There is absolutely no doubt that exposure to noise levels in excess of 100 db (common in motorcycling) causes cumulative hearing damage. 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.
Lots of experienced riders say that earplugs make riding less tiring and stressful. They let you focus better on riding. They minimize the wind and exhaust noise that can really soak up your attention. (And that constant wind noise really tires you out. Try it and see.)
People who have never worn earplugs are concerned that they won't be able to hear things they need to hear while wearing them. What plugs do is remove a lot of noise (wind, exhaust blat) that you don't need to hear, but still let in sirens, horns, engine noise, and so forth.
Most riders use disposable store-bought plugs and are quite content with them. They can be found in the pharmacy section of many stores, or in larger quantities inexpensively online (see below).
You can also get a pair of custom fitted earplugs made by an. These are cast 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. People have had differing luck with the custom-made ones. If you decide to go this route, make sure you wear your helmet when getting the mold made. Another thing some people do is coat them in something (Duke uses Neosporin, others use Vaseline) which helps with sealing. All this makes a lot of people just stick with regular foam plugs.
Earplugs should fit snugly in the ear canal. There should be nothing sticking out of your ear for the helmet to be able to knock out....
The plugs must also seal well in your ears. You can easily tell when this happens. If you find a pair of plugs that seal well in your ear canals but stick out too far, you can always cut them off. Sometimes cutting some off the inside helps them seal as well. You could also get a "skull cap" and pull it down over your ears. It should hold the plugs in place while putting on a helmet (and have the additional benefit of making your head drip in sweat).
Just like people, ears come in all sizes and shapes. You can't really tell what size you need until you try some out, as large people can have small ears and vice-versa. That's one reason why getting a trial pack of many different kinds and finding the best one for you is a good idea. Shown below is the difference in size between the Mack's SafeSound Jr (left) and Howard Leight Max (right).
Copyright by Ian Johnston
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. There are a couple different samplers available:
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. This also does not show all the earplugs currently available at The Earplug Store.
Any of the high-scoring plugs in this comparison seem like a fine choice. 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 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.
My recommendation is to either 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) or get one of the sampler packs. Try them all out. You'll end up wasting some of them, but given the fact that you won't really know what fits until you try them on, this is the best way to figure out which ones will work.
Ride with each plug in, ideally back to back and in similar conditions. Figure out which one works well for you, then buy a bunch 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 canister (do they still make those?), or any other small plastic container, to keep them from getting dirty. Even a ziploc bag works great. People worried about ear infections may not want to use plugs more than once.
SilentEar silicone earplugs
As part of my quest for good earplugs, I gave the silicone SilentEar plugs a try. These are reuseable, so they're more of a one-time investment. For less than $20 for the size assortment, I figured it'd be worth a try.
As I'd expected, I needed the medium size in my left ear and the large in my right. They were a little strange to insert, since they have a slick surface compared to foam plugs, and they need to slide into place.
A quick test fitting at home seemed to show promise, so I left them in and got ready to go for a test ride. Almost as soon as I got my helmet on the right plug developed a "leak", and I could hear at full volume again from that ear. I pulled off my helmet and seated the plug again. I got the helmet on without incident, but before I'd even started moving, the plug was "leaking" again. I stopped 500 yards down the road and swapped to standard foam ones.
It seemed that even the slightest jaw movement would dislodge one or both of the plugs. When they were seated and sealed they seemed promising. Unfortunately, they unseated again so quickly that there was really no point in pursuing them. Based on my own experience, I do not recommend these plugs. They might be worth a try, but it seems like the chance that they'll happen to fit you exactly right probably isn't worth the price of admission; for about the same price you can get a box of 200 pairs of good foam earplugs, which are much more likely to fit and seal every time.
I tried several dozen different plugs from the Earplug Store. 90% were immediately dismissed as of the first insertion. After trying everything I could find on that site and at Wal-Mart (including custom molded plugs) I found the SilentEar plugs sealed the canal best and seemed to be the most effective.
I prefer plugs that go deep into the canal to get a good seal. In a side impact (like falling to the side and banging the side of my helmet on the pavement) I can envision the little grab handle extension on some plugs driving the earplug in too far and rupturing the eardrum. Not good. The SilentEar plugs have a different way for you to grab them. The system works pretty well; I find them easy to grab and extract, but nothing hard sticking out of your ear to cause problems.
These are fairly quiet, but like many plugs are dependent on a tight seal. A NRR33 plug without a tight seal would be pretty much useless. The SilentEars come in 3 sizes. The medium is too loose for me, but the largest is tight and stretches my canal a little (giving a good seal).
I found them a little uncomfortable at first when inserting, though actually wearing them is not uncomfortable, like some other plugs I have tried. I am used to them now and don't even think about it. I also moisten them before inserting; this makes them go in easier and seals better.
Since fit is such a personal thing, and most of the plugs are inexpensive, I have no regrets about the waste associated with buying several trial assortments. What did I spend, maybe $50 or so? I am cheap about a lot of things, but scrimping on hearing protection (a very real issue) seems penny wise and pound foolish.
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. Look in the hunting section. Make sure you read the reviews on the Cabela's site. Some people like these; some don't.
The Windjammer II inserts around the bottom of your helmet. It can keep unwanted noise and airflow out.