Motorcycle Hearing Protection & Helmet Audio

I think we can all agree, that hearing protection should be part of your kit when riding. It’s like a decent riding jacket or pants, you don’t want to wish you had it when you need it.

Hearing damage is something that creeps up on you. By the time you realize you have it, it’s often too late to do anything about it.

If you suffer or have a friend or relative with Tinnitus (ringing in the ear) you know it can be a nightmare.

If you are not currently not using any form of hearing protection whilst riding, please get some and thank me later. The bottom line, something is better than nothing.

The options are endless, from cheap foam plugs, off-the-shelf, one-size-fits-all all plugs, to all singing and dancing custom molded ear inserts, with integrated Bluetooth speakers.

I’m not going to cover all the current market options, we would be here forever, I’m just going to talk about my experience and why I choose what I currently use.

I have tried a multitude of options, cheap and expensive over the years, and always come back to the same two options depending on the ride. Custom-molded earplugs from “Ultimate Ear” and cheap off-the-shelf wired earbuds from “Skullcandy”.

Let’s take a look at what I have tried and why I finally set on the earplugs and earbuds combination.

First up, hearing protection.

Motorcycle Earplugs

I tried a bunch of the off-the-shelf, one-size-fits-all, different in-ear hearing protection products, my favorite being the “NoNoise” plugs that come in a small cylindrical metal container. They have small ceramic filters and I found they did a pretty good job of blocking out road and wind noise, but still able to hear horns, sirens, etc around me. Also, I found them comfortable and had no issues wearing them on long rides.

nonoise Earplugs
nonoise Earplugs

Word of warning, don’t push them all the way in if you have fat fingers, as you might have trouble getting them out.

They are about US$30 on Amazon or from Revzilla etc.

Custom Molded Motorcycle Earplugs

Let’s get straight to it, I will never go back to off-the-shelf earplugs.
Custom-molded earplugs whilst obviously more expensive are just a lot better, period, the end.

I was at a motorcycle event (ABR Festival)in the UK and had zero intention of buying custom-molded earplugs. I had my “NoNoise” plugs and they worked a treat… so I thought

Ultimate Ear Protection had a stand and was offering decent discounts. I got chatting with the guy at the stand and the rest was history. He took an impression of my ears, we talked about specs and around 10 days later I had my shiny new custom-molded earplugs.

Website:
https://ultimateear.com/product-category/motorcycle-ear-plugs/


Let me tell you, they are so much more comfortable and do an excellent job of blocking out wind and road noise. They are made from a soft silicone-type material, are filtered (23 or 29dB), and come in a small carrying case. They might be 2-3x the price of the off-the-shelf plugs, but they are 10x better in my opinion.

At the bottom of the page, I have posted photos of some of the custom-molded earplug vendors.
If you look online, you will come across many. Do your due diligence, read the reviews and I’m sure you will not regret the purchase.

For everyday riding, when I’m not touring or traveling long distances I tend to use my molded earplugs. When I’m touring, I prefer to listen to some music while I’m riding.

I’m sure this is not unique to me, but I have noticed a pattern in my ear protection usage when touring. I tend to start off the day with the molded earplugs, then swap them out for the earbuds and some music, then pop the molded earplugs back in at the end of the day. I’m guessing it’s an awareness thing. Wake up before listening to music and turn it off before falling asleep 🙂

That said, it makes for an easy transition to helmet speakers.

Helmet Speakers

Sorry, but I have yet to hear a decent set of in-helmet speakers. I personally like to actually listen to music with some bass, clear vocals, and not tinny and muffled by wind and road noise, etc.

My adventure into helmet speakers started when I bought a Sena 10U Bluetooth Headset for my Shoei Neotec. As I recall, I paid around US$270 from Revzilla, not so cheap.

Let’s cut to the chase, disappointing was an understatement.

Sena 10U Kit
Sena 10U Kit

This was my first experience with in-helmet speakers, the volume was low and the audio quality for music was very underwhelming. The only positive was that voice audio was ok and usable, plus the audio controls on the side of the helmet and on the handlebar remote worked fine. Bottom line, FAIL and returned for a refund.

Next…

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Sena 30K

One of the reasons I brought the Sena 30K is it had a 3.5mm audio out jack, I was trying to cover my bases, just in case the in-helmet speakers didn’t work out. In hindsight a smart move for once 🙂

The Sena 30K came with decent size “HD” 40mm speakers. From a pure specification standpoint, a lot better than the speakers that came with my previous Sena 10U unit.

Website:
https://www.sena.com/product/30k

Sena 30K Unit
Sena 30K Unit
Sena 30K Installed in my Neotec
Sena 30K installed in my Neotec

I fitted the speakers in my Neotec helmet, no issues, played around with them, got them mounted nice and close to my ears without touching them, etc. Once again, the audio was not that great. Better than the 10U speakers, but nowhere close to the audio quality of a cheap set of earbuds. Maybe it’s my ears?

Next…

Updated Helmet Speakers

After reading a bunch of reviews on upgrading the Sena 30K speakers (I guess I wasn’t the only one disappointed), I opted for a speaker upgrade kit from an Italian company called “InterPhone”. I will not bore you with the details, but let’s just say they were only slightly better than the Sena 30K stock speakers.

InterPhone Neotec Kit
InterPhone Neotec kit

On the upside, I made a 2 step marginal improvement over the original Sena 10U setup, but at this rate, it was going to cost a fortune for decent in-helmet audio.

Before we get into the earbuds, below is a photo of the buds from various manufacturers I have collected to date. It’s not easy being me. LOL!

Replaceable Earbuds
Replaceable Earbuds

Bluetooth Earbuds

I brought myself a set of Sony Bluetooth earbuds. They had great reviews on Amazon, small footprint, and flat cables. I used a small Bluetooth controller mounted on my handlebars, paired to my iPhone alone with the Sony earbuds. Happy days!


Not quite…

The problem I encountered was the relatively short lead length between the earbuds. The small battery pack and controller would sometimes get stuck in my jacket collar, so when I turned my head, it would tug on one of the earbuds, either slightly or completely pulling it out. At first, I lived with it, but after a while, it became annoying, so time for Plan F!

Time to use the Sena 30K 3.5mm audio jack.

Cheap Earbuds

I brought myself a set of US$15 Skullcandy earbuds and plugged them into the Sena 30K audio out jack.


The Skullcandy earbuds have a small footprint so don’t crush my ears when I put my helmet on. The cable is very thin so doesn’t cause an issue. The sound quality is decent and they have 3-4 different size buds (ear inserts) so you can play with them to get just the right fit and ambient noise (wind/engine) reduction.

So after 2 yrs, more $$$ than I care to remember, the cheapest option saved the day!

Also, these days, I tend to only use the Sena 30K when I’m touring with people and want some communication between us. When I’m not using the Sena 30K, I plug the earbuds directly into my iPhone that I keep in my jacket. Simple!

More on that down below.

How do I control my music?

Another question I get asked is how do I control the music, skip tracks, volume, etc?
Before I answer that. Note that I’ll skip the Sena 10U and 30K controls, as I found both of them clunky and not very intuitive, so never really used them to control my music.

Bluetooth Handelbar Controller

My first attempt at an easy-to-use and intuitive music control device was a small round controller, mounted on my handlebars. This was stupid simple, and worked fine, apart from the fact the controller was not waterproof and needed charging via a micro USB port.

You can pick these up pretty cheap (US$20-30) on Amazon.

Bluetooth Controller
Bluetooth Controller

As is often the case, the stupid simple solution is a lot more intuitive than the multiple click or button presses you need to go through on modern-day devices like the Sena 30K.

If all you want to do is listen to music and easily control it, buy some cheap earbuds and a Bluetooth controller. Total cost US$40-50.

KTM My Ride

As of the time of this article, I ride a KTM 890 and 390 ADV, so pair the phone with the bike’s “KTM MY Ride” Bluetooth unit, and control the music via the handlebar controls and dashboard. It works great and is a big step up from the Bluetooth handlebar controller above 🙂

You can Pause, Play, Skip Tracks, and adjust the Volume all via the handlebars. The display shows the song you are playing and how long remaining.

KTM MyRide Dashboard View
KTM MyRide Dashboard View
KTM MyRide Handlebar Controls
KTM MyRide Handlebar Controls

Website:
https://www.ktm.com/en-int/my-ride.html

Answers to questions I’m asked:

Should I wear earplugs on my motorcycle?

Yes. Long-term exposure to wind noise and the general noise you encounter riding a bike can cause hearing loss or issues over time. It creeps up on you and it’s often too late to fix, once you realize you have a problem.

dB levels will change depending on helmet fit etc, but as a general guideline, wind noise in most helmets at around 100 kmh is between 95 to 105 dB. According to hearing experts, prolonged exposure to these decibel levels will eventually lead to hearing issues.

Some people spend more time looking after their bikes than they do themselves. Treat your ears and the rest of your body like your motorcycle. It needs preventative maintenance to keep it working as it should, so you avoid potential issues in the future.

Can motorcycle riding cause Tinnitus?

Yes. Tinnitus is when you have ringing or odd noises in one or both ears.
In many cases, Tinnitus eventually goes away, but for 5-15% of sufferers it develops into “Chronic Tinnitus”, which can be a nightmare, so do whatever you can to avoid Tinnitus or hearing loss in general. Use some form of hearing protection when you ride.

Is it illegal to listen to music whilst riding?

This is a bit of a grey area. In some places, yes. It’s usually classed as “Distracted Driving” and comes with a fine, license suspension, points, or all of the above. Best to double-check before riding in unfamiliar territory, just in case it’s illegal to use earbuds or helmet speakers whilst riding.

e.g. In some USA states, it’s illegal to ride with earbuds, but ok with built-in helmet speakers.

What earplugs do MotoGP riders use?

From what I have seen, most use custom-molded earplugs. It’s the way to go in regards to comfort and offering the best hearing protection.

Do noise-canceling earbuds work on a motorcycle?

Yes and no, in my experience. I have tried them (Apple AirPods Pro), but to be honest, never felt comfortable as it blocked out too much external noise. The other issue was the fit, as noise-canceling earbuds tend to be bulkier, so fit and getting the helmet on and off can be an issue.

Molded Ear Plug Vendor Brochures