Motorcycle Hearing Protection

The Hidden Dangers of Sound!

When I learned to ride a motorcycle nearly 20 years ago, no one really considered wearing hearing protection – that was for whimps! I believe the thought was that you were supposed to hear what was going on around you; to take it all in, sights and sounds alike. Now if you search online, you will find a plethora of ear plugs sporting shiny websites and supplied with brushed aluminium carry cases. You can pay from £2 to £239, so what is the science, and economics behind the glitz and gloss?

Everyone agrees that riding a motorbike is a noisy affair. In some of our own measurements, we regularly saw over 100dB(A) and many of the earplug websites state figures from 90 up to 115dB(A), inside a helmet. Research carried out in the UK and Holland seems to suggest speed is the over-riding factor, with levels rising from around 92dB(A) at 50mph up to 115dB(A) at 90mph.

To put this in context, the legal level at which employers must provide hearing protection at work is 85dB(A), although this is for people who are exposed for a full 8 hours, so we must compensate for that based on how long you ride for. This is based on data from the US looking at noise exposed workers, which found that after 40 years, the percentage of people with 30dB of hearing loss increased from 19% to 31% with an increase in sound exposure from 82dB(A) to 87dB(A). As you can see then, even 82dB(A) is not a safe level.

Note: The (A) in dB(A) simply means that the sound is measured in the same way that the human ear perceives it.

What are the noise levels and what does it mean?

As you can see in the table, the time you can spend riding, before reaching the legal limit reduces dramatically such that at 100dB, you will reach the same amount of maximum noise exposure for the workplace, after only 15 minutes! If some of those websites are right by saying they see levels up to 115dB(A), then you will only have 29 seconds before reaching dangerous levels. The percentage figure just brings this to life showing how high your exposure would be if exposed for 8 hours. At 115dB(A), this would be 102,400%!

It’s too late for me!

So, we must agree that if you ride a motorcycle, then wearing hearing protection will prevent you from noise induced hearing loss and tinnitus (permanent ringing or other sounds in your ears) and to not wear them is a very bad idea!

I am sure there will be some readers thinking, ‘it’s too late for me, I’ve been riding for years without hearing protection, so what’s the point?’ Well, the simple fact is that it’s NEVER too late to start protecting what hearing you have left, Hearing damage does not continue if you stop the noise exposure!

‘Noisy’ Helmets

Many bikers will select a helmet based on many criteria, with comfort and safety obviously high on the list, probably followed by brand, colour and design. We spend little time researching and considering how ‘noisy’ the helmet is. This is not something tested or reported by many helmet manufacturers and requires a more in-depth search of the reviews to see what riders experience on-the-road. Perhaps this is an area helmet companies will start to look at with a bit more focus on hearing health and more work to highlight the issue.

Which ear plugs should I choose?

There are plenty of products online you can buy that are specifically marketed at bikers. In fact, some of them are simply re-packaged versions of other products, so do check whether the alternatives are cheaper!

You will also find plenty of ear plugs designed for use in industry, which are far cheaper than the bikers’ models, so is it ok to use those instead? We will come back to that. Custom moulded plugs are another viable option. These are made using a wax impression of your ear. Again, they come targeted at bikers, as well as ones for shooting, music, and other ‘noisy’ sports, as well as industrial versions. Again, it is advisable to shop around.

The main considerations are the amount of noise reduction you need, whether it will fit under a helmet, comfort, ease of use, and price. You do not necessarily need one that is specially targeted at bikers.

Ear Plug Performance

You will see the term SNR quoted alongside most products, which is the average level that device will reduce the noise by, so an SNR of 21, will reduce the noise level, on average by 21dB. For a little more detail, you will sometimes see H, M, & L values quoted. These show the performance for ‘High’, ‘Medium’, and ‘Low’ frequencies, which refers to the noise reduction related to that type of noise. Hearing protection almost always works better at high frequencies than low ones.

What SNR Should You Choose?

If we consider levels of between 90dB(A) and 115dB(A) inside a helmet at 70mph, then we need to look at what level you might want to reduce that to. In industrial safety law, 80dB(A) is the first level at which employers are expected to take action to prevent injury and hearing protection is considered ‘good’ if it reduces levels at the ear to between 70 and 80dB(A), so that’s maybe a good place to start.

If you ride hard and have a ‘noisy’ helmet, then you might be experiencing 115dB(A), in which case an SNR of up to 30dB might not be a bad idea. If you are a tourer with a very ‘quiet’ helmet, then an SNR of 20dB may well work for you. Just remember that there is not a completely ‘safe’ level of noise exposure, so if you can manage with a higher SNR, then that might not be a bad thing. Do beware however that using a protector with too high an SNR value may mean that you can’t hear things you might need to, so a little experimentation could be wise.

At the end of this article, you will find a table of some of the most common hearing protection promoted for bikers along with a couple of industrial models and the approximate cost of each type.

Filters and Fancy Stuff

The biggest difference between low-cost industrial ear plugs and ‘motorcycle’ ones seems to be the inclusion of filters to reduce the SNR number and ‘let in’ some noise, so as not to disconnect the rider from the outside world. This again comes down to the type of riding you do and the helmet you are wearing, which all has a bearing on the noise levels you will experience. You may need to experiment to find the right level for you. Some of the models even come with 2 filters, so that you can change the SNR number depending on what you are doing.

Some products have filters that let-in or cut-out specific frequencies of sound, so this is one area where there may be a benefit for motorcycling as wind noise tends to be high frequency, so this needs reducing more, although as stated earlier, most hearing protection works better at high frequency anyway.

If you pay a little more, you will also usually get a nice plastic or aluminium container for your plugs and maybe even some cleaning solution and materials.

Custom Moulded Plugs

For just about any application where hearing protection is needed, there is no doubt that custom moulded plugs are the best solution of all. Procuring these is a little more complex as the manufacturer will need an impression of your ear, usually made with some form of wax. There are systems where you can do this yourself at home and others where you book an appointment with the manufacturer or a local audiologist to have it done for you.

There is a re-mouldable type of plug too, where you drop it into hot water, then push it into your ear and let it cool and harden into shape. This solution also usually comes with filters, so the SNR can be chosen to suit you and your set-up.

If you really want to go the whole-hog, then some custom earplugs can be fitted with speakers and Bluetooth, so you can connect into your phone, Satnav and pillion and have crystal-clear audio without all the wind-noise in the background. These certainly come at a cost-premium!

A Snug Fit!

The performance characteristics of a hearing protection device are derived from testing in specific conditions, so the actual noise reduction you achieve will depend on how well the plug fits into your ear. In the case of pre-moulded ones, you may need to make sure you pick the right size (yes, we all have different sizes of ear canal!) and you really need to make sure you know how to fit them properly. Custom moulded plugs have a huge advantage in this area as they are designed to fit your ear perfectly, so it’s almost impossible to fit them wrongly.


I’m not sure I have really answered the question to which hearing protector should you use. Clearly there is a choice between regular and custom moulded and there is the all-out wired-for-sound custom plugs that require significant investment. On the question of SNR, however, this probably comes down to personal choice to some extent and at the end of the day, any hearing protection will reduce if not prevent completely, any hearing loss due to motorcycle noise. To cap this off, money is absolutely no excuse, as spending £2 per pair, will definitely stop you going deaf!

Some Data

The table below is by no means expansive and does not include every possible option (there are too many). The SNR numbers are the most interesting part of this, with quite a wide range of values, so choosing the right level is certainly a major consideration when selecting your plug. The question marks simply mean I could not find the data, it does not mean there is none available if you were to ask for it. Some manufacturers only supply the full test data with the product.

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