There is absolutely no doubt that exposure to noise levels in excess of 100 db causes cumulative. Worse yet, this is hearing loss that you can never recover. Once it goes away, it's gone forever. Eventually you are likely to develop , a constant 'singing' or 'whistling' in your ears that overlays everything you hear. No fun.
The best solution is a pair of custom fitted earplugs made by an. These are cast out of space age polymers from molds made in your own ears and contain a tiny valve that allows low level sounds to be heard, while at the same time cutting out everything that's above a given sound pressure. You can still hear sirens, horns, and so forth, but the wind noise is pretty much gone. (And that constant wind noise really tires you out. Try it and see.) Most riders use disposable store-bought plugs and are quite content with them. They can be found in the pharmacy section of many stores.
Written June 24, 2005
Several years ago, I bought a box of 200 pairs of 3M 1100 earplugs online. When these ran out, I bought a box of 200 pairs of Moldex Pura-Fit plugs, but discovered that they didn't seal in my right ear very well, leaving me feeling like my head was on sideways.
The 1100s had served me well, but when they ran out and the Moldexes didn't live up to my expectations, I thought I'd take advantage of a "sampler pack" offered by The Ear Plug Store. (Yes, they have everything on the Internet!)
They shipped me, for the princely sum of $11.95 plus shipping, two pairs each of 13 different brands and models of disposable, uncorded foam earplugs. The models are as follows, in descending order of Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) value:
I sat down and tried each one in turn, and took notes on what I thought. Omitting my singular problem of having a right ear canal one size larger than the left one, the notes I took seemed useful. So, I decided to more formally rate the different plugs based on my first-hand observations.
For these ratings, I took the following factors into account:
Packaging: how hard to open? how bulky/wasteful? how likely to make me drop an earplug on the dirty, gritty ground, destroying it for my use?
Expansion speed: do the plugs expand too fast or slow to be useful?
Pressure: how much pressure do I feel on my ear canals once they're fully expanded? (ie, how much will they suck 2 hours from now?)
Comfort: how comfortable are they to put in? to take out? to have in, aside from pressure?
I dig numbers, so I've given each plug a potential ten in each category, for a possible total of 40. Points are deducted depending on how much each plug sucks in that category. I've also included a size assessment, which is my personal opinion on whether the plug is small, average, or large in size. (This will affect your comfort rating.)
Note that these ratings do not take NRR into account. All these plugs range from 29 to 33 NRR, which are all great for motorcycling, so I don't consider NRR to be a rating-worthy factor until you've found the one or two you like. Then, higher NRR makes a difference.
Any of the high-scoring plugs in this comparison seem like a fine choice. I really like the Howard Leight packaging, which makes it easy to get to the plugs without much risk of accidentally tossing them across the road.
Plug fit is incredibly important, and will determine comfort, noise reduction, pressure, and how cranky you are at the end of that 500 mile day. NRR is important, but merely having an earplug is such a huge improvement over not having an earplug that I recommend you choose comfort over NRR. It's vital that you put in the earplugs, and if they're uncomfortable, you're less likely to do that.
Avoid! avoid! avoid! the plugs rated 20 and under in the list. They ranged from really uncomfortable to downright painful. They're also among the least effective plugs in the range, so there's really nothing to recommend them.
Price may inspire you to choose bad plugs, but I put it to you that your hearing is literally beyond monetary value -- once it's gone, there is no science or magic which will bring it back. It's gone forever. Riding a motorcycle for more than 15 or 20 minutes, or at speeds higher than 40-50 MPH will damage your hearing, permanently.
So, I guess my recommendation is order up a pair of each of the likely looking plugs from the list (The Ear Plug Store will sell you an individual pair of each type, to test), and try them out. I can guarantee you that the low-rated plugs aren't even worth trying, so buying the sampler pack is something of a waste.
Ride with each plug in, ideally back to back and in similar conditions. Figure out which one works well for you, then buy a crapload of them so you never worry about "wasting" them. These plugs can all be worn multiple times, but by the time they're visibly dirty, toss them and use a new pair. In between uses, you can use a plastic film cannister to keep them from getting dirty, or any other small plastic container. Even a ziploc bag works great.
For me personally, it's a toss-up between the 3M 1100s, which I've used happily for years, the Howard Leight MAXes, and the Moldex Spark Plugs. All are large (fitting my large right ear canal well), all are tapered cone shapes, and all are comfortable for me.
Because of the stupid packaging and the hard edge on the base of the cone, the Spark Plugs are out.
Comparing between the 1100s and the MAXes, the higher NRR of the MAXes takes on some importance. As I put each plug in for a direct, back-to-back comparison, I find that the most important factor is actually the fit in my right ear, and the MAXes are a little bit better. Pressure of each plug is about equal, and I believe long-term comfort will be about equal, with the MAXes possibly edging out the 1100s.
Ultimately, for myself, I am going to order a big box of the Howard Leight MAX earplugs for my motorcycle use.
Update, May 2006
I actually made this decision many months ago, but just now realized I forgot to post the update here.
After several attempts to use the MAX plugs over the course of a couple weeks, I kept having difficulty getting the right-side plug to seat properly and seal. Despite generally liking the MAX plugs better, and finding them to be more effective, my ability to reliably seat the 1100s had me ordering another box of the 3Ms.
I still recommend the MAXes over the 1100s, if they fit in your ears.
Copyright 2005-2006 by Ian Johnston.
The webBikeWorld Hearing Protection page has reviews and links to many pages of information on this topic.
Some club members have had good luck with the Custom-Molded Earplugs from Cabela's. A type of these are also available from The Earplug Store. Wal-Mart has been known to carry them also, although whether or not they'll have them next week is anybody's guess. Look in the hunting section. Make sure you read the reviews on the Cabela's site. Some people like these; some don't.