Music to My Ears

Music to My Ears

I was browsing through some blog feeds on motorcycle news over the weekend and came across a short review of the new Cardo PackTalk Bold with JBL speakers. It bothered me.

Not because it was a poor review. Not because I dislike the PackTalk Bold – indeed, that is the comms unit that I use and love. Not because I have anything against JBL – they make fine speakers.

But think about it for a second: do we really want louder, more powerful speakers inside our helmets? I think not… for lots of reasons.

At the moment, I connect my PackTalk Bold into some active noise-cancellation ear buds. I find this a better setup, although not everyone would agree with me. The messing around with headphone cables, while donning and doffing my helmet is a pain. But I get nice clear sound, at reasonable volume, with peace and quiet from the outside world.

So, what are the pros and cons of this approach? I value my hearing. I need to use a stethoscope at work. Nobody wants a deaf doctor (not the least of which is having to yell at him about your prostate problem and having the waiting room hear your every word!).

Riding a motorbike is noisy: the WHO report estimates that we suffer at around 90dB. For long distance riding, ear plugs are essential. And I guess, if you are just going to stuff plugs in your ears, you will want those big, powerful JBL speakers.

But is that a safe or optimum approach? Bellowing speakers will drown out passing cars, which is probably not a good idea. And I refuse to join the noise polluters who blast their music via speakers in their bike cowlings.

I had been assuming that my current setup, using my noise-cancelling earbuds was much more sensible… but is there any evidence for that? I went digging. And there is lots of information out there but some of it is confusing.

Well, let’s start with some good news. Believe it or not, we are not all being driven to deafness. While there are several studies showing concern about teenagers playing loud music (and there have been for decades), and there are some links to hearing loss from lots of exposure; but on the whole, the prevalence of hearing loss is actually dropping.

Now, that does not mean we can ignore the risks. If you continue to blast your eardrums, you will suffer over time. Yes, bikers, you do need to protect your ears. So, I have been assuming that noise-cancelling earbuds will do the trick. They definitely seem quieter.

And there have been a surprising number of studies that show noise reduction makes us safer workers, with fewer accidents and less fatigue. I certainly feel less tired when riding in my quiet zone. But you cannot make it too quiet. There are concerns that if you cut out all the surrounding cues from traffic, you will miss the white van that is about to clip your shoulder when squeezing past. I take care to not have my music too loud in traffic, and can even set the damping level on my Bose wireless buds, which is great.

So, quiet but not too quiet. Do we need to use earbuds? Not everyone finds them comfortable. Well, there have been attempts to make noise-cancelling helmets. If you understand the physics of acoustics (which is a rather arcane, black art), then you will realize that phase cancellation of sound waves converging on your ear from multiple paths is not very effective.

Speaking of the physics, we don’t actually know if noise-cancelling headphones do truly protect your ears. While a number of sources advocate for them, the data are really muddy. How much noise reduction you get is very dependent on the seal that the bud makes with your ears. This calls into question the numbers quoted by vendors. Not only is there no testing standard used, you cannot really compare real ears with Styrofoam heads. All a bit dubious.

So what should you do as a smart consumer? Try them out. Vendors tend to make a fuss about not letting you try them but your ears are no more likely to pass on germs than your hands are. A simple alcohol wipe should pacify the fastidious. Don’t buy earbuds without trying them. The seal matters: not just for comfort. If you don’t get a good seal, you won’t get good protection.

We also don’t really know if active or passive noise-control is better. If you are working somewhere with lots of noise transients (gunshots, hammer blows) then passive noise control is essential. But for us bikers, we are more interested in actively controlling the steady noise from wind, motor and tires. If someone is shooting at you, noise control may not be at the top of your list!