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Mark Richardson wearing the fitted silicone ear plugs by Big Ears.Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

Just a few years ago, other motorcyclists started questioning me whenever I’d reach for my helmet before a ride.

“You don’t wear protection?” they’d ask. I’d shrug. I’d be wearing my jacket, boots and gloves – I was kitted out.

“For your ears,” they’d say, and again I’d shrug. My helmet was pretty quiet inside and foam plugs always worked loose. Even so, my ears had started to ring sometimes after a longer ride. When I next went to a motorcycle show, a friend persuaded me to get fitted with a pair of custom silicone earplugs. The difference was immediate. The custom plugs muffled all sound and I could hear the blood inside my head. There was no more ringing, but it wasn’t a comfortable feeling, and I rarely wore the plugs. After all, my hearing’s just fine.

Except it probably isn’t. Hearing loss is usually so gradual that people rarely notice it. In conversation, our brains apparently fill in the words we don’t quite hear with a guess at their probability and never realize we’re doing it. And on a motorcycle, when the wind is reverberating around your helmet and your ears and the engine is rumbling, it can easily be loud enough to damage your hearing.

There are no scientific studies that show motorcyclists have had their hearing damaged by the wind noise – any long-term effect could have been caused by numerous other factors. However, there are German, Dutch and British studies of police riders in wind tunnels that show the level of wind noise in their helmets is generally around 90 decibels at 60 kilometres an hour, rising to 110 decibels at 160 kilometres an hour. In contrast, a rock concert is usually no louder than 110 decibels, and hearing will be harmed by any prolonged exposure above 85 decibels.

Riders get used to it quickly and don’t believe any harm is done, but the 16,000 tiny hair cells in each inner ear, called cilia, can be irreversibly damaged. The cilia send electrical signals to the brain to register sound. Without them, you might as well be living under water.

“The best way to picture it – and they’ve done this in a number of microscopic studies – is that you see these nice rich fields of hair cells, and then after noise damage, it just looks like a storm came blasting through and knocked all the trees down,” says Chris Schweitzer, an audiologist in Boulder, Colo. “And eventually, some of them are just swept away into the body’s absorption mechanism and you just see empty, bare stumps where they used to be.”

Schweitzer is a director of Hear 4-U International, which consulted in the design of EarPeace earplugs, which come in custom and off-the-shelf versions for musicians, concertgoers, motorcycle riders and even people who want to get more sleep. I called him to ask whether wearing earplugs can improve a rider’s hearing, or just limit further damage. I told him that sometimes I would experience ringing in my ears after a longer ride, which is called tinnitus.

“Tinnitus is a flag [of damage], and if you have that, I’d encourage you to protect your hearing and still be able to enjoy the ride,” he said. Nothing can be done to physically improve our hearing, other than wear a hearing aid to stimulate what’s left of the cilia more aggressively. Humans can lose up to half of their cilia before they notice any hearing loss. If you can’t hear well, not only are you going to find it harder to follow conversations and enjoy music, but studies have shown that even mild hearing loss is linked with walking problems, falls and even dementia.

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EarPeace earplugs come in custom and off-the-shelf versions for musicians, concertgoers, motorcycle riders and even people who want to get more sleep.Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

The fitted silicone earplugs from the motorcycle show – which cost almost $100 after tax – help considerably, as would cheap foam earplugs if only they’d stay inside my ears. They reduce noise by up to 30 decibels, keeping it well within safe levels. They also reduce the sound level of horns and sirens, which is why they’re illegal to use while driving in some American states. As well, if I wear them, I cannot hear music or intercom speech through the speakers fitted inside my helmet.

So next I tried filtered earplugs, which are supposed to reduce noise without distorting sound. I was sent a pair of Vibes to try and they worked effectively. A small plastic tube through the soft silicone ear tips allows sound to enter the ear, but at a lower level and with the higher and lower frequencies refined. Vibes claims up to a 22-decibel reduction and when I wore them while riding, I could hear clearly enough to have comfortable conversations while not enduring the raspy hiss of the wind. I could also hear sound on my helmet speakers without turning up the volume to unsafe levels.

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Vibes ear plugs are much cheaper than the custom-fitted plugs, costing US$28.95, and are fully washable for unlimited use.Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

The Vibes are much cheaper than the custom-fitted plugs, costing US$28.95, and are washable for unlimited use. I found the plastic tubes to be a little long, however, and they would sometimes twist in my ear, or catch on my helmet when I removed it. So I was happy to try a pair of EarPeace earplugs when they were offered to me.

The EarPeace plugs have shorter, better-integrated plastic tubes with interchangeable filters, either with 20- or 24-decibel reduction. I tried the MotoPro, which cost US$39.95, but the original Moto version is US$10 cheaper and uses a simpler filter – the sound quality is apparently less precise. I can wear the EarPeace plugs all day long and forget they’re there, and at the end of it all, there’s no ringing or discomfort in my ears. I even wear them to concerts. They’re my go-to protection. I wear the custom silicone plugs for sleeping in noisy environments.

There are many other makes of quality earplugs, mostly around the same price and effectiveness: Loop, Eargasm, Alpine, Softvox, Pinlock and others. Some are made from silicone, others from latex or thermoplastic elastomer – a plastic with a soft, rubbery feel – for those with easily irritated skin. To compare them, type the names into Google or Reddit and see what works for you.

You can spend hundreds of dollars on custom plugs with speakers fitted inside, or less than a quarter on single-use foam plugs. But if you ride a motorcycle, whatever you do, put something in your ears to protect them. When you lose your hearing, there’s no getting it back.

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Mark Richardson's fitted silicone ear plugs by Big Ears.Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

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