ATGATT? That Includes Motorcycle Hearing Protection

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ATGATT? That Includes Motorcycle Hearing Protection

RideApart: People shop for earplugs based on Noise Reduction Ratings.  But, can that be misleading?

Dr. Johnson:  Yes.  The NRR was the EPA’s attempt to make earplug selection easier for industry.  Since it was put into law in the 1970’s, lots of research has show that the NRR doesn’t always correlate to the attenuation real users actually get. Sometimes they get a lot more, sometimes they get a lot less.

The NRR is really not helpful—at all—in terms of earplug selection, because it’s just not accurate in the real world.   Motorcyclist at low speeds in an urban environment really need to be aware of what is going around them—so earplugs might dull environmental awareness.  On the highway, the wind noise can exceed 100dB.  At that point, you need hearing protection.  Not every type of earplug works well with a helmet.  Unlike foam earplugs, our 20dB ETY Plugs don’t block out more high-frequency tones than low-frequency tones. Wind and road noise are low frequency, while voices and turn signal sounds are high-frequency—which you want to hear.  On a long ride, the wind noise is fatiguing.   The ETY Plugs have a stem that sticks out from your ear, and so they are better suited for half-helmets.

For a full-face helmet, you want a custom musician’s earplug which will fit your ear exactly and can be had with up to 25 dB attenuation.  They’re about $150 a pair, but if you’re an avid rider, it can be an inexpensive solution to feel better at the end of a ride by avoiding hearing fatigue and tinnitus.

My Thoughts:  Sometimes foam earplugs block out nearly all the sound and you can blast down the highway and it almost feels like you’re inside a car.  The next day, on the same bike, with a new set of the same earplugs, and at the same speed, the wind is unbearably noisy.

ETY Plugs
ETY Plugs

RideApart:  With foam earplugs, sometimes we get a great seal and can barely hear the wind at speed, and other times we barely notice any attenuation—even with the same earplugs.  In terms of consistent sealing, how do foam earplugs compare to your ETY Plugs and custom musician’s earplugs?

Dr. Johnson:  With the foam earplugs, there is more user skill to getting them in correctly.  You have to roll them down tightly between your fingers, pull up and back on the top of your ear to straighten your ear canal.  Then insert the plug really far and hold it in while it expands.  If it is not in quite right you have to do the whole process again.  I find the firmer foam plugs much easier to get in—they don’t expand as quickly so it’s easier to get them in, and when they do expand they give a better seal.

There are studies that look at the difference between what protection people are getting and what they should be getting for a given earplug.  Our ETY Plugs had the least difference—which means that people were able to put them in correctly consistently.  Custom earplugs can also be a really good option for a lot of people, because they only go in one way—they’re made to fit your ear exactly.  Once you learn to put them in, you will have a good seal.

RideApart:  Have you heard of people using water or Vaseline on foam earplugs to improve the seal?

Dr. Johnson:  No, not on foam earplugs.  On custom earplugs, we advise use of a water-based lubricant.  That’s what we usually recommend.

RideApart:  Can earplugs push earwax into your ears?

Dr. Johnson:  Some people make more wax than other people.  People usually know if they’re big wax producers.  In that case, they should probably have their ears cleaned by an audiologist or a physician.  When putting an earplug in, it is possible to push the wax in deeper.  People would notice a feeling of fullness, reduced hearing, or a full-feeling ear. 

My Thoughts: On RideApart, I’ve mentioned that the ultimate in on-bike sound management is custom-moulded, sound-attenuating earbuds, but I haven’t tried that setup yet.

RideApart: Can your musician’s earplugs be had with a speaker inside?

Dr. Johnson: Etymotics doesn’t make custom in-ear monitors, but they are available from Sensaphonics.

RideApart:  What do you recommend for someone who is thinking about hearing protection for the first time?

Dr. Johnson:  I’m one to recommend starting at step one.  If you’re not wearing a helmet, start with ETY Plugs.  They’ll block the wind noise while allowing you to hear the things you need to hear. .  For full-face helmets, start with foam earplugs—they’ll fit under any helmet and are a low-cost way to start.  If you start using them a lot, it’s worth investing in the custom musician’s plugs that you can wear under a helmet.  If you’re riding regularly, the right hearing protection can really add to your enjoyment, and it’s worth investing in a custom product.

Learn more about local earplug laws here.

How do you protect your hearing while riding? What products work best for you? Are you concerned about, or have you suffered any hearing loss as a result of riding?

  • Randy S

    +1 on custom earplugs. It’s worth the extra $ and makes rides very comfortable.

  • Braden

    Great article and great questions Nick. They mirror most of my own musings on hearing protection use. I use Howard Leight LPF-1s the majority of the time, or I switch between my Etymotic HF5s or ER-4PTs with foam plugs for longer trips. I try to be careful with my hearing while riding, and haven’t noticed any hearing loss (yet) over 6 years of riding and averaging 15k miles a year. As an amateur audiophile I value my hearing quite a bit, and try to stay attuned to any loss in hearing quality. Been meaning to get some custom ear molds for my Etymotics for forever. This article might have just convinced me.

    • nick2ny

      Thanks, Braden.

  • RT Moto

    I use 3M foam earplugs every time I ride and make a huge difference. It did take some getting used to at first but now I believe (straight personal opinion and not any sort of scientific fact) that I can hear almost everything that needs to be heard. Kind of like my ears got trained after time. On occasion I have ridden short distances without earplugs and with just that, my head hurt and I felt some fatigue. Riding with earplugs has been the norm for me for a while so you can say I’m now an advocate. Happy riding!

    • ThinkingInImages

      Same here (3M). They’re easy to get, inexpensive and they work well. I have a metal pill case on my keychain so I always have them on me, and a few extras under the seat. I’m a lot more focused and relaxed riding with them, than without them. I can hear what’s important.

  • Donnie Byers

    I use Etymotics myself. They make a world of difference, because I can block out almost all that is stoopid around me. lol. I just wish I had more than one pair…

    • http://metabomber.com/ Jesse

      If I can block out ALL the stupid, I’m going to just leave them in once I get to work.

    • http://www.eastwestbrothersgarage.com/ East-West Brothers Garage

      I discovered the Etymotics as a musician and bought a separate pair to use on the bike. It is amazing how much of a difference it makes to be able to block certain wavelengths and not others, allowing me to still hear important sounds like a horn honking. The Etymotics serve as my daily use plugs while I keep some of the foam plugs on hand for those days when I ride super long distances and am on the bike all day. Having the plugs in makes a tremendous difference in reducing fatigue for me.

  • Stuki

    I guess it would be hard to build useful earmuffs into helmet liners.

    • nick2ny

      We’ve landed on the moon a bunch of times, though.

  • RyanO

    I use the orange/green foam earplugs that my squadron has for hearing protection at the track. On the street I have DIY custom molded earbuds for listening to tunes. I think I have a weird shaped ear or something because every earbud I ever had would work it’s way lose in my helmet. Finally molded my own from a kit off amazon and they are awesome.

  • Richard

    -1 on custom earplugs. Because they don’t expand and shift in the way that foamies do, they’re very prone to breaking their seal when you put your helmet on, move your jaw, etc.

    Be prepared for an audiologist to need multiple fittings (which also means round-trips to the company that actually makes the plugs) to get them to your spec. Most users of earplugs don’t want a deep, full fit, with a flat outer for use under a helmet; they want earplugs for sleeping in or swimming in.

    Also, for the $160 I paid for mine, I could have had a lifetime supply of Howard Leight Max (NRR33), which block way more noise and are more comfortable.

    I relegated my custom plugs for use under muffs while shooting. They’re a waste of money and inferior to foam plugs for riding. They’re better than the flanged attenuators — I use those for loud live music, but not for riding — but seriously: save yourself some money and stick with foamies.

    Lesson learned!

    • 200 Fathoms

      Yep…cheap foam plugs are better than nothing.

    • AlexKnolly

      Hearos Ultimate Softness are my favorite, they do the trick on the track for me and my bike is crazy loud. They also make some foam ones that block a bit more sound but are less comfortable called Xtreme.

  • Thomas Whitener

    If you get some Sugru (sugru.com), you can make a set of the custom earphones out of a pretty standard pair of earbuds. I used some cheap-ish Sony ones, and they not only sound great, fit easily in the helmet, but they also reduce the noise by more than the ETY’s I bought for the purpose.

    Also, I an listen to music, directions, or with my Sena SMH10, I can take phone calls. Love it.

    • Thomas Whitener

      And I know I’ve been pushing the Sugru solution every time it’s mentioned, but man, it’s just so easy, and they are so good. And Cheap. And comfortable.

      • HoldenL

        I’d never heard of that stuff before, but it looks really, really cool.

        • Thomas Whitener

          It has, no joke, changed my life. My wife and I use it for everything, and I just ordered another pack.

  • james

    +1 for custom, i got mine made at a recent bike show. Often you can get them through gun ranges and so on, very good investment.

  • Piglet2010
  • mjc_iv

    Wonderful article. Thanks.

  • Brian

    I myself use earplugs and have for years, but I have gotten “the talk” from several LEO’s ( both of the type I am friends/friendly with, and the adversarial giving me a ticket type) about the legality of them. In my locale, they are not legal, but I suspect you’de have to be a jackass to the cop in order to get that ticket in most cases. Regardless of my experience, please check your local laws and be informed about them and your rights in case you should have to be dealing with a LEO about those in whatever situation you happen to be in at the time.

    • nick2ny

      Is it legal to drive a car with the windows closed?

    • Kipling Inscore

      I just checked California—Earplugs are legal as long as you can hear horns and sirens.

      CA VC 27400: A person operating a motor vehicle or bicycle may not wear a headset covering, or earplugs in, both ears. This prohibition does not apply to any of the following:
      CA VC 27400.d: “A person wearing personal hearing protectors in the form of earplugs or molds that are specifically designed to attenuate injurious noise levels. The plugs or molds shall be designed in a manner so as to not inhibit the wearer’s ability to hear a siren or horn from an emergency vehicle or a horn from another motor vehicle.”

      http://www.dmv.ca.gov/pubs/vctop/d12/vc27400.htm

  • Devin Byrnes

    Never considered ear plugs. I have never owned a loud bike and I don’t ride much over the limit – have not really noticed any deafness when I park the bike.

    • http://metabomber.com/ Jesse

      Even just wind noise buffeting around and through the helmet can add up, even at 45MPH. Do it once, park the bike and pop out the plugs, and you’ll notice the difference in ambient sound.

  • Strafer

    On longer airplane trips I like to use noise cancelling headphones – less fatigue – ears feel better after landing
    I’m waiting to see something similar for motorcycle riding
    The advantage being noise cancelling can be turned on and off as needed (or automatically kick in and shut off as needed – ie less than a certain mph or less than a certain dB level) (in the city you want to hear as much as possible)
    Another advantage of noise cancelling headphones vs an ear plug is it would be possible to implement it in such a way that you could still listen to GPS directions through the headphones / listen to music if you wanted to / take phone calls / talk to others using bluetooth communication – all while still having the reduced noise

  • Jack Meoph

    I got written up by a cop for wearing earplugs before the law in CA changed. I tried explaining to him why I wore them, but to no avail. Just another tick in the “why I hate cops” column of my life.

    This looks like a deal: http://www.amazon.com/Alpine-Hearing-Protection-MusicSafe-Classic/dp/B0032BYCWG/ref=sr_1_13/183-5912043-5126761?ie=UTF8&qid=1390582145&sr=8-13&keywords=etymotic

    • HoldenL

      The same company, Alpine Hearing Protection, makes a motorcycle-specific product called MotoSafe. http://www.alpinehearingprotection.com/earplugs/motosafe/ I like it a lot, although with age, the noise-suppression tube tends to slide out easily from the silicone flanged plug. The MotoSafe does a good job of suppressing wind noise while letting you hear sirens, voices and music (although those are muffled a bit, too).

    • nick2ny

      Cops… tell me about it.

    • The Flying Kiwi

      You can thank LA Biker and current Secretary of State Debra Bowen for having the law changed after a few of us got too many tickets for it.

  • Davidabl2

    From the chart: “Blues bar/ rock Concert safe for 5mins.”
    It’s a wonder that more of us aren’t stone deaf :-)

  • Craig Wixon

    AfterSchokz headphones combined with earplugs. Best combination I’ve found thus far for stunning sound in-helmet and less wind noise.
    http://bit.ly/1mYZ6zo

  • Gregory Girgenti

    I had an audiologist custom mold silicone plugs from Mid States. I can wear them all day without discomfort and they are quieter than the disposable foam plugs I was using prior. Be sure to tell whoever makes the molds that they are meant to be worn under a motorcycle helmet. They must be flush with your ear so they don’t dislodge when you put your helmet on, or press against the helmet while in your ear. If done properly custom plugs work better than disposable. If done wrong they won’t work at all.

  • Thatmanstu

    Custom “shooting” earplugs and those made by many audiologists are not ideal for motorcycle use. I would strongly suggest someone who specializes in custom motorcycle earplugs. Basic difference is the amount that sticks out of the ear canal. Too much and they can easily become displaced by your helmet and that same contact creates a sound conducting connection. Moto specific are molded with a much lower profile. Had mine for over 300k and 14 years. Best investment I ever made.I’ve been wearing ear plugs of one sort or another for over twenty years and over 400k miles, I am sorry I waited so long to start wearing them….

  • John

    I’ve recently started riding on highways for extended periods as part of my commute. I always wear earplugs (currently, foam squishy type).

    I’ve noticed two things in the last two months: (1) my ears ache, as though my bones are being bruised from the expanding foam slug in my ear canal–sometimes very painful; and (2) even though I’m wearing ear protection, I sense that I’m losing aspects of my hearing sensitivity.

    My question am I imagining things, or is what I’m experiencing not uncommon. If the latter, what can I do?