Opinion: Protecting Your Hearing

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I’ve ridden almost all my motorcycling life without earplugs. My hearing’s fine. I wrote about this a few years back, making the point that those squidgy foam plugs always fall out of my ears, and I always lose more expensive plugs.

It can get loud, though, when my head’s in the wind and my helmet only blocks so much of the noise. My ears can ring after a long ride, and that’s not good. So when I went to the motorcycle show in 2017 and had my ears fitted for a pair of custom silicone ear plugs from Big Ears, I thought I’d found the solution. They stay put and block something like 30 decibels of noise.

Those custom plugs, however, are still not ideal for riding your bike because they block so much sound. I like to wear them on the highway and for longer rides, but I’ve gone back to not wearing them on regular roads because I can’t hear my bike or all the other sounds that make riding pleasant.

Other people I know don’t wear them because they like to listen to music while riding, and they can’t hear the music through an ear full of silicone. There’s a solution, of course: custom ear plugs with tiny speakers included inside them, so all you hear is the music, clear as a bell. They’re expensive, though: Big Ears will charge you $600 USD and up for a pair, and they still block all road sound.

As well, there are quieter and noisier helmets. Sena now makes a noise-cancelling helmet that uses electronic trickery to mute wind noise, but I’ve never tried it so I can’t recommend it.

There is, however, the alternative solution of using filtered ear plugs. These are small plugs fitted with a plastic tube that’s designed to allow sound in but filter out the sharp edges of noise. Again, Big Ears will sell you a custom silicone pair for $250 USD, but Vibes now makes a pair that cost $37.95 CDN. They sent me a sample to try out.

Vibes filtered ear plugs are available on Amazon.ca for $37.95. Mark got this set for free, but he’ll buy another pair when he loses these ones.

They don’t look like much. Just a couple of small plastic sticks with white rubbery tips, and three different sizes of tips for the right fit. Just poke them in each ear and you’re done. They’re comfortable, they don’t fall out, and they really can’t be seen.

Vibes will tell you all the hearing science behind them on its website, but long story short, they “lower the volume of all sounds equally, from bass to treble, which allows you to hear sound clearly, just at a quieter volume.” They drop about 22 decibels from the wind noise, speaker noise and everything else going into your ear, without actually muffling anything at all.

I put them in, put on my helmet and went for a ride.

They didn’t seem to do much. I could still hear the wind, the potato-potato noises from the exhaust, the conversation with people at the lights. I rode for about 15 minutes and they didn’t seem to do anything at all. So I pulled over and took them out and set off again.

Hoo-Boy! Was it ever loud this time!

On the same stretch of road, at the same speed and with the same sideways wind, I could suddenly hear all the rasps and hisses and whines of the slipstream that I hadn’t realized were removed before. After five minutes, I stopped and put the Vibes ear plugs back in and set off and the difference was immediately noticeable.

All this time, all these decades, I’ve been hitting my ears with all this extra noise and just never noticed it. I stopped a few more times and removed and replaced the Vibes plugs and I couldn’t quite believe it.

Now, with the filtered plugs, I can ride and appreciate the full experience of my bike. I still have the silicone plugs for a long highway ride, or when I want to just block out everything and sink deep into my own thoughts, but for regular riding, I don’t want to assault my ears with all that extra clatter. From now on, while I still have hearing to protect, I intend to ride with filtered ear plugs.

The great thing is, when I lose the plugs, which I will at some point during the season despite the handy carrying case, they’re not going to break the bank to replace. But if you don’t use ear plugs when riding, have you checked out the price of hearing aids recently?

Vibes filtered ear plugs are sold through Amazon in Canada and in the U.S., or directly from the maker’s web site. I got my sample pair for free, but I won’t hesitate to buy replacements when I lose them. And I will lose them.

9 COMMENTS

  1. After years of using power equipment, landscaping, I’ve now got fairly constant tinnitus. Almost any constant noise, however low the volume, results in an immediate flair up. For riding I used to use the cheap foam plugs, bit on longer rides they cause painful pressure points. A few years ago, I also obtained a pair of the custom silicone plugs at the Vancouver show, but I discovered that while they drastically reduced the db’s, they also seem to transmit certain frequencies too. This more ringing. For the past two seasons, I’ve been happily using Moto-safe plugs: basically two tiered silicone mushroom caps, on a central stem. Because my ear canals are a bit twisty, they can occassionlly come loose, but the sound dampening and comfort are great, and I can still hear important sounds just fine, including from the headset.

  2. Take it from one that knows. Protect you hearing. One day the ringing NEVER goes away. All good for years until the day it’s not. And you don’t get a do-over, or get to wind the clock back one day prior. It’s NEVER quiet in my world anymore, and it stinks.

  3. I went to a hearing care professional 16 years ago, cost me 100$ at the time and I still wear them, in fact, I can not hit the road without them. With Super Tenere 2011, I had to put them even for a 5 minute ride. But I will try a pair similar to that one, for the city, like Mark is doing, when you don’t need to block that much. There are pairs cheeper than the Vibes on Amazon… Just saying 😉

  4. Hi Mark. Interesting piece you wrote there. I’ve been riding with foam earplugs for the last 10 years of more. Didn’t for the first 20 years though. I can’t ride without them anymore, since I am very noise sensitive and find it so disturbing that I lose my concentration in noisy environments. I had been looking at similar earplugs than those your tested and was wondering if they would be lowering the noise enough for me. I guess I’ll give them a try.

  5. My first pair of Big Ears plugs often popped out as my helmet was removed. I showed the plugs to the Big Ears crew at the booth at the motorcycle show and explained the problem I was having. They inspected my ear plugs and determined the plugs had not been finished at the outside edges properly. They supplied me with a new set at no charge and left the original plugs with me. I purchased another pair while at the show. The new pairs stay in my jackets. The original pair still get used during activities not requiring a helmet.

  6. I had a pair of the Big Ear plugs made, based on your review a few years ago.
    Frankly, for me they are useless when riding, as they always slip out of place when I put my helmet on.
    They are quite decent for other applications though, like if you’re trying to sleep on an airplane or in a noisy motel.

    • If they slip out of place, maybe they protrude out too far. That’s the great thing about my Big Ears plugs, that once I twist them in, they stay put and don’t move at all, not even when I remove my helmet.

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