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.
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?