Sena 5S review | Entry-level Bluetooth motorcycle intercom

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Date reviewed: June 2021 | Tested by: John Milbank | RRP: £149 | www.sena.com

 

The Sena 5S on review here is the follow-up to the popular SMH5, with some improvements to performance and additional features. I’ve been testing it in an Arai Rapide, riding a BMW S1000XR and a Yamaha Tracer 9 GT to find out how it compares to its similarly-priced rivals, and the higher-spec models…

 

For and against
  • Genuinely water-proof for UK riding
  • Good range
  • Compact and easy to use
  • Battery life not the best
  • Voice-control isn’t that refined
  • No automatic volume control

 

Fitting

Fitting an intercom isn’t as hard as it might seem as long as you’re happy taking the lining out your lid. The 5S comes with a clip-on bracket – which grips either side of the outer shell – and a small, stick-on mount. Once you’ve fitted one, run the cable inside, tucking the speakers into the recesses that are in most lids now.

On the Arai, remove the cheek pads and lift off the cover and you’ll usually find a circle of foam that can be removed to pop the speakers in place. The cable that joins them can be run under the skull cap, then the microphone is stuck into the chin piece.

It’s great to find that Sena has included a very slim wired microphone for full-face lids, as well as a boom-mic for use in open-face or flip-fronts. I’ve got the wired mic in this Arai and it’s slim enough to not be annoying against my lips.

While it will of course depend on your helmet and head shape, I find the speakers to be very comfortable, not causing any undue pressure.

My only very minor disappointment is that there are no spare adhesive pads supplied for mounting this into another helmet down the line, though you can easily cut your own if you buy some 3M VHB tape.

As is the norm now, only a printed quick-guide is supplied, so for the full instructions you have to download them online. Usefully though, you can also access them on the app – this is a little clunky at times, but it’s handy when you’re out and need to check something.

It’s good to see that the first time you start the Sena 5S it’s in phone pairing mode, so getting it linked to your smartphone (important for setting up) is quick and easy.

 

 

Connections

A critical consideration when buying any intercom is that, if you plan to use it when talking to other riders, you need to make sure it’s compatible.

Bluetooth should be a universal standard, but compatibility between the leading brands – Sena, Cardo and Interphone – isn’t guaranteed. I don’t usually bother talking to other riders as I tend to use an intercom for listening to music, getting directions from my sat-nav, or talking to my wife as pillion, but if rider-to-rider communication is important, it’s worth checking what your mates use.

If they have a Shoei or Schuberth own-brand system (as well as a few others) it’s almost certainly a Sena, so you’ll be far more likely to get an easy connection setup.

The 5S includes voice commands, which among its competitors is excellent at this price; pairing to a Sena 50S was a simple matter of just saying ‘Hey Sena, pairing intercom’ into each of the two units’ microphones, then within a few seconds they were paired. Alternatively, pressing the main jog wheel button for five seconds activates intercom pairing.

If you do find yourself needing to talk to someone with a non-Sena unit, you can only have one paired at a time (so forget group chats is they’re all with another brand).

Unfortunately, despite trying with the Sena Universal Intercom pairing, and Cardo’s ‘gateway’, I couldn’t get the 5S to pair with a Packtalk Black. The same was true when using Interphone’s ‘Anycom’ pairing with a Sport unit. This isn’t a problem isolated to Sena; none of them seem to play nicely together, though there was talk of Sena and Interphone agreeing compatibility for future Mesh communications in the higher-end models. Not that that helps here…

Paired with another Sena device, the neat little LCD on the Sena shows that a headset is linked. Chats can be left open, or touch the centre button to initiate – or close – a conversation.

I tested the Sena 5S while connected to a TomTom Rider 550, Samsung Galaxy S21 and a Sena 50S and all worked flawlessly; the GPS would override speech or music, and either device could interrupt the tunes with a touch of the main button. Music can also be easily shared when the intercom is running by pressing and holding the centre jog dial for one second, which then streams your tunes to the other headset too.

I also replaced the Samsung with an iPad in order to check an iOS device with the Sena, and communication was still flawless, as it was when I used a Garmin Zumo XT.

While trying all possibilities of connections I did have a couple of glitches when connecting though this isn’t surprising given all the variations I was trying – if you do get any problems I’d suggest simply re-pairing the troublesome device, or if that doesn’t work, delete all the pairings in the Sena using the configuration menu (hold down the jog wheel for ten seconds), and remove them, then create new pairings on your phone, sat-nav, intercom etc.

Overall, the connections on the Sena 5S have been very good.

 

 

Control

While you obviously can’t see it when you’re wearing the helmet, having the small screen on the side of the 5S certainly helps to understand its status, and to set it up. Of course, the app on your phone can also be used, and once your phone’s paired it’s easy to run through it, so in some ways this little display could be seen as something of a gimmick.

I must admit I was sceptical, but when fiddling around with the unit I did find it helpful. Given the features of the new Sena compared to other leading brands, it doesn’t seem to have increased the price, so I do appreciate the addition.

On Android at least, the app doesn’t switch between menus correctly, so if you look at the speed-dials, for instance, you need to go back to the ‘My Sena’ page before it will correctly show the FM station presets when you click that option. This is only a grumble when initially setting up, and I’m sure it’ll be sorted quickly.

On the go there are just two buttons and the jog wheel; once you’ve memorised the controls it’s easy to use and any fiddliness soon fades – press the dial button once to connect to talk to another intercom, hold it for a second for music, press and hold while spinning the wheel to skip forward or back tracks. It seems odd to me that to skip music forwards, search up the radio frequencies or increase volume, you rotate the jog dial towards the rear of the helmet. Clockwise, yes, but it seems to defy logic when it’s on the side of your head. You soon get used to it of course.

What impresses me most with the control is the ability to tap the red button to activate your phone’s assistant. On my Galaxy S21, I had to have the phone unlocked the first time, so I could specify which app to use when this button was pressed, but from there, even with it locked and in my pocket, I can quickly quickly ask the phone to find a music playlist, for instance. Equally, if you have your phone mounted to the handlebars, you can use the phone’s assistant to plot you a route, or to make a phone call. For calls you have to unlock the phone for it to happen, though you could use Bixby Routines on the Samsung to keep your phone unlocked for up to four hours when the headset is connected.

Controlling Google assistant was fine at city speeds, but much higher and it can struggle to understand you, though this will very much depend on the wind protection on your bike and how quiet your helmet is.

 

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Unusually at this price point, the Sena 5S also includes voice commands of its own, allowing you to check battery, adjust volume, pair a phone or intercom, play streamed music or radio, skip tracks and radio preset stations, and answer or ignore calls. You need to preface each command with ‘Hey Sena’, and you’ll need to stick to the script – this is no Alexa so if you don’t specifically say ‘Hey Sena, FM radio on’, you’ll get nothing.

It’s not perfect either – over about 50mph on the Yamaha Tracer 9 GT the unit can struggle to understand you, and some commands require an exaggeration of some sounds, at least with my lispy Fenland voice; to stop music playing, I have to clearly say ‘Hey Sena, stop musiCK’, really kicking out that final ‘c’.

Not working flawlessly can make you end up using the buttons more to avoid frustration, though at city speeds it can be handy to be able to control the unit without taking your hands off the bars, which is where of course you’re more likely to find that helpful, rather than at 70mph on an open A-road, where you can more readily reach the Sena.

The jog wheel can be nudged if you lean your head to the left, especially if you have a rucksack on with thick straps, though I’ve not had it do anything more annoying than issue a beep or tell me it couldn’t connect to another intercom.

 

 

Sena 5S volume and clarity

Audio quality is good, and certainly better than some older units, but I don’t find it quite as loud as some of the premium devices – when testing the connections the Sena 50S seemed to have the edge compared to the 5S, but that also costs twice as much.

Always wear earplugs with any helmet, but also when you’re using an intercom – the plugs filter out wind noise, which then makes it easier to hear the device. Foam plugs like the 3M EAR Soft FX are okay, but they do also kill off a bit too much of the Sena’s audio, so I prefer to use the EarPeace plugs.

As you’d expect, a bike with a screen or fairing that generates a lot of wind noise is going to drown out more, but on the Tracer and the XR I found the Sena had enough volume to enjoy music or Radio 4 (I’m old), even at high motorway speeds when at full volume.

Audio quality will always be hampered by having speakers crammed into a big polystyrene bowl, trying to pipe tunes through earplugs, so don’t expect anything like audiophile results; Cardo and Sena’s top-end units do sound better than the 5S, but it’s not like the difference between a pair of market-stall earbuds and a set of top-end Sennheiser cans.

My main grumble with the Sena 5S audio performace is simply that there’s no automatic volume control, so while I have it running at full volume for most of a ride, when I slow down for traffic lights I’d prefer it to automatically get quieter.

How well you can communicate with your pillion or other riders will depend on your and their helmet, as well as the fairing and screen on your bikes. Taking the variable of another lid’s performance out of the equation by testing through a phone call, on the Yamaha Tracer 9 GT my voice came across loud and clear at speeds up to just over 50mph. A larger, quieter screen should push this further, but this is in line with other units I’ve tested.

 

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Sena 5S range

Sena claims a working range of up to 700m in open terrain. I used my standard test, which I run for every intercom, and when paired to a Sena 50S I achieved a very impressive 1,030m before the signal broke up, then about twenty more metres before it was lost completely.

Results will always vary depending on the terrain and what units are being used, but the 5S is clearly capable of holding its own when used with the top-of-the-range Sena. Admittedly, the 50S is a powerful device, but intercoms will break down with the weakest link in the chain.

In a village location it was a relatively impressive 420m before the connection was lost, and in a housing estate, with tight turns and buildings between the units, it only managed 150m, though this is a very similar result to the rest I’ve tested.

 

Radio

The Radio on the Sena 5S works well, but not noticeably better than others, meaning once it starts to lose a frequency it can get pretty flaky, despite having RDS station search enabled.

Up to 10 station presets can be stored, which can be quicky cycled through by tapping the red button, or you can search up or down stations by pressing and spinning the jog wheel. I have found a bug here though in that if you first try to search down the frequencies by spinning the wheel forwards, it switches back to music streaming; frustrating, but I’m sure this will be a quick and easy firmware update.

Like other devices now, only the station frequency is spoken as you tune in, rather than the station name – a feature that was sadly last seen on the Interphone F5MC of many years ago.

 

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Sena 5S battery life

I do like having a visual indication of the battery level by glancing at the screen, which turns itself off 30 seconds after being activated by a button press, so it won’t have a significant impact on battery life.

A full recharge takes around an hour and a half through the USB-C port (great to see this appearing more), but in my standard test, playing the same streamed music at full volume, the Sena 5S only lasted just over six hours (Sena claims a talk time of up to seven hours). This is a fair bit lower than many of the other units I’ve reviewed, though for most riders it will be fine for a day’s riding.

 

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Sena 5S waterproofing

Sena doesn’t have the best reputation for waterproofing, and even the top-end 50S had issues in my testing, but while there’s still no IP rating for the Sena 5S, I’ve had no problems at all, even with a hose test.

By eliminating the connectors that sit between a mount and the unit, opting instead for a well-sealed plug, Sena does seem to have solved the problem.

 

Ease of updating

At the time of writing, the latest firmware version is 1.0.4, and installing it requires plugging the intercom into a PC or Mac.

It’s a shame you still can’t update via your phone, though perhaps understandable given that it would be via Bluetooth and a connection failure could cause problems. But once the software is downloaded from the Sena website it’s a simple matter of plugging the 5S in, hitting one button then waiting less than five minutes for it to complete.

 

Three alternatives to the Sena 5S

I haven’t had a chance to test the cheaper, lesser-known brands or eBay/Amazon knock-offs available, but I know they can be hit-and-miss based on talking to other users. Here are three alternatives you might want to consider.

  • Freedconn intercoms were one of the most popular brands outside of the big names in our recent BikeSocial community helmet survey, and comments were generally favourable. I hope to feature more budget intercoms shortly, but here’s a useful review of the Freedconn T-COM VB, though you will find most of the comments are form people experiencing issues. Expect to pay around £40.
  • The Cardo Freecom 1+ (I wonder where the cheap Freedconn brand got the idea for its name) is one of my favourite intercoms as it’s very slim and it’s easy to use. It is, however, only for rider to pillion comms, so don’t buy this if you’re ever likely to want to talk to other riders. At the time of writing you can pick it up for £90, but it does only come with a boom mic, the wired microphone that I’d consider essential for full-face use costing an additional £11.99. While I haven’t tested the Freecom 2+, it does come with a wired mic as well as the boom, and is designed for rider to rider comms, if with a lower claimed range than the Sena 5S.
  • The Sena 50S has the best range of any intercom I’ve tested so far, and great sound. It’s also a ‘Mesh’ intercom, which can give greater range when used with others. But it costs £309 (though street price is currently £269.37), and it’s not water-resistant enough for all-year use in the UK. My favourite of the top-end intercoms is the Cardo Packtalk Black (or Bold, which has slightly less high-spec speakers) as it’s a relatively compact Mesh device with superb voice control and excellent audio quality. But its range isn’t as good as the Sena, and of course it isn’t compatible with Sena devices, so whichever you choose, be sure your mates use the same brand.If you have the money, with a street price of £279.99, this is currently what I’d consider the top of the range of motorcycle Bluetooth intercoms. Note though that I haven’t yet tested the Sena 50R, which has the potential to offer proper water resistance and could change my opinion of what’s the best.

These are just three of many alternatives – you can find all the intercoms we’ve tested here.

 

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Sena 5S review: Verdict

Some will bemoan having ‘something else to charge up’, or not wanting to be contactable on a ride. Personally, I love having the ability to listen to music on those motorway stretches, or the excellent Front End Chatter podcast, and really appreciate being able to hear sat-nav instructions, especially when riding in a busy city.

And, of course, there’s being able to chat to my wife on the rare occasions we can get out together; pointing out interesting stuff or simply being told when a coffee/cake/wee stop is needed makes a day out a lot more fun.

Compared to the Cardo Freecom 1+, the 5S isn’t just restricted to rider/pillion comms, it’s got both the boom and wired microphones (which is a big deal in my view), and it’s got voice control, though I’d have preferred to have had automatic volume control rather than this if I’m honest.

Of course there are budget no-name options available, but based on the experience of some others, the top-brands tend to be more reliable and of a higher quality.

If you want the potential for rider-to-rider communication the Sena seems to have the edge in the premium intercom market at this price point so it’s well worth considering, as long as you understand the limitations I’ve highlighted.

 

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