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Saturday, 12 May 2012

Bike communications? Horses for courses!

A week or two back, fellow Kiwi blogger Roger mentioned that he'd bought a Sena SMH10 digital motorcycle communications system like mine and he hoped that I'd post a technical review based on my experience of the same unit.  This isn't a review of the Sena as such, more of a review of the thought processes to sort out what features you need for your particular type of use.  From research carried out before the purchase, it was clear that there are some great models on the market as well as some real clunkers.

As with most things, the decision on what to purchase very much depends on price and what you want to use it for. Consequently, there's no such thing as one best unit.  What I'll do is summarise my decision-making process and hope that if others are in the market for a comms set, it helps in deciding what's best for their particular needs.

Sena SMH 10 basic functionality


What might come as a surprise is that I personally don't like bike comms!  When Jennie used to be a regular passenger on my Beemer and Blackbird, some hints were dropped that it would be nice if we were able to chat en route.  These hints fell on stony ground as riding a bike is my "quiet time" - time to think about riding well, taking in the sights and smells and so on.  I don't want interruptions, particularly at critical moments.  I don't ride with an MP3 player, even though music is almost always on in the 4x4; if not Jennie's convertible.  There always seems to be enough going on to fill the senses on a ride without other distractions.  That's a purely personal decision and it's certainly not being critical of anyone who enjoys music on the move.  The same principle generally applies to phone calls - that's what voice mail is for so I'm not a slave to the bloody thing!!!  Different kettle of fish if you're expecting a vital business or personal call though.

Having set the background, we'll now get down to why I bought a comms system.  When I was an IAM (Institute of Advanced Motorists) Associate in training, two of the Examiners used identical old-fashioned comms systems to give me instructions, particularly what directions to take.  The business end of the system consisted of a coiled thin audio tube which carried the conversation directly to the ear via an MP3-type ear bud.  They were horrible things - the voice commands were indistinct to say the least and the tube, despite being looped over the top of my ear; gradually worked its way out of the ear canal.  Not good for stress levels when you're being tested!!! Now that the boot is on the other foot with me observing Associates, I wanted something which delivered high quality 2-way sound between 2 riders and equally importantly; it had to be simple to use whilst on the move.

Another IAM member has a Scala G4 set, which impressed the heck out of me in terms of clarity, features and being compact.  A comparison between the two was then undertaken, drawing up a matrix of the different features for comparative purposes.  Each of them have slightly different features but either would meet my "fitness for purpose" requirements admirably.  I'm not going into detailed comparisons here as anyone can easily do the same through the excellent You Tube comparisons and other internet sources.  However, the main personal selling point was the large "jog" dial shown in the photo below.

Single dial operation

The dial controls volume by turning or switching between different riders and/or mode by tapping it.  The size and simplicity makes it so easy to use, even with winter gloves.  Although the unit looks large in the photo above, it's extremely compact as shown in the photo below and there's no additional wind noise or turbulence with it fitted.

Sena SMH 10 on my Shoei helmet

The speakers have a backing which attach to the helmet lining material or if the ear space is unlined, a small strip of self-adhesive Velcro.

Speakers in ear space

The microphone is on a flexible stalk which can be bent to any position.  I have it slightly to the left of my mouth as shown in the photo below and it works perfectly.

Microphone position left of centre

There are several modes of operation but the one I prefer when interacting with a trainee is voice-activated (VOX).  Not having to remember to press a button is far less stressful for both parties!  An IAM check ride generally lasts for 2-3 hours which is way inside the claimed 10+ hours of operation on a fully charged unit in this mode.  I have no reason to disbelieve the claim.  Clarity of communication is simply amazing.  Sena claim that communication up to 1000 metres of separation is unaffected.  I haven't tested the ultimate range as I've completely lost the plot if the rider I'm assessing has got that far away from me!!  I have, however, noticed that communications degrades if the bikes are separated by a bend with a sheer cliff or other major obstruction.  This hasn't been a real issue to date as it normally only lasts for a few seconds.

The other feature I like is that it can be installed on a helmet and be ready for use in under 5 minutes - important if you're on the road and switching between students.

As stated earlier, there are lots of comms sets on the market, some good, some decidedly dodgy.  There's an equally wide range of prices too.  Units like the Sena, Scala and Baehr are without doubt at the top end.  Also as mentioned, each make has different features which fit different "fitness for purpose" requirements.  If you're in the market for a comms unit, I'd recommend that you carefully think about what features are likely to be important for your particular set of needs and then draw up a matrix where you can compare what the various brands offer.

I hope that this has been of interest....

22 comments:

  1. Hi roger, my husband and I just bought A SMH 10 and tested it out today on a quick ride round town. We love it, like you we're not into listening to music or answering phones (I also hate the way society has become a slave to phones), the only reason we got it is to stay a bit more in touch while we are on a longish trip we are taking soon. The ease of use of this unit is the main reason I love it, we have had trouble getting the VOX to work tho, I screamed into the mic until I was blue in the face before it turned on today, so we reverted to using the jog dial, that wasnt hard to do tho.

    Thanks for the review

    Cheers Brenda

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  2. Hi Brenda!

    I'm not Roger, I'm the good-looking one :-)

    Delighted to hear that you guys have an SMH 10. Got mine directly from the USA which saved a fair bit of dosh compared with the extortion in NZ. Good for you regarding phones. I won't answer the land line at home if I'm busy doing something else. My wife Jennie is more inclined to answer and my one and only wisecrack about Pavlov and his dogs went down like a lead balloon!

    Sorry to hear about your VOX experience. I'm not quite sure if this is the reason but it's supposed to go into standby after a short(ish)period if there's been no sound and needs a tap to re-establish the link.

    Happy playing with your new toy!

    Cheers,

    Geoff

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  3. You know I meant Geoff .. no really I did!! ... (where's my edit button ...)

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  4. Not the slightest offence taken. It's nice to square accounts with Rog for the stick I've had to take from him recently. Thank you for the opportunity, bless you :-)

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  5. Hi Geoff, I agree with riding being a good opportunity to get some quiet time. However, when riding (I mean scootering) with hubby we occasionally find the need to communicate. So we just procured the SMH10. We haven't tested it yet while riding though, but will probably this weekend.

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  6. Geoff:

    I would have purchased the Sena SMH-10 BUT the Cameos BHS-500 is also top rated. It is made by IMC-motorcom.com The main reason that I chose the Cameos is because of dealer service. With the Sena I have to mail away. i have been using an IMC cabled FRS radio cable for a few years and I used them down in Oregon in 2010. The importer lives locally and I picked up these units from his home, where he carries "bulk" stock for distribution into the United States. If I have any problems I will just drive over to his home . . .

    My phone sycs perfectly, and the MP3's from the iphone play in stereo. Bluetooth cannot sync with a group and I wanted a unit which can be connected to a GMRS radio for group rides

    If you purchased a Sena SR10 BT adapter I can communicate with you with the GMRS radio. I like to listen to the traffic reports on my commute as I have been stuck in stopped traffic on the freeway before. It's not fun sitting in 3 lanes of traffic dead stopped for who knows how long.

    Also when I ride to Oregon in July, I will be alone for the first day or so and I have old radio shows loaded in my phone; The Shadow, Superman and Only the Shadow knows, plus a few Charlie Chan. I think I even have some Have gun will Travel

    bob
    Riding the Wet Coast
    My Flickr // My YouTube

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  7. Sonja!!
    Hope that you enjoy the SMH10 - perfect for you and hubby and I'm sure you'll find it super easy to use. Bet you've already had your helmetsd on talking to each other in the garden :-)

    Bob:
    Having a local supplier is an excellent reason for making the choice you did. If Rog's or mine fails, we're screwed for a fair length of time. Thanks for the heads-up on the adapter. I saw reference to an adapter of another make in one of the SMH10 videos on YouTube. Maybe something for the future.

    I like riding on my own wrapped in my own thoughts but I can certainly see the attraction of some audio company if you're on largely long, straight roads. The only concern I have is knowing the titles of those old radio shows you mention. I must be REALLY old :-)

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  8. Geoff

    I have a Cardo system fitted to my Schuberth - seemlessly integrated into the helmet collar. Main use is a feed of Tomtom instructions from some dumb blond Yanky lady who calls roundabouts "circles".

    Ergonomically I would prefer to have a remote control panel that I can actually see! With bluetooth I'm sure that this could be done: There are 5 buttons to fiddle with.

    I have also modified the boom mike as it was prone to stick up my nose - it is now on a fly lead and is sewn to the cheek pad.

    N

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  9. Good review Geoff. I am with you, no need for music or a phone while riding. All we need the communication device for is between riders.

    Now having said that have you found the VOX setting to share too much sometimes. Curse and forget it's there? I have a habit of singing in my helmet occasionally and I sure would want to share that with fellow riders. I think it's best if I stick to push to talk - for the safety of others, lol.

    We have our push to talk button on the left handlebars so we can use it while riding. Although when stopped with the clutch pulled in, we need to use the right hand to push it.

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  10. Nikos:
    It was the additional buttons on the Cardo Scala that put me off slightly although it was still a close run thing. Had I not wanted the headset for training, it really wouldn't mattered. I think the Cardo offers a thin pad mic for full face helmets as an alternative to a boom. However, IIRC, your Schuberth isn't a conventional fixed full face, is it?

    I have an Aussie gal on our car GPS which is fine but I'd have preferred Joanna Lumley. Alas, not available for a Garmin. I do have Darth Vader for light amusement though :-).

    Thanks Brandy!
    So far, no profanities have escaped my lips but I have alarmed a trainee with a bout of coughing when something stuck in my throat!! Smart move with the push to talk button location!

    Just thinking about the whole bike accessory thing, I reckon I'm a bit of a purist on reflection. I do use a GPS on occasions and the comms system on IAM rides of course but I'm conscious of getting too many farkles and sort of turning it into a car on 2 wheels. I probably haven't explained it too well but maybe you get my drift. I like my riding to be uncomplicated!

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  11. Great review Geoff, I pointed Brenda in your direction so hence her confusion....I am of course happy to take credit for an excellent review. Good too see many other options being spoken about as well.

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  12. Cheers Rog,
    I've forgiven Brenda mate ;-).

    Yep, there's plenty to suit all needs and various depths of pockets. Alan from IAM has a Baehr which is the Rolls Royce, in terms of cost at least. Will look at it next meeting. I might buy an adapter of the type Bob mentioned in due course to talk to other systems but there's no pressing need at present unless I wanted to talk to Ken and Mark on a run.

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  13. Only if you let us stop at coffee shops will we listen...

    BTW - really good read and I do like the control system - looks easier than the Scala.

    Remember - as a teacher I have selective deafness :-)

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  14. Hi Mark,

    In that case, if I'm observing you guys next time, it's coffee on me at Piha!

    I bet you're hellish scary as a teacher ;-)

    Carl M sent me a photo of his 2 and 4-wheeled stable today!

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  15. Great post,Geoff. So many toys but so little money to play with! Actually comms are not a priority for me right now but I can see the benefit in many situations.

    And just off topic, Mrs T and I loved our trip to the South Island last year so much that we have already booked another flight to Christchurch for Feb next year. However, it will most likely be a car based trip.

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    1. Hi Jules!
      Had there not been a specific need, I wouldn't have even looked at comms. Crikey mate, good to hear that you'recoming back. Heaps more to see and do! I think fellow blogger Gary France from the UK is planning to be there too.

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  16. You may say "Left at next junction" but we may go gaily forward!

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    1. What's disobedience worth at school these days? ;-)

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  17. Hi, I just found your page, scrolled through and found that I was quite interested in darn near every one of your posts! Thanks for the information on the comm and helmets. I am trying to figure out what comm I want for myself. Good info.

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  18. Hi Marilyn and thanks for dropping by. Delighted that you found something of interest and best of luck with the comms decision.

    Safe riding!

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  19. Hi Geoff
    I really must read these posts when posted....
    My wife, being sick and tired of trying to communicate by sign language or telepathy and having me blissfully carry straight on when she was turning, or diving off down a side road when she wasn't, went out and bought a Scala G4 set, 3-4 months ago. The fit looks similar to the Sena, if a little more compact. Of course, a new helmet was then in order, so, at the York motorcycle festival, she came away from the Helmet House tent with a new Shark VisionR, to put it all in. (that makes 6 helmets between the 2 of us, now!)
    Clarity is good, up to about 100kph, After that, I get a lot of wind noise from her mic, even though it's nice and snug. Setting it up before we leave and not fiddling with the buttons on the move, also helps. Range is generally line of sight - so far up to about 400m - lots of trees and things on corners to break up the signal. Lots less stress when we're going through traffic, and can keep up a commentary with each other about the traffic - hazards to watch out for etc., when we decide to take the bikes in to work (200k return trip) Refuse to use the phone/mp3/radio functions - don't think that that's what riding a bike is about. They're handy tools though, at times.
    Cheers
    Jon L

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  20. Gidday John!

    Thanks for your views on the Scala - they're a fine bit of gear. Yep, all comms sets tend to break up to some extent when line of sight is disrupted - good point especially when looking at manufacturer's claims. Both the Scala and Sena are really impressive. I tuck the mic to the side of my mouth and almost to visor height which seems to cut out most wind noise. I would have happily bought the Scala but thought that the single knob control of the Sena offered a slight advantage when changing modes in the middle of a ride with trainees. It was genuinely slight though as I'd have probably still bought a Scala if I could have found a US sales outlet who would sell directly to NZ because of the price differential. Although I got my Sena direct from the US, I think that by doing it that way, my warranty is voided. Worth taking the risk though to save over NZ $300!

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