Sena 50R review | Bluetooth & Mesh motorcycle intercom review

 

Date reviewed: June 2022 | Tested by: John Milbank | RRP: Around £320 | www.sena.com

 

The Sena 50R is one of a pair of flagship devices for Sena; we reviewed the Sena 50S a while back, and though very similar, the main differences are the controls, and the fact that the 50R is waterproof.

At the time of writing, the 50R is about to be bundled with Harmon Kardon-branded speakers. The version I have uses the original 40mm diameter / 9mm-thick ‘HD’ speakers. Pricing is a little up in the air at the moment, with few available in the UK, though I’d expect a single unit to cost around £320-£350 (in line with the 50R), which Sportsbikeshop is showing having a retail price of £568.99 for a pair with the new speakers, the pre-order price being £420.

I’ve been using the Sena 50R with an Arai Quantic on a variety of bikes to see if it’s worth the money…

 

Pros & Cons
  • Waterproof
  • Excellent audio quality
  • Over-the-air updating
  • Can’t remove from helmet for charging
  • Special charging cable required for updates
Sena 50R review motorcycle intercom_01

 

Fitting

The Sena 50R is supplied with an adhesive mount to stick to the side of your lid, or a clamp that tucks under the edge of the shell (this won’t work with all helmets). There’s also a Velcro mount, but I can’t really see the reason for this as the cable that connects to the speakers and microphone is hard-wired into the base of the unit, meaning it’s not intended to be popped on and off quickly; once you’ve fitted the Sena 50R, it’s meant to stay there.

This semi-permanent fixing makes the 50R more compact on the helmet than the 50S as the relatively bulky mounting bracket is eliminated, though it does mean the loss of the auxiliary input (which few will worry about), and the removal of the ‘ambient’ microphone, which is designed to amplify sound around you, for instance when wearing the lid and talking to a fuel-station assistant. I never found it worked very well at all, so I don’t miss that either.

Both a boom mic and a small stick-on mic are supplied, so you can use the 50R with almost any full-face, flip-front or open-face helmet. I had no problems accommodating it in the Aria Quantic; if there’s space on the side of the lid to fit it, you should be able to get it in, though do check there’s room against the ears; most lids have cut-outs for speakers now.

It’s good to see an extra adhesive mount and microphone cover supplied in the box, and the plugs that connect the speakers and mic are slim and compact, so fairly easy to tuck into your lid’s lining.

 

The Sena HD speakers are 40mm in diameter and 9mm thick

 

Connections and updating

No fitting instructions were included in the box of the device I reviewed, though a new quick-start guide does appear to be part of the package, which you can download here.

Once the intercom is paired with your phone, you can connect the supplied WiFi adaptor charging cable, link it in the app then update it. Once this is sorted, the unit should automatically update any time it’s needed when charging with this cable in the same WiFi network.

This all worked fine when I first installed the device, but running through it again for this review, I found that the ‘Sena 50 Utility’ I’d originally used had been replaced by the ‘Sena Motorcycles’ app. When opening the new app (which you’re prompted to download when opening the original) it said the 50R needed a firmware update. But using the WiFi updating cable, no update was delivered, and the original app still said that the Sena was up to date.

Downloading the Sena Device manager to my computer did allow me to update to version 1.1.1, from 1.0.9, though even this was a little clunky as the app I downloaded from Sena’s website was out of date and had to be updated itself.

This could be glitches due to a change-over of apps and updates to the devices for the Harmon Kardon speakers that are coming soon (the option to enable these appeared in the app once the 50R was updated). I do expect a top-end device – especially at this price – to not cause me an hour or so of frustration and head-scratching though.

Using a special cable to update via WiFi sounds clunky, and it’s certainly not as slick as the new Cardos (or indeed the forthcoming entry-level hesh-only Sena Spiders) that have WiFi built in for easy updating, but it’s rare you need to do it, and there’s no need to worry when you’re away on tour as you can charge using any standard USB-C cable.

Pairing my phone and GPS was a little more of a faff than I’d expect as the 50R seemed to pick up one device when I was trying to do another (pairing the TomTom into the phone slot, for instance). This seemed slightly more troublesome than I’m used to, but you’re best taking your time and shutting one device down when it’s paired, before moving onto the other. Once sorted, connections are solid and reliable, and to be fair, pairing several Bluetooth devices can often be a bit of a task with anything.

 

The supplied charging cable enables updates over WiFi (usually)

 

You can connect to other brands of Bluetooth intercom, but this isn’t ideal. I linked a Cardo 4X by putting the Sena into phone pairing mode, then just connected the Cardo intercom as usual. The one small issue I had was that only the Cardo could open or close the intercom connection, but it can simply be left open while you ride as both do a good job of reducing wind noise. Results will vary with other brands, but Sena is collaborating with Interphone, which will also mean that when in mesh mode these brands should also pair properly (something that isn’t usually possible at all).

Sena produces many of the OEM intercoms – for instance Shoei and Schuberth – so it’s more likely that your mates will have the same brand, making pairing more seamless.

In my review of the 50S, I found a glitch that saw the music play extremely loudly, overdriving the speakers after a sat-nav announcement if another Sena was connected for intercom chat with ‘Bluetooth Audio Multitasking’ enabled (allowing speech and music to be mixed, rather than one or the other). This problem is evident on the 50R too, even with the latest update, but can be cured by turning off ‘Audio Multitasking Volume Management’. This setting is off by default, which is the best bet as it means the music gets quieter when anyone speaks.

Overall I’m very impressed with the connection stability of the Sena 50R, especially with the clarity offered by sat-nav directions from the TomTom, which come through loud and clear with no breaking up.

 

A boom and wired mic are supplied

 

Bluetooth vs Mesh

It’s important to understand that there are now two motorcycle intercom technologies – Bluetooth and Mesh.

Bluetooth can offer good range, and it remains present in all intercoms for connections to phones and sat-navs, but when pairing more than two riders together (four is usually the maximum), it’s somewhat limited in that they have to stay in the same order when riding along the road for the connections to be stable, and if one rider does drop out, the whole group falls apart.

Mesh, however, has the potential to allow for practically unlimited numbers to join the conversation; the default first channel will work for pretty much every user, and it means that if anyone joins the ride at any time, they’ll automatically be included.

The order of the riders on the road doesn’t matter, and the group is completely stable – if someone runs out of range, the rest will continue.

Private groups of up to 24 riders can also be set up, so if you’re looking for something to allow large numbers of riders to talk on the go, then mesh is definitely worth the investment.

But… mesh is not universally compatible, except in that Sena and Interphone have done a deal that means their mesh devices should work flawlessly together in future. With the potential to have unlimited group numbers, you can see why some brands are unwilling to open their mesh devices up to all other brands as it’ll make it vital that everyone buys the same thing, but it’s a shame for consumers as it limits choice.

There is one other option: pairing your phone then opening a WeTransfer call, or Discord, or the new Chain app from Ruroc will allow you to talk to any number of other riders regardless of where they are in the world, let alone on the same road, as long as they have a data connection. And it doesn’t matter what intercom they use.

I worked out that a two-hour ride should use approximately 50MB of data, so would be fine with most call plans – even a basic 2GB/month data contract could be enough for 80 hours of talk time.

 

Sena 50R review motorcycle intercom_21

 

Control

With no jog wheel, the control of the Sena 50R is slightly different to the 50S. Turn it on with the ‘+’ and centre button, then it connects to any linked devices. A Bluetooth intercom conversation with another Sena just needs a tap of the centre button to initiate, while mesh is enabled with a tap of the rear button. Starting music playing just needs a one-second press of the centre button, or firing up the radio is a one-second press of the ‘-‘ button.

The app can also be used as a controller if you have it mounted on the bike, plus – being top-of-the-range – the 50R also has voice control. How well this works will definitely depend on how quiet your lid is, and to some extent your accent. My experience is that Cardo’s system is more reliable, at least with my voice. Enunciating plosives like the ‘p’ in ‘stop’ makes the commands work better, but the Sena does suffer from overly complex requirements like ‘Hey Sena, FM radio on’.

Here’s a list of all the Sena 50R voice commands…

Play streamed music

“Hey Sena, play music”

Pause streamed music

“Hey Sena, Stop music”

Turn on radio

“Hey Sena, FM radio on”

Turn off radio

“Hey Sena, FM radio off”

Next track / radio station

“Hey Sena, next”

Previous track / radio station

“Hey Sena, previous”

Volume up

“Hey Sena, volume up”

Volume down

“Hey Sena, volume down”

Answer phone call

“Answer”

Ignore phone call

“Ignore”

Check Battery

“Hey Sena, check battery”

Phone pairing

“Hey Sena, phone pairing”

Bluetooth Intercom pairing

“Hey Sena, pairing intercom”

Start or end Bluetooth intercom

“Hey Sena, intercom [one, two, three]

Turn on Mesh intercom

“Hey Sena, Mesh on”

Turn off Mesh intercom

“Hey Sena, Mesh off”

Mesh grouping

“Hey Sena, Mesh grouping”

Switch to group mesh

“Hey Sena, group Mesh”

Switch to open Mesh

“Hey Sena, open Mesh”

End Bluetooth and Mesh intercom

“Hey Sena, end intercom”

 

Google assistant or Siri can also be used through your phone, though this is more affected by the noise in your lid, as with any other intercom.

 

Sena 50R review motorcycle intercom_17

The speakers fit fine in the Arai Quantic

 

Volume and clarity

Unlike some other brands, the volume buttons on the Sena 50R only affect the intercom’s internal amplifier, so that means that, in order to get the maximum capability, you have to ensure your phone is set to output at its maximum. I set up a routine on mine (using Bixby Routines on my Samsung Galaxy S21) that automatically sets it at full when the intercom connects.

The HD speakers I have on review are clear even at high volumes, with very little muddying of bass tones. The Sena app offers adjustment of the 50R’s equaliser, but ‘bass boost’ drops the maximum volume significantly, so I leave it all off. The latest JBL speaker-equipped Cardos are slightly louder and a little better defined than the Sena HD speakers, but the forthcoming Harmon Kardons will likely make a difference.

I’d like to see a fraction more volume, but this only becomes an issue when listening to Radio 4 at high speed on a noisy bike.

‘Smart volume’ adjusts the output depending on the ambient noise levels, though I noticed this could be a little sporadic on some bikes with buffety screens. It’s easily adjusted or turned off though.

 

Sena 50R review motorcycle intercom_22

 

Sena 50R range

While the range test of the Sena 50S produced some of the best results I’ve ever seen, with a distance of 1,230m on Bluetooth, the 50R lost connection at just over 800m.

Many tests of various brands over several years have shown that intercoms never achieve their claimed figures (the 50R is said to reach 2,000m), but that the environment and weather play a huge part in the results. Even turning your head can make a difference, not to mention helmet construction as a carbon-fibre shell significantly reduces range.

I use the same long, flat, straight road for testing, with no vehicles in between, but cloud cover has been shown to significantly increase the range of any intercom. For that reason, I’d point out that the top-end Cardo and Sena devices tend to have roughly the same range in real-world scenarios, and that you shouldn’t expect miracles; if one rider is behind a truck, building or hill, the connection will soon disappear. Fortunately the Sena 50R automatically reconnects very quickly an cleanly after losing connection on Bluetooth.

The mesh intercom is seamless during connection and reconnection, with a range about 20% lower than Bluetooth from one rider to another in my testing. In groups it really excels though, bouncing off each unit to allow for very long distances between the front and back riders. I’ve been unable to test Sena’s claims of up to 8,000 metres with six riders, but in my work with a 50R and two 50Ss on a typical country road, each rider could have about 400m between them for a strong signal across all three. On a straight flat road this would be much greater, but as a result in a village test, it proves the system’s worth.

The only real way to improve on any intercom’s range is to connect via your phones, as mentioned above.

 

Radio

The Sena 50R’s FM radio is fine, if typically average. RDS needs turning on in the app to retune itself, but it’s still not totally reliable – over very long distances it can start to break up, but this will vary.

I would say that the 50R has one of the better intercom radios I’ve used, but you’re best to still treat it as a bonus; don’t be too surprised if you find yourself in a situation that sees it breaking up.

The radio frequency is spoken by the Sena 50R, but not the station name – a feature that’s long been missing from all brands.

 

Sena 50R battery life

The Sena 50R’s battery level is shown by a series of red LED flashes when you turn it on – two means it’s low, three means half and four means high. This isn’t repeated when you turn it off, and it’s a shame that the charge level isn’t spoken when powering down, like it is on Cardo devices. If you’re using the app to control the Sena, there’s a clear display of the battery level on its home page.

In my testing – streaming music at full-volume from my phone – the Sena 50R achieved 9 hours and 50 minutes, which is in line with the 50S. No charger is supplied, but any USB power brick will work, and it’s great to see a USB-C charging port. Still, it is a little annoying that the whole lid has to be perched near your charger as the 50R can’t be easily removed.

If you have a USB charger with a decent output, the Sena can reach just under half capacity from empty in about 20 minutes.

Despite the 50R showing the charging LED when plugged into a power pack, it won’t charge while it’s running.

 

Sena 50R review motorcycle intercom_20

 

Sena 50R waterproofing

The Sena 50R doesn’t have an IPX waterproof rating, but it is absolutely fine in even heavy rain, unlike the 50S, which can sufer from ingress between the unit and the mounting bracket. This doesn’t damage the 50S, but it can stop it working temporarily. For this reason I’d recommend the 50R as the best choice between the two.

 

Three alternatives to the Sena 50R

There are lots of options when it comes to intercoms, so think carefully about what you want from one, and what you might do in the future…

  • The Cardo Freecom 4X offers outstanding audio quality, but it’s not mesh-enabled. Still, it has an RRP of £235, and can often be found for less.
  • The new Sena Spider RT1 is a mesh-only intercom. It’ll still pair with Bluetooth phones and sat-navs, but for intercom connection you’ll have to pair with other mesh-capable Sena (and Interphone soon) units. The advantage though is that this costs about the same as a high-end Bluetooth-only unit, and could be a good solution for large groups of riders looking to link up with each other. Like the 50R, this is a hard-wired device, with a non-waterproof ST1 also available. We hope to review these soon.
  • The Bluetooth-only Cardo Spirit HD offers excellent audio quality, but it’s limited in range so is ideal for solo use, or with a pillion. Its RRP of £130 is often reduced to just over £100, so it’s an excellent budget option.

These are just three of many alternatives – you can find all the intercoms we’ve tested here and be sure to regularly check for the discounts available through Bikesocial membership.

 

 

Sena 50R review: Verdict

The Sena 50R has very good audio quality, and I’m sure it’ll be even better with the Harmon Kardon speakers that should be included when new units are bought. As a top-end Bluetooth and mesh intercom it’s one of the best, with reliable connections to your other devices.

With any intercom, consider what you really need; mesh is worth the investment if you want to pair more than two devices on a ride (as long as the others have it too), but if you’re only using it for music streaming, sat-nav directions and talking to a pillion (or even just one other riding buddy), then you can save a significant amount of money and still have exceptional audio quality.

I would suggest that the premium brands are worth the investment over the cheap units available on eBay and Amazon, as the audio performance really has improved significantly recently, and over the years they’ve proven very reliable in my experience.

Despite the inability to remove the unit for charging, those looking for a top-of-the-range Sena would, in my opinion, be best with this 50R over the 50S thanks to its waterproof design, and the more compact fitting to the side of the lid.