Mid-Priced Lids - Helmet Heresy?

It's true: With fit, features and safety, midprice lids offer a good bang for the buck

There's an old saying: "If you have a $10 head, buy a $10 helmet"-the implication being the more you spend, the better product you'll get. Of course most of us firmly believe our noggins are worth more than a tenner, but throwing cash around isn't necessarily going to get you a safer helmet these days. It's easy to overlook the fact that in many cases an $800 helmet won't provide markedly better protection than a $200 lid with similar features. In the last several years a number of Asian-made brands have come online with lids that look and feel like the slicker models but at lower prices. That's partly because rapid advances in technology have resulted in better quality (especially in the midgrade helmet sector) and production efficiencies have driven down costs. But a low price on a piece of safety equipment can do as much harm as good. There may be the perception in a buyer's mind, for instance, that a product can't protect as well if it doesn't cost as much (see first sentence). And there's still occasionally shabby workmanship found in this segment-if you don't know what to look for.

Certifications can help. The mandatory standard that motorcycle helmets in the U.S. must comply with is from the Department of Transportation (DOT). To earn a DOT sticker the helmet must meet the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard known as FMVSS 218. A list of U.S. DOT-approved helmets can be found at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) site: nhtsa.dot.gov/cars/testing/comply/fmvss218/index.html. But the DOT doesn't conduct tests; the onus is on the manufacturers to ensure helmets meet its standards.

The Snell Memorial Foundation also provides certification but to a different standard than FMVSS 218. The Snell stamp is voluntary, but unlike the DOT, Snell tests and certifies helmets (for a fee). The Snell helmet list can be found at smf.org.

A third standard, ECE (Economic Commission for Europe) 22.05, also pops up occasionally. This certification is the most commonly used internationally, and ECE also requires mandatory batch testing of helmets before they are released.

A helmet with both DOT and Snell tags may have gone through different testing schemes but may not necessarily be superior to helmets carrying only DOT certification. (See sister publication Motorcyclist's "Blowing the Lid Off" article, June '05, for the details.)

But while certifications may be important, proper fit is critical-if the helmet doesn't stay put it can't do the job. Just realize that snug is good, but headaches can be a deal-breaker. Helmets should fit with even pressure throughout. To further check fit, tighten the chin strap under your jaw (where it meets your neck above the throat) and try to roll the helmet forward or backward-it shouldn't rotate enough to block your vision or expose your forehead. We sampled some of what we felt were the better under-$250 lids on the market, checking for fit, finish quality and materials, visor operation and comfort. All are DOT certified, and some carry additional Snell or ECE marks as well. The lids that made the cut also had to possess an even mix of solid construction, user-friendly features and adequate comfort. They had to represent a good value while-most importantly-not skimping on safety. We checked listings on the NHTSA and Snell websites to confirm that none failed certification requirements for the model year. We also looked for these points: An EPS liner in the chin bar and cheek area-not just padding. Chin straps that are comfortable and don't chafe the neck.Quick-detach visors-but only if they're easily operated. Liner material that's comfortable to the head. Bottom line? Midgrade helmets have gotten better, and you don't have to break the bank to find superior protection these days.

The ratings are based on the following: quality of paint/graphics; quality of the helmet's construction; how well the helmet fit; the comfort of the helmet; and the ease of removing and replacing a faceshield.

5 Stars Excellent
4 Stars Very good
3 Stars Good
2 Stars For light use
1 Stars Save your money

AFX FX-16 $120-$130The AFX sports DOT and Snell certifications, and its poly-alloy composite (read: plastic) shell felt rather lightweight and comfortable sitting atop our noggins. The removable and washable nylon helmet liner and cheek pads are a nice touch, and the faceshield is optically correct, scratch-resistant and UV-protective-though it didn't close as solidly as we'd like. Vents at the chin, sides, top and rear flowed air adequately, though the covers felt somewhat loose when being manipulated. There was also substantial space in the ear cavity (to fit speakers) that felt a bit too airy. The AFX does come with a storage bag and another bonus-a lifetime warranty. All in all, the combination of features and price makes for a very good value.
EXTRAS: cloth storage bag, hypoallergenic and antimicrobial liner and cheek pads
CR RATED: 2 stars

Bell Apex $190-$210
Bell has come a long way since the '70s and '80s, when it was the only game in town. The company is on the upswing these days with a slew of new designs including a variety of street lids. We were duly impressed with the Apex for its comfort, light weight and feature set. The shell features Kevlar composite construction and comes with an antifog, antiscratch and UV-protected shield that's detachable without tools. The top vents are easily manipulated, though not terribly effective, while an adjustable chin vent helps cooling and shield defogging to some degree. The interior liner felt comfortable, and it's removable and washable, too. With its five-year warranty and DOT and Snell certifications, the Apex is a solid choice for the money.
EXTRAS: antibacterial and antimicrobial liner, removable chin curtain, cloth storage bag
CR RATED: 3 stars

Fulmer SS $130-$140
The SS-new for 2008-may be priced low but has features not found on Fulmer helmets a few years ago, including a fiberglass shell and both DOT and Snell certifications. The chin vent provides air to defog the faceshield, while the front vents bring cooling air to the forehead. The back wing creates a draft to help extract hot air from inside the helmet, and there is a removable breath deflector and a chin curtain. On the down side, the helmet is quite narrow with a small head opening, so this one is best for those with a long-oval head shape. Also, the shield mechanism is plastic, making us wonder about its longevity. Nevertheless, it's a stylish-looking helmet with a great shape.
EXTRAS: DRI-LEX moisture-wicking liner, removable breath guard, removable chin spoiler, cloth storage bag
**CR RATED: 3 stars **

GMAX GM68S $120
As with many of the helmets here the GMAX gets its light weight from a plastic shell. Top intake and rear exhaust vents feature large controls (though the plastic covers felt loose). The fit was good for our round heads, and the removable Coolmax liner suited our skulls (though it's somewhat thin), but the chin-bar padding (not EPS) hit our noses. The GMAX also lacks EPS in the area under the ear and around the lower jaw. There's an air deflector to shunt hot breath away from the faceshield, but the GMAX's trickest feature is the LED light incorporated into the rear vent-click it on for an instant high-visibility running light. The optically correct shield is antiscratch, antifog and UV-blocking. The GM68S is DOT-certified only, but a good value nevertheless.
EXTRAS: Coolmax liner, extra tinted shield, shield bag, cloth storage bag, optional cheek-pad sizes, vented chin curtain, LEDs on rear of helmet
CR RATED: 3 stars

HJC CL-15 $120-$135
From the biggest helmet manufacturer comes another new-for-2008 lid, the CL-15. The features, fit and finish are similar to those of the more expensive HJC lids, including the excellent faceshield mechanism. The polycarbonate composite-shelled helmet has both DOT and Snell certification. Along with the standard chin and forehead vents, there are breath vents to reduce fogging and rear extractor vents to keep your head cooler. All of the vent sliders feel solid and snap open or closed with a satisfying click. Fit is very good, and the liner fabric is quite comfortable on the skin. There are five graphic schemes plus solid colors available. The only negative is the weight, which, although high, doesn't keep the CL-15 from being one of the best.
EXTRAS: cloth storage bag; Nylex comfort pad material reduces odors and dissipates moisture
CR RATED: 3 and 1/2 stars

Icon Mainframe $210-$300
Give 'em credit-the marketing machine that is Icon may have flashy ads, but at least its stuff is stout-the Mainframe is as good as any high-end hat we've worn lately (consequently it's at the top end of our price parameter). Skimpy side vents and overly complicated rear exhaust ports are probably more for aesthetics than anything, though an internal on/off chin switch and a removable molded breath deflector allow you to somewhat control escaping air. The cheek pads are also fully removable and washable, and an optically correct polycarbonate shield gives a clear wide view (with a toolless removal system). The Mainframe conforms to Snell and DOT standards and looks good doing it, too. Heavy but well built.
EXTRAS: removable breath deflector, removable chin curtain, cloth storage bag
CR RATED: 4 stars

Joe Rocket RKT 101 $250-275
The heaviest helmet in the bunch, the RKT 101 also has one of the plushest interiors, resulting in a snug and secure fit. In an effort to maximize the vents' real cooling potential the design team ensured the chambers were deep-you can see straight through the vent holes into the helmet. The vent controls feel solid, and the Joe Rocket 101 uses the same excellent shield mechanism as the HJC CL-15. The removable breath deflector works well, but there is noticeable air leakage around the face. We also discovered that the white rubberized paint is difficult to keep clean. All in all, however, the RKT 101 is a well-built and comfortable helmet.
EXTRAS: removable breath deflector, cloth storage bag; Nylex and Aquatrans liner is odor-resistant and moisture-wicking
CR RATED: 4 stars

KBC Magnum $190-$240
The KBC Magnum falls at the upper end of this guide's price spectrum, but it's reflected in the impressive design. The laminated shell helps keep the weight down near the lowest of the class on this DOT- and Snell-approved lid. The vent mechanisms are snappy and the shield replacement even snappier, taking just seconds to swap from clear to tinted. Where the Magnum really shines is the fit and comfort. There's no extra space front to rear, so this fits round-oval heads best. And the liner feels like buttah. The thick padding and the fabric are soft on the skin, the kind of thing that can make a big difference on a long ride. There's even a lip inside the top of the faceshield to provide a better seal. The Magnum's a real keeper.
EXTRAS: cloth storage bag, removable chin curtain
CR RATED: 5 stars

Scorpion EXO-400 $140-$160
Scorpion hasn't been on the scene as long as many of the other helmet companies, but it's certainly become a player. At the tail end of its helmet line, the EXO-400 feels like a much pricier lid. The finish is flawless, and all of the pieces of the helmet are well integrated. More of a round-oval shape, the head opening is somewhat short front to back. That said, once it's on your head you'll discover an excellent fit and very good comfort, though the liner fabric could be softer. Vent slides are stiff but easy to operate. The faceshield mechanism is quite solid, though the locator pins can hang up during shield installation. The weight is on the high side, but the EXO-400 is still a tremendous value.
EXTRAS: KwikWick liner, removable breath deflector, optional liners in different colors and patterns, cloth storage bag
CR RATED: 4 and 1/2 stars

Shark S 650 $199-$219
No stranger in Europe, Shark is relatively new in the U.S., with a range of helmets for street riders and roadracers alike. The S 650 is its almost-no-frills model, but don't let that deter you. In fact for old-school riders the relative lack of protrusions on the shell may be appealing. A/C consists of straightforward faceshield and forehead vents, plus vents to extract hot air from the facial area (an excellent feature for associate editor types). Sizing runs a little on the large side with a very comfortable inner liner. On this model only the cheek pads are removable for washing, and the chin bar doesn't have EPS. The shield mechanism is worth noting for its simplicity-just push a button on each side to slide the shield out, then slide it back in to install.
EXTRAS: cloth storage bag
CR RATED: 4 stars

SparX S-07 $140
SparX is the new kid on the block, with the S-07-its first street helmet-only available since November 2007. The company has really hit the nail on the head, though. The S-07 is DOT and ECE compliant, with a considerable feature set: great graphics and finish, full EPS liner, faceshield, forehead and top-of-head vents, rear exhaust vents (not the most effective) and a removable/washable liner. It's quite comfortable and fairly quiet, too. On the down side, the main faceshield vent leaks air when closed, and the faceshield seems less rigid than its competitors. Also, shell sizing runs a bit small. But if you crash and damage the helmet, return it to SparX with a copy of the police report and a description of how the helmet worked and they'll send you a new one!
EXTRAS: smoke faceshield (included), removable breath guard, earplug storage straps in helmet
CR RATED: 3 and 1/2 stars

Z1R Viper $170-$190
Z1R made a splash in 2005 when one of its helmets, priced at $80, had the best impact test results in a Motorcyclist magazine examination of helmet safety criteria. Although we didn't do any impact testing for this buyer's guide, Z1R hasn't rested on its laurels, as evidenced by the Viper. The Viper is DOT and Snell approved, with a full EPS liner. Venting is plentiful with faceshield, face, forehead and rear exhaust vents. Changing faceshields isn't as fast as on some other helmets, but once locked in place the shield won't fall off-unless you do. Fit for the Z1R is a touch on the big side, and on our sample the graphics weren't completely centered on the top and back but were otherwise well done. Definitely a solid midpack lid.
EXTRAS: Coolmax liner, cloth storage bag
CR RATED: 2 and 1/2 stars

Zamp FS-4 $110-$120
The FS-4 is in the middle price range of the Zamp family of helmets even at this low price. It's definitely trying to be a Big Dog in this pack: DOT and Snell certification, fiberglass shell, a crash replacement program, faceshield, top and exhaust vents all backed by a cool metal mesh, and a very high-tech-appearing silver and black fabric around the liner borders. Fit and comfort are about average, and there's a removable breath deflector, too. On closer examination, though, things fall apart a bit. The side and rear exhaust vents are purely cosmetic. The below-ear padding is too tall, and the chin strap is set back a little too far. However, the real killer for us is a difficult-to-operate faceshield mechanism that can put a grown man in tears. A good choice for light-duty riding.
EXTRAS: breath deflector, cloth storage bag
CR RATED: 1 and 1/2 stars

ZOX Supercomp R $120-$140The word that perhaps best describes the Supercomp R is value. It's priced at the lower end of this guide, but the feature set rivals that of many helmets over $250. Full EPS liner? Check. Coolmax removable and washable liner? Check. Antifog/scratch/UV faceshield? Check. DOT legal? Check. Snell certified? Check. And the list goes on for this budget polycarbonate-shelled helmet. The fit is more long-oval but somehow works well for round-oval heads, too. The liner fabric could be softer, but the fit is very comfortable. Venting is adequate with face, forehead and exhaust vents. The quality of the finish is nice, though the chromed top vent will tarnish if it isn't regularly wiped off. All in all a very good buy.
EXTRAS: Coolmax liner, Aegis antimicrobial treatment, removable chin curtain, removable breath guard, cloth storage bag
CR RATED: 3 and 1/2 stars

CKX RR600 $100-$120
The CKX (part of the Kimpex family of brands) is a helmet where less is more . . . and less: The least expensive, the lightest weight and easy on the frills, it has a thermo-injected plastic shell and meets only the DOT regulations. The fit is round-oval and quite comfortable. Vents are abundant, with chin and forehead intakes plus face and rear exhaust ports. Unique to the RR600 is that the helmet comes with a box of antifog wipes. Now for the not-so-good: The build quality leaves something to be desired, with various gaps between parts of the helmet, including at the bottom of the faceshield. Most of all, though, is the lack of EPS in the chin bar and under the ears/lower jaw. For the occasional rider or passenger this might still be a reasonable choice.
EXTRAS: cloth storage bag, removable breath guard
CR RATED: 2 and 1/2 stars

AFX FX-16 Bell Apex CKK RR600 Fulmer SS GMAX GM68S HJC {{{CL}}}-15
Price Range $120- $130 $190- $220 ${{{100}}}- $120 $130- $140 $120 $120- $135
Dot * * * * * *
Snell * * * *
ECE
Shell Material poly-alloy Kevlar composite thermo-injected plastic fiberglass poly-alloy polycarbonate composite
Chinbar Eps * * * *
Below-Ear Eps * * * *
Removable/Washable Liner * * * *
Antifog/Antiscratch Faceshield * ** antifog wipes/ * * ** **
UV-Blocking Faceshield * * * * *
Weight 3lb. 7.6oz 3lb. 10.1oz 3lb. 5.5oz 3lb. 8.3oz 3lb. 6.2oz 3lb. 10.5oz
Warranty liftime 5 years 1 year 2 years 5 years (6 months on LEDs) 1 year

MANUFACTURERS

AFX NORTH AMERICA INC.
(877) 686-6477
afxhelmets.com

BELL POWERSPORTS
(800) 456-2355
bellpowersport.com

FULMER HELMETS
(800) 489-2300
fulmerhelmets.com

GMAX
(800) 999-3388 (distributor)
gmaxhelmet.com

HJC AMERICA
(562) 407-2186
hjchelmets.com

ICON MOTOSPORTS
rideicon.com

JOE ROCKET
(800) 635-6103
joerocket.com

KBC AMERICA INC.
(818) 526-7771
kbc-helmet.com

SCORPION SPORTS INC.
(888) 672-6774
scorpionusa.com

SHARK HELMETS
shark-helmetsus.com

SPARX HELMETS
(800) 595-0080
sparxhelmets.com

Z1R HELMETS
z1rhelmets.com

ZAMP SPORTS CORP.
(916) 861-0066
zamp-racing.net

Additional Information

DOT HELMET TESTING RESULTS ('06)