Allroad Riding and Hearing Protection
Riding an allroad touring motorcycle and protecting one of the sensitive senses, hearing is very important for the quality of life. Once the damage is done, there is no going back to reverse the harm done for the ears. Riding all day long is exhausting for ears too and taking care of the ears, is the same as wearing a proper riding suit. A good riding suit protects the rider from the elements, keeping the rider fit and energetic the whole day. A good hearing protection makes the same and without any hearing protection, the ride becomes soon tired and may experience tinnitus, stress, loss of concentration and afterwards a loss of hearing and sleep disturbances. Already at the noise level of 80dB (tractor cab), ear protection is highly recommend. The level of motorcycle riding noise easily reaches 90dB, even within the speed limits and 2 hours of exposure would be the daily limit before a permanent damage is likely to come.
I have been using tapered E.A.R Soft FX earplugs (SNR33) for a long time and it`s more like a routine to roll & insert. The 33dB absorption effect is one of the best and allows the use a helmet intercom too. The down side is that the wrinkle free rolling becomes more difficult when using the same pair of earplugs several days in a row. The best seller E.A.R Classic earplugs pressed slightly too hard for me and made long touring days slightly painful at the end. Now I would simply not ride without the ear plugs.
Hearing Protection & Low Frequency Turbulence
From the riders point of view, the noise mainly comes from the air turbulence over and around the helmet. Generally helmets are relatively poorly noise insulated and perhaps the best feature from hearing protection point of view would be the aerodynamic shaped. Riding at a highway speed, the noise level can reach 115dB and more at low frequencies (100-400Hz). The loud wind noise at low frequencies decreases steadily after 250Hz up to 6000Hz. Therefore the rider should pay attention especially to the low frequency attenuation abilities of the earplugs and aerodynamics around the helmet and motorcycle wind cover. Even the riding jacket collar and changes in the neck area can make a difference.
Hearing Protection & Decibel Scale
The decibel scale is logarithmic which means that 10dB higher noise is also 10 times higher sound pressure and an exposure of 95dB noise compared to 85dB, is perceived as 2 times louder.
Hearing Protection & Absorption Effect
The hearing protection effect is usually given in decibels (Single Number Rating SNR or Noise Reduction Rate NRR) showing how much noise can be reduced from the total amount of dB. Basically the higher the SNR (EU) or NRR (US) value, the better the noise absorption effect. For example SNR35 absorbs 35dB off from a 100dB noise, reducing the noise level down to 65dB as a result. The SNR absorption effect is divided in 3 HML frequency ranges. The high frequency rage (2000-8000 Hz), the middle range (1000-2000 Hz) and the low range (63-1000 Hz). For example SNR25 could have H26, M22 and L21dB absorption effect which means also that the earplug in question is at it`s best in the high frequency range.
The Australian & New Zealander SLC classification comes from a different angle. It classifies the hearing protectors according to attenuation ability and safe use in noisy environments. The Sound Level Conversion SLC classification scales in 5dB steps and Class 1 hearing protector may be used in noise up to 90dB, the Class 2 protector in 95dB, the Class 3 protector in 100dB and so on. For example SLC27 Class 5 means a 27dB reduction from a 110dB noise results 83dB. Therefore allroad touring motorcyclists should use at least Class 4 protectors on a SLC classification.
Hearing Protection & Passive Earplugs
Most of the motorcycle riders use passive earplugs for hearing protection and there is a wide selection of different types, shapes and brands. There are disposable memory foams, reusable and custom made silicone earplugs at the market. Several disposable memory foam earplug brands are widespread in the world and easily available.
Disposable memory foam earplugs can be found both in cylindrical and tapered shape. The best known and widespread example would be the cylindrical shape E.A.R. Classic which is made of PVC. It still has a competitive noise attenuation level SNR29. The best comfort usually comes with slightly softer and tapered earplugs such as E.A.R. Soft FX which has a SNR33 reduction effect. From the easy inserting point of view the regular E.A.R. Classic still comes one of the first. It`s the easiest to roll and insert which means that the effect is most likely accomplished. The tapered E.A.R. EZ Fit (SNR28) comes the second and the softer E.A.R. Soft FX comes the last. With a right technique, all of them can be inserted properly, but with a wrong technique, the maximum absorption effect is reduced more or less depending how badly it`s done. One disadvantage of using the same memory foam earplugs consecutively is that inserting becomes more difficult due to the loss of the foam memory properties. Washing the memory foam makes it only faster to expand and much more difficult to insert, but most of all, it looses the best attenuation capacity.
Fitting Memory Foam Earplugs
The exact fit and the right method of placing the earplug in the canal, makes all the difference. Rolling and inserting the earplug into the ear canal can be also challenging, but once you know the right method, you are able to reach the best attenuation level with the earplugs in question. Remember to keep your fingers and earplugs clean so that your ears remain also healthy.
When rolling the foam, avoid creating wrinkles, folds or twisting the plug. Simply roll and press the plug first slowly and carefully in your fingertips and then gradually with more force until you have a wrinkle free and narrow roll. Note that you can use at the end all of your finger force, but at first start gently in order to retain the round shape and a wrinkle free surface. The rolling takes about 10 seconds. Then pull your ear leaf outward and upward in order to open the ear canal more straight. Insert the plug into the ear canal. There should be no need to hold or press the plug at all.
When the roll is narrow and wrinkle free, it`s also easy to insert in the ear canal and you do not need to hold it in place. The wrinkle free roll expands quicker than the twisted roll. A twisted roll is not able to expand entirely and can not provide the attenuation level in question. If the roll is not completely compressed and a straight narrow cylinder, it`s too big and difficult to insert. Pressing the plug into the ear canal is an unsuccessful technique. If you find yourself holding the plug in place, it`s simply not deep enough in the canal to begin with.
Reusable earplugs are basically not rolled and compressed before inserting. They are simply pushed in the ear canal with integrated insertion stick. The reusable earplugs can be washed and used again and again. Compared to disposable earplugs, the reusable earplugs are much easier to insert and get in properly. The down side is that they tend to slide out slowly due to the earwax or sweat for example. The friction between the earplug surface and the ear canal keeps the plug in place and as soon as the best friction is more or less compromised, the plug tends to move easily. This is not an issue when using the earplug while working in noisy conditions, but once the allroad rider has the helmet on, there is no easy way to push back the earplugs without taking the helmet. It happens too often and too easy which is quite annoying feature. Even a small movement can reduce the attenuation level down to nothing. The only way to keep the reusable earplugs in place, is to keep the ear canals and earplugs clean at all times which is while touring quite impractical.
The attenuation effect can be also low, for example the E.A.R. EZ Ins offers only 22dB reduction and it`s made of PVC. The MOLDEX Rockets® offers SNR30 and it`s most effective at high frequencies. I have been using reusable QUIT earplugs from Howard Leight (SNR 28 / HML 29/25/23 dB). As long as the Quit earplugs stay in place, the attenuation effect is good enough. The easy slide in without rolling is perfect, but I find it difficult to keep both the ear canal and the earplugs clean, especially in hot conditions when the body is working hard. Also taking the plugs out while having a brake, is good from the canal ventilation point of view, but easily leads to cleaning too.
Custom Made Silicone Earplugs
The best fit, wearing comfort and audio integration comes with the custom made silicone earplugs. They match the ear canal precisely and inserting is quick and easy. Proper custom made earplugs are able to attenuate the noise level down with 31dB. Today the custom made silicone earplugs have also active filtering features, helmet intercom connections and MP3 player interfaces. The active filtering becomes interesting from the riding communications point of view. The active earplug filter simply cuts the noise and filters through the human voice frequency. The rider can hear the helmet intercom speakers, but also speak with other people while wearing the earplugs, for example at the gas stations or when discussing the route options a long the road with other accompany riders.
One down side of custom made earplugs is that the human ear canal changes over time and the earplugs start pressing at some later point. No one knows how soon the change comes. It is quite individual, but estimations vary between 4 to 8 years. Still those years can be easily worth the money, if you are riding more than a little bit. Perhaps the same filters or speakers can be installed again in the new silicone earplugs which would reduce the price slightly.
The custom made MP3 -earplugs with speakers suffer from the narrow space in the ear canal and lower quality of the sound. The space is generally too small for several miniature high quality speakers which would be able to generate together a proper sound quality for music. Even if there were such speakers, there is no room for voice filtering and conversation features which are important from the riding point of view. Therefore custom made MP3 -earplugs are not very impressive and personally I prefer voice filtering features in the earplugs and the music in the helmet COM -speakers. This way the rider can have both. Perhaps in the future these features can be fully integrated also with the mobile phones and the rider would have everything connected in a single set of earplugs with voice filtering, speakers and a microphone. Then changing helmets according to trip and destination would be not a problem any more.
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