Sena 50S Harman/Kardon Review: Motorcycle Headset Saves My Bacon in Mexico
Although I often cursed the communication system, you wouldn’t catch me riding without the 50S.
Midway through an eight-hour group ride in Mexico, my 2019 KTM Duke 390 began to die. I was at the front of the pack, being chased by a hoard of boxer-engine BMWs. Panic set in. I quickly dropped gears, desperately searching for power. I finally gave in and pulled the bike over to a neat patch of gravel. But first, I alerted the rider behind me using my Sena 50S, the brand's top-of-the-line headset communication system, that I had to make an emergency stop.
Luckily, it was just a loose fuel line and an easy fix, but it was the beginning of a pattern of the 50S saving my bacon (pun intended).
There are plenty of motorcycle headsets on the market from Sena and its only real rival, Cardo. But when I look around during group rides, I usually see top-of-the-range models. In the world of motorcycle comms, the battle is taking place at the highest level. So I hit the road to find out if the 50S, with its Mesh 2.0 system and Harman/Kardon audio setup, is the headset to choose.
Installation and Details
I used this video to guide me through the installation process, which was easy even for someone who’s not mechanically minded.
I clamped it using the provided Allen key instead of sticking it with the included 3M pad. It hasn’t budged on my AGV K3 since installation. Pairing the 50S with my phone was almost as easy as installing it on my helmet. The only issue I had was not being able to find my Wi-Fi network on the app, but after seven or eight attempts, my router popped up.
The Sena app gets a lot of flack for being glitchy, and although there were a few bugs, my experience has been relatively trouble-free. The charger has a built-in Wi-Fi adapter, which automatically downloads firmware updates when you connect the headset.
I fully charged the headset before its first outing, which gave me around 10 hours of talk time (mainly Bluetooth). The 50S should have a rider-to-rider Bluetooth talk time of up to 11 hours, according to its spec sheet. I was impressed by the general battery life and sometimes wouldn’t need to charge it from one weekend to the next. The rapid-charging feature via a USB-C cable came in useful on more than one occasion too.
Sena teamed up with audio-giant Harman/Kardon to make the microphone and 40-mm speakers, which are the 50S's standout features. On a recent call, I told my friend Mark that I was using the comms system, to which he replied, “Seriously? This sounds much better than your headset (Sony WH-1000M4) and arguably better than your phone.” Using The Drive’s ultimate stereo test playlist, I was taken aback by how punchy the audio was, apart from at high speeds where some fidelity was lost.
Strangely, volume wasn’t an issue when communicating rider to rider at any speed.
This device features Sena’s Mesh Intercom 2.0 system. Mesh enables you to communicate with virtually a limitless number of headsets up to a range of five miles. But between occasional dropouts, unexplained swapping to Bluetooth, and general audio quality, the Mesh system didn’t win me over. If I’m on a group ride with more than four riders (Bluetooth’s limit), Mesh is how I’d communicate.
I couldn’t rate the Bluetooth 5.0 system highly enough as it’s never failed, provides flawless audio quality, and connects to my phone faster than any other device I own. Unlike most Bluetooth headsets, the 50S automatically reconnects if a rider drops out of and back into range, meaning the group doesn’t need to pull over because someone got stuck behind a truck. Seamless reconnection is also a primary benefit of Mesh, making the gap between the benefits of Bluetooth and Mesh even smaller on the 50S.
Out on the Roads of Mexico
I used to think motorcycle headsets were practical items for people who went on group rides and a luxury purchase for everyone else. But large group rides make up less than 5 percent of my time on the road, and I’ve experienced the 50S’s practical benefits almost daily.
I’ve dodged disintegrated tires, kept speeding fines at bay, and avoided countless other road hazards thanks to a thoughtful riding buddy and my 50S. No longer do I struggle with the decision of pulling over to call someone to say I’ll be late. A benefit I wasn’t expecting that pleasantly surprised me was how much more content I was in traffic while listening to my favorite tunes.
I performed three range tests in different environments. Keep in mind that Sena claims the 50S has a rider-to-rider range of up to around 6,500 feet (1.2 miles) in Bluetooth mode. The worst results were on a long straight road through a town in the mountains of Jalisco, where the Bluetooth and Mesh modes cut out after around a tenth of a mile. My riding partner suggested we try a business park, where both modes cut out at almost a quarter mile. Eventually, we found a quiet stretch of highway, where the Bluetooth and Mesh modes had ranges of about a half mile.
It was also the rainy season here in Jalisco. Riding during the rainy season is like playing with fire. You could end up riding through a three-minute shower or needing to take shelter for hours because of golf ball-sized hail. Sena says the 50S is water resistant, which didn’t fill me with confidence. I’d have liked some rating relating to how water resistant it is. But I never put the headset away when it was raining, and it never missed a beat.
There are buttons to control a few of the device's features, but I found it much easier and more reliable to control everything via Sena's voice command system. The voice command system is limited in its functionality, but when used in conjunction with Google Assistant, by saying, “OK, Google,” you can do almost anything you need. I’d use Google Assistant to find the album I wanted to listen to and then use Sena’s voice commands to play, pause, skip, and mess with the volume.
The one thing I couldn’t do via voice commands or Google Assistant was to answer WhatsApp calls, and since I live in a foreign country, that’s what all my friends and family use to call me. I also accepted that the voice commands wouldn’t work around 30 percent of the time, but my Irish accent might have something to do with that.
The microphone and speakers are remarkable features and helped by a good wind-noise detection algorithm. When my riding partner’s visor was down, I only ever heard his voice. But when his visor was up, it activated the microphone, and I heard a constant high-pitched screech. This is when the jog dial showed its worth, as I could quickly turn the volume down. It'd be great if Sena could eventually fix this with a firmware update.
The voice command system and I have a love-hate relationship, but there’s more love than hate. Although I prefer to communicate via Bluetooth rather than Mesh because it works better, I don’t want to be left out of the conversation on a large group ride. So, I want a headset with both Mesh and Bluetooth.
I love that teaming up with Harman/Kardon wasn’t just a gimmick. It elevates this headset. Whether it’s the microphone or speakers, this pairing is something I notice on most rides. All of the previously mentioned features mean only a headset from Sena's 50 Series meets my needs. Since I like the ease of a jog dial when I quickly need to adjust the volume, I’d choose the 50S.
The 50S retails for $359, and Cardo’s PackTalk Edge costs $389.95. Both models frequently go on sale by as much as 25 percent.
If rider-to-rider communication isn't important, but you still want a top-of-the-line headset, I’d check which models from the 50 Series and PackTalk (Black and Edge) are on sale that day. But my advice would be for anyone who rides in a group that predominantly uses one brand or the other to get the brand the group uses the most. They'll work better within their own ecosystem.
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