Cardo vs Sena: Which is the Best Bluetooth Headset?

Every 21st Century motorcycle rider knows about Bluetooth headsets and intercom. Even if you’re a purist who only wants the wind in your ears and the occasional hand signal for communication, you’ll have heard of Cardo and Sena intercom devices. 

These bits of modern motorcycle gear gives riders:

  • Intercom communication through Bluetooth connectivity
  • Music directly to your helmet through a mobile phone connection
  • The chance to take and make phone calls
  • FM radio as you ride

You normally buy your Bluetooth communication system as a kit and install it into your helmet, but there are helmets out there that come with in-built intercom systems. 

Cruiser with bluetooth headset
Image by cloney from Pixabay 

The biggest rivalry when we talk about Bluetooth communications for your helmet is Cardo vs Sena. Think of it like Honda vs Yamaha or Pepsi vs Coke. There’s a big rivalry in the communication systems market and a range of products to choose from. 

To help you get your head around these Bluetooth intercom manufacturers, we’re going to get into:

  • The facts and history of Cardo and Sena
  • A head-to-head of Cardo vs Sena features
  • Our honest opinion about who wins the Cardo vs Sena debate

Plus we’ll share some of the picks of the Cardo and Sena product ranges. 

What is Cardo?

Cardo is a technology company based in Texas that designs and produces Bluetooth communication systems for motorcyclists and other people who need an intercom in their helmets. 

Cardo infographic
Image Source: Cardo

The company started out making normal Bluetooth earpieces so people could take a call without holding their phone to their ears. The story goes that someone at Cardo – formerly known as Scala – was riding their motorcycle to work one day and thought the tech would work well with bikes. 

Cardo claims it invented the first motorcycle Bluetooth headset in 2004, called the Scala Rider (1). Motorola might dispute the claim (2) but we can be sure that Cardo were in the industry right from the start. 

Some other useful innovations from Cardo include:

  • 2007 – First rider-to-rider motorcycle intercom released
  • 2015 – First use of dynamic mesh communication (DMC) intercom that connected up to 15 riders
  • 2019 – Launched a partnership to include JBL speakers with most of the headsets produced

With the addition of JBL speakers, the listening experience using a Cardo headset is really good. You can even upgrade the speakers from the standard 40mm to the 45mm which is great if you’re into listening to music as you ride. 

What is Sena?

The other side of the helmet communication and audio system rivalry is Sena. The company is based out of California and has Bluetooth industry since it was founded in 1998. 

Sena infographic about Harman sound
Image Source: Sena

It took a while for Sena to move into the motorcycle communication network field – the first Sena Bluetooth headset was the SMH10 in 2011. Since then, it’s been going for it in terms of innovation, with communication systems integrated into helmets as well as standalone communicators. 

From there, other company firsts have included:

  • 2017 – The first ever half helmet with an integrated Bluetooth communication system was launched, the Sena Cavalry (3).
  • 2017 – Sena included mesh intercom technology into headsets for the first time, with intercom connection to an unlimited number of fellow riders included in the Sena 30K (4).
  • 2019 – The 10C Evo was launched and was the first Bluetooth headset to combine Bluetooth intercom and a 4K camera in one device (5).

When you hit the highway with your motorcycle and your buddies, it’s very likely they’ll be using a Sena device. If you want easy setup for your devices, this is where it’s at. 

How did Sena achieve such popularity? One differentiator is that Sena make branded kits (6) for the likes of:

  • Shoei
  • AGV
  • HJC
  • Klim

Meaning you get custom speaker recesses and perfect cable lengths for your headset. 

How do things measure up when we do a direct comparison?

Cardo vs Sena – Head to Head Comparison

From the original Cardo – Scala Rider – and the first Sena SMH10, things have come a long way. Both companies have innovated and made progress in different directions so let’s look at the different factors that would make you choose either and see which is best for your needs. 

Longest Range

The distance you can put between you and your buddy and still be heard on your motorcycle intercom is important on long open roads or when you’re out on the trails. 

Dirt bikes jumping in front of the sunset
Image by Love Art. Live Art. from Pixabay 

The advertised Bluetooth range and the actual distance your intercom will cover can vary – a lot. What makes the biggest difference if your kit runs on Bluetooth 3, Bluetooth 4.1, or Bluetooth 5.0. 

In terms of Bluetooth communications, the website for the Cardo Packtalk Bold says it has “the longest real range… up to 1,600 meters” (7). However, on a clear straight road in decent weather, one tester was able to get 780 meters range for Bluetooth and 800 meters for mesh intercom (8).

The same team – a British motorcycling group – did the same test on the Sena 50S, which is advertised with a range of 1,900 meters or 1.2 miles. On Bluetooth intercom, it worked up to 1,230 meters and for mesh, it worked up to 1,030 meters (9).

The Winner

You’ll get the best Bluetooth communication range with the Sena 50S

Most Connected Riders

Bluetooth intercom systems tend to be able to connect up to four riders – anything from Sena’s 10 Series and up and the Cardo Freecom 4 and up has this capability. 

However, both manufacturers have mesh network technology. This basically means that a rider in front of you can talk to the rider behind you, using your headset to connect. 

Cardo’s mesh networks will allow up to 15 riders at any one time to be connected. Think about how many riders you’d normally hit the road or trails with and how many people you really want to be able to communicate with – this is probably enough. 

If it’s not and you want to keep options open, Sena’s mesh protocol can have unlimited users connected in an open mesh network (10). The range can get up to 5 miles or 8km with at least six riders connected together.

A big difference between Sena’s mesh intercom and Cardo’s is universality. All of Cardo Packtalk and Cardo Freecom headsets have universal connectivity, so you can hook it up to a Sena headset or any other brand. 

The Sena 20S Evo was the last of the Senas to have a universal intercom – anything from the 30 Series up can only use dynamic mesh communication with other Sena-brand gear. 

The Winner

This is a tough call – in theory the unlimited users of Sena’s mesh technology gives you as many riders as you want, but only across its brand. If you want to have more freedom when it comes to the devices you and your friends buy, the 15 riders you get with Cardo should be enough

Biggest Choice of Equipment

There are literally thousands of motorcycle helmets on the market and everyone has different needs and budgets when it comes to an intercom system. Riding in groups means you want a brand that’ll keep as many people happy as possible. 

Both Cardo and Sena offer a Bluetooth headset with basic features, the Sena 5S and the Cardo Spirit. We’ll look at details later, but both are priced reasonably similar at around $100-160, meaning they’re reasonably accessible. 

Sena has a broader choice of headset options; both the 10C Evo and the 50S headsets offer standard communication system features plus 4K cameras to film your ride. This isn’t a feature on any of the Cardo Packtalk or Freecom models. 

Sena's camera-enabled 10C unit
Image Source: Sena

You can also buy a helmet with a fully integrated Bluetooth communication system from Sena, with helmets like:

As we noted before, you can also get Sena-made headsets that slot straight into your helmet from other manufacturers, too. 

The Winner

Cardo has a simple product range of six main headsets covering budgets from around $150 – $390. Sena’s product range is much broader with a whole load of other features to choose from, such as whether the dynamic mesh communication is universal or brand-specific, whether you get a camera, and if you want an integrated helmet. 

Sena beats Cardo for the widest choice of equipment. 

Speaker Quality

You want to catch what the rest of your pack are talking about and you probably also want to have good sound quality when you’re listening to your tunes on the road. 

Audio quality is super important – you want decent bass for music and good mids and trebles for calls and using the intercom and Mesh technologies. 

Image Source: Cardo

In 2019, Cardo started working with the famous audio brand JBL The standard speakers with all but the Cardo Packtalk Black are the 40mm ones – you get 45mm with the Black. Reviews of these helmet speakers are generally positive (11).

In November 2021 (12), Sena partnered with Harman Kardon, a renowned audio equipment manufacturer. At the time of writing, the speakers produced with this collaboration weren’t available for testing. 

Cardo also sells its 45mm speakers as part of an Audio Set so you can upgrade your Sena headset to get a Cardo listening experience. 

The Winner

Until we’re able to road test the new Harman Kardon Sena speakers, Cardo wins on the audio quality front. 

Sena’s speakers work, but you’re not going to really enjoy your music. The sound quality will let you hear what’s being pumped through to you, but with Cardo you’re getting good audio quality as long as you get your speaker placement right. 

Waterproofing

If you’ve not been caught in the rain during a ride, are you even a biker? 

Motorcycles in the rain on the highway
Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Rain is part and parcel of life on the road so you don’t want to have expensive electronics like your intercom system shorting out on you. If this is a concern, you want to be sure you’re getting a helmet audio system that has decent waterproofing. 

Every Cardo unit is advertised as waterproof. We do have to take the company’s word for it since the technology isn’t IP certified, which would mean it’s been independently verified. 

However, Sena intercom systems make no claim at all about the waterproof status. However, the Sena helmets that have the technology tucked away under the shell shouldn’t be affected by rain.

Motorcycle in a river
Image by Nandhu Kumar from Pixabay 

We’d not recommend using either for a long period in a downpour. If you’re using a Sena device, you probably want to reach for the power button as soon as the rain starts, whereas you’ve probably got at least a few minutes to safely pull over and power down a Cardo system. 

The Winner

When getting caught in the rain is a possibility, any Cardo intercom device is probably going to be better than a Sena. However, Sena’s integrated helmet range does negate the issue of rain and waterproofing technology altogether. 

Best Budget Option

For basic functionality, you don’t have to break the bank for your new motorcycle intercom device. Here’s how the two full-feature budget options stack up. 

Cardo Spirit Features

Image Source: Cardo

The cheapest Cardo unit you can get for motorcycles is the Spirit, with which you get:

  • Bluetooth technology that works across 400 meters in ideal conditions and open terrain
  • Connectivity to one other rider, no matter the brand of their headset
  • A Bluetooth connection to two other pieces of technology like your phone for audio functions
  • Battery life of up to 10 hours talk time
  • FM radio while your driving

Sena 5S Features

Image Source: Sena

Meanwhile, the cheapest Sena headset that integrates into your helmet is the Sena 5S, which has:

  • Intercom that covers up to 700 meters in perfect conditions
  • Two-way intercom between other Sena headsets
  • Connection to two mobile devices, like your phone or GPS
  • Battery talk-time of up to seven hours, which might just do you a full day
  • FM radio built-in

The Winner

You get more headset for your money with the Cardo Spirit. The range on the intercom mode might be a little shorter, but you get a better battery life and you can connect with any other Blueooth device, which are both super important when you’re going on all-day rides with buddies. 

Best Full-Feature Option

At the other end of the price spectrum, you can spend a whole lot of money to get a top-spec music and intercom system. Here’s a breakdown of the budget-busting headsets from both manufacturers. 

Cardo Packtalk Black Features

Image Source: Cardo

One up from the popular Cardo Packtalk Bold, the Cardo Packtalk Black has everything you’re looking for in a headset:

  • Runs off Bluetooth 4.1 and also uses DMC technology to connect you across up to 1,600 meters in good conditions
  • Connects you with up to 15 other riders across any brand of headset
  • Pairs with two devices across Bluetooth
  • Lasts up to 13 hours from one charge, which will give you a full day or more without charging
  • Has FM radio built-in

The audio quality for your music or talking to other riders is very high-end. You get 45mm JBL speakers in the box, which are very high-quality helmet speakers. 

Sena 50S Features

Image Source: Sena

You’ll read a lot about the Sena 20S Evo and the Sena 30K – both are great headsets but they’re in the mid-range for pricing and features. For top-spec from Sena, you want the 50S which comes with (10):

  • Bluetooth 5 and Mesh technology which will keep you talking over 1,600 meters per connection or 5 miles between six riders
  • A maximum group intercom with up to 24 other riders – but they’ll all have to be using a Sena headset with Mesh technology, too
  • The ability to use the Bluetooth connection with two other devices 
  • Bluetooth talk time of up to 14 hours and Mesh technology intercom battery life of up to nine hours
  • Radio tuner with 10 presets as standard

With the recent partnership with Harman Kardon, newer versions of this technology should have a better sound quality than older 50Ss. 

The Winner

It’s a tough call, but the Sena 50S just about pips it. The extra riders as part of the closed Mesh technology – 24 vs 15 – and the longer battery life of 14 vs 13 hours makes the Sena just a little better. Your Sena will also work on open Mesh intercom technology, meaning you can have virtually unlimited users all connected. 

Is Cardo better than Sena?

Those in the know tend to prefer Cardo headsets. Yes, you get more product options with Sena, a slightly longer tested range, and theoretically more connections, but Cardo’s universality is a huge plus. 

The fact that Cardo headsets are built to be waterproof is another nod that says the build will probably be better. 

Although you may like the Cardo Packtalk Bold or think the Packtalk Slim looks pretty nice, you do need to think about your fellow riders. If everyone has a Sena 20S or Sena 30K and you rock up with your Packtalk Bold, you might get left out of the conversation. 

The features you get are broadly similar, so decide how important being able to mix brands is and whether you want tried and tested speakers already included.