Easy to put in, comfortable to wear, and I’m confident that they let the important sounds — of which there are many in urban situations — get through.
webBikeWorld readers have asked many times for a review of custom-fitted earplugs.
I’ve had a couple of mold kits sitting here in my office for longer than I’d like to admit, and a standing invitation to visit an audiologist for a fitting of some others. But, for one reason or another, I just never got around to doing it.
So when Alice Dryden told me she was having a pair made, I thought it would be a good opportunity to learn more.
Granted, Ultimate Hearing Protection Systems, who made the earplugs that are the subject of this review, is located in the UK.
But the procedures for fitting custom earplugs are fairly similar and Alice’s experience is a good indicator of what to expect, no matter where you are located.
I’m naughty about earplugs. This is partly because I don’t bother with them for my 30 mph commute, so putting them in isn’t a habit when I go for faster rides at weekends and I only realise my omission when the wind is roaring in my helmet.
It’s also because I find most earplugs unsatisfactory. The foam kind muffles everything, while the Christmas-tree type with a series of rubber flanges blocks noise effectively but hurts my ears.
However, there is another option: custom-made silicone plugs, moulded to the shape of your ear canal.
After much mulling over, I decided to give them a try before my dislike of disposable plugs cost me my hearing. It took me a long time to make this decision, both because the expense is considerable compared to off-the-shelf earplugs and because the custom-fit plugs look so horrifying.
Who wants to see a 3D model of their own ear canal?
Ultimate Hearing Protection: The Company and Its Products
There are several manufacturers of custom earplugs in the UK (and many in the U.S.A.). I went for Ultimate Hearing Protection Systems because they offer a discount to the London Advanced Motorcyclists group, and I’d heard good things about their service from other members who’d tried them.
Ultimate Hearing make a wide range of products, not only for motorcyclists but for use in fields as diverse as shooting, swimming and attending heavy metal gigs.
Aimed specifically at bikers are the “Squidgy” plug at £59 for a pair, the ‘Soundear’ with built-in earphones at £170 the pair, and the single-unit ‘Monoear’ with earphone for £80. All are made in the UK from medical-grade silicone.
The obvious disadvantage of custom earplugs is that you need to present your ear for a fitting, which means travelling to Ultimate Ear’s premises in Orpington, Kent; luckily that’s not far from where I live.
If you’re further afield, however, you can have an impression of your ear taken by an audiologist and sent to Ultimate; their website lists approved agents.
They also offer fittings at bike shows up and down the UK, but having members of the public stare at me while stuff gets poked in my ears has never appealed. Finally, if you’re a member of a bike club or have lots of biker colleagues, the company can send a representative to your club or workplace.
I rang the sales team on a Thursday and got an appointment for 9 AM the following Monday. Excellent.
I was a little concerned about the state of my ears, as there’s a page on the website about various conditions that can prevent an impression being taken on the day, including inflammation (yuk!) and excessive wax (double yuk!). However, my lugs passed inspection and we were able to move on to the next step in the process.
This involved having a small piece of foam inserted into each ear (very tickly) followed by the casting material (very cold).
The cast takes a few minutes to set, during which time you’re slightly deaf but free to talk and move around. Once cooled it slips out easily, to be bagged and labelled. A mould is then made from the cast and the earplugs cast from the mould.
My cast had special instructions added, as apparently I have a ‘large antihelix’ (audiologists say the nicest things!) and this part of the earplug would need to be made thinner than normal, otherwise it might rub against my helmet.
It only remained for me to choose a colour from the selection of five. If you want to get posh, you can have a mixture of two colours for an extra £5, three colours for £8, while another £10 will get you your name laser-etched into the plugs. I picked plain red.
I came away with a very favourable impression of Ultimate Hearing. Everyone I met there was professional and friendly, and the company clearly believes in what it’s doing and in doing it well. Certificates on the wall boasted of qualifications in Otoscopy and Impression Taking.
The employee who took my impressions was gentle, reassuring and efficient; the whole business, including paying by card, took about ten minutes.
I opted to collect my Squidgies from Orpington, thus saving on postage. I was told to allow 28 days for them to be ready — in fact, less than three weeks had passed when I got a phone call to say I could collect them.
Back at Ultimate, the employee who handed over my package suggested I check to make sure everything was OK. When I struggled to insert the plugs — having ignored the instruction manual — a technician was summoned to help me out.
Insertion and Use
Application is simple once you know how. There’s a blue dot on the base of the left-ear plug, a red dot on the right.
Rotate the plug a quarter-turn forward from the vertical position, insert the tip and turn the plug back as you ease it in. It’s obvious when you’ve got it right as it creates a seal, muting noise and producing a slight but discernible pressure inside your ear.
Along with the plugs comes a little zip-up pouch to keep them clean and safe, plus the blue casts from the fitting in case you lose a plug and need to order a new one.
I’ve been wearing the earplugs for a couple of months now — not continuously, you understand, just on the bike. Inserting them has become a quick, smooth operation, though there are still days when I find it tricky, especially in my left ear for some reason.
When I rode away from Ultimate’s premises, wearing the earplugs for the first time, I was constantly aware of their presence. Now I barely notice them, and for most of the journey I can forget they’re there.
All previous types of earplug I’ve tried have been noticeable, and usually uncomfortable too.
It is possible to loosen the custom earplugs while on the bike — for instance by yawning.
This can produce some slightly unpleasant crackling or popping (and other breakfast cereal noises), but it’s usually a very brief interlude before the earplugs settle back into place.
The Squidgies are superb for limiting noise without muffling sound. Wind roar is massively reduced, while vital audio information like police sirens is still transmitted.
Ultimate’s website claims attenuation of 30 decibels, which means — so the internet tells me — that just 0.1% of the incoming sound gets through.
I certainly find the level comfortable for riding, though I can’t always hear what another rider at traffic lights is trying to say (sometimes it’s probably just as well).
I’m also able to listen to music through helmet-mounted headphones.
My earplugs are standing up well to use; I was expecting them to get rather gross after a few expeditions, but they still look new and shiny. When it’s time to clean them, they are easily rinsed under running water; I haven’t needed to use anything more.
I’ve even been using the Squidgy plugs for commuting, which I never thought I’d do. They’re easy to put in, comfortable to wear, and I’m confident that they let the important sounds — of which there are many in urban situations — get through.
A couple of weeks ago I had a chat about earplugs with a biker acquaintance. He was just about to have his Ultimates replaced after ten years — not because the plugs had worn out, but because his ear canals had changed shape with age (Ultimate themselves recommend 4 – 5 years between replacements).
If mine last five years — and I see no reason why they shouldn’t — I’ll be very happy with my purchase. Five years of use, by my calculations, works out at less than 3p a day. That’s not much to pay for the extra comfort and quality of custom-made earplugs — and good hearing is priceless.
wBW Review: Ultimate Hearing Protection Systems Custom earplugs
From “R.B.” (November 2011): “Just scanned the article on custom ear plugs. I guess if you find foam plugs “hurt” then custom is an option. However, I have no issue with foam (it’s foam soft after all). I visited an audiologist with the idea of getting custom plugs made but she more or less suggested that they’d be a waste of money. They don’t stop anymore noise than foam plugs and a lot of sound we hear is transmitted through the bones.”
From “B.L.” (November 2011): “My wife and I purchased custom ear plugs, fitted by an Ear/Nose/Throat (ENT) medical doctor friend, last year. We would not be without them (custom fitted) again!
We used the foam type, disposable ear plugs for several years, but they became uncomfortable for both of us, after several hours of wearing them. Since we tour, and we’re on the bike, and wearing ear plugs, for 6+ hours a day, for up to nine days, the foam plugs became quite an issue.
Since we have had our custom plugs made, we have worn them on many tours, for more than six hours per day. At the end of our riding, we had a small amount of discomfort from the custom plugs, but it was very minor. As the days went on to 6+, the discomfort never worsened, like it did with the disposable, foam plugs (after four days, our ear canals were becoming rather sensitive, and we were becoming quite uncomfortable, after just a few hours of wearing them…).
Our custom plugs seem to let more sound through, than the disposable, foam plugs, which are rated at 32 dB, and I believe our custom plugs are rated at 28 dB, but they work so well, and they are amazingly comfortable, that we don’t mind at all. Our ENT M.D. friend told us that if we went to the next dB level, used by gun enthusiasts, we would be getting around 40 dB noise reduction, and we would hear almost nothing, on the bike.
My wife has really convoluted ear canals, which caused her to really struggle to properly insert the foam plugs deep enough to work. She often would give up in frustration, and wear only one plug.
With the custom fitted/molded plugs, she can insert them in a couple of seconds, and they fit, and work, every time. The ease of use, and their effectiveness, make them a real workhorse in our equipment. They truly allow us to focus on enjoying our rides, by eliminating a great many distractions, and they reduce our stress.
I can’t imagine touring without them. Once we tried ear plugs (disposable for the first three years), we could not go back to riding without them. The reduced noise allows us to relax a very great deal, and we can hear what we need to hear, in traffic. We can ride longer, and feel better, and be more attentive while riding, thanks to the noise reduction ear plugs afford. Cheers!”