“What did you say? I can’t hear you!”
You know the feeling. You just got back from a day of roaring down the highway, enjoying the ride and the scenery. But after you shut off the bike and take off your helmet there is a high-pitched ringing in your ears that makes conversation difficult until it subsides.
That’s tinnitus and it’s a precursor to permanent hearing loss.
Let’s be honest, motorcycles are loud, even if you aren’t riding a big Harley with no mufflers.
Add in wind noise and it’s a recipe for hearing issues. Studies show that long or repeated exposure to sounds above 85 dBA can cause hearing loss. The bad news is that the quietest helmets test at 85 dBA at just 50 kph. Hardly roaring down the highway at that rate.
To make matters worse, hearing loss is a factor of decibel levels and duration. In other words, you can withstand a loud noise for a short period or a lower volume for a longer duration.
So what’s a rider to do?
The good news is that there are several options to reduce the noise levels that get to your ears.
These range from OMG expensive to super cheap. The noise-reducing effect adds up in many cases so using more than one of these options further improves your odds of being able to hear your grandchildren!
Here are some options roughly sorted most from least expensive/easy to most expensive/difficult.
The simplest way to reduce noise levels while motorcycling is in many cases the same as while doing anything else in a noisy environment. Wear hearing protection.
Scarf or Balaclava
The simplest and most low-tech is to wear a scarf or balaclava. As we’ve discussed, noise comes from air entering the helmet and the biggest hole in the helmet is the part your neck sticks out of.
Wearing a scarf or balaclava to ‘plug’ this area or reduce airflow will certainly dampen the sound. The problem is in warmer areas, they can be uncomfortable and even cause visor fogging.
Another helmet accessory is an aftermarket helmet skirt like a Windjammer that attaches to the bottom of the helmet and forms a tighter seal around your neck.
These work very well, but again are uncomfortable and can cause fogging when the day is hot.
There are also companies offering earmuff-style cups to be installed in your helmet. These do almost a too good job of reducing noise. Proper fit can be an issue, and they block so much of the ambient noise that you may not hear car horns, sirens, trains, etc.
Earplugs are by far the simplest, most effective, and most flexible of the hearing accessories. Ranging from pennies per pair to over $40, the cost-effectiveness of earplugs varies widely but can be boiled down to a few basic types.
On the less expensive end of the scale, foam earplugs do a good job for pennies a pair, but may be uncomfortable for long rides if you have small or sensitive ears.
Wax earplugs are a little more expensive than the disposable foam ones but not by much. These mold themselves to your ear, and can cause earaches from air pressure if you aren’t careful when you insert them.
Silicone Earplugs are specially engineered to let some sounds through and keep the damaging ranges out. They come in a range of sizes and it’s important to try a few to make sure you get the right fit.
Read more about the best motorcycle earplugs.
Change Your Riding
Riding Position – Windscreen
Adjust your riding position. This is a combination of a few things.
First is your position in relation to the windscreen.
A good trade-off on the heat vs wind battle is to duck behind the windscreen until your head gets too warm, then “pop up” periodically for a burst of wind to the helmet vents.
Remember, hearing damage is caused by volume over a duration. The louder the sound, the shorter the safe duration. This tactic of ducking in and out of the wind stream movement reduces the duration you are exposed to the louder wind stream as well as cooling you off.
Riding Position – Angle of Head
The second easier position adjustment to make is the angle of your head.
Most modern helmets are designed at least somewhat aerodynamically if your head is in the right position!
Tilt your head up and down and notice the change in airflow, you can find the sweet spot. Unfortunately, I have yet to see an owner’s manual that addresses this, so trial and error are our only options.
It’s kind of obvious but worth mentioning, going faster equals louder noise levels. In addition to the sound of the motorcycle, the largest contributing factor is of course wind noise, specifically turbulence.
The faster you go the more wind noise you will generate, consider slowing down for a time on those long rides and give your ear drums a break.
Your Helmet Matters
Helmets are more concerned with protecting your skull and face than your hearing. Noise levels are considered comfort details, rather than safety issues.
So much so that most helmets do not include a dB rating on their helmets. Snell, DOT, and ECE standards are more about saving your life.
However a good helmet will certainly get you part of the way towards protected hearing.
A half helmet or “skull bucket” will do little or nothing to protect your hearing.
Similarly, ¾ open face helmets are only marginally better.
Remember it’s about wind deflection. Modular helmets are better than ¾ helmets when in the closed riding position, but the jaw hinge still adds some wind resistance and turbulence. A full-face helmet is the best option.
Of course, a quality helmet will be better than a super cheapo helmet.
I have a <$100 discount store helmet that I bought in desperation that I swear is made of plastic and packing Styrofoam. Uncomfortable and LOUD.
Conversely, a midrange helmet that I use frequently is MUCH quieter as well as safer and more comfortable. Don’t skimp on helmets!
Sizing is important for safety and noise. If the helmet is too big, the wind gets in and causes noise. If it is too small, it becomes painful and then you won’t want to wear it.
Visor and Neck
Make certain that there is a good seal around the visor. Air leaks generate an annoying whistling sound.
Get a helmet with a good neck roll (the padding around the back)
Change Your Motorcycle
Add a Windscreen
Change your motorcycle!? I know it sounds drastic, but the addition of a windscreen or a small change to the one you have can make a big difference.
Adjust your windscreen so the wind is deflected over your head and you will notice significant noise reduction.
Unfortunately for those of us who live and ride in warmer climates, that also reduces the airflow through the vents on your helmet. So you trade noise for heat.
Motorcycle riding is hazardous to our health.
We know this. That’s part of why we do it!
That’s why we spend a lot of money on gear and have little sayings like “Dress for the slide, not the ride” or “All The Gear All The Time (ATGATT)”.
The truth is that most of us will not have a serious motorcycle accident in our riding careers because of training and gear. It would be a shame to be deaf because we didn’t bother to wear a set of $10 earplugs.