Guest review by Jose Mallabo
Anthony at RevZilla called the Sena 20S Bluetooth headset a ‘juggernaut’ and “the gold standard” in his review of the product. That’s enough for any rider serious about an in-helmet headset to look a little deeper as I did. Since buying and installing it in my Shoei RF1000 brain bucket, I’ve ridden just over 2,000 miles with the 20S through the heat and driving rain of spring in the deep south. That included back roads, city traffic and highways.
I can now confirm that the Sena 20S is, in fact, a juggernaut and is easily one of my favorite consumer electronic devices of all time.
As a technovore, I reserve that classification for very few devices but the Sena 20S deserves that rating because it flat out does what it promises to do at a very high level – all within a form factor that feels like it would survive any road conditions you could encounter outside the Road of Bones.
There are two parts to installing the 20S – getting the firmware updated and installing the headset and microphone into your helmet. Once that’s done there’s little else left other than ride, listen and talk.
While the device will sync up with your phone or GPS pretty much straight out of the box, you do need to update the firmware on the 20S to make sure the voice commands work. Unfortunately, this first step is the one that nearly made me re-box it and send it back. The set up requires plugging the device into your computer via USB. For whatever reason, my device wasn’t being recognized during this update – so I switched back and forth from my Mac and Windows computers. After more than an hour of futzing with this, the firmware was updated – though there wasn’t any real affirmation saying it was completed.
(Note: During this process, I contacted Sena technical support via email figuring something was wrong and expecting I’d get a response in a day or two. It took Sena seven days to respond, and their excuse was that they were busy fielding other calls and emails. For nearly $300, that’s not acceptable. Assume Sena technical support doesn’t exist and that you’re on your own because a week may as well be never.)
My Shoei RF1000 helmet has fairly shallow ear wells so finding the right spot to place the speakers took a bit of time. But lining up the boom microphone into my helmet and the speaker wires through the headliner was a breeze. If you own a helmet with deeper ear wells, like a Nolan or Schuberth (that were designed to host headsets), this process would likely go more quickly. Alternatively, the 20S allows you to run your ear buds directly into the device, which would also let you avoid all this speaker placement work.
- Fit and finish are excellent
- Bluetooth connectivity to phone is seamless
- Jog dial is bullet proof and easy to handle
- App makes it easy to configure the headset
- Telephone call quality is excellent
- Extremely water resistant
- Device inputs are intuitive
- Audio quality for radio and stereo is very good
- Lots of options on mics and headset configurations
- Function to allow you to listen to conversations through your headset is genius (no need to rip your helmet off to ask a gas station worker where the best diner is nearby)
- Firmware updating isn’t as turnkey as they say it is
- Wind buffeting drowns out audio (can be said about any headset)
- At $250+ the Sena 20S is about the price of a new helmet
- Sena customer services sucks
- Voice commands still has some hiccups
Bikes and Equipment used
- 2011 BMW R1200R with a mid-sized wind screen
- 2011 Aprilia Tuono 1000
- Shoei RF 1000
- iPhone 4s
- MotionX GPS app
I purchased the 20S for three primary reasons:
- To be able to wirelessly listen to the audio instructions of my GPS on my iPhone (wires and ear buds create pressure points and drive me crazy when I ride)
- To be able to listen to the radio or my iTunes during those long patches of highway when I tend to get bored and sleepy
- To be able to take phone calls if necessary while riding
The device does all of these extremely well with the only negative being the impact wind buffeting has on audio quality. Every person I’ve spoken with on my iPhone 4S (yes, I’m upgrading that soon) while riding with the 20S (at any speed) has said they can’t tell I’m on a motorcycle at all. That’s pretty amazing.
But on my end, it got very difficult to hear callers or music at speeds greater than 50 mph on my BMW. That’s likely a criticism that can be made of any audio device, but it just points to fact that this and any other headset on the market performs the best behind a big windscreen or at lower speeds.
On my fully naked Aprilia Tuono 1000R, sound quality at speeds north of 35 mph made it nearly impossible to have a normal conversation with someone using the 20S. And, music was really washed out – short of going into a deep tuck position.
After the first 1,000 miles of playing around with the 20S, I decided that I was OK with the wind buffeting impacting the sound quality on radio and GPS commands. I could still enjoy the music and fully understand the GPS voice commands at any speed. So, I decided to put my foam earplugs back in while using the 20S and found it both comfortable and functional for all the reasons I bought the device. The earplugs cut out the wind noise that comes from riding naked bikes, but I could still hear everything that the 20S was pumping into my helmet. I figured if I wanted to feel like I was sitting in the front row of an AC/DC concert, I’d get off the bike and go to the concert.
I don’t ride in groups much, so I haven’t been able to test the intercom, but if that function works as well as the other functions the 20S is well worth the $250 price tag. Motorcycle accessory aside, the Sena 20S is now right behind my MacBook Air as my overall second favorite consumer electronics device in my possession.