Steed: Built to Ride

Ride Rockin': And save your hearingr

Tech Tip Index

Just about the two top things on my "to-do" list are ride motorcycles and listen to music that rocks. Beth Orliss's company, Hearing Dynamics, had me in mind when they developed custom radio headphones exclusively for motorcycle riders.

I was lucky enough to get an iPod for Christmas, and after spending countless hours ripping my entire lifetime CD collection and loading it on Apple Computer Company's latest windfall, I decided to try melding my personal music with riding. I've seen plenty of riders wearing headphones so I decided to give it a try. The "ear-pods" that came with my iPod sounded pretty good, until I got on my motorcycle. I found myself blasting the tunes at top volume and still couldn't hear the music over the wind and exhaust noise while riding. After a couple of commutes to work while attempting to listen to my favorite songs and arriving partially deaf (what?), I pretty much gave up on combining the tunes with my motorcycle trips.

Mom was right: "You're going to go deaf if you don't turn that down. " After years of playing the drums, pounding on metal around the shop, and riding motorcycles, my hearing isn't what it used to be. To avoid losing any more of what's still left of my precious hearing, I normally ride with spongy ear plugs. I was hoping that riding with tunes from my iPod would be a great alternative to listening to those pesky voices in my head out on the open road. But after my initial attempts, I figured it just wasn't going to work. Then out of the blue Beth Orliss sent me a letter with an invitation to test ride a set of Hearing Dynamics custom radio headphones, and I jumped at the opportunity to give them a shot.

The word "custom" is not misused in this application. As with anything custom, it implies the lack of immediate rewards, but the promise of long term personalized benefits. The first step to getting a set of personal audio devices is a visit to your local audiologist to make castings of your ear canal and outer ear for a custom fit.

I was surprised to find how many hearing centers were within a very short commute from my home. These are professionals that specialize in making hearing aids for people like me who have been abusing their hearing when I hit 70. Beth recommended a center that was only a few blocks from my shop. I called, and they got me right in for an appointment.

I had my trepidations regarding the process to make an ear impression. The last thing I wanted to do was have some guy pump too much plastic in my ear and break my ear drum, or worse not be able to get the hardened plastic goo out of my ear. The audiologist was very professional and took the time to explain the process completely before starting.

He performed an initial inspection to make sure my ear canal was clean, healthy and that I didn't have any physical damage to my tympanum (ear drum). Luckily, all was well and good. The next step was to insert a small piece of foam rubber into my ear that had a piece of white string attached to it. This served as a block to keep the rubberized compound from reaching my ear drum, and the string was used once the compound had hardened to pull the "plug" out of my ear. (see photo of blue creatures pulled out of my head for details)

Insertion of the foam was about the most uncomfortable part of the whole process, which wasn't really bad at all. I'm not crazy about doctors or dentists, let alone somebody shoving something foreign into my ear. The foam went just a little further than you'd ever want to shove a Q-Tip, but after the first side, the second ear insertion didn't alarm me.

The mold is made of a quick drying catalyzed 2-part rubber compound. It's applied into your ear with a giant syringe. Once the mix was injected into my ear, it only took about 3 minutes to harden. Before filling my second ear, the audiologist explained that I wouldn't be able to hear anything. He was right. For 3 minutes my hearing came to a complete halt. All I could hear was my breathing and my heart. The plugs pulled out painlessly, and the whole experience was over in a flash, no worries.

Now that I had my 2 ugly blue castings of my hearing canals in hand, I shipped them directly to Hearing Dynamics in Cresskill, New Jersey. They take the custom impressions and make a mold, and then from the mold make a finished rubber part that ultimately becomes your personal custom ear piece. They have 3 levels of "drivers" or speakers that you can choose from, depending upon your budget and how particular you are about the fidelity of your musical experience.

Right about now, you might be asking what makes these headsets special and exclusive for motorcyclists to use. Well, it's a pair of simple details that are commonly overlooked in other manufacturers' standard headsets. The biker trick is in the way they finish off the outboard side of the pieces so you have room to wear a helmet comfortably, and the connection wires are positioned so you can run them out of your helmet without snagging them.

I went with the mid-priced units for the demo. Prices run from a couple hundred dollars for a single driver, to over five-hundred for the top of the line units with 3 drivers per ear for full range hi-fidelity. These prices included the local custom fitting process too. The high-end units are like having a 3-way speaker, high, mid and low end drivers, packed right into your head. All I can say is the 2-way system I purchased sounds incredible. Beth said the 3 way units would have slightly more bass response than the 2-way set I purchased. She promised me the bottom end on my units would exceed the bass on the set of ear-pods that came with my iPod, and she was right.

It took less than two weeks from the time I sent my ear impressions until I received my custom crafted set. Slipping them into my head for the first time was a bit of a challenge, but after I read the directions, I figured out how to comfortably put them in my noggin. They almost screw into your head and certainly won't fall out. They make a tight seal which blocks out most external noises, but you can still hear people talking at a normal tone when the music is off. You can still hear with them in, unlike the total-seal experience I had during the impression making process which blocked out everything.

Now it was time to plug them into the iPod and see how they sound. Immediately they boosted the entire sound spectrum, and the sound quality was amazing. I set the volume of the iPod at about half the gain that I was using with the OEM ear-pods, and the sound was simply incredible. I jumped on my motorcycle and took a trip around town with my 'pod set on "shuffle". I was able to ride with the iPod at a comfortable volume because all the wind noise was eliminated. I could still hear the bike, and hopefully the siren of an emergency vehicle. It simply doesn't get any better than this for me.

The Hearing Dynamics package included a carrying case, directions and safety precautions. Some states outlaw wearing headsets while operating a vehicle, so you need to check your local laws. I wouldn't recommend cranking the tunes too loud around town where you might expose yourself to hazardous situations. Out on the open road, these totally add to the riding experience and actually save your hearing if you use them properly since the white-noise of 80 MPH wind is eliminated and traded up for your favorite tunes at a comfortable volume.

If you didn't already know it, motorcycle riding is a dangerous pastime, and if you're not an experienced rider who is very comfortable riding, the process adding tunes to your list of critical things to do while riding probably isn't for you. On the other hand, I've been on two wheels long enough to know it's going to really hurt if I fall over, and I'm not going to take any unnecessary chances. I felt comfortable riding with these, and they certainly are easier on your ears than riding with the stock set of phones from Macintosh.

All in all, if you share my love of music and riding, these headphones from Hearing Dynamics are literally the ticket. You can use them with any audio device, CD player, MP3, home stereo, walkman or whatever sound device you own that will adapt to a stereo mini-jack connection, and they come complete with a one-year warranty. It does take a certain amount of effort to own a set. You can't just run out and buy a pair to use in one afternoon. You'll need a little bit of patience to get fitted specially for your ears, ship the castings out and wait for your personal set. So you'll just have to take my word for it that the wait is worth the effort. Ride hard, and rock hard!

Keep the rubber side down.
- John at Steeds

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