Back in the day, motorcycle communicators were just that. You used them to talk with your riding buddies when you were riding with them. Maybe, if you were lucky, they had a FM radio or some kind of facility to allow you to run a wire from your iPod to the unit, but if you were running a wire, why not just wear your headphones, anyway?
Well, the maturation of Bluetooth and its ability to link your smartphone to your car, a keyboard, multiple kinds of headsets, and even your house has advanced to the point that it’ll change how you ride. How motorcycle communicators adapt to the changing role of the smartphone in our communication/entertainment/navigation has become the yardstick by which the current generation of Bluetooth communicators will be measured. Sena, a company that makes most of its money as an industrial Bluetooth communication company, knows Bluetooth, and it just so happens that the company’s owner is a motorcycle enthusiast. The Sena 20S is the latest iteration of that synergy.
As the uses of Bluetooth advance, it’s not merely enough to support additional uses. The way in which the support is applied also plays a role. For example, a communicator I recently reviewed required that I hold down two buttons simultaneously to access Siri, my most utilized iPhone feature when out on the road. Think about that: riding and maintaining focus while attempting to simultaneously press two buttons with gloved fingers. Initially, it didn’t seem like a big deal – until I started using another headset that only required a quick press of one button.
The Sena 20S incorporates the standard mounting methods for communicators. If your helmet will allow it, a clamp slips between the helmet shell and the liner, allowing the unit to be firmly mounted to the outside by your left ear. A stick-on mount is provided for helmets that can’t accommodate the clamping mount. Both a boom microphone and a wired microphone are included to fit both open face and full face helmets. Folks on the other end of phone conversations with these microphones reported that the sound was quite clear and occasionally expressed surprise that I was riding while talking to them.
The helmet speakers are big enough in diameter to give decent frequency response and plenty loud – even when wearing ear plugs – but they are also thin enough to keep them from rubbing up against most riders’ ears. Although the speakers have foam covers you can place on them, I found that they interfered with the hook-and-loop fastener on the back of the speaker, allowing them to occasionally fall out and dangle by their wire. So, I opted to go without the covers. If your helmet has deep pockets for speakers, and you feel the drivers are too far away from your ear canal to hear clearly over road noise, pads are provided to move the speakers closer to your ear.
The Sena 20S’ feature list is impressive. It can pair with up to nine different headsets. While it’s easier to pair with another 20S, the unit is compatible with all previous Sena units and can even pair with other manufacturers’ Bluetooth headsets in Universal Mode. Via voice commands or using the unit’s buttons, the rider can initiate individual intercom conversations or switch from one intercom to another. If the Group Intercom list has been set, a two-second press of a button or a voice command can initiate the connection with all the units on the list.
The 20S has a built-in FM radio to which you can program up to 10 favorite stations which can then be accessed via voice command or a turn of the multi-dial while a station is playing. The FM feature can also scan through the local stations, allowing the rider to find music while in an unfamiliar area.
A feature that is surprisingly useful is the Ambient Mode. When the bottom button on the 20S mount is pressed twice, an external microphone is activated pumping sound from outside the helmet through the speakers or headphones. Since I frequently wear noise damping headphones, I can now carry on a conversation with a person at an intersection or gas station instead of pointing at my ears and saying I can’t hear them because I’m wearing ear plugs.
Finally, the key feature, in my opinion, of any Bluetooth communicator is how well it interacts with a smart phone. Since I’m frequently going to places I’ve never been before, being able to hear my turn-by-turn directions while listening to music or being in a group intercom session is important. A single press of the rear button brings Siri to the fore, and I’ve already saved myself several times by saying, “Give me directions to the nearest gas station,” all while bombing down the freeway in evening traffic.
Two Buttons and a Jog-Dial
Helmet communicators need to have a simple physical interface that can be operated by touch – through gloves. To achieve this, Sena built the 20S with only two buttons and a multi-function jog-dial. The jog-dial can be pressed like a button, turned like a dial, or pressed and turned simultaneously, giving a wide range of inputs. On the bottom of the 20S, the Ambient Mode Button activates the Ambient Mode as well as Voice Command. The Phone Button resides on the rear of the unit and can perform a range of functions from (obviously) answering the phone to engaging Siri (or Android Voice Command) to turning the FM tuner on/off.
Because of the varied locations of the buttons, they are quite easy to find and manipulate with gloved hands while riding. The challenge of operating the 20S is less of a physical challenge than a mental one. With so many options available, Sena’s voice prompts can help you remember what mode the 20S is in. The 20S also features voice navigation to move between modes using your voice.
However, if you find Siri frustrating, you won’t like the voice commands. Sometimes it answers the “Hello Siri” prompt immediately in stand-by mode. Other times, no amount of hellos worked. Also, the 20S consistently thought I was saying “Intercom 4” when it was “Intercom 1.” Still, it worked reaching for the buttons.
The easiest way to set up the 20S, however, is to use the iPhone or Android app. Once paired with the headset, you can go through the most commonly used settings and upload them to the unit. Additionally, you can pair to other communicators and organize them into groups that can be activated either by voice or the push of a button out on the road.
Changing How We Test Motorcycles
The ease with which we can establish a group intercom session while out on the road is in the process of transforming how we test motorcycles. Instead of having to wait until the next bike swap to discuss some issue, we can do it when the question comes to mind as we ride. The conversations in Group Intercom are quite clear until the limits of range are reached. While the range out in the canyons isn’t too much more than line of sight or just around a couple bends, we tend to ride within the range of clear reception, anyway. As a rider approaches the edge of reception, their audio – both sent and received – begins to break up a bit, but it never forces excessive static into the conversation to the point that it made it impossible to communicate. The 20S announces when a rider has dropped the connection, so we were always cognizant of the conversation status.
Occasionally, the connection to one rider would become irretrievably bad, requiring that the group session be terminated and restarted. Also, since the person who initiated the group session acts as the hub for the conversation, placing that rider in the middle of the group made it less likely for the lead or tail rider to push the limits of reception.
When it comes to any type of intercom connection, the external antenna on all of the participants’ 20S’ should be raised. While this step isn’t necessary for riding solo and connecting to Bluetooth devices mounted on the motorcycle, the range of intercom reception is dramatically shortened with the antenna in the lowered position. The 20S comes preset for group sessions of up to four participants. However, with the change of a setting, it can handle eight units with a slightly diminished range.
The Universal Intercom feature makes it possible for the 20S to connect with Bluetooth communicators from other manufacturers. To test this, we paired the 20S with a ScalaRider Q3. The process was easy – once we called tech support and found that a crucial step was missing from the owner’s manual. (The phone button needed to be pressed after the 20S was set in Universal Intercom Pairing mode.) After that, the Sena-Scala Rider communications were mostly trouble-free. At one point they stopped talking to each other and required re-pairing.
Sena claims the 20S battery will last for 13 hours of talk time, and although we never managed to push it to that limit, the claim sounds reasonable. I have used the 20S for several days of riding without charging just to test the battery limits, but the standard USB port on the unit means that overnight charging is so easy as to not be an issue. Sena also has a ton of accessories that connect to the 20S. I am currently testing the Prism camera that the 20S controls (You’ve already seen some of its output in Troy’s R1 launch video). Expect a review in the not-too-distant future. Also, the company has recently announced a Handlebar Remote to link to the 20S and select other Sena units.
In just a couple months, the Sena 20S has replaced my previous helmet communicator – which I was quite fond of and used daily. The combination of full features, ease of use (largely thanks to the jog-dial) have made the 20S part of my daily riding kit. How much of my daily gear? I may lose my motojournalist card for this, but I like the 20S so much that I bought a second set of mounting hardware to enable me to switch more easily between helmets I’m testing. The Sena 20S retails in single and dual packages for $299 and $549, respectively. The Sena 20S Universal Helmet Clamp Kit with Microphones retails for $80. Visit the Sena website for more information.