Riding a Motorcycle With Earphones vs. In-helmet Comms
Every so often I look back on my earlier, simpler days riding motorcycles. I’ll think about my 1978 Honda CB750, my $100 open-face Fulmer helmet, and my deerskin work gloves. Then I’ll look down at the cellphone mounted to my handlebars, turn up the volume on the song I’m listening to, and continue motoring smoothly down the road. It’s a different experience, not better or worse, but more casual.
Older riders tell me it’s a millennial thing, which makes sense as audio storage and delivery technology has come a very long way in the last few decades, but I have been riding with music for years. Like occasionally driving a car, it’s become part of the transportation experience. For the last five years or so, this meant riding with a Cardo or Sena unit in my helmet, but there’s one problem with putting speakers over your ears: You have to turn them up loud enough to hear over all of the other noise.
It must be mentioned that blocking out all sound can be dangerous. It’s still necessary to be able to hear car horns, police sirens, and so on. Therefore, wearing headphones while riding is illegal in some states. In California, it is actually illegal to have a headset covering your ears, earplugs in them, or earphones covering, resting on, or inserted in both ears. Technically, most comms and even foam earplugs are illegal, unless you only run a single ear, which seems silly. Be sure to check your local laws and ride safely. Be alert, and if you’re entering a high-traffic or high-risk area, turn off your music to help you focus on your surroundings.
And let’s not kid ourselves: Helmet communications systems can bash your ears, and anyone who tells you music in your helmet sounds just as good through foam earplugs is lying to you. But make no mistake: earplugs are a necessary evil if you want to save your hearing. You miss out on clean, bright treble, and usually some of the midrange gets lost too, but in exchange you hold out hope of being able to hear your bike purr down the road for many more years to come, not to mention holding everyday conversation at a normal volume.
Rider-to-rider intercoms tend to work just fine, so long as, again, you can turn up the volume loud enough to hear over the other noise. But at that point you’re just stacking volume on top of volume. Speakers on a motorcycle’s fairing or saddlebags work OK, but they’re expensive upgrades and can be obnoxious for everyone else on the road. I figured there had to be another solution.
A quick google confirmed that motorcycle-specific earphone options were limited. I’ve tried riding with all different types in the past. They usually fall out when I pull my helmet on, wiggle their way out eventually, or worse, cause discomfort and pain after riding for a while. I wanted to find a pair that would block out some of the outside noise and, yes, fit comfortably in my helmet for hours on end.
I found a brand named Snugs that specializes in in-ear headphones and headphone fittings for a variety of applications, including SnugsMoto, which were exactly what I was looking for: Bluetooth-enabled custom-fit headphones designed to go underneath a motorcycle helmet. They cost about $340, cheaper if you’d prefer yours without Bluetooth, and are available in 17 colors. Obviously I went with the Pastel Pink Glitter.
I had two options. I could go into a hearing aid store or something similar somewhere near my home and have my ears scanned digitally, or I could have physical impressions made and mail them in. Luckily, I had some custom foam earplugs made at a motorcycle convention a few years ago, so I mailed them in. Snugs was able to scan these and make new medical-grade silicone fittings that would hold a single driver inside. After I sent out my impressions, it took about two weeks for my earbuds to show up at my door.
They came in a nice little velvet bag, with a charging cable and a little booklet. I followed the instructions, smeared a little of the “insert balm” on the headphones, and slid them into my ears. To no surprise, they’re a perfect fit.
It took me a second to figure out how far in the drivers need to be in the silicone molds, but once I did, they sounded great. The bass notes are adequate, midrange is clear, highs are bright and crisp. They do lack some of the sonic richness I get from my over-ear Bose headphones, but those would never fit in my helmet.
Each of the earbuds is attached to the bendy Bluetooth neck ring, which houses a microphone for phone calls and allows control of audio volume, skipping or rewinding tracks, and powering the unit on/off. Unfortunately, volume is only as adjustable as your device allows; on my iPhone, levels ranged from 0–16, with 16 being louder than I would ever want to go.
I am easily able to pull on any helmet while wearing the Snugs without disturbing them. I have worn them on a six-hour ride and felt no discomfort whatsoever. In fact, the SnugsMotos work so well that, on a recent day trip with my girlfriend, using Sena’s latest communication system in our helmets made our ears feel like they were about to bleed in comparison. Maybe I’m getting spoiled here, or maybe my ears have just started to heal and are more sensitive now.
But that brings up the one major shortcoming when compared to comms: These are essentially just for music when you’re on the bike, not intercom or phone calls. Phone calls will work, and can be answered with your helmet on, but as the unit locates the microphone outside of your helmet and below your chin, it’s going to be hard for anyone to hear you over any engine and wind noise.
About that; the SnugsMotos block out most major noise, but not all of it. Without audio input, I can still hear my engine and traffic noises around me, which I personally find ideal. Inside my helmet, wind noise is brought down to a dull roar, noticeable when the Snugs are powered off, but not something that the volume in the headphones has to fight over while in use.
I have long hair, so the Snugs’ bendy collar can get sort of lost between that and the collar of my jacket, but as long as I make sure to tuck it in right before I take off it isn’t an issue. The buttons at the left side are a bit tough to feel with gloves on, but not a problem once I got used to their functions.
As far as battery life is concerned, the most I can definitively say is that they will last more than six hours, as I was never able to run them out of battery on a ride. If they do run out of battery…bummer. Now you just have a nice set of earplugs, as they do not allow for use while charging.
After my time using the Snugs, it’s been hard to go back to bare ears in a helmet, with or without comms equipped. They’re better earplugs than the ones I had been using and a much better music delivery system. Sure, I can no longer pick up my phone, voice text, or activate Siri in my helmet, but that doesn’t really bother me. At $340, they’re about the price of a top-shelf helmet communications system. I much prefer these for solo riding, and my ears thank me. For now, these SnugsMotos are a valuable component of my daily riding kit.
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