As riders, we spend a lot of time wearing motorcycle helmets. There are a dizzying number of options at a wide range of prices. This leaves many new motorcycle riders wondering whether the expensive motorcycle helmets are really worth it.
Expensive motorcycles are worth it, to an extent. There are some pretty significant quality differences between the cheapest and most expensive motorcycle helmets. It’s worth it to spend enough money to get something safe and comfortable, but beyond that, it’s usually not necessary.
With that said, it’s a bit more complicated than that, if you really want to know what you’re getting for your money. There are a lot of different helmets and a lot of factors to consider when making a purchase. Below, we go through all of these in more detail.
Motorcycle helmets are expensive as there are a lot of different materials and processes that go into making one, and all of this contributes to a significant manufacturing cost, even among the cheaper brands. Almost all motorcycle helmets are going to be at least somewhat expensive.
The basic components of a motorcycle helmet are:
- A hard outer shell
- A foam liner, for absorbing impact
- Padding, for comfort
- A strap for head restraint
The hard outer shell of a motorcycle helmet is specifically designed to absorb a hard impact, although just once. The liner is designed to crush on impact and lessen the blow of an accident.
The padding is mostly just to make the helmet more comfortable to wear for long periods of time, although it does help to keep the helmet snug. The strap exists to keep the helmet from leaving your head in the event of an accident.
Cheap vs Expensive Helmets
Different companies will use different types of materials to fill these roles, some being cheaper and easier to work with, some being harder to work with or more expensive. Usually, the more expensive materials are often safer or lighter, so people are often willing to spend more on them.
Cheaper helmets often have lower grade plastic outer shells, while more expensive ones are often made from carbon fiber or other composite materials. The price of a helmet is also affected by how complicated the design of the helmet is.
Certain types, such as half-helmets and ¾ helmets, are simpler to make, while some modular, full face, and dirt bike style helmets are more complicated to build, often leading to higher costs, although not always.
Another thing contributing to the cost of helmets is safety certifications. In order for a helmet to be street legal, there are certain safety standards it must meet.There
are a few different types of safety certifications. Not every helmet meets all of them, so it isn’t always the same, which can contribute to the difference in price.
Expensive motorcycle helmets are usually safer. However, this is only true if the reason for the higher cost versus cheaper helmets is regarding safety features of the helmet, such as stronger materials used in their construction. Higher costs due to aesthetic differences won’t make a helmet safer.
Higher costs due to the helmet meeting more safety criteria for certifications clearly makes the more expensive helmet safer than cheaper, less certified options. The basic safety certifications are determined by if a helmet is able to stand up to various impacts or sharp objects, and do so when exposed to moisture and a variety of temperatures.
Common Safety Ratings
The more rigorous rating systems make use of more advanced and specific testing procedures, such as ultraviolet light exposure and helmet retention and roll-off tests. Here are a few common safety certifications that are useful to know:
- DOT: Determined by the US Department of Transportation. This is the minimum rating required for a helmet to be street legal in the US. The DOT does not specifically test helmets, but requires helmet manufacturers to certify that every model sold in the US meets this standard.
- ECE: Determined by the Economic Commission for Europe. This rating is used by most European nations. It’s comparable to DOT, although a bit more comprehensive.
- SNELL: This rating is determined by the Snell Memorial Foundation, a private organization that was founded after the death of Pete Snell, a racing driver, in order to promote and advance helmet safety. This is a voluntary testing procedure, and is often only required for certain types of racing. The testing procedure is far more rigorous than ECE and especially DOT.
- FIM: This rating is mostly used for helmets involved in professional motorcycle racing, and is set by the organization that sanctions these events.
- SHARP: This rating was established by the UK Government in 2007, with the goal of improving motorcycle road safety. Helmets tested in the SHARP program are purchased from dealers to make sure the helmets tested are identical to the ones purchased and worn by the public. SHARP testing also rates helmets on a 1-5 scale instead of just a pass/fail system, so it’s significantly more comprehensive.
A simplified way to look at these ratings:
- DOT: Basic US safety rating (Mandatory)
- ECE: Basic European safety rating (Mandatory)
- SNELL: More thorough rating for racing (USA) (Optional)
- FIM: More thorough rating for racing (Worldwide) (Optional)
- SHARP: More thorough rating for Britain (Optional)
Which Rating Is Right For You?
DOT and ECE certifications are easily the most common types, and the ones you’ll be most likely to see when shopping for a helmet. While these certifications are somewhat thorough (the ECE probably more so than the DOT), if you really want to be sure you have a safe helmet, it makes sense to go for one of the higher graded SNELL, FIM, or SHARP helmets.
As these certifications are far less common, you will often end up paying more for helmets that have them. Whether or not that is worth it depends on what your priorities are.
Beyond that, more expensive helmets will usually make use of higher grade materials in their construction. These materials may be safer or last longer, but it is often difficult to fully evaluate those things without having owned or crashed the helmet. This is one of the reasons that safety certifications are useful, as these organizations have done all of the testing work for you.
As previously discussed, more expensive helmets tend to be safer overall, often built with better materials, sometimes passing more difficult safety tests. When you get past a certain point, helmets are often engineered for extra comfort, rather than more safety, so this isn’t completely true across the board.
The difference between a $50 helmet and a $150 helmet is often greater than the difference between a $200 helmet and a $350 helmet. The more you spend above a certain point, the less extra safety you get per dollar (on average). Essentially, the costs of increasing the safety of a motorcycle helmet begin to hit a ceiling as the helmets become about as safe as possible.
More expensive helmets tend to have nicer features built into them. These often include nicer straps, or face shields with built-in technology, such as photochromic transitioning (auto-darkening). These helmets sometimes also feature easier to remove padding that’s also of higher quality. Some of the nicer helmets even have antennae built in to assist with Bluetooth rider communication systems.
More expensive helmets overall tend to be built better than cheaper ones. This is shown not only in the materials used, but also in the average quality control level of production. You can often tell when physically handling helmets whether or not they were produced with strict attention to detail.
The advanced materials that more expensive helmets are usually constructed with not only potentially assist with safety, but can also provide a longer-lasting helmet that is less likely to sustain damage and wear.
On average, pricier helmets tend to be more comfortable than cheaper ones. This isn’t always the case, as everyone has a different head, but usually there is more research and development put towards comfort on the pricier models. The best way to determine this is to try them on yourself, but unfortunately that isn’t always an option.
Some expensive helmets are designed with comfort as the main concern, and can be much quieter than cheaper ones too. These helmets are also often lighter, another benefit of using more expensive materials.
Riding in the summer is a lot of fun, but it can sometimes get pretty hot, especially in full gear. More expensive motorcycle helmets often have better ventilation, and it’s usually something you can customize, as most vents can be opened or closed by the rider.
Some of the pricier helmets have upwards of 8 or 10 different adjustable vents, while the cheaper ones often just have 3 or 4 that aren’t always very adjustable. This doesn’t always matter, but on really hot days, it’s definitely pretty noticeable.
There are a few different ways to evaluate safety when looking at motorcycle helmets. Finding a helmet that will protect you is more important than any other factor. Safety is the reason helmets exist, and therefore it is the number one thing you should consider when buying one.
The best ways to evaluate safety is by looking at a helmet’s safety certifications, but some helmets may have additional safety features that won’t be covered in the safety certification process, so it’s always good to do some individual research on any specific helmet you’re interested in.
It’s important to find a helmet within your budget. While I certainly don’t recommend skimping and getting the cheapest helmet possible, you don’t really need to spend $1,000 on the best possible helmet, even though you certainly could. Finding a balance between those two options is usually the best strategy for most people.
While a helmet is the most important piece of riding gear, depending on your budget, it may be wise to look for a cheaper – but still safe – helmet so that you have the funds to secure additional important pieces of riding gear such as gloves, boots, a jacket, and pants. However, never let your budget put a limit on how safe you can be. If you can’t afford to ride safely, don’t ride at all.
If you ride your motorcycle consistently, you’re going to spend a lot of time wearing your helmet. Making sure the helmet you’re purchasing is comfortable to wear is paramount to enjoying the experience. It also helps maintain focus on important things like road safety, as you’ll be less distracted by being uncomfortable.
While this doesn’t matter as much for short trips, the longer you ride, the more the little annoyances may add up, and the more they can distract you from the road. Comfort and safety go hand-in-hand, as being focused is essential for safe riding.
Related to comfort, weight is an important characteristic often overlooked, especially when purchasing helmets online. Different types, materials, and features of helmets will result in a variety of different weights. A lighter helmet will result in less fatigue and potential pain, and will overall result in a far happier riding experience.
This also helps for basic things like carrying the helmet around. Heavier helmets can also increase the amount of time required to move your head quickly and react, should you need to do so, and this is clearly a safety concern.
Although this one isn’t equally important to everyone, how your helmet looks can make a real difference in terms of which one you purchase. As riders, we’re pretty exposed on the road, and so having a helmet that looks cool is a real bonus. There is a large variety of styles and colors to choose from, so everyone should be able to find something they like the look of.
How a helmet looks can also have an impact on safety. Brighter colored helmets, especially those with neon and retro-reflective colors, can be the difference between another driver on the road seeing you or not. The importance of that can’t be overstated.
Why You Shouldn’t Buy Used Motorcycle Helmets
I wanted to give this point its own section, even though it’s simple, as it is quite important. Don’t buy used helmets. In most cases, I’m all for reusing old things instead of replacing them, but this is one area where I recommend against it. Motorcycle helmets are really designed to be a single use item (once damaged).
The hard outer shell on a motorcycle helmet is designed to absorb energy once, and only once. If a helmet is in a crash, even a small one, or in some cases just dropped on a hard surface, the ability of the hard outer layer to absorb impact is often compromised.
Check For Expiry Dates
Helmets also actually have expiration dates. Even if a helmet isn’t used, after a certain amount of time, the hard outer shell loses its ability to absorb a crash impact. This is just a result of the materials slowly degrading. Different helmets will degrade at different rates, depending on what they’re made of.
This is the danger of used helmets. When purchasing a used helmet, you have no idea of its history. Despite looking fine, a helmet may have sustained damage at some point and is no longer safe to use. It may be much older and may have lost its toughness. For these reasons, it’s always better to avoid purchasing used helmets at all, and just stick to new ones.
There are some specific varieties of helmets (such as dirt bike vs street bike helmets), but knowing a few basic types is important when considering a purchase.
Here are the basic types of motorcycle helmet:
- Full Face Helmets
- Modular Helmets
- ¾ Helmets
Full Face Helmets
Full face helmets are easily the safest type. They fully cover the head, face, and chin, and are one solid piece that will not come apart in the event of a crash. This is my personal recommendation, and the recommendation of a number of paramedics I’ve met as well.
Modular helmets appear to be full face when closed, but the chin section of the helmet flips up with the visor. They’re basically ¾ face helmets, although perhaps a bit safer.
¾ helmets basically cover everything except the face, and are still a decent option. Many people prefer this type of helmet to full face ones. They are safer than half helmets but not as safe as full face helmets.
Half-helmets have the minimum amount of helmet required to actually be considered a helmet. They are visually comparable to standard bicycle helmets and provide good airflow, but are much less protective than full face helmets.
In general, I mostly recommend full face helmets. They’re the safest type, and as riders, we accept quite a lot of risk whenever we get on our bikes and hit the road, so it seems like minimizing that risk wherever possible is a good idea.
For this reason, if anyone ever asks me what type of helmet to get, a full face is always my initial recommendation. That said, helmet preference is a very individual thing, and what works well for some may not work well for others.
For example, many long distance and touring riders prefer modular helmets, as they allow for full face coverage most of the time, but allow for a lot more freedom, such as being able to easily drink water without removing your helmet.
Although this may not seem like a big deal to some riders, if you’re covering 300 miles a day, having to take off your helmet whenever you want a sip of water can get very irritating very fast, hence the modular helmet preference.
I’ve also found that many riders don’t particularly like motorcycle helmets at all, and would prefer not to wear them despite local laws requiring it. In my experience, these riders often prefer half-helmets for that reason, as they feel the closest to not wearing a helmet at all.
While I can’t recommend them from a safety perspective, they are still helmets and are preferable to nothing, and again, the gear we wear is a very individual choice that we all get to make for ourselves.
There are also certain helmets that are made specifically for off-road use. These helmets are usually not as great on the street as they often aren’t as aerodynamic. Some of them are not road-legal as well. There are also crossover helmets, usually referred to as Dual Sport helmets, that are somewhere between dirt and street helmets, and many of them can be adjusted for use on one or the other.
A good motorcycle helmet should cost between $150-$300. This is a general rule of thumb for a decently comfortable and safe motorcycle helmet. Anything less than $100 and it’s probably going to be either a bit uncomfortable or a bit less safe, and maybe both.
This question can be pretty subjective, of course, so that’s just a general idea of the price you should be looking for. When you pass that $150 threshold, what you’re paying for is usually a combination of safety, comfort, and some additional features. Whether those things are worth it will come down to your habits and preferences as a rider.
How Much Time Do You Spend Riding?
If you’re someone who only rides occasionally, it’s easier to get away with a low-budget helmet, but if you ride on a regular basis, it’s often worth it to spend some more and get something nicer, given how much time you’ll be spending wearing it.
At the end of the day, finding a helmet that works well for you is the most important thing. Sometimes that means spending a lot, but it doesn’t always. I recommend trying on a bunch of different helmets if you have the ability to do so, as that’s the best way to really judge what you prefer.
The 5 Safest Motorcycle Helmets
1. Bell Qualifier DLX MIPS (Multi-Directional Impact Protection System)
The Bell Qualifier DLX MIPS is my current pick for the best all-around motorcycle helmet. Despite its medium price tag of around $275, this helmet boasts a lot of features often only seen in higher end helmets.
It comes with “MIPS”, an impact protection system developed in order to reduce rotational motion transferred to the brain in a crash. A layer of low-friction material allows the helmet to slide with the head. It’s comparable to the way that our heads naturally respond to impact.
This helmet also has a transitional photochromic visor that will automatically darken or lighten depending on the amount of light it detects, which is a very useful feature, and not commonly seen on helmets at this price range. It even has cut-outs for Bluetooth headsets, if that’s your sort of thing, and it comes with a five year warranty. This helmet is both DOT and ECE certified.
- Great value for money
- MIPS crash protection
- DOT + ECE certified
- Not the quietest helmet
2. AGV K1
The AGV K1 comes in at about $200 and it is my current budget pick. While you can certainly find helmets cheaper than this, nice ones usually aren’t that much cheaper. Even though this is my budget pick, it’s no slouch when it comes to features and design.
The spoiler built into this helmet makes it more stable at speed and it also has a passive vent, designed to extract warm air from inside the helmet as you ride. It also looks pretty darn stylish.
Beyond that, the helmet features 5 additional front vents, so cooling shouldn’t be an issue. The face shield isn’t photochromic unfortunately, but it is still made of scratch resistant anti-fog polycarbonate, and offers UV protection. This helmet is both DOT and ECE certified.
- Good budget option
- DOT + ECE certified
- No photochromic visor
- Some of the vents are awkward to control when wearing gloves
3. Shoei RF-1400
Shoei has been known for some time for producing consistently high quality helmets favored by more serious riders. The Shoei RF-1400 is one of the nicest helmets on this list and the one I most prefer. It is one of Shoei’s lightest full face helmets, weighing in at about three and a half pounds.
Despite being on the lightweight end, the RF-1400 has a lot of research & design spent on making sure that its light weight did not affect safety, comfort and wind noise. The shape of the helmet was tweaked in a wind tunnel to minimize wind resistance, and the brand new window beading system is both watertight and airtight. It also sports cheek pads and removable ear pads.
All of these design features help cut down wind noise while still minimizing weight. The visor system has been redesigned to yield smoother opening and closing and quicker visor changes.
It’s got a lot of ventilation options as well, featuring 6 entrance vents and 4 exit vents, and a lot of adjustability as to which are open and closed. This helmet is DOT certified and is also the only helmet on this list to be certified by Snell. It is quite pricey at around $500, but for what you get, it’s worth it if you can afford it.
- Snell Certified
- Comfortable and well ventilated
- Very expensive
4. Bell MX-9 Adventure MIPS
The Bell MX-9 is truly a dual sport helmet, specifically designed for riders who spend time on both the dirt and the street. The visor it comes with can be easily removed for street use. The helmet is designed to be usable with any dirt goggles as well.
Like the earlier Bell helmet on the list, it features a Multi-Directional Impact Protection System, another safety bonus. It also comes with similar features like speaker cutouts. The shell is made from a very lightweight polycarbonate, so another point for quality there. This helmet is DOT and ECE certified.
- MIPS protection
- Dual Sport helmet
- DOT + ECE certified
- Not a very quiet helmet
5. Schuberth C3 Pro Helmet
The Schuberth C3 Pro was designed specifically with comfort in mind above all else. It is one of the quietest helmets on the market. It was designed and optimized in a wind tunnel, with an emphasis on building the most comfortable helmet possible.
The shell material is a high-tech fiberglass resin mixture, formed and shaped with the intention of reducing buffeting and providing stability and low resistance at high speeds.
This is a modular helmet, so there is some sacrifice made in the safety department. However, for touring and longer stretches, having the freedom and flexibility that modular helmets provide can really make a journey much more comfortable. It does also contain an anti-roll-off system developed by Schuberth, so it gains a few safety points back there. This helmet is DOT certified.
- Very comfortable helmet
- Good for long rides
- DOT certified
- Modular helmet so not the safest available
Expensive motorcycles really are worth it in most cases, but only up until a certain price point. The cheapest motorcycle helmets are usually the least comfortable and the least safe, and so it’s usually best to opt for the safest motorcycle helmet that you can afford.