I like to listen to music and use my phone while on the mountain, and I’ve tried practically every combination of headphones and intercoms on the market. I wear a helmet when I’m riding, so the helmet integrated Bluetooth systems are of particular interest to me. None of the corded systems seem to work very well, since the wires can be easily yanked or broken during hard riding. This season I used the Sena SPH10S Bluetooth Stereo Headset and Intercom. This is the best helmet audio system on the market, as far as I’m concerned.
The SPH10S was very easy to install, and it took me 10 minutes to go from opening the package to streaming music through my helmet. A small detail, but the packaging was easy to open without scissors or a knife—a plus if you buy these at your mountain’s shop and want to install them right away. I used the SPH10S-G version, which I added to my Giro Seam with a few snaps and a tuck of the cord. Be sure to purchase the correct model; Sena offers the headset for Giro, Smith, and Burton RED helmets, but not all helmet models are compatible.
I tried pairing the headset with both an iPhone and an Android, and both connected the Bluetooth 3.0 in a few seconds with an audible beep. Some other reviewers have noted pairing problems with the unit, but mine has stayed paired with my iPhone all season long. I even tried moving the iPhone away from the unit, and it stayed connected for 30-40 yards or more. My music dropped out a few times while on the mountain, but only when using Pandora or another streaming audio source. No problems at all when listing to my downloaded music playlists, and no problems connecting phone calls.
I was impressed with the quality of sound with the SPH10S. Music sounds very clear and free of distortion, even at high levels. The biggest thing that impressed me was the VOLUME. Some other speaker units (like the SkullCandy) are not loud enough for me on fast runs or on windy days; the Sena model has volume to spare. In fact, if you crank it up on the lift, people sitting next to you can hear it, too.
While clear and loud, the speakers do not have very deep bass tones. I wouldn’t say the sound is tinny or anything, but you won’t get the deep rumble you might expect from traditional headphones or even earbuds. I noticed that music with a deeper bass level worked better: most jazz and hip-hop songs (with some bass) sounded pretty close to normal, while music with higher frequency (like metal) got a little shrill and squelchy.
Phone calls are equally clear on both ends. In fact, phone volume seems a little higher than music volume, and some calls (to people with louder speaking voices) almost hurt my ears. I tried calling a few people without telling them I was connected “by helmet,” and they were surprised at the clarity of my voice. I even placed a call while riding down an easier slope, and the caller could hear me fine with no wind noise.
Since I only have one unit, I was unable to test out the intercom feature. Other reviews (and a Sena video I watched) seem to suggest that the intercom works well up to about 500 meters in open terrain—line of sight only. This would be a useful feature for instructing a beginner or staying connected to a group of friends. You can add up to four people to the same intercom connection.
The controls consist of two primary buttons: a phone button and a jog dial button. The two buttons are a little on the small side, and they can be tricky to use with gloves. The basic functions of listening to music (play, pause, skip, back) and placing and receiving calls are relatively easy to accomplish, but I recommend you spend 20-30 minutes practicing with the buttons before you hit the slopes the first time. I did not practice, and it took me a few tries to get the right buttons—especially when answering incoming calls. The jog dial button is a little soft to the touch, and I bumped it a few times, which paused my music. Not overly touchy though, and easy to reset after I figured it out.
The unit has phone call voice activation, which makes it easy to place calls to any of your contacts without touching your phone. The voice prompts worked well with my iPhone but occasionally dialed the wrong contact. You wouldn’t want to call your boss by mistake on a “sick day” away from the office.
Adjusting the volume is very easy with the jog dial, and that’s a strong feature of the SPH10S. I was able to roll the volume control with one finger when I wanted to crank it up or down, and that made it simple to tune in (or tune out) whatever was happening around me.
Sena lists a 10 hour talk time and 7 days of stand-by time for the unit. This seems about accurate. I did not place any 10 hour calls, but I did get about 10 hours of music listening and short phonecalls out of my unit over a two-day period before the battery died. I used the SPH10S for an all-day session, then left my helmet in my car overnight in 20 degree weather. I was concerned that the cold would kill the battery on the unit, but it worked fine for most of the next day. A charged unit will get you through the weekend.
The system does come with a charger that you can plug into any USB port, and you can purchase a car charger from Sena or from any other source—it’s a standard micro USB that you can find at Radio Shack.
The build quality is solid here. My unit fit perfectly in my helmet, and the ear flaps are nearly identical to the flaps that come with my Giro. They are padded and are about as warm as the standard model, which is not bad. I dropped the helmet a few times and had it jammed in a board bag, and no damages or malfunctions to the SPH10S. Pretty tough construction.
The knobs stick out a little bit on the sides. Maybe an inch out from each side. Not enough to make you look like a Martian—and nothing as obvious as having a GoPro mounted on your head—but people do notice the speakers if you care about that kind of thing. The left side (controls side) has a small blue LED light that flashes when Bluetooth is connected. I got a few questions about the unit, which tells me that people notice it. Most were curious about who makes it. The only people who mentioned the oversized knobs were my friends, who are looking for any excuse to bust my chops. Then they bought their own SENAs after they gave mine a listen.
All in all, I’m very happy with the Sena SPH10S. I would highly recommend them for fit, sound quality, volume, ease of use, and durability. Sena also offers a standard two-year warranty on the units. Their customer service was excellent when I had a few questions, and I expect that they’d be equally good with any warranty or repair issues.
Price is $199 or less if you look around. Not a bad deal for what you get.
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