Value Helmet Shootout

Last issue we took a look at three high-end helmets from a trio of European brands (RBA, May 2015) with each offering plenty of accouterments to provide a better overall user experience. They also each carried a price tag of at least $200. And while we would never recommend skimping on your safety equipment, this month we set out to find some lower-cost options that will handle the job of protecting your noggin while still giving you some comfort-oriented features. Here are two of our favorites.

Easily the most famous name in head protection, Bell has been producing helmets since 1954, starting off in auto racing before moving into the motorcycle market in the early 1970s and later into cycling. In addition to a diverse group of mountain bike helmets, the California-based brand currently boasts an eight-strong road lineup, with the Array sitting third from the bottom on Bell’s price spectrum at $80.


The 308-gram Array is very similar in style to several of Bell’s higher-end road helmets, including the 244-gram Gage and the 277-gram Volt RL, but retails for $95 and $50 cheaper, respectively. The added weight of the Array is due in large part to thicker nylon straps and the bulkier cam-lock adjusters positioned below the ears, as well as a generally more overbuilt feel to the EPS foam structure and its in-molded plastic shell.

Beyond those differences, the Array is very similar in fit and function to its two pricier siblings, even down to the same retention system that sports a single-hand-operated dial with a depression-actuated locking mechanism and 20mm of vertical adjustability. The Array also features what Bell calls “channeled ventilation,” which is comprised of an internal ribbing design to allow for better airflow over your head. The Array is available in three sizes and four color combinations.


The Array’s circumferential fit is on the oval side, but not overtly so; it’s a shape that fit all of our testers and should comfortably suit the vast majority of riders. There’s an average amount of padding inside the Array, but it’s definitely on the thicker side, particularly the swatch that rests on the forehead. Its cam-lock adjusters are easy to manipulate, but it’s a pretty bulky piece relative to many others currently available, especially those found on pricier helmets and even some cheaper options (like the Specialized Echelon reviewed next). The retention system’s 20mm of vertical adjustability is an average amount, but it sports a large footprint that cradles the back of the head very well. And, the locking feature on the closure dial is a nice value-added touch. On the bike, we were very pleased with the Array’s amount of ventilation, and it proved more than a worthy companion on hot rides.

Price: $80
Weight: 308 grams (size medium)
Sizes: Small, medium, large
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In addition to their immense catalog of bikes, Specialized also produces an incredibly diverse range of accessories, which includes a wide selection of helmets. While the $250 aero-road Evade and the highly ventilated $225 Prevail are among the brand’s most popular models, they’re also Specialized’s most expensive. The Echelon is Specialized’s entry-level offering at $70, and it sports many of the unique features that the brand is known for.


The Echelon is comprised of EPS foam and an in-molded plastic shell, and it also includes a composite internal reinforcement skeleton to provide the helmet with greater support. This allows for the use of 31 vents, including a relatively thin version of Specialized’s signature “wide mouth” port located at the forehead. Its headset SL closure system includes a single-hand-operated dial and allows for around 35mm of vertical adjustability. Available in three sizes and six colors, the Echelon also includes Specialized’s Tri-Fix strap splitters located below the ears. Unlike those found on the Bell Array, the Tri-Fix design is non-adjustable, and the nylon straps are sewed shut around the plastic piece. A hearty amount of padding is located inside the Echelon, and several reflective details decorate the exterior for some added visibility in low-light conditions.


Helmets typically fall into two categories when it comes to fit: round and oval. And the Echelon is definitely in the latter camp. In fact, the oval shape is really quite dramatic, and although our testers didn’t have any troubles with the fit, we could see how some cyclists with rounder heads would need to look elsewhere. The Echelon is very well-padded, particularly in the forehead area, with the padding extending far along the sides of the head. Its straps are relatively thin and supple but don’t belie any assurances of durability. The Tri-Fix splitters have become a Specialized signature feature, and they help shed some grams, but the lack of adjustability may be a turn-off for some. The closure system is easy to operate and secure, and there’s more than enough vertical adjustability to satisfy most riders. But, unlike many alternatives, the retention system can’t be adjusted vertically on the fly—it’s held in place with two locking pegs that can only be manipulated from the inside of the helmet when it’s off your head. Overall, ventilation is above average, and the wide-mouth opening creates even better airflow.

Price: $70
Weight: 297 grams (size medium)
Sizes: Small, medium, large
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There’s nothing truly remarkable about the Bell Array, and by that we mean that it features what we’ll call a “neutral” fit that’s ideal for most and should work quite well for the rest, and it’s all wrapped up in a tried-and-true aesthetic package. We feel that its overall ventilation is great, but the Specialized Echelon’s is a touch better. However, even though the Echelon has more padding throughout its interior, the Array’s padding is thicker and plusher. There’s enough adjustability throughout the Array to suit the wants of most wearers, and we consider it a great helmet option, especially for $80.

If hard-pressed to choose between the two, we’d have to give the nod to the Specialized Echelon, but only if your head shape prefers a truly oval-shaped lid. It’s also $10 cheaper, a few grams lighter and more ventilated to boot. And, its retention system sports more vertical adjustability than the Array’s, but can only be adjusted when it’s off your head. A more diverse lineup of color options is a boon for the Echelon too. Ultimately, though, these two helmets show that one needn’t break the bank in your quest for good head protection.

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