"My friend just bought a 1999 R1100RT and the noise is so bad he is selling it. He is a brand new rider and wants to know if there are quieter bikes out there?"
Well aside from the first thing that jumped into my mind (why is a brand new rider starting on a $15,000+ bike known for being top-heavy and a bit unwieldy at low speeds), I have to ask:
1. Hearing Protection
Riding motorcycles can damage your hearing. Once again, riding motorcycles can damage your hearing. If you ride long enough without hearing protection you will suffer hearing damage. And you know what? Hearing damage is irreparable - it doesn't heal, it won't get better. Here's the final bit of bad news, hearing damage is cumulative! That's right, it builds upon itself, just getting worse and worse!
There is good news! With a careful choice of gear, regular hearing check-ups and a good set of earplugs you can protect yourself against hearing damage! There are several ways to rate earplugs and Howard Leight explains it much better than I ever could in the wonderfully informative education area of their site.
2. Disposable Ear Plugs
Ever wonder why the goldfish bowl full of orange earplugs (at $1 a pair) at your local dealer is perpetually empty? The reason is because the majority of riders use disposable ear plugs! They offer excellent protection at a palatable price. Is this then the way to go? Well, not really :)
Ear canals are very much like fingerprints in that no two are alike. Fortunately disposable ear plug makers like Howard Leight, Inc. (the best in my opinion) offer a "variety pack" with two or three pairs of ever disposable plug they offer. For under $5 you will be able to test all of them and see which work best for your ears (after all if they aren't comfortable you won't wear them, right?)
There are basically 4 types of disposable earplugs for folks who wear full-face helmets, the large "Max", the thinner "Lite", the "Hearos" type which has a stiff center aiding insertion, and the "Drum" type popular in the shooting department of sporting goods stores.
They are inserted by rolling the plug between two fingers, inserting up to the "bud", then holding until the foam has fully expanded. A properly sized and inserted plug will be comfortable for a full day of riding and almost completely eliminate the "jet engine" wind roar while at the same time allowing you to hear important things like horns and folks talking. As the plug expands in the ear after insertion you will be able to hear as the background noise suddenly disappears. Clap your hands, if you can hear anything other than a dull, muffled clap your earplugs are either improperly inserted, incorrectly sized, or need to be replaced.
Earplugs must be regularly replaced. As you wear them they become saturated with moisture, ear wax, and bacteria. Not only are used plugs unhygienic, they lose their ability to protect your ears. Many riders wash plugs and re-use them, I've always found it easier to buy in bulk and at about $0.15 cents a pair, just use a new pair every time.
A "too big" plug will be very uncomfortable and the protection will be handicapped because the foam has not had the room to expand and conform into the ear canal. A "too small" plug will be comfortable but may be loose in the ear and again the protection will be handicapped because the fully expanded foam will not have sufficiently filled in and conformed to the ear canal.
The "Max" type is the most popular and offers the highest levels of protection. Unfortunately they are the largest of the plugs and do not fit many with smaller or partially obstructed ear canals. With ratings of NRR 33 dB and SNR 34 dB, the Max has the highest protection of any disposable made.
The Laser-Lite was my favorite, and I still have over 100 pairs in my closet awaiting my recovery. The narrower size much better fits my smaller eat canals, allowing the plug to more fully expand and better block noise. Rated at NRR 32 dB and SNR 35 dB, the protection is almost equal to (or better depending on which rating) the bigger Max plug. This is the plug of choice for those who find the Max uncomfortable.
The "Max-Lite" plugs are labeled so because the portion that fits in your ear canal is a are smaller in diameter than the "Max" and the protruding portion is squared rather than round. There are several varieties of the "Lite", with different densities, different foam and different colors. Rated at NRR 30dB and SNR 34 dB, the Max-Lite does not offer the protection of the Max, but is more comfortable for many.
Hearos or Quiet
Last on the list of recommended plugs is the disposable plug commonly known as the "Hearos", which is actually the name given this style plug by one of the several manufacturers. It is a much smaller plug, and uses a stiff center piece to aid insertion rather than require the user to roll and compress. Because of this, at NRR 26 dB and SNR 28 dB, it offers substantially less protection than the plugs listed above. However, many find it the only plug that can be comfortably worn and a less-protective plug reliably worn is far, far better than none at all. Interestingly enough, some dealers and vendors that sell this plug (especially those showing up at rallies) have been able to convince riders that $5.00 a pair is a fair price; at around $0.50 cents a pair they are actually less than twice the price of "regular" plugs.
Tube or Cylinder
These are the "coke-can" cylindrical type plugs you will commonly find in the gun departments of mega-stores. While they are not worthless for motorcycle use, they are close. Do your ears a big favor and use these only on an emergency basis.
Disposable plugs offer superior protection at an excellent price. The low cost of bulk buying ensures you will always have a clean, fresh pair (and the inevitable pair for your riding buddy who either forgot his or is (re)using a 3-month old ratty pair from K-Mart.) Call a Howard Leight distributor (I've used Conney Safety Products at http://www.conney.com/ with superior results) and ask for the Howard Leight Variety Pack. Try all the plugs to see which fit you best, then call and order a box (200 pairs, ~$30.) Stuff them in your riding suit, your tankbag, and keep 10 or so spare pairs under the seat -- after a month or so you'll wonder how you could ever re-use a pair :)
3. Custom Ear Plugs
Custom ear plugs are a great option, though they are expensive. I chose to use disposable ear plugs because they were easy and cheap, and not only did I not fear misplacing one, I wore a new pair every time :) The advantages are excellent hearing protection and long term comfort and proven fit. The disadvantages include the possibility of loss or breakage leaving you with no protection, cost, and having to go through having them made. Longtime rider and multivario bag repair guru Bob Weiss makes the best, but many places such as Sears and Wal-Mart also offer the service.
Hearing loss is preventable. If you ride for any length of time without ear protection you will suffer irreversible hearing damage. Whether high quality disposable ear plugs or custom-made and fitted ear plugs, consistently wearing a high quality ear plug every time you ride will ensure you won't have to go through life constantly asking people to repeat themselves, or wondering if that screeching ringing in your ears will ever go away.
(Thanks to some TJ for this one :))