Looking after your hearing is vital. We looked into what the options are and how they work.
Biking may be good for the mind, but it’s not that great for the hearing. Bikes themselves are wonderfully noisy things, but interestingly it’s not the roar from loud exhausts that’s the main culprit in damaging bikers’ hearing, its wind noise – that is at speeds over 40mph anyway.
A study conducted at the University of Southampton found that noise levels under motorcycle helmets can be very high. Above the speed of about 40mph the wind noise generated by the airflow over a motorcycle and rider exceeds the noise from the motorcycle itself.
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The faster the speed, the louder the wind noise gets. Opinion varies slightly, but the usual estimate is that after about 25 minutes of riding at 70mph your hearing will start to suffer. At higher speeds the damage is done much sooner.
If your hearing sounds muffled after you’ve been riding a bike, or if your ears ring, then you’re suffering temporary hearing damage – which, if repeated regularly, may become permanent hearing damage. The best protection against this is wearing earplugs under your helmet. A word of warning though: if you’re not used to wearing earplugs, it’s worth noting that because they reduce the noise levels, you may feel like you’re travelling more slowly, so take extra care to check your speed until you get used to wearing the earplugs.
Ear protection also helps with concentration as the constant noise of wind blowing in your ears is tiring. Wearing earplugs may seem strange at first, almost like being under water, but most people get used to it very quickly, and once you’ve started to use hearing protection, riding without your earplugs seems frighteningly loud.
What are the options?
There are three main types of earplugs favoured by bikers: disposable ones, multi-use generic plugs and custom-made moulded earplugs. Each have their merits and all of them are better than not wearing hearing protection, but we’re all different and at the end of the day choosing one option over the next often comes down to personal preference.
Disposable earplugs are great for those who don’t use the bike so often and stick to lower speeds in city traffic. Generic multi-use earplugs are a step up from the foamies and can be very handy if they suit your ears. The top of the range protection is offered by custom-made earplugs. These are expensive compared to a pack of disposable ones, but for riders who get through several disposable earplugs every week, the cost over a few years may actually be lower than using disposable ones.
Generic disposable earplugs are cheap (a few pence each if bought in large quantities) and readily available, which makes them handy. They are usually made from foam and come in a range of colours from the boring yellow to some rather psychedelic colour combinations.
Generic disposable earplugs are designed for single use, which means a new pair every time you’re exposed to noise. If you don’t change them often enough dirt will start to build up and their ability to expand/contract reduces, so don’t be tempted to wear the same pair for long.
Disposable earplugs are easy to use, just roll them between your thumb and fingers to compress them into a thin cylinder that fits inside your ear, pop them in and that’s it. The foam re-expands inside the ear to provide the best possible fit. Simple as anything!
How well disposable earplugs work depends entirely on the fit, and as these are generic products the fit is not guaranteed. Most products reduce noise levels by around 30dB if they fit well, but the problem is that if you don’t get the fit, you don’t get the protection.
Multi-use generic earplugs
If you don’t like the idea of disposable foam earplugs, the next step is multi-use generic ones. These are usually made from a rubbery material that doesn’t have the same issues as foam in losing its shape, so they can be used multiple times without a problem. These earplugs can also be cleaned, which is a real boon if you wear them several times.
Because of their rubbery texture and a specifically designed shape, these earplugs stay in the ear better than foam plugs. Some multi-use earplugs are designed to block the harmful wind noise but to let some noise in through precision noise filtration. This means that as opposed to the foam earplugs that reduce noise indiscriminately, these ones let you hear sounds like car horns whilst still protecting your ears from harmful noises. This may also help reduce the feeling of ‘blocked ears’ that some people experience with disposable earplugs.
Just like the foam earplugs, these are generic products, so they have not been designed to fit an individual ear perfectly and the same issue with fit remains.
The main problem with generic earplugs is not that they don’t offer sufficient protection with a perfect fit; it’s that one size does not always fit all. If they don’t fit perfectly or become loose whilst you’re out riding they don’t protect you properly. This is why many riders, especially those who clock up loads of miles, opt for custom-made moulded earplugs.
With custom earplugs the fit is perfect because the plugs are created by taking impressions of each ear. This creates a unique fit, so you can be sure that your hearing is protected while you’re out on the bike. It also adds to the comfort levels, as the plugs are exactly the shape you want them.
Most custom-made earplugs last for years even under heavy use, but because your ears never stop growing (true story, Google it!) a new mould should be made every three years or so to ensure that the fit is still perfect.
Custom earplugs come in different guises: the basic ones are usually made from medical-grade silicone or a similar ‘squidgy’ material, and they are small, lightweight and fully cleanable. There are also ‘filtered’ options that let some non-harmful noise in. And if you want to plug into your music, communications systems or sat nav, there are options with built-in speakers.
Oxford Essential Anti-Noise Ear Plugs
RRP: £8.99 / 30 pairs
Oxford Essential Anti-Noise are classic foam earplugs that Oxford says are hand washable and reusable. One of the ends is round to make them easier to fit. In use they are comfortable and stay in the ear without any problems. There are 30 pairs in the packet, so for anyone who commutes to work on two wheels every day the box will last for three weeks if a pair is only used once. Of course, if you wash and reuse them you’ll get by a bit longer. According to Oxford the plugs provide 33dB protection.
Auritech multi-use earplugs
These multi-use earplugs feature precision-tuned, patented ceramic filters to ensure maximum protection from dangerous levels of engine, wind and road noise. Unique filtration allows conversation, sirens and horns to remain clearly audible, with no muffled effect. The earplugs are comfortable and reusable. A unique thermoplastic outer construction gives a feeling of softness and comfort, even when wearing them for extended periods.
Ultimate Ear Squidgy custom earplugs
Bespoke ear defenders, made from soft, ‘squidgy’, medical-grade silicone. These plugs come in a variety of colours, they are comfortable to wear, and feel flexible in the ear. Once the fitting is done these are highly effective and comfortable hearing protectors, perfectly fitting the individual shape of each ear canal. They come with cleaning instructions, which is all that’s needed until the next fitting in a few years’ time to make sure the ear shape has not changed. The earplugs come with a one-year guarantee.