Ten years ago, the idea of riding a motorcycle while talking on the phone was anathema. “No way!” riders commented. “I’ll plow into a car! Too dangerous. When I ride, I like to focus on riding.”
That was then. Now, I see plenty of motorcyclists (though nowhere near the majority), particularly long-distance riders and commuters wearing Bluetooth headsets, and who knows how many are using earbuds or custom-fitted wired earplugs? I think we’re reaching the tipping point culturally: riding wired (or wireless) is now an acceptable practice.
So if you do it, what’s the best setup? I like using a Bluetooth system with speakers, so I can use earplugs to protect what remains of my hearing. That means the system has to be easy-to-use and have sufficient audio quality, both incoming and outgoing, that I can understand the words or music flowing into my earholes and people listening to me on the phone don’t hang up in frustration.
I’ve had good results with systems from both Cardo and Sena, but I think the best one so far is the new Sena 20S I’ve bolted to my current-favorite helmet. The 20S is a completely new product that surprised me with its increased utility and performance.
The banner headline here is the advanced Bluetooth setup. Not only does the 20S use the Bluetooth 4.0 protocol (Sena claims this is a first for the industry, even though 4.0 has been around for a few years and in fact was supplanted by 4.1 last year), it has dual Bluetooth modules, enabling both the pairing of more than one device as well as audio multitasking so you can talk on the intercom without pausing inputs from your GPS, phone or other paired devices. It also makes the transition from device to device smoother and speeds up the pairing and boot-up process. Of note to Vloggers, and I can’t believe I just typed that word, is the capability to add an accessory Bluetooth Audio Pack or Sena’s PRISM Bluetooth action camera so you can record narration on your videos.
But wait, as the infomercial says, there’s more. The jogwheel is designed to be easier to use with gloved hands, you can pair up to 8 riders with the intercom, you can pair with non-Sena Bluetooth headsets (they need to support the Hands-Free Protocol), it has a claimed 1.2-mile intercom range with the little antenna raised, and smacking the headset two times activates an easy-to-use voice command prompt.
Adding easy-to-use ways of interacting with your headset is a good thing—it’s hard to remember different buttons or configurations of button-presses. There’s also a Smartphone app for Android and iPhones that lets you program intercom buddies, radio-station presets and other features, but the coolest thing I discovered was the little button under the mount that mutes all other input in favor of an external microphone so you can listen to outside noises, be it an ambulance, your riding buddy at a stoplight or the mumbling dude in the gas-station booth. They call it the “ambulance button,” I’ve heard.
The 20S is feature rich, and offers a lot of things I probably will never use, but here’s why I like it so much: it performs very well. It boots up quickly and pairs with your phone immediately. The sound out of the solid-looking speakers is crisp and clear and plenty loud, even at near triple-digit speeds with earplugs. The microphone is improved, and combined with better noise-canceling technology, the other party on the phone has no idea you’re riding a motorcycle at high speeds (I can vouch for that – ed.). Improved audio and noise canceling also means I have fewer arguments with Siri (“Call home.” “I have several businesses in Nome, Alaska that you can call. Here are the closest ones.”).
The controls are also very easy to use, with intuitive operation, and kudos for adding the tapping function and eliminating voice command (although you can answer the phone by voice), which I hate (I like to sing and yell at people while I ride, and don’t need my helmet to talk back to me). Sena did use the same adhesive on the Velcro back of the headphones it always does, so expect the vastly improved speakers to fall out of your helmet after a year or two, but you can buy replacement parts as they wear and there’s a two-year warranty.
The battery life is also impressive, good for 12 hours of streaming audio with plenty of phone calls mixed in. Sena claims it’s good for 12 hours of talk time, but after about 9 hours of standby time and audio streaming and 3 hours of phone calls, the battery was done. But keep the yapping to a minimum and you can probably go for two days on a charge. If you do kill the battery, you can plug the included 12-volt charger into your bike and charge it during use if the cord doesn’t get in the way too much. Charge time is a claimed 2.5 hours.
I have to admit I didn’t use the intercom much, as I don’t regularly carry passengers or ride with Bluetooth-equipped riders. And when I do, I prefer riding intercom-free to spending the 30 minutes or more it can sometimes take to figure out how to pair Bluetooth intercoms—I have yet to find a system that’s easy to pair, this model included. The thought of getting up to eight middle-aged men or women trained in this technology before I can go for a ride makes me want to reach for the Paxil or a single-shot Deringer. Enough said, and apologies for not testing that feature’s range and functionality.
The 20S carries an MSRP of $299 for the single headset or $549 for the dual kit. That’s a lot of money—if you don’t recognize the utility of a Bluetooth headset. But if you’re like me, and you feel like you’re missing something when you ride without audio, you’ll find the 20S a good value. It works well and makes the ride better—and isn’t that the measure of a good product?
Gabe Ets-Hokin is no longer editor of CityBike magazine and is now employed full time curled in a small ball under his desk, rocking gently back and forth.