We always say that if you’re riding any distance, stick in some ear plugs to protect your hearing.
There’s loads of resources online to tell you exactly how noisy it gets when you ride your motorcycle – but the bottom line is that you can do permanent damage to your hearing if you ride without them: the higher the speed, the longer the time and the less sound-insulating your helmet, the quicker you’ll damage your hearing.
So always wear plugs when you ride. Simple.
But are all ear plugs made equal? And if not, which ones should I use?
Well, I’ve been riding for 40 years (OK I started riding when I was ten – I’m not THAT old!) and I had no idea. I bought a massive pack of standard foam ear plugs years ago and I’ve been slowly working my way through them, but I’ve no idea if they’re really any good.
So, I decided to splash out on a wide selection of cheap ear plugs and road test them all to find out which work best.
At the bottom of the article, we explain some of the ratings you’ll find on earplugs, how to fit them and how they work with bluetooth sets. But for now, on with the findings.
Control ear plugs
I’ve been wearing these plugs for years ever since I bought a gigantic bag from a long-forgotten dealer. I don’t think I’ve ever really looked at them in detail but turns out they’re called Max Lite and they’re from Howard Leight (SNR 34).
I’ve had them for well over 10 years (might be closer to 20 even) and they seem to work well. Each pair were in a little bag that has kept them fresh for all that time with very little degradation – none that I’m aware of at least.
To fit them, I roll them up lengthways then push the tapered end in and let them expand. That’s the way you’re supposed to do it and they do stay in place and give a reasonable level of protection like that. I can hear people talk OK and get the impression that the worst of the noise is being cut out.
However, if I want more protection (which I do most of the time) I’ve also taken to rolling them up and fitting them with the big end first. I found this gives masses of noise protection – probably double the standard amount. The plugs seal my ear perfectly and hardly any noise gets in – to the point that, with my helmet on, I can barely hear anyone speak.
I suspect that folks with small ears probably won’t need/want to do this. But if you’ve got a larger head and larger ear canals, then you might want to give that a go too.
Motorcycle Ear Plugs Test
Anyhow onto the test. I tested out a couple of pairs of each of the following ear plugs over a number of rides and I’ve jotted down how they seemed to me. Obviously, the results are entirely my perception but I hope you find it all helpful.
Moldex 7600 Mellows (SNR 22)
The mellows look like your bog-standard foam ear plugs. Their 22 SNR rating means they should attenuate (i.e. cut out) 22 decibels of noise. (see bottom of the page for explanation). They were reasonably OK to fit, sealed well and I felt they gave a moderate amount of protection. They are flat-cut at the ends so not quite as comfortable for reverse fitting. Overall, I’m scoring these an average 5.
Average joe plugs that are easy to fit and cut out a reasonable amount of sound. Score – 5
3M E-A-R Classic (SNR 28)
These 3M Classics are yellow tubes – much bigger than your typical foam ear plug and a coarser foam which I thought might be rough on the ear. But they didn’t feel it, and, because they’re that much larger, they expanded really well in my ear to fully seal it and really cut out tons of noise. They score really highly on Amazon too (in fact all of these plugs seem to).
So far, these will be my go-to ear plugs and score a 9. > We found a good deal for a box of E-A-R Classics here on Amazon.
Moldex 7700 Pura-Fit (SNR 36)
The Moldex look like your run of the mill ear plugs but they feel a bit firmer than most. Roll them up and stick em in and they fit nice and firmly. And crucially – as their higher SNR rating suggests – they cut out a decent amount of noise. They don’t feel quite as secure as the 3M Classics for me, and because they don’t pack your ear tubes tight in the same way, they let in more noise. But if you’ve smaller earholes or the 3Ms feel too tight and uncomfortable, then these feel comfy and put less pressure on your ears.
Good quality, fitting and noise reduction. Score – 7.5
Howard Leight Bilsom 303L (SNR 33)
Like most foam earplugs, these Bilsom 303L (the L stands for large but you can get them in M or S too) are made from polyurethane, and their SNR 33 rating means they should be good for medium to high noise environments. I found they fit compressed/expanded quickly and gave a similar level of noise suppression to the Moldex 7700s.
Decent noise suppression, good fit and comfortable. Score – 7
3M 1100 (SNR 37)
Polyurethane foam plugs These come in one size only which is suitable for a larger adult. The foam on these plugs is pretty firm and I found them more difficult to get a decent tight seal. After adjusting them a few times (i.e. poking them in further) I got a decent seal and they really quietened things down. But because they took more adjusting to get it right, I’m going to mark them down a bit.
Firmer ear plugs that are tricky to put in right. Score – 6
Howard Leight Laser Lites (SNR 35)
These are another set of polyurethane foam plugs. The foam on these Laser Lite’s is nice and soft and pliable, making them easy to roll up to insert in your ears and soft when they expand. I found them best if they’re reversed for my ears (see ear plug fitting below) and plugs like this with a T-shaped bottom end rather than flat-cut plugs like the rest on this test are best for a comfortable reverse fit. When they were in, they were really comfortable and cut out loads of noise.
Soft plugs that work well. Score – 8.5 > Click here for a good deal on Laser Lites on Amazon
So which are the best ear plugs?
Well, I’m going to go and buy some 3M E-A-R Classics. They might not have the highest noise cancelling rating (SNR rating) but they’re big, fit well and knocked off lots of noise when I tried them. Maybe it’s because they fit so easily and well that they seemed to cancel out just as much noise as higher rated ear plugs.
If you’ve smaller ears, you’ll find some of the plugs I tested available in smaller sizes too.
But I also found some of the other soft polyurethane foam plugs worked well, especially if I reversed the fitting so the fat end was pushed in first. For me, they generally needed a bit more fiddling around with to get the fit just right, though having said that the Max Lites I’ve been using for about 20 years worked well and usually take me about 10 or so seconds to fit so they can’t be too much of a nuisance!
Of those conventionally-shaped polyurethane foam plugs that work well either way round, I’d go for these Howard Leight Laser Lites.
How to fit your ear plugs
They’re all designed to be rolled lengthways between the fingers so the foam is tightly compressed, then pushed in the ear canal, pointy end first (except for the 3M E-A-Rs where you can use either end).
Most folks I’ve spoken to reckon they pretty much ram them in and they might need pushing in a couple of times before the plugs expand adequately and deeply enough to seal the ear canal.
Personally, with the soft foam plugs I’ve tended to use, I push them in fat end first so there’s more plug to expand and fill the ear. It works for me but if your ears are small and/or you use firmer ear plugs, you might find that’s a bit uncomfortable. And I didn’t need to at all with the 3M EARs.
If you’ve got the right plugs and they’re in tightly, you should find it tricky to hear someone talk nearby.
Ear plugs and bluetooth communicators
You should be OK to wear ear plugs and hear your bluetooth at the same time. It sounds slightly counter-intuitive, but wearing ear plugs can actually make it easier to hear your headset at speed because you’re cutting out all the wind blast noise. At least, that’s what I’ve found.
What are NRR & SNR ratings?
SNR stands for Single Number Rating and is an International ISO standard for noise reduction.
NRR is the US equivalent and stands for Noise Reduction Rating.
You’ll often find both numbers on the packaging of your ear plugs and the higher the number, the better the noise suppression.
SNR is an average figure because different ear plugs will reduce different frequencies at different levels. But the SNR rating shows the number of decibels the ear plugs will cut out.
NRR works the same. The NRR rating is the number of decibels (dbs) the ear plug attenuates (reduces the noise by). Because of the way sound attenuation is tested in the labs, some official bodies recommend dividing the NRR rating by two (and sometimes more) to get the true level of attenuation – but I’m not aware of any similar recommended calculation for motorcyclists.
As a biker you may well just want maximum protection – so in general, choose an ear plug with a high rating. In industry, folks carefully choose how much noise they want cutting out so they don’t damage their hearing but can still communicate. Personally, when riding my motorcycle, the more noise I cut out, the better.
What are H/M/L Ratings?
You’ll sometimes find an H, M or L rating on your ear plugs. This stands for High, Medium and Low frequency and gives a numerical rating to the amount of high, medium and low frequency sound they cut out.
OK, now grab yourself some of the best earplugs and go RIDE!