses it today.  My dad still uses one as far as I know.   (Great product).

The Starcom has a number of advantages for me:

  1. Central mounting location, on the bike.   No longer in my tank bag.
  2. One nice cable to my helmet, no mess.
  3. Intercom capability
  4. Above average volume and sound quality.

The disadvantages are:

  1. It’s not cheap, it’s not super expensive but it’s not cheap.
  2. Starcom cables don’t seem to last a long time.   The Shielded cables for Radar and phone seem to break down.   When you’re talking a $82.95 microphone/audio cable. This is a problem to have to replace it every year or so.  (Two cables actually MIC-02 and MUS-04) if you want Stereo sound, which I do.   And, no, you can’t use cheapo Radioshack cables.  You can, but you won’t be happy.
  3. Tuning the Intercom can be a pain.
  4. Headsets aren’t cheap, now about $75 per helmet.  Figure two helmets for me, one for the wife, one for the kids that equals 4 helmets/headsets.   That is cheap compare to say a J&M system.  
  5. The headsets aren’t easy to shuffle around so you need to mount it in your helmet and leave it there.
  6. Along with the cables I’ve found headsets if worn year-round tend to break down as well, usually the microphone is the first to go.

So what brings me to this review?  Well about two years ago I lost the phone/microphone  capability with my StarCom again.  It actually works if the bike isn’t running, but if it is, well the noise or interference is so bad nobody can hear you.

I replaced the headset, and the cables (again), and re-routed them to get them away from as much stuff as I could to avoid the interference.   It worked for a while but now it’s back to being fubar again. 

All other audio functions work just fine.  It’s the cable from the Zumo to the StarCom that is the issue.

So I decided to look at what else is out there.  

Back in the day before I had the Mix-IT, I did play with one of the first CARDO BT systems for motorcycles and it was pretty good.  At the time it was mono only and phone only.

After searching, the Sena Bluetooth SMH10 seems to be the most recommended at this time.    Also the idea of my riding buddy having one and being able to talk to him was attractive.   So I ordered up a pair.

I unboxed them, charged them, upgraded them to the new 4.0 firmware.

Paired up my Zumo and iPhone and went out of a test ride.

First thoughts:

1) Sound quality from this is HORRIBLE.   Streaming MP3’s from the Zumo 665 is about AM quality at best.   It’s certainly loud enough.  I ride with earplugs so it needed to be loud enough to overcome.   But even at lower volumes w/o earplugs, on a scale of 1-10 it was a 3 maybe a 4 at best.   (Versus the StarCom which I would rate an 8.5-9)

(And yes, I am painfully aware of the need to make sure the speakers are centered in the ear).

2) Phone call testing.

For the first test I used what Sena calls Case 3:


I called my wife who was happy to play along, and she said no.  This is unacceptable.  I was barely legible if at all.

Now knowing that with my windshield down, it can be quite turbulent, I stopped an put the plastic microphone mask on the front side of the mic as suggested and included in the box.

No real change in quality.

I stopped again an switched up to what Sena calls Case 2:


For this the phone call quality was better.  Wife said she’d call me and talk to me in an emergency, or take a call from me in an emergency, but no, she would not talk to me like this for 30 minutes to keep me awake.

It was not as good as the StarCom when the Starcom works.

In this configuration, MP3 streaming form the Zumo was still bad, though GPS prompts sounded pretty good.

At the end of the day I decided I listen to music 98% of the time and talk on the phone 2%.   I’m not willing to give up the music audio quality in favor of what turns out also to be a lesser phone call quality.

The wireless features and Bike-To-Bike capabilities *could* have possibly swayed me.  But even those scenarios are less than 10% of my total ride time and aren’t likely too.

So with some frustration, the Sena gets shipped back today.   

I have ordered the StarCom1 BT-02 module.  If that rectifies my cable issue, then I’ll be a happy camper.  If not then we’ll figure out what to do next.

If you have a sure-fire bike to bike system that provides great audio (with ear plug) and uses or doesn’t use the StarCom system.  Please let me know about it or how you have it set up.