“What is the best helmet?” is a frequently asked question on the internet. Alternatively, “Who manufactures the best helmet?“
We can understand why someone would ask this question. However, the question is oversimplified. It’s a bit like asking who manufactures the best motorcycle. You’ll get at least ten different responses if you ask ten experts. Probably a lot more.
So, what exactly do we mean when we say “best”? Are we discussing the safest option? Which is the quietest? Who is the most dependable? Which one is the most adaptable? Who’s the most outspoken? Which is the most relaxing? And so forth. Are we talking about open-face, full-face, flip-lids, adventure helmets, race helmets, or pure off-road helmets, for example?
We must also consider the fact that one person’s meat is another person’s poison. What I look for in a helmet may not be the same as what you want.
The other reality is that even the best motorcycle helmet in the world may not be suitable for you if it does not fit properly. Many people measure their heads and believe that based on that measurement, they can choose any helmet they wish. That, however, is not the case.
Take a look at these two heads. They both have the same circumference measurement around their heads. However, everybody can see that the helmet that works well for Mr. Ovalhead will not work at all for Mr. Roundhead.
Mr. Ovalhead will find Mr. Roundhead’s beautiful helmet to be a little too tight on his brow. Mr. Roundhead, on the other hand, will find Mr. Ovalhead’s perfect helmet to be extremely constraining on the sides. And that’s just in the horizontal direction. Then there’s the vertical plane shape of the skull. Not to mention the facial structure.
And this establishes the reality that even the best motorbike helmet in the world may not fit or work for you. Nonetheless, fit aside, we believe we are capable of providing a relatively conclusive answer to the following question: “Who produces the finest helmet?”
As previously said, there are numerous criteria that might be used in the search for motorcycling’s holy grail.
But, if we’re being bold, we’ll say that when people ask this question, they’re usually asking who makes the safest motorcycle helmet, because a helmet’s primary role is to protect. They can also be wondering who makes the highest-quality, most trusted, most dependable motorbike helmet. I’ll also address this, albeit in a roundabout way.
But before we get started, let me dispel a few urban legends.
The First Urban Myth
All helmets offer the same level of protection.
Some individuals believe that all helmets are equally safe because they are all tested to the same ECE 22-05 standard. But that’s like claiming that because we all have the same driver’s licence, we’re all equally capable on the road. It’s possible that everyone’s paperwork and exam will be the same. The similarities, however, end there.
ECE 22-05 is a minimum requirement. To be honest, it was never a terribly difficult level to meet. (22-06 is more difficult, but that’s a different topic.) And, as Lidl has demonstrated, you can obtain a £25 helmet until May 22.
However, there is a significant difference between helmets that simply satisfy the requirements and those that exceed them. Even so, a recent analysis by an Italian consumer magazine found that many helmets purchased in stores no longer fulfilled the standard to which they were accredited. That’s because manufacturers aren’t required to re-test manufacturing helmets once the prototype has been certified. Nobody will ever know whether a factory saves money on supplies!
Premium brands, on the other hand, regularly re-test helmets as they leave the factory. If a helmet from that manufacturing batch is proven to be defective in any manner, the entire batch will be discarded.
Of course, the brands at the top of the tree are held to a higher standard than 22-05. Indeed, some tests are performed to a higher standard than the new 22-06 norm.
The Second Urban Myth
Carbon helmets provide better protection.
The cheapest helmets on the market have a polycarbonate shell, which is essentially plastic. These helmets may pass the test, but their soft shells are prone to cracking and deformation in the event of an accident, leaving the riderless protected in the event of many impacts. Fibreglass helmets are a step up from polycarbonate or thermo-injected helmets. They’re improved, but not quite up to par.
It is not unreasonable to assume that the greatest and most protective helmets on the market will be built with composite shells. This type of construction encompasses a wide range of technologies, although composite shells are primarily made up of fibreglass and carbon or Kevlar strands or layers.
This takes us to the second urban legend: carbon helmets’ purported superiority. People feel they must be safer because that is what Moto GP riders wear. No, I’m frightened I’m afraid Carbon helmets are lighter than steel helmets. And when it comes to racing, weight is important. Less weight means faster speed, but because of the G-forces involved, a lighter helmet also means less strain on the rider’s neck. Carbon helmets are used by racers for this reason.
A carbon helmet may be purchased by a road cyclist for a variety of reasons. You may have a carbon obsession and believe that a carbon lid will complement your bike’s carbon-fibre shell. You may believe that because your bike is so hard, the weight loss would spare your neck muscles.
(Are you kidding me?) You might wish to brag about your ability to afford something extravagant. You may choose a carbon helmet for a variety of reasons, but you would be mistaken if you believed you were purchasing a safer helmet simply because it is carbon. Sorry!
The Third Urban Myth
“SHARP” is a helmet safety guide.
Let me now address my final urban legend: SHARP can direct you to a safer helmet. Many people hold the SHARP test regime in high regard. They treasure it because people are sometimes lazy and want someone else to make their decisions for them. And if you only eat at restaurants with five SHARP stars on Tripadvisor, you’re welcome to buy a helmet with that rating. SHARP, on the other hand, has little clout in the industry.
Only one brand employs SHARP in its marketing, and that’s because the SHARP testing process happens to be compatible with their helmet design.
In a nutshell, SHARP was founded as a result of the United Kingdom’s entry into the European Union. The guys who had been evaluating BSI helmets found themselves with some test equipment and a lot of extra white coats, but no work.
They pressed the government for funds, citing COS 327, a European Commission report. They proposed devising a technique for assigning stars to helmets based on how much better they performed than the baseline 22-05 level.
The issue was that, in order to save money, they cut corners and devised a test standard that had not been evaluated independently. For example, instead of the pricey biometric headforms specified in the study, they employed low-cost steel headforms. SHARP gave a £60 polycarbonate helmet from Lazer five stars and an Arai three stars in its initial round of testing. From that moment forward, no one in the industry took SHARP seriously. If you still choose your helmets just on the basis of SHARP, you’re missing a trick.
Who are the participants?
In this market, there are a few dozen serious firms. We’ll skip the actual bargain brands found at scooter stores, hipster emporiums, and discount warehouses. Nobody will honestly consider a helmet that costs less than £200 to be a contender for the title of “Best Motorcycle Helmet.”
The names we’re talking about are listed below. Please accept my apologies if I have left any brands out. This isn’t meant as a slur, but it’s irrelevant because I already know the answer to the original question, and I’m aware that the company does appear on the list!
Now, I don’t want to enter into a discussion over whether one brand is better or safer than another. The truth is that answering such a question will almost always be impossible.
I’ve sat in a number of helmet manufacturers, and the guy on the other side of the table has tried to persuade me that their helmets were the best, that their quality control methods were more stringent, and that their testing was of higher quality. Their goal has always been to confuse me with science. And I’d think they’ve usually been successful.
MIPS, softer shells, harder shells, multi-layer EPS liners, proprietary technology, Moto GP experience, and so on are all qualities that distinguish helmets from one another. All of the brands I’ve included here, in my opinion, have the capability to produce reliable helmets.
If asked, I believe I could build a brand map in which some brands are placed above a quality line and others are placed below. But I could never be sure that I had it right, and if I published my thoughts, the lawyers’ letters would start piling up on the porch in no time.
However, there are two brands that stand out among the rest. And I don’t think anyone in the motorcycle industry would deny that these two brands are superior. Those linked with other brands would, of course, have to publicly protest, albeit I fear they would protest too much. Even the most fervent partisan would have to admit the truth of the matter about my two candidates discreetly, off-camera.
The two contenders
The two Japanese giants Arai and Shoei are our two selections, maybe predictably for those who work in the motorcycle industry. Both of these firms have been making helmets since the 1950s, Arai since the beginning of the decade and Shoei since the latter.
They both test to a higher standard than the ECE norm. And, as you’d expect from a Japanese company, their quality control processes and procedures set them apart from other brands. Their helmets are technically top-of-the-line. And they’ve both spent more than 50 years in the top echelons of motorsport.
We are no longer fooled by brands that have risen to prominence only as a result of their involvement in motorsport. It’s a tried-and-true, albeit somewhat pricey, route to the top.
Choosing a helmet purely based on the fact that it has been worn by a prominent rider, in our opinion, is a waste of time. On television, a rider’s head is adorned with a helmet.
As a result, it becomes popular, but the question remains whether that rider is wearing that helmet because he believes it is the best or because he is paid a large sum of money to do so. It doesn’t take Einstein to figure it out.
However, while Arai and Shoei surely pay riders a lot of money to wear their helmets, they have not embraced motorsport as a vehicle to make quick money. Since their inception in the sport towards the end of the 1960s, both of these firms have been deeply involved with motorsport and the safety of riders. These two businesses have done more than any other to safeguard racers and define the contemporary helmet.
It came as no surprise to us that Arai and Shoei were the first to market with approved helmets when the new 22-06 safety standard was issued. That was partly due to the fact that both were already testing to a far higher standard than 22-05, but it was also due to the fact that they were the standard-bearers for the new Moto GP, FIM standard, which 22-06 was built on.
You might be interested to hear that when the new FIM helmet standard was released for the 2018 season, a handful of participating helmet manufacturers was so technically challenged that they were unable to create helmets to the required level.
As a result, a handful of riders used Arai and Shoei helmets rebranded with their preferred brand’s emblem. We’re not trying to embarrass anyone, but this does show how much ahead of the pack the two Japanese brands are.
On the surface, this may appear to be nothing more than sensationalized gossip, yet the truth is plain to see in brilliant technicolour. But I mention this because it is unmistakable evidence of these two businesses’ unquestionable and unrivalled safety credentials. However, it’s possible that I’m complaining too much because no one who knows or understands the situation will object to where we’ve arrived so far.
The next section, on the other hand, might be a little more contentious.
Why is Arai the best and safest motorcycle helmet manufacturer?
Michio Arai, the iron rod who rules Arai, is a ruthless businessman.
Every helmet maker emphasizes that safety is at the forefront of everything they do. But, more often than not, this is just rhetoric, and the business imperatives, such as the need to target price points, accomplish volumes, and maintain margins, take precedence. As a result, while they may promote a message of protection, their primary goal is often to gain a larger share of the market’s volume end. (It’s what their venture capital investors want, after all.)
This is not something Arai does. They will not use lower-cost materials to achieve lower prices. Arai makes a helmet that is reasonably priced. That’s all there is to it. Of course, this could explain why their helmets are more expensive!
Arai is motivated by safety, particularly in the context of racing. In the 1970s and 1980s, Arai believed that the best shape for a motorcycle shell was smooth and round, like an egg shell.
Not only was this a naturally sturdy shape, but its smoothness ensured it didn’t dig in and spin when it impacted the road surface. This phenomenon was dubbed ‘Glancing Off’ by Arai.
Despite this, most helmet manufacturers, in their pursuit of cutting-edge design and fashionability, added a variety of sharp edges and angles to their helmets. Of course, Arai declined to go along with the trend, refusing to compromise its ideology in the name of market popularity.
The new ECE standard, ironically, now recognizes what Arai has been saying all along. Because it is now acknowledged that oblique blows can cause the brain to twist in the skull, the new test regime now includes a test for angled impacts. This twisting can cause rips and lesions in the brain, which are just as dangerous as direct strikes.
As a result, future helmet shells will almost certainly have to become more rounded in order to comply with the requirement. As if you were an Arai!
Arai avoids popular features like flip-up chin bars, drop-down sun visors, and integrated comms because of its commitment to core ideas.
Despite the fact that many riders regard a drop-down visor to be a required feature, despite the fact that flip-lids are the fastest-growing segment at the premium end of the market, and despite the great need for communications in the touring market, they’ve done it. Arai, on the other hand, is having none of it. On one hand, this is something to be admired.
It’s all about racing at Arai. They create the highest-quality, safest helmets to safeguard their racers, and they will not compromise on this concept. If you want an Arai, you buy a helmet made exactly how they want it. That’s all there is to it.
There are few companies that are so principled in any industry. The case that Arai’s helmets are the safest you can buy will be bolstered in the next part, where I’ll discuss Shoei. But let me summarise it this way: I’d want to be in an Arai if my horoscope said I’d go off my bike during a track day at Donington Park and smack my skull against something hard at high speed.
Why Arai is superior, yet I’d rather ride in a Shoei
I’m not going backward here. Arai is the top helmet brand, producing the safest and highest-quality helmets. There isn’t any debate. But it’s debatable whether their helmets are too rigid for the road.
The Snell standard in the United States was the first standard to which Arai helmets were recognized in the 1960s. It’s still a strong standard, and in some ways, it outperforms the most recent 22-06 standard. However, it was designed as a standard for car racing helmets.
A major concern in vehicle racing in the United States at the time was the possibility of the head colliding with the roll cage on several occasions. Because of this, the Snell test necessitated an especially strong and thick outer shell. As a result, a thick shell became an important aspect of an Arai helmet’s make-up, and it is one that still lies at the heart of Arai’s helmet design today.
A thick shell may appear to be a good thing, and it is, on one level, because it means the shell will not crack as easily after multiple impacts.
A damaged shell, on the other hand, will not provide the rider with the protection he requires. Thick outer shells, on the other hand, do not readily absorb energy, particularly in low-speed impacts. As a result, Arais must have an unusually thick eps liner to absorb the energy of a collision to compensate for their thicker outer shells.
Have you been following along thus far? That’s all well and good, but the final consequence is that Arai helmets are generally larger and heavier than helmets of comparable specifications from other manufacturers.
When comparing the 22-06 Shoei NXR2 in size Small to the new Arai Quantic, for example, the Shoei weighs 1265 grams while the Arai weighs 1600 grams. They’re direct competitors at the sportier end of the sports-touring market, and while 325 grams isn’t much in helmet years, it’s a lot in helmet years.
Some people are unconcerned about their increased weight because let’s face it, we can all rationalize and dismiss the inconveniences we don’t want to deal with. However, most people will not appreciate the added weight of a thicker helmet.
Another benefit of racing is improved ventilation. Racers put up a lot of effort. Riding a motorcycle at high speeds on a track is difficult. Your heart is pounding furiously. You’re going to make a lot of heat. Excellent ventilation will be required to keep you cool. That is why, once again, ventilation is at the center of Arai’s thinking.
The issue with this amount of air flowing into a helmet is that it can cause excessive noise. However, this has never been a top priority for Arai.
Arai makes racing helmets first and foremost. Their main issue is not noise. Earplugs are required for all riders. There is no controversy for them. It is more crucial to keep the rider cool than to protect his ears.
Of course, Arai claims to create touring helmets, and one would expect a touring helmet to be quieter, but all Arais are simply variants on racing helmets if you look closely. Any Arai full-face looks pretty much the same, but with varied stick-on spoilers and aerofoils.
Occasionally, the more touring-oriented types are simply older race helmets. The Arai DNA, on the other hand, cannot be hidden. It’s all about spinning in circles as quickly as possible.
Arai can be quite noisy, which is a disadvantage for the wearer. Those who want to justify their affection for their Arai will try to deny it, but Arais have always been loud. In the factory in Saitama, they don’t employ wind tunnels to explore how they might reduce noise.
Wind tunnels are used to see how they can alter lift and drag to benefit the racer. This is probably why Arai was so pleased to announce that their new Quantic sports-touring helmet remained stable at speeds of over 180 mph! (This means their sports-touring bike is significantly faster than mine)!
So, Arais is a little hefty and a little noisy, but for many riders, the reason not to go with an Arai is that you will never get a drop-down sun visor, a flip-up chin bar, or the ease of integrated comms. Now, if you have broad muscular shoulders, wear earplugs, or are already deaf, prefer cool shades over a sun visor or a flip, and don’t care about a neater, safer communications solution, an Arai might be for you.
These items, however, are more than just good to have for many motorcyclists. You might need a sun visor if you commute west to east in the morning and east to west in the evening. If you travel a lot of miles, a quiet helmet may be beneficial. You could choose a flip lid if you bike in a city or in a host country. And if any of these factors are important to you, and Arai is probably not for you.
This leads to my overall conclusion. The top helmets in the world are made by Shoei and Arai. When it comes to building quality and safety, Arai, in my opinion, takes the cake. And I can see why somebody would want to wear an Arai on track days or on their sports bike.
However, Shoei earns my selection for the road rider who wants a highly protective helmet paired with some of the comforts that make riding a more peaceful and enjoyable experience. Arai is fantastic, but they’re really race helmets disguised as art.
Shoei, despite producing some outstanding race helmets, is more willing to compromise. They still create excellent protective helmets, but they also understand the needs of road riders, thus I feel Shoei makes the greatest helmet for the vast majority of riders.
Let me put it this way: I get out of bed. I consulted my horoscope. On a track day up at Donington, a three-hour drive from the shop in Guildford, I’ll have an accident and bang my head tomorrow afternoon. For the circuit, I’ll bring my Arai, but for the trip up and back, I’d prefer to wear a Shoei!