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Cheap vs expensive: How much should you pay for a motorcycle helmet?

Consumer Editor of Bennetts BikeSocial



Cheap vs expensive: How much should you pay for a motorcycle helmet?

From this distance, it’s hard to see why about £300 separate these two helmets… let’s look closer


How much should you pay for a motorcycle helmet? With brands like LS2, MT, Box and more offering motorbike lids for as little as £50, is it worth spending £200, £400 or even £700 and up on an expensive brand like Arai, Shoei, Schuberth or others?

What is the safest helmet? Why are some more expensive than others? What is the best? By cutting open an Arai and a Box motorcycle helmet, as well as a Duchinni, you’ll be able to see just what goes into making helmets at opposite ends of the price range…


Cheap vs expensive: How much should you pay for a motorcycle helmet?

This Arai is made using a composite fibre and resin shell, while the Box is a cheaper-to-produce thermoplastic. Both meet the requirements of ECE 22.05


What is the best material for motorcycle helmets?

The Box helmet here – like many other budget lids – is made of plastic, while the Arai is composite fibre and resin. It’s not a simple matter of saying one is always better than the other; it depends how well made they are. Plastic helmets tend to be at the cheaper end of the market, but you can’t just assume that plastic isn’t as safe as a composite fibre. There are also different types of plastic lids– some use polycarbonate, which is fairly strong, while others can be snapped if they’re abused enough.


The Box shell is on the top here – you can see that, despite being lighter than the Arai below it, it’s a fair bit thicker, though being plastic it’s a lot less tough


Arai makes its outer shells to be extremely strong, the idea being that an impact force is spread over a larger area, before being dissipated by a soft inner liner. The ‘super-fibre’ used in each of the two layers of every Arai shell is claimed to be 30% stronger than normal fibreglass thanks to the ‘birds nest’ arrangement of the fibres, which sees them laying in all different directions to better resist cracking and splitting in an impact. This is more difficult, and hence more expensive to produce than traditional fibreglass. And much more costly than plastic. Different brands have their own methods of construction – you can see how Shoei makes its helmets here, and how AGV makes Valentino Rossi’s lid here.


The Arai uses a ‘complex laminate fibre’ construction, and includes additional costly manufacturing processes like this ‘peripheral belt’


It’s a common comment that some lids – particularly Arais – are ‘heavy’ when compared to lightweight carbon-fibre or plastic designs. While in the hand you can feel the difference, in more than 20 years of testing I’ve never had a lid that was too weighty in use.

The only real place a helmet is likely to add weight is in its shell, and it’s the very strong outer of the Arai that makes up that weight. It could be more – the brand’s ‘AR matting’ is designed to take up some of the space of the heavier (and weaker compared to the fibres) resin used in construction, while adding a trellis-like structure to the complex laminate fibre.


A minimum amount of material in the brow allows a racer to get their head down lower on the tank. Photo by, PSP/Lukasz Swiderek


Many Arais also have a ‘peripheral belt’, which adds strength above the visor aperture, allowing for a slimmer inner liner at this point – important when you need to be able to peer through the top of the visor when hunched over a sports bike.

Of course, other premium helmets will have their own technology, but the point is that, while one helmet might look very similar to another, the outer shell alone can have a very significant impact on the construction costs.


The Box has a single piece shell of polystyrene with a slightly softer insert at the crown


Are the polystyrene liners all the same in motorbike lids?

This soft inner shell – typically expanded polystyrene – can vary hugely between motorcycle helmets. The cheaper one here uses a simple single piece with a slightly softer section in the top  and channels cut into the back to vary the density, which will affect force transmission during testing.


These channels cut into the back of the outside of the polystyrene modify the effective density of the material


Because a resin shell can be so much stronger, the inner shall can be softer, making for a more comfortable helmet, and potentially further reducing the forces transmitted to the head, above and beyond the ECE 22.05 standard required for all lids sold in the UK and Europe. Arai uses a single-piece inner shell, but it’s made up of multiple densities for structural integrity… but of course, this is more expensive to make.


I’ve boosted the saturation of this image to more clearly show the three different densities moulded into the Arai inner-shell; white where it’s softest, then green, then blue at the firmest. Though even the blue is softer than the cheaper helmet’s polystyrene


The cost to produce any helmet is of course going to be passed on to the customer, and some of the top brands – like Arai and Shoei for instance – are hand made in Japan. That’s not going to be cheap. But it doesn’t mean you have to pay that money; it just goes some way to explaining why they cost more.


This Arai liner is very complex in its construction, which inevitably adds to the production cost


What difference can you find in the liners?

The liner is designed to wick away sweat and keep you comfortable – depending on the cost it might be antimicrobial (to help avoid bacteria building up and getting smelly), and you’ll also find that most helmets – cheap and expensive – now have a removable liner to make them easier to clean.

But the construction of the liners can be vastly different in order to promote airflow, increase comfort and enhance durability; the Arai cheek pads and skull cap for instance are hugely complex compared to the budget lid.


Cheaper helmets tend to have a much simpler-to-make liner. How comfortable each is will depend on you


Does the liner make a difference to comfort? Since I bought my first helmet in 1996 I’ve found Arai to be really comfortable, as I have most of the other top-end brands. In the lower price bracket though it’s been much more hit and miss – the Duchinni I also cut up felt like someone was running a knife across my head after half an hour of use, but that might not be the same for you.

What does affect comfort – besides the shape of a helmet compared to your head and the build of the liner – is the softness of the inner shell; the more easily that polystyrene can mould to your head, the more comfortable it’s likely to be.


The cheek pad on the left is clearly easier – and hence cheaper – to make


Are all motorcycle helmet visors created equal?

Any helmet’s visor must give a minimum angle of view and clarity to meet the ECE 22.05 standard. Different designs might let you see more out of the bottom or top and a little extra to the sides, while some cheaper visors can occasionally distort a little at the extremities.

Most lids now come with a Pinlock anti-fog visor insert, which can vary depending on the price – the Pinlock 30 is the minimum performance, 70 is the middle and 120 is the best. They’re not usually installed when you get the lid as they’re not homologated and can reduce clarity (though you’ll struggle to see it). But not having a steamed-up visor is typically worth that imperceptible reduction in quality.

Many helmets, from the cheapest to the most expensive, have a drop-down sun-shield. These can be great if you suddenly get caught out in bright sunlight, and they save you lashing out £40 to £60 on a dark visor. But Arai refuses to fit a drop-down shield as it believes it compromises on safety by creating a gap between the outer and inner shell, and introducing more holes for the operating mechanism. Ironically, Arai could probably sell a lot more helmets by introducing them.


A drop-down sun-shield creates a gap between the inner and outer shells


You won’t find racers using helmets with drop-down shields, but that’s also because the design makes the brow thicker, which makes it harder to see in a racing tuck.

Of course, wearing a dark visor is illegal, but you’d be hard pressed to find a police officer who’d worry about it. Unless you’re riding like an idiot or in the dark with it on. Just carry a clear visor with you if you want to use a dark visor, and use common sense.

Visors are made of polycarbonate or acrylic and need to be extremely strong – you can typically bend them inside out without harming them. But you must be careful with what you use to clean a visor as some cleaning products (even a few sold for visors) can seriously damage the plastic, making it brittle. You might not know until you need to use it, but it can show up quickly on some – a few HJCs for instance have a catch screwed in that creates a stress point for the degradation to show itself much more quickly. More often than not it’s a visor cleaner that’s caused the cracks.


Are more vents better?

A good quality lid will have effective vents that cool your head; important to keep your concentration up. Exhaust ports can help draw the air away, and you need to be able to use the vents easily with gloves on.


Some helmets have very few, and often very small ports for air to flow


But look inside the helmet’s shell, behind the liner, to see how effective those vents are likely to be; some cheaper lids might look like they have lots of vents, but they sometimes don’t actually do anything. Any holes cut in the outer (and inner) shell will reduce the structural integrity, so the shell must be strong enough to at least pass ECE 22.05 (and most good manufacturers will go beyond that); you might find only a couple of small ports inside at best.


A well-designed lid can be extremely strong while also giving plenty of intake and exhaust ports


You might find channels cut into the inner liner, which can help improve airflow, but as explained earlier, they can also be used to alter the effective density of the polystyrene during impact testing.

Lots of vents and spoilers also aren’t necessarily a good thing – if they catch on the road in a crash they can jerk the head, causing damage to the brain. Some helmets have vents that break free easily, leaving a round shell that’s been designed to glide over tarmac (like Arai for instance). Others use MIPS – an inner liner that moves to allow the head to shift slightly, which can reduce the rotational forces transmitted to the brain.


Between them, these helmets have covered around 120,000 miles


Do expensive helmets last longer?

The majority of helmets are warranted for five years now, but how well they wear will depend how often you have them on your head. Motorcycle instructor and BikeSocial Test Team member Jonathan Mansfield has been using a Shoei Multitec (two generations back from the current Neotec II) for the past six or seven years (it’s overdue replacement, given how much he uses it) and an MT Atom for the last 12 months or so.


The cheaper lid is showing serious signs of wear


“I’ve been using the MT as my everyday lid,” he says. “Five days a week that’s on my head while I instruct, so it’s had a lot of use. I use the Shoei less than I used to, but still take it out for longer journeys as the MT is too noisy; the Multitec lids done a hell of a lot of miles.

“The MT is a £130 lid, while the Multitec would have been a good £400; replacing it would cost £520 for a plain Neotec II now. Honestly, the MT is good for the price, but it is worn out after a year of very intensive use – the lining is falling apart and the visor keeps flopping closed.



This premium helmet has stood up very well over time


“I’d say the Shoei has had about 100,000 miles on it, while the MT is 15,000 to 20,000 – but it has been on my head while I’m not riding, so use time is still very high; most people aren’t wearing their helmet for seven or eight hours a day, five days a week.

“With all the vents open, both helmets are pretty comparable, but when you close the vents on the Shoei it really is closed – no drafts like on the cheaper one. There really is a difference in noise, comfort, padding and ventilation between the two; you get what you pay for.

“But it will depend on how much people will use their lids, and what they have to spend. As I always say to my students; buy the best you can afford, but make sure you try it on properly, and only ever buy from a reputable dealer.”


Seven tips for buying the best motorcycle helmet

• Don’t buy second-hand.

• Read our article on choosing the right lid for you.

• Get advice from several different people about what they like best, and read our reviews.

• Try on as many different brands and models as you can.

• Ensure the helmet fits snugly all around your head with no pressure points – if you can feel the inner shell pressing on your head (particularly the brow or the rear) it could be agony after an hour or so.

• Try holding the helmet while moving your head side to side and back and forth – you shouldn’t be able to. Any good dealer will have someone who can help you.

• Just because one model from a brand fits you, it doesn’t mean another from the same manufacturer will.


What inside your lid?

BikeSocial cuts open three motorcycle helmets to find out just how different they are…