Flare ISOLATE plugs for motorbike riders.

ISOLATEpro ear plugs

Flare Audio have a very polished marketing department pushing their new ISOLATE / ISOLATE PRO ear plugs and one of the use-cases they mention is for reducing the wind noise under the helmet for motorbike riders. They also talk to music lovers about eliminating unwanted noise and just leaving you listening to music and for me these two come together nicely. But how do these plugs fare in real-world use? 

I am a noise geek with 20+ years in the noise safety industry, and I ride a motorbike and at motorway speeds the wind noise is indeed very high in the helmet. I would estimate it to be somewhere around 93dB(A). I also have an in-helmet audio system which I use for listening to music, podcasts or sat nav directions, but when on motorways this has to be cranked up to full blast to try and overcome the wind noise. The wind noise on its own is enough to leave your ears ringing after a long motorway journey but then the audio system on top really pushes you over the edge. 

(It is absolutely fine up to about 60mph and at those speeds the audio system can even be turned down a notch on the helmet-mounted controls, but at 70mph everything really goes up a gear).

So my questions were three-fold:

  1. Can the Flare ISOLATE ear plug control the wind noise?
  2. Can the ISOLATE plug really eliminate the wind noise and leave me just hearing the music?
  3. How do the ISOLATE plugs feel and fit over time under a tight helmet?
ISOLATE foam cap

The sister-post looking at the use of the ISOLATE ear plugs in the workplace also covers the cost of these things compared to standard foam ear plugs and the measured performance levels as reported by Flare. As a quick summary, I have the ISOLATE PRO plugs which have an SNR of 36dB, whereas for comparison the commonly used disposable Laser Lite foam plugs cost about 20p each when bought in packs and have an SNR of 35dB. That 1dB difference is fairly trivial and larger changes than that will be experienced due to changes in fit each day. The standard ISOLATE ear plug has exactly the same SNR as the Laser Lite plug. The washable and reusable EAR Push-In plug is however stronger than the ISOLATE at all frequencies and costs pennies.

The ISOLATE and ISOLATE PRO are exactly the same except the ISOLATE is £25 and made from Aluminium while the ISOLATE PRO is £50 and made from Titanium. The foam cones on the end of them are the same on each, as are the dimensions. On price compared to cheaper plugs, bear in mind that some of the cheap plugs are a use-once-and-thow-away plug whereas the ISOLATE can be used for a long time. You would have to reuse the ISOLATE Pro plugs a hell of a lot though to make them more cost-effective than the disposable Added to this, the EAR Push-In plugs are also reusable just like the ISOLATEs, but only cost about 58p each so the ISOLATE don't justify themselves on price alone.

ISOLATE / ISOLATE PRO ear plug fit

ISOLATE ear plug in use

Fit is absolutely critical for a bike rider as if the plug starts to work loose while you are on the M6 there is nothing whatsoever you can do about it under the helmet. A plug which repeatedly comes loose is useless and a pain in the arse. 

Another issue is pressure on the ear canals from the plug - I always find that foam plugs make my outer ear canals physically hurt and become painful to touch, and then extra care is needed when the fairly tight squeeze of a helmet is added to that. It is for this reason that when conducting noise assessments for work, up to now I have always worn ear muffs rather than plugs if I can help it as the foam plugs always cause irritation and then pain. This is not the same for everyone though and for many foam plugs are absolutely fine.

I have now worn my ISOLATE PRO plugs for several motorway journeys and I have to say that over and above any other ear plug I have worn over the last 25 years, these things both go in easier and also stay there. I get a very minor small ache (but no pain) when wearing the ISOLATE PRO plugs but that is all and have had no issues at all with the helmet pressing against them and no pain when lifting the helmet up over them while the ISOLATE plugs are in place. They have proved very comfortable in daily use.

ISOLATE fitting instructions

A big thumbs up then on ease of fitting, how well they stay in place and how little they irritate the ear canals. And this is coming from someone who has worked in noise for a couple of decades and never found a style of plug which doesn't hurt over time. Another pat on the back as well for the how-to-fit instructions on the back of the pack itself - great for people who are not used to the roll-n-lift approach to ear plugs, although as an experiment I did just push the ISOLATE plugs in rather than rolling first and they still fitted very well.

ISOLATE PRO plugs and wind noise

Again, in a nutshell, excellent. As you will no doubt know, older concrete motorways are hellishly loud compared to tarmac ones and I have been riding up and down one such concrete motorway for several days while wearing the ISOLATE PRO plugs. Normally on this motorway the wind noise is added to by tyre noise on the concrete to create an unholy racket that leaves your ears ringing for ages afterwards and I have conducted enough hearing tests over the years to know this is 'a bad thing'.

Wear the ISOLATE PRO plugs however and things change completely. It is no word of exaggeration that yes, the wind noise is still there so it is nowhere near the 'switch off your ears' that the marketing pushes, but the reduction is good. Very good. As an estimate, I would put the wind and tyre noise on a concrete motorway at 70mph to be down to around the low to mid 70dB range. It's not in the low 60dB range which the SNR of 36dB would suggest is possible, but the low 70s is extremely good and what I would expect given the ISOLATE plug is at its weakest at the lower frequencies which often make up reverberant wind noise. (After around two and half decades as a noise geek in the noise industry I have become worryingly good at estimating sound levels. This is not a skill which impresses the ladies. Or anyone really). The low 70s range is spot-on perfect though as once you get into the 60s it runs the risk of becoming too quiet and too isolating. 

Suzuki Burgman

What is strange to experience is that I hear absolutely no engine noise from the bike when cruising, nothing at all. The only time I hear the engine is when accelerating and then the ISOLATE PRO plugs make it sound like a quiet electric car accelerating rather than a petrol engine - a high pitched whine which drops away as soon as you reach cruising speed. If the engine were to cut out I would have no audio cue at all which is fine for me. It is worth highlighting this for bikers though as I am lazy and ride a 650cc automatic bike (a Suzuki Burgman) so no engine noise at all is good and soothing but other bikers may be using that audio as one of their cues for changing gears so should be aware of this and may need to adapt slightly.

However, and here is the big 'but' - there are many many other plugs on the market which are equally or more powerful than the ISOLATE and ISOLATE PRO plugs so just because they are good at isolating noise is not a unique factor. The ISOLATE at £25 and the ISOLATE PRO at £50 are not as powerful as other plugs costing pennies.

In summary, the ISOLATE PRO plugs are very good at minimising wind and tyre noise. Probably no better than many other well fitted plugs but unlike my experience of those foam plugs, the ISOLATE PRO plugs don't cause me pain, are much easier to get a good fit with, stay securely in place and don't cause issues with the helmet.

ISOLATE / ISOLATE PRO plugs and in-helmet audio

For any car drivers getting this far into this and now muttering darkly about motorbike riders listening to music while riding I ask this - how many times would you like to drive say 200 miles each way up the M6 or M1 without listening to anything at all to break the monotony? Just the noise of your engine and wind over the car. Every day. Motorbikes are no different, plus it is VERY handy to have audio-only sat nav guidance rather than looking down at a sat nav screen, by which time the chap in the Peugeot in front who hasn't found his rear view mirrors in the entire half decade he has owned the car has pulled out and flattened you.

Nolan n-com B1-4

For the biker types, I have a Nolan helmet in the closed full-face position on motorways, connected via Bluetooth from an in-helmet Nolan n-com B1.4 audio system to an iPhone 6S+.

The ISOLATE PRO marketing does mention removing background noise and leaving you listening to music but unfortunately that has not really been my experience. And without the addition of some hitherto-unknown magic, there is no way this claim could be true. The ISOLATE PRO plug, like a lot of other plugs, reduces the wind noise very effectively, but it is equally effective at quietening the frequencies of the music or podcast I'm listening to, meaning the music gets more buried in the remaining noise than if the plugs are not worn at all. This comes as no surprise though as music is just noise after all and there is a lot of overlap between the frequencies involved in music and the frequencies the ISOLATE plug is trying to block out - no hearing protection can determine which sound to let through and which to filter out. For example, the 4kHz area of wind noise is exactly the same as the 4kHz area of music to the plug and no passive hearing protection can distinguish between the two sources.

At the moment therefore I make a choice each trip:

  • Mostly A roads, cities or back roads - ISOLATE plugs in and helmet audio system on as at these speeds it is an excellent combination.
     
  • Mostly motorways - decide before setting off to either have the helmet audio system on so I can listen to it, just at very high noise levels, or the ISOLATE plugs in and a quieter ride but the helmet audio system turned off. More often than not I end up with a combination of the two and switch between them when stopping for fuel and this is still a vast improvement for my ears - two hours of quiet on a long motorway ride and two hours of noise with the plugs out listening to music is far better than four hours of constant high noise.

ISOLATE PRO on motorbikes summary

The ISOLATE / ISOLATE PRO plugs therefore pass on comfort and fit for me, definitely pass on quietening down wind and tyre noise BUT are no better than many other plugs just costing a few pence, and miss out on their claim of leaving you able to hear music while blocking everything else out while on a bike. I have worn many many different types of ear plug over the years and for me the ISOLATE plugs are far and away the easiest to get a good deep secure fit with and they stay put but you are paying a hell of a premium for this. The usefulness of the ISOLATE ear plugs in my experience therefore depends if a particular biker is OK comfort-wise with other cheaper foam plugs as performance is not a distinguishing factor and indeed some cheaper foam plugs are better at reducing the sound levels. For me, they are pain-free and effective and something I will continue to use. More importantly than anything though, before buying the ISOLATE or ISOLATE PRO plugs, try the other plugs on the market first and if you get on with them then stay with them as the ISOLATE and ISOLATE PRO offer nothing unique in terms of strength of noise reduction, or even low frequency noise reduction where they are again beaten by many of the much cheaper plugs. But if other plugs cause pain, the ISOLATE PRO do work for me in improving comfort.

But if you do choose the ISOLATE plugs, buy the standard ISOLATE rather than the ISOLATE PRO as the difference between them is so small as to be irrelevant.

My next step is to find a headphone amplifier system which can output via Bluetooth. There are loads which connect to a source via Bluetooth and output to a cabled headphone but I've not found any which will output via Bluetooth, yet. With something to do that, the ISOLATE plug can get the wind noise to the low 70s meaning the amplified music / podcast can be in the high 70s and therefore nice and clear but still quiet enough not leave the ears ringing for hours afterwards. That would be perfect.

PS. Don't blame me for writing ISOLATE in all-caps everywhere, it's how it's written on their website and packaging. Honest.