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Premium Helmets: Seven High-End Lids Hit the Racetrack, Interstate, and Wind-Tunnel

by Joe Bloggs

What makes a premium motorcycle helmet? Since all "real" helmets must pass Department of Transportation (DOT) testing procedures and many also undergo Snell Foundation testing, the level of protection in an accident is generally about the same between top-of-the-line headgear and less expensive models. The test procedures are designed to measure relative levels of impact and penetration protection, chin strap (retention system) strength and the Snell M95 standard adds a "roll-off" test to see if the helmet can be pulled off the head in an accident.

We're not willing to argue whether the protection offered by a premium helmet is greater than that of a less expensive one (given that they both pass the basic testing procedures). We will argue, however, that the premium helmets generally offer a more comfortable fit, along with features that begin to mean a lot if you spend hundreds of hours in them every year.

Your helmet is a "home away from home," a portable mini-shelter for your head, with adjustable vents and a window. Its comfort, or lack thereof, can make the difference between a great ride and an ordeal. Our testers have given these seven top-of-the-line helmets a real workout over thousands of miles of riding. Additionally, we took all the helmets to the 4' wind tunnel at Cal Poly for drag and noise testing and weigh-in. The big differences between the top models, as our testers discovered, are in fit, finish and features the three "Fs" of helmets. We graded these premium lids on their quality of finish and attention to detail. Ventilation systems were checked in all weather from hot and hotter, to wet and cold. Can you operate the vents with gloves on? Does the chin strap flog you half to death because there's no snap to secure the end? When your helmet starts smelling like a bear's den, can you remove the pads and wash them? The answers to these and other burning questions are included in our premium helmet comparison test, but the most important question is "How do you make sure you buy a helmet that really fits properly?"

Getting the Perfect Fit

Safety experts agree that the most important factor in choosing a helmet is choosing one that fits properly. Since a new helmet can cost several hundred dollars, it's worth taking a little extra time to make certain that your shiny new lid fits as well as possible. Here's how to go about it.

The first step is to measure your head. Even if you think you know what size helmet you need, it's worthwhile to take the time to double-check. Get someone to help and a small measuring tape. Measure the circumference of your head from about one inch above your eyebrows in front to the point at the back of your head that gives you the largest measurement. Measure several times just to make sure you've got it. Now match the measurement with the helmet sizes on the chart we've provided, rounding up to the next largest number if your measurement falls between sizes.

Head Circumference Helmet Size
21-¼" 6-3/4
21-5/8" 6-7/8
22" 7
22-3/8" 7-1/8
22-3/4" 7-1/4
23-1/8" 7-3/8
23-1/2" 7-1/2
23-7/8" 7-5/8
24-1/4" 7-3/4
24-3/4" 7-7/8

Next, it's time to try on a few helmets. Don't worry about colors and graphics yet, our first concern is finding the right fit. Grasp the helmet by the chin straps with the top of the helmet down and the front of the helmet facing you. Balance the helmet with your fingers, and slide your thumbs to the inside surface of the chin straps. Now spread the helmet apart and slip it over your head. You may need to tip it backward or forward a bit to help slip it on. The helmet should go on with some resistance if it's in the proper size range. Unfortunately, most people tend to choose helmets that are too large, so if the helmet feels snug at first, you're probably close to the proper size.

This diagram showcases the Cal Poly wind tunnel where the aerodynamics and wind noise tests were done. Notice the venturi effect leading into the 4' test section.

Don't reach for a larger size unless you can't get the helmet on at all. Now that you have the helmet on, go find a mirror for a quick visual check. The helmet should sit squarely on your head, neither tipped forward nor backward. With a full-face helmet, your eyes should be centered in the opening with the padding of the liner fitting just above your eyebrows. While you're looking in the mirror, check for gaps between the padding and your head. The cheek and brow pads should be in firm contact with your face, without causing excessive pressure.

Now put one hand on each side of the helmet and hold your head still while trying to rotate the helmet from side to side and front to back. The helmet should not slide around on your head without a lot of resistance. In fact, your skin and scalp should move with the helmet. Remember that helmets will "break in" just like hats, so the helmet that's just right for you may feel overly-snug at first. Note any pressure points or "hot spots." If the helmet fits properly, the pressure should be evenly distributed around your head.

Make sure the chin strap is snugly fastened and try the "roll-off" test. Reach over the top of the helmet and grasp the bottom rear edge. Try to roll the helmet forward off your head while you hold your head as still as possible. Pull as hard as you can without causing yourself pain. If the helmet moves significantly or rolls off your head, it's too large.

Before you take the helmet off, think about pressure points again. Do there seem to be spots where the pressure is excessive? Remember pressure that may be only mildly irritating at first, can cause a raging headache after an hour in the saddle.

Cal Poly students Julian Stingaciu and Michelle Patterson took readings on several different frequencies to determine which helmets did the best job of noise reduction.

Stay close to the mirror while you take the helmet off, then look for any areas of reddened skin that signal pressure points. If you find any, put the helmet back on and see if you feel extra pressure in the reddened area. When you think you've found the perfect fit, try on the same make and model of helmet in the next larger and smaller sizes, going through all the same tests. Before you make the final decision, put the helmet back on and wear it for at least ten minutes just to make sure you haven't missed any pressure points.

Helmet manufacturers have different ideas about the general size and shape of the human head. If you have trouble finding the proper fit, try a different brand of helmet, or even a different model by the same manufacturer. Be patient, work through all the steps for getting the right fit and you'll end up with the helmet that's right for you.

 AGV QUASAR

$350/$400/$415

 Comfort  
 Aerodynamics  
 Venting  
 Noise Reduction  
 Quality  
 Face Shield/View  
Lightness  

 The Quasar placed well in our test in part because it has the least aerodynamic drag of the helmets tested and placed second in the sound test. Although it was the second heaviest helmet here, on the road the AGV felt so neutral that the extra weight wasn't very noticeable. The tri-composite shell is woven from fiberglass, carbon and Kevlar, and a clear coat protects the graphics. We did find some paint flaws and chipped the finish in a couple spots.

Like the Shoei, the AGV has no side plates, so visor removal and replacement is deceptively simple. The ratchet system built into the shield holds it at whatever angle the rider chooses, and keeps it there. Snapping the visor shut locks it positively in place, with a good seal against the face of the helmet. The center tab for raising the visor took a little getting used to, since we're in the habit of finding the tab on the left side. A chin vent and a brow vent combine with exhaust slots in the neck roll to provide reasonable airflow. Opening the chin vent fully also cracks open the face shield slightly, one feature that our test team considered to be a design flaw. There's no way to avoid it without trimming off the top of the vent slide. The slide on our test helmet is also a bit loose, and tends to slide closed without assistance from the rider.

The Quasar comes with a removable rubber breath guard which is very effective, but makes the wearer look like the biker version of Groucho Marx. with a rubber nose and fake mustache. One of our style-conscious test riders "lost" the breathguard somewhere and hasn't offered to find another. Removable, washable cheekpads are available in one size only, so it's not possible to adjust the fit. The chinstrap fastens with the familiar double D-rings, but doesn't have a snap to secure the loose end of the strapa real annoyance. The Quasar is AGV's finest effort yet, marred only by a few detail flaws that could easily be addressed.

Arai Quantum/s

$416/$515

 

 Comfort  
 Aerodynamics  
 Venting  
 Noise Reduction  
 Quality  
 Face Shield/View  
Lightness  

 While not as "trick" as the RX-7RRIII, Arai's Quantum/s topped our test and it's lighter, quieter and more practical for street use than the RX-7RRIII. It's the lightest of the group at 3.14 lbs. and placed mid-pack in the drag and sound tests. The complex laminate shell is tougher and lighter than previous models.

Like the RX-7RRIII, the Quantum/s features the Super AdSis shield system which allows face shield removal without tools or the need to remove the sideplates. We nearly broke one of the shields, until we grudgingly read the directions then practiced the removal routine a few times. Remounting the shield is a breeze, however, and didn't cause any problems. The visor seals tightly against the helmet and has a positive latch to keep it closed. Pressing forward on the latch cracks the shield open slightly for additional ventilation or defogging.

There's a large chin vent, brow vents in the face shield and a reversible intake/exhaust vent on the top of the helmet. Exhaust vents in the neck roll add to the air-management system. A sliding airflow spoiler is hidden in the chinbar. The tabs on the chin vent and brow vents are small and it takes some practice to learn to operate them reliably with gloves on. Whether the weather was hot or cold, the test crew found the ventilation system on the Quantum to work exceptionally well.

Cheekpads are removable and are available in six different thicknesses, so it's possible to customize the fit of the Quantum/s.

This helmet comes with a removable breathguard and Arai offers an optional spacer which acts as an anti-fog duct if the breathguard is not fitted. Its comfortable, plush lining and exceptional fit made the Quantum/s the standard by which we judged the other helmets in this test. If there's a better helmet out there, we haven't tried it.

 Arai RX-7RRIII

$560/700

 Comfort  
 Aerodynamics  
 Venting  
 Noise Reduction  
 Quality  
 Face Shield/View  
Lightness  

 Trick features abound on Arai's top-of-the-line lid with its fiberglass-composite shell. After several thousand miles and at least six different test riders, the RX-7RRIII still shows no battle scars. The finish has proven tough and resilient. Arai's Super AdSis shield system requires no tools and does not necessitate removing the sideplates. It is a bit tricky to get the hang of removing the shield. We recommend you study the directions carefully. A tab at the bottom left side of the visor provides positive locking when closed and also allows the visor to be cracked open to de-fog it.

Arai's face shields have incorporated brow vents for a number of years now. It makes replacements rather pricey, but the system works very well. The vents on the RX-7RRIII shield have laughably small tabs and are hard to operate with gloves on. The same goes for the chin vent. A reversible scoop on top of the helmet can be adjusted for intake or exhaust. Two racing diffusers conceal adjustable ports. Rear exhaust channels and vents are molded into the back of the shell and the neck roll has exhaust slots as well.

Before we forget, there's a airflow spoiler hidden in the chin guard that can easily be pulled down when needed. For everyday riding, the racing diffusers are strictly cosmetic. They begin working effectively only at very elevated speeds. We discovered too that they allow a remarkable amount of water to leak into the helmet during rainstorms. Street riders will want to have some tape ready in case of rain.

Cheekpads for the RX-7RRIII are removable, and are available in six different thicknesses for a custom fit. The top perimeter pad is also removable, washable and is available in four different thicknesses. Both of the Arai helmets were popular with our test riders, and set the comfort standard for the comparison.This was also the most expensive helmet in our test.

 Bell M-1

$250/$380/$400

 Comfort  
 Aerodynamics  
 Venting  
 Noise Reduction  
 Quality  
 Face Shield/View  
Lightness  

 Made in Italy by Bieffe like the M-3, the Bell M-1 has a kevlar and fiberglass shell. Our all-white version has a smooth, clean finish and average scratch and chip resistance. The visor can be changed without tools, by first snapping off the sideplates. A five-position ratchet pivot assembly holds the shield open, but isn't strong enough to keep it from slamming shut as wind resistance increases.

A simple tab molded into the bottom of the visor makes it easy to open with a gloved hand. The seals don't fit tightly enough to keep rain from running down the inside of the shield and contribute to wind noise as well.

Adjustable chin and brow vents, with exhaust vents incorporated into the padded neck roll, are designed to move air around the liner. The forehead vent is adjusted by sliding the Bell logo up and down. The logo snapped off of our test helmet, revealing that the vent holes went through the outer helmet shell but no further. Black plastic film blocked off the lining, and there was no air passage into the inner helmet. In addition, the grill in the slidable vent cover was partially blocked by flashing that hadn't been cleaned off the plastic molding. The smallish chin vents are easy to operate, and feed air upward across the large face shield. Ventilation in this helmet was mediocre at best, though the addition of operable brow vents would probably make a big difference.

Overall comfort was only fair and most testers commented that the chin bar sat very close, and even touched their chins. The chin strap has a snap to keep it from flogging your neck at speed. The non-removable liner is comfortable, but seems too loose at the cheeks and too tight at the top of the head. When putting on the M-1, it takes extra care and adjustment to keep from pinching the ears.

 Bell M-3

$395/$425

 Comfort  
 Aerodynamics  
 Venting  
 Noise Reduction  
 Quality  
 Face Shield/View  
Lightness  

 With its unique shell shape, tinted visor and dragon graphics, the Bell M-3 is easily the beauty queen of our helmet test. Clear-coating over the graphics protects the finish and keeps the M-3 from collecting any dings or scratches. A lightweight carbon/aramid fiber co-weave, combined with fiberglass makes this the second-lightest of our test helmets, only 0.2-lb. heavier than the Quantum/s.

The visor can be changed without tools by first snapping off the side covers (caution: it makes terrible noises like you've just broken something expensive). The shield can then be removed and replaced with little fuss. The seven-position shield ratchet is weak, allowing even low wind pressure to slam it shut. There's no positive latch to keep the visor tightly closed at speed, and it does not seal tightly against the helmet shell, leaving the rider unsure when it is all the way closed.

Adjustable chin and brow vents, combined with a pair of exhaust slots in the padded neck roll do an adequate job of moving air through the M-3. There's not enough airflow to quickly clear a fogged face shield, however, and on hot days we wished for some way to keep the shield cracked open slightly. It takes practice to learn how to operate the brow vents with gloves on, but with a large, easy-to-find operating button, the chin vents are no problem.

The chin strap fastens with double D-rings and has a snap to secure the loose end. The liner is thick and comfortable, but like the M-1, most testers thought the fit seemed too loose in the cheek pads and too tight at the top of the head. One rider found it extremely comfortable just as it was, so you will have to try it on to see if you have a "Bell head." It's possible to remove the lining to wash or replace it, and optional pads are available to help customize the fit.

 Shoei X-9

$436/$606-$634

 Comfort  
 Aerodynamics  
 Venting  
 Noise Reduction  
 Quality  
 Face Shield/View  
Lightness  

 Shoei is famous for finish and attention to detail, and the new X-9 is no exception. The carbon and fiberglass shell is smooth and flawless, and exhibits good resistance to nicks and scratches. Shoei's quick release shield system is the slickest we've seen fitted to any helmet. The shield can be changed in a matter of seconds, with no struggle and no tools required. Part of the latching mechanism is molded into the face shield, allowing Shoei to eliminate the sideplates. This gives the X-9 a very smooth profile and helps to make it the quietest helmet in our test. The shield also has an adjustable preset lever that opens the shield slightly for additional ventilation and is easy to operate with a gloved hand. The detente system is adequate but weak, allowing the shield to snap closed from wind pressure as speed increases. It seals tightly, but opens with ease thanks to the preset lever.

A dual-liner system with chin and brow vents, adjustable wedge-shaped vents at the back and exhaust venting at the bottom rear of the liner can move a lot of air through this helmet. The vent system is effective and easy to operate, though the too-tiny lip on the brow vent is sometimes hard to find with gloves on. With the chin vent open and the wedge-shaped vents at the back of the helmet open, a steady stream of fresh air flows upward across the face shield to keep it fog-free. This helmet has one of the best ventilation systems we've tested.

The chin strap fastens with double D-rings and has a clip to keep it from flapping in the wind. The liner is plush and comfortable. The pads are not removable, but the X-9 does come with a removable breath guard which is easy to install and remove. As with most full-face helmets, slipping on your glasses or sunglasses can take a bit of practice if the helmet is properly tight-fitting.

Simpson Street Shark

$426 

 Comfort  
 Aerodynamics  
 Venting  
 Noise Reduction  
 Quality  
 Face Shield/View  
Lightness  

 Our first Street Shark's fiberglass shell was so poorly finished, we returned it to the dealer that we purchased it from for an exchange. The second Shark was much better, but it makes us worry about quality control. It was the heaviest helmet in our test, over 1¼2-lb. heavier than the lightweight champion Arai Quantum/s.

Face shield replacement requires an allen wrench to remove the screws which fasten it at the pivot points, and the screws began showing signs of rust at their first exposure to rain. The visor is easily twice as thick as on any of the other helmets in our test and did distort vision somewhat. A hole in the lower edge of the shield snaps over a short plastic dowel to hold the shield securely closed. The length of the dowel combined with the thickness of the shield sometimes made it a real struggle to get the visor open. The plastic ratchet quickly became rounded, allowing the shield to bounce up and down when partially opened. Seals between the visor and the helmet are extremely poor, allowing sheets of water to run down the inside of the shield in rain, and contributing to the overall noise level.

An unusual ventilation system incorporates three non-adjustable slots in the chin with two open slots on each side of the top of the helmet. These are combined with pairs of adjustable chin and brow vents that a gloved hand can easily open and close. We concluded that the open vents were contributing to the overall noise level and the weird whistling noises that everyone complained about. Slapping some duct tape over the slots solved part of the noise problem, as well as helping to keep rain from leaking through the open top vents.

The chin strap fastens with double D-rings, but has no snap or clip to keep the strap from flapping. Most of the testers mentioned that the comfort liner is too thin, contributing to pressure points and bad headaches. It's available in black or white only.

Conclusion

Although we would feel safe wearing any of these helmets, when it comes to which ones we want to wear, the list becomes much shorter. Both Arai lids are clearly the class of the field, though the RX-7RRIII's features don't justify the higher price, unless form is more important to you than function. The Shoei is not far behind the Arais, and we also recommend it without hesitation. AGV's Quasar is the best yet from the Italians, and at $66 less than a Quantum/s, will surely lure its share of buyers.

The only helmet we would definitely stay away from is the Simpson. It was the heaviest, least comfortable model in the test and was universally hated by all our testers.

The most important thing to remember here is that every head is differentas shown by the fact that one tester judged the M-3 as the most comfortableso only you can decide which model will fit you best. Your best bet is to spend a few extra bucks at your local dealer where you can try on as many helmets as possible before making your selection. That way, you'll know you made the right decision.

And unless you're on a full-dress tourer with a big windshield (where it's optional), always, always, always wear ear plugs on any trip over 15 minutes.

Resources:

AGV America
801 East Street
Frederick, MD 21701
(301) 663-8171

Arai Helmet LTD.
P.O. Box 9485
Daytona Beach, FL 32120
(904) 253-5100

Bell Helmets
1565 McGaw Ave. A
Irvine, CA 92614
(714) 476-3150

Shoei Safety Helmet Corp.
22605 E. La Palma Ave. #507
Yorba Linda, CA 92887
(714) 692-8776

Simpson
2415 Amsler St.
Torrance, CA 90505
(310) 320-7231

Drag and Noise Levels--What They Really Mean

Aerodynamic Drag

If you ride without a fairing, a factor which contributes significantly to how you feel at the end of the day is the aerodynamic drag on your helmeta helmet with a lot of drag can be a real pain in the neck. To get an idea of how the helmets in our test compare in this area, we took them to the 4' wind tunnel at Cal Poly Pomona. A group of students took a mannequin (affectionately known as Doreen), chopped off her head, mounted it on a steel bar, then put poor Doreen's head in the wind tunnel. Doreen, without comment or complaint, wore each helmet in turn and went for simulated rides at 40, 60 and 80 mph while students measured the amount of drag generated.

What did they find out? Well, first, if you don't want a pain in the neck, ride slowly. Aerodynamic drag increases approximately with the square of the speeddouble your speed, and the drag quadruples! Increasing speed from 4080 mph increases the drag by a factor of four and just going from 6080 mph nearly doubles the aerodynamic drag.

Secondly, if you intend to ride without a fairing, go faster than 40 mph and intend to ride for more than a few minutes at a time, do not buy an open-face helmet. The drag on the open-face Bell Ultra Tourlite which we used for comparison was 1 lb. greater than the full-face helmets at 60 mph and a whopping 3 lbs. greater at 80 mph, or about 1.5 times more drag than the full-face helmets. If a silly pound or three doesn't seem like much, try sitting in a chair and having an apprentice torturer apply a constant force of 1 lb. on your forehead. Now try holding your head steady for an hourit's every bit as much fun as holding up a couple of books with your arms outstretched.

With the basics established, which helmet would Doreen choose? The winner is the AGV Quasar by a hair. It's followed by a group of helmets which all produce essentially the same amount of drag (about 0.2 lb. greater than the AGV), including the Bell M1, Simpson Street Shark, Arai Quantum/s, Arai RX-7RRIII and the Shoei X-9. These helmets are trailed by the Bell M3 which at 80 mph has about 0.7 lb. more drag than the AGV.

Noise Levels

An article by David Hough in the June issue of MCN discussed the long-term effects of wind noise on the hearing of motorcyclists. Since we already had the wind tunnel reserved for drag testing, another Cal Poly student volunteered to make noise measurements. A microphone was placed in each helmet between Doreen's ear and the inner helmet liner. We measured the total "A-weighted" sound pressure level at 60 and 80 mph. (Noise is "A-weighted" to more accurately model how you perceive the "loudness" of a noise.) Although the total noise levels measured in the wind tunnel are comparable to those reported by David Hough for helmet wind noise, the noise environment generated in the wind tunnel is different in detail from what you experience when riding your motorcycle. What we are really comparing is the performance of the helmets relative to one another when exposed to the same noise environment.

Again, as with drag, the full-face helmets performed better than the open-face ones. No surprise here, since we expect objects which have more aerodynamic drag to generate more wind noise. For the full-face helmets, the Shoei X-9 at 103 dBA was the most effective in reducing noise. The Arai RX-7RRIII at 106 dBA at 80 mph was the least effective. Does this mean that Doreen should sneak out of the lab with the X-9 and feel secure that she has the best helmet for noise protection? No. What it means is that motorcycle helmets are designed to protect your head, not your hearing. Doreen's hearing is at risk regardless of which brand or model helmet she chooses.

How much risk? That's hard to tell exactly, because hearing damage risk criteria were developed for the workplace, not the playplace. To give you an idea, OSHA says you cannot be exposed without hearing protection to 100 dBA for more than two hours per day in the occupational environment and recommends half that for a recreational environment. That is, regardless of which helmet you choose, if you ride your motorcycle on a daily basis, (like commuting, for example) for two hours, the probability is one in four that after 30 years you will have serious hearing damage. Remember too, that if you already work in a noisy environment, the riding time is added to your exposure time at work.

"Ha, I'll never do that much riding." laughs Doreen. But Doreen shouldn't be so hasty to scoff. Remember the criteria are based on probabilities. Doreen will actually sustain hearing damage at much lower exposure levels. Additionally, what the government defines as hearing damage and what Doreen thinks it means are probably two different things. The government standard means that Doreen can have up to a 25-dB loss in response in the 5002000 Hz range. That's the frequency range in which good response is required for voice recognition. Unfortunately, this is the same frequency range in which most of the wind noise occurs. What does that mean to Doreen? With a 25-dB loss, Doreen is on the verge of having trouble understanding telephone conversations, hearing movies or television, or carrying on conversations with friends because speech information falls into those critical frequencies. Also, you lose hearing ability in the higher frequencies before the low ones, so Doreen has lost the ability to hear some music and other higher-pitched sounds long before she begins to have difficulty following conversations. In addition, some investigators believe that OSHA has erred on the side of industry. That is, instead of the 90 dBA allowed for an eight-hour work day, 80 dBA is considered best to minimize hearing loss. To prevent hearing loss, noise levels should not exceed 75 dBA according to these folks.

Because the consequences of hearing damage are too serious to ignore, what can Doreen do besides giving up her motorcycle? Unlike with the aerodynamic drag, riding slower won't help very much. At 60 mph, Doreen was still exposed to between 97 and 101 dBA. The only practical alternative is to wear additional hearing protection. The best to date, are formable, slow-recovery foam ear plugs. Not only are they cheap, but they provide the best overall noise protection of any single device. Under laboratory conditions, they can attenuate noise by 2035 dB below 1000 Hz and 2540 dB at higher frequencies. In practice, you can achieve about 15 dB of noise attenuation in the low frequencies and 2530 dB above 1000 Hz, so by using ear plugs Doreen can reduce her exposure down to the 7590 dBA noise levels which will substantially reduce her risk of hearing loss.

--Dr. E.M. Gates

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Site and contents Copyright 1997 Motorcycle Consumer News. All rights reserved. Reprinting in whole or in part expressly forbidden except by written permission of the publisher or editor. Motorcycle Consumer News (ISN 1073-9408) is published monthly by Aviation News Corporation, a subsidiary of Fancy Publications, 3 Burroughs, Irvine, CA 92618. Corporate headquarters located at P.O. box 57900, Los Angeles, CA 90057-0900; (213) 385-2222
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