SENA SMH-10 Motorcycle Headset Debacle

Taping the Sena

We wanted to love the Sena SMH-10. We really did. We loved the usability. It has nice big, loud speakers (painfully so if you’ve got it cranked without earplugs)*. The usability was great. It has one big dial that you press to connect, disconnect, or switch connections. No precision required. No feeling around for a particular small button to press when wearing gloves… but to be blunt, we think the quality is crap.

Like most motorcycle headsets, there are two components: the module that does all the work, and a baseplate it mounts on which houses the microphone and the speakers. The connection between the two components is via a series of pins.

Within the first 8 days of use we’d had both baseplates in the set die on us. The person with the dying baseplate would get gradually quieter and then the would eventually stop broadcasting any sound. They could hear the other rider, but it was a one way communication. Sena customer service was great. They were surprised to hear our misfortune on the first one and did an exchange. When the second one died they just sent us a replacement and didn’t bother with the exchange.

Before setting out on our trip across the Americas, we decided to grab a couple of spare baseplates as they don’t take up much space and they’re relatively cheap (under $40). A little over a week into the trip, the right speaker died on Dachary’s, which made hearing/understanding in high wind quite difficult. A little known fact is that the human brain is much better at parsing distorted speech when it hears it in both ears than just one. So, we replaced our third baseplate.

The next day we encountered the problem where one person would talk but the other wouldn’t hear them. It turned out that the module can be firmly seated but not at the correct angle for all the pins to line up with their connections. Pulling down on the front of the module would correct this. However, after looking closely at the copper pads in the baseplate that the pins press against, it was revealed that the bottom row tends to line up right up at the edge instead of at the center. This problem persisted, and was present in both baseplates.

Then, on the 15th day of the trip, Dachary’s module encountered a mounting failure that was unrecoverable. There is a tab at the bottom of the Sena module that slides vertically down into a slot on the baseplate. You then pivot inward until latch at the top engages and securely holds the module in place, although, as noted, not necessarily in the correct place. Unfortunately the module’s tab snapped off in the baseplate.

Broken tab on right module
Broken tab on right module

We probably could have dug it out, but the pins are located just above the tab, and as such, the tab is required to hold the pins securely against their connectors. We tried duct-taping it against the helmet, but it only partially worked. As the day progressed Dachary had to hold it in a particular position to hear or speak to me. By the end of the day it simply wouldn’t work at all. This was very stressful as we were trying to navigate Mexico City at the time, in heavy traffic, with a GPS that only had a few of the roads and a vague idea of where we were going.

We could have permanently JB-Welded the module to the baseplate, but after going through three baseplates already we had little confidence that the one we attached it to wouldn’t also fail.

End result? We took a couple of cabs around Mexico City to find the Shuberth store. The guy who runs it is the Mexican distributor of Cardo, and happens to speak somewhat decent English. $7,000 MEX (about $600 US) later we had a pair of Cardo Scala G4 headsets. Currently they’re selling for about $320 US at Revzilla, and they would have been happy to send them to us, but any sort of expedited shipping would have been outrageously expensive and we’d have to deal with finding the local FedEx location, taking a taxi there and back to pay the customs fees, and possibly paying for at least one more night in the hotel. In other words, a lot of hassle and probably almost as much cost in the end.

Once again, another serious, and unexpected, dent in our trip fund. But we believe that the ability to communicate while riding is not just a functional one that enables better navigation (one person sees a sign the other hasn’t), and notification of needs to eat, or pee, get gas, or simply take a break. It enables us to share the journey and comment on what we see as we see it, like pointing out cows grazing on a steep steep hill high above us. It’s also a dramatic safety device. As I’m usually in front I can give Dachary a heads-up on an unexpectedly sharp curve, or warn of impending obstacles she can’t see yet (potholes, rocks, dogs, cows, topes, trucks, etc..).

So, why do we think the Cardo’s will do any better?
I have a Scala Rider G2 at home. The usability isn’t as nice as the Sena, but I had it for about a year and used it without problem, every day, on a nearly six thousand mile trip through every weather condition except snow. Also, Cardo has been making motorcycle headsets for years and has already been through multiple generations of them. We believe they know what they’re doing. We’re not thrilled with all the little buttons the G4 has, but we think the way they’ve designed the connection between the module and the baseplate is about 1000 times superior to Sena’s.

* It should be noted that at over 50mph with no real wind one has to speak very clearly with strong diction and space between words to be clearly understood. At high speeds with a strong wind there have been times when we simply couldn’t communicate in a useful fashion. We don’t believe that this is a failing of the Sena, more that there is just so much wind noise that any headset is going to have a hard time keeping up.

About Kay

An old-school geek, addicted to travel, with a love of programming, writing, Esperanto, and starting businesses. -- @masukomi on Twitter.

7 Comments

  1. Hi,
    Good to see you back. Las Pozas looks very interesting. How large is this place? Also, Kay what kind of camera are you using? Very nice quality pics.
    Brenda

    1. Sorry for the late reply, Brenda – some of the comments sneak through without us noticing them. I’m really not sure how big to tell you Las Pozas is… if you wandered some of the unmarked pathways there you could spend an entire day walking around, although we spent probably 3 hours there. I’d say off the top of my head several acres, although I’m sure you could find more detailed information on the Web. (I’d look it up and post it but my net connection right now is crap.)

      Kay’s camera is a DSLR – Canon 1000D. It takes great photos but we’re still learning how to use it so they don’t always come out as good as they could.

  2. Can I ask WHY you remove the module from the base plate / helmet? There’s no reason to. You can even charge them off your bike. Sorry to hear of your dislike for Sena – They have been working great for us here back home.

    1. We remove the modules from the helmets for charging. Otherwise, our helmets have to sit wherever our power source is, which is sometimes impractical. We also remove the modules whenever we leave the helmets locked to our bike, so no-one will grab them and walk off. (We do the same thing with our helmet cameras.) Even if we never took the modules off, though, we’ve had two microphones fail on us and one right speaker, which means we’ve gone through three helmet clamps.

      I really like the functionality of the Senas, and the Cardo G4s have some quirks that make me miss the Sena… but they simply weren’t durable enough for us. I hope Sena takes them back to the drawing board because I’d probably buy the next gen if the design was improved.

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