Over the past eight months, I’ve bought three different sets of ear-plugs for motorcycling. Here are my opinions on each of them.
But first, why buy ear-plugs anyway? I’ve been riding motorcycles for over 40 years and, until this year, I’ve never worn ear-plugs whilst riding. Although it probably helped that, for 32 years, most of that riding was in Bermuda, where bike engines are small (less than 150cc), riding distances are short and speed limits are low (35kph officially). Those short distances, quieter engines and greatly reduced wind noise due to slower speeds didn’t pose the same threat to my hearing as riding here in Europe. I’m now riding larger (and louder) bikes at higher speeds, for several hours at a time. Even when the bike itself is relatively quiet, wind noise can be a cause of hearing damage.
Research has shown that when noise levels exceed 100 decibels (db), the safe period of exposure is only two hours per day. If the noise level exceeds 115db, the safe exposure time is only 15 minutes! Wind noise at highway speeds can be as loud as 103db which is the equivalent of a chainsaw. So more that two hours of highway driving can permanently damage hearing, due to wind noise alone. More information on the risk of hearing loss caused by motorcycling can be found in this report by Industrial Paramedical Services.
The first ear-plugs that I purchased were by Ear Peace, after I had seen them advertised on Facebook. Ear Peace make ear-plugs for three different categories: for musicians and concert-goers (type HD); for loud working environments (S) and for motorcyclists (M). The motorcyclist plugs retail for $20 and are designed to block wind noise whilst allowing in the noises you want to hear, such as traffic, GPS directions, music, etc.
The package contains three ear-plugs – one extra in the event that you lose one, which I thought was a nice touch. They also come with three colour-coded filters, each with different levels of filtration. The cylindrical aluminium storage container has a key fob attachment.
I opted to use the maximum protection inserts and found changing them to be a simple procedure. The plugs themselves have a small tab on one edge that is used to hold onto them whilst inserting them into the ears. But getting them properly inserted has proven to be a real challenge with these plugs and is, in my opinion, their worst feature. When I first began wearing them, I was concerned that they were not blocking out as much noise as I had expected. Then I realised that they were either not inserted properly before the ride, or had worked their way loose during the ride. I found that I had more success inserting them into my ears if I moistened them first. But it was often hit or miss. I wouldn’t know if they were properly inserted until I got the bike moving, so it would be a nuisance to have to stop and try to get them inserted properly again.
When they are properly inserted they do an excellent job of blocking noise. But getting them properly inserted, consistently, is a problem.
Alpine Moto Safe
After experiencing issues with the fitment of the Ear Peace plugs, I bought a set of plugs from Alpine Hearing Protection. With a retail price of $34.95, they are significantly more expensive than those from Ear Peace. Similarly to Ear Peace, Alpine makes ear-plugs for different applications. Their motorcycling version is called Moto Safe.
The set that I bought includes four complete ear-plugs – two with black filters for standard protection and two with red filters for higher protection. However, I note that the Moto Safe kits are now being sold with only three plugs (one spare) and optional filter inserts (green for standard and yellow for higher protection). The plugs came inside a square, padded pouch with a zipper closure. Also included in the pouch is a small hollow tube that is used to insert the plugs into the ear. The tube is only used at the time of insertion and is stored in the pouch afterwards.
In comparison to the little latex tabs on the Ear Peace plugs, I found the plastic insertion tube to be a better option. It allowed me to get a better grip on the ear-plugs, as I was inserting them, and seemed to contribute to a better rate of correct insertion. But not always! Whilst better than the Ear Peace plugs, I still found them difficult to consistently fit into my ears correctly. I don’t know if my ears are the problem, but these off-the-shelf ear-plugs just don’t fit me properly. The Alpine plugs did a good job of filtering out noise, but fitment issues meant that they were not ideal.
Custom-Fitted Ear Plugs
Having experienced poor fitment from both the Ear Peace and Alpine ear-plugs, I concluded that the only way I was going to get a good fit was to have ear-plugs custom-made for my ears.
An online search put me in contact with Ultimate Ear, located in the United Kingdom. They will make custom-fit filtered motorcycle ear-plugs for £85.00 per pair. Obviously a big price difference to the off-the-shelf brands, but worth it to me if they solve the problem of poor fitment.
To create custom-fit ear-plugs, impressions have to be taken from both ears. In the UK, Ultimate Ear has a network of partner audiologists. They will refer customers to their nearest audiologist, who will then take the impressions and forward them to Ultimate, so that the plugs can be made. But that wouldn’t work for me, located in Portugal. I contacted Ultimate and they provided me with a document that clarified what is required to create suitable impressions. They suggested that I visit a local audiologist in Porto, have impressions made and then mail them to Ultimate.
I visited a nearby branch of Minisom, a local audiology company, and explained that I needed ear impressions to send away to the UK. However, Minisom’s contractual obligations precluded them from providing impressions for an overseas company. However, they explained that they have their own partner company that can custom-make ear plugs that would be very similar to those provided by Ultimate. The cost – €90 for a pair. Perfect! Within a few minutes, I was having impressions made of my ears and was told that the ear-plugs should be ready in about three weeks.
When I returned to Minisom to collect my ear-plugs, I was told that they had made an error when quoting me the price. Whilst I had been quoted €90, the actual price should have been €80 each – €160 for the pair. But I was told that the error was theirs and that they would honour the quote that they gave me. Excellent service!
The custom ear-plugs were made by a company called Dreve. They came inside a small, hard-shell case with a zipper closure and a small carabiner-style clip. The plugs themselves are custom-molded from the impressions that were taken, so are made specifically for the left and right ears (with colour coding on the plugs themselves). Both plugs are connected by a thin cord, presumably to minimise the chance of losing one (or both) of them. The pouch also included a set of instructions.
As expected, the ear-plugs are a perfect fit for my ears. They are very easy to insert and they stay in place throughout the ride. Because of the snug fit, there can be no sound leaking past the plugs and into my ears. I’ve worn them whilst riding my BMW, which has a loud Akrapovic exhaust as well as exposing me to wind buffeting. They did a good job of minimising the noise whilst allowing me to clearly hear directions from my TomTom. Off the bike, I can easily hold conversations with the ear-plugs inserted. Things are much quieter on my Honda Goldwing, as the engine is much quieter and the large windscreen protects me from the wind. They are easy to insert. They feel comfortable and they do the job well. They are now the only ear-plugs that I will wear whilst riding.
The off-the-shelf ear-plugs can’t come close to the level of fit that is achieved by the custom-made plugs. Whilst the cheaper ones can keep out the noise, they only do so when they fit properly. And that is where they fall down.
Hearing protection should be a standard piece of safety equipment for motorcyclists. Just like helmets and gloves. Unlike a broken bone or cuts and bruises, once your hearing is damaged, it can’t be repaired or recovered. And if you are going to protect your hearing, I recommend that you do so with a quality pair of custom-moulded ear-plugs. They just do the job so much better than the cheaper off-the-shelf brands. And €100, or less, is a small price to pay to protect the ability to hear.