Music to one’s ears is often a cacophony of racket to another’s. For bikers, the variety of noises emanating from internal combustion motorcycle engines is a mechanical concerto of pistons, valvetrains, air intakes and exhausts. Personal preferences from loping V-Twins to screaming multis abound, but an appreciation for all is shared among most.
So, on a purely subjective basis, we comprised a list of our favorite motorcycle sounds. Exhaust notes change according to OEM or aftermarket manufacturer, but regardless of muffler configuration, these bikes sound good in any guise.
Impossible to include everything – and there’s a lot of apparent omissions – the following list is a celebration of sound, not a definitive proclamation of what comprises a good sound.
1. Honda RC166 –
250cc DOHC inline six-cylinder with six individual unbaffled megaphone exhaust pipes. Each cylinder displaces a mere 41.6cc and the engine redlines at an astounding 18,000 rpm. This motorcycle howls like no other two-wheeler. Hearing this bike in-person, under acceleration should be on every biker’s bucket list.
Honda brought the RC166 to the world racing stage with two exhaust pipes removed to give the appearance of an inline-Four. The secret lasted until Jim Redman fired up the bike for the first time in public.
When you see and hear the RC166 and take into account how awesome it was for its time, then take a step back to remember how old, yet relevant, the bike is today, it’s almost as though you’re meeting the soul of Soichiro Honda himself. It’s like the RC166 embodies his passion for performance and pushing the boundaries.
Six cylinders, six carburetors, six exhaust pipes, DOHC, 24 valves, 18,000 rpm redline. The Honda RC166 howls like a Tasmanian Devil with syphilis.
Honorable Six-Cylinder Mentions: BMW K1600, Honda CBX, Laverda V6, Benelli Sei
2. Ducati World Superbike V-Twins –
This spans a lot of Ducati models (888, 916, 996, 998, 999, 1098, 1099), and while the dry clutch can be an audible nuisance to some, a 90-degree V-Twin Ducati engine with pipes and a rattling dry clutch is unmistakably, in-your-face, two-wheel, Italian aggression. Hearing these high-performance V-Twins booming down a straightaway is a visceral, ground-shaking event never forgotten.
3. Honda V-Fours (with gear-driven cams) –
This engine configuration is found on the roadracing RC30 and RC45 as well as the street going VFR 700/750s of the late ’80s to the mid-’90s. The race bikes have a 360-degree crank whereas the road bikes fired on a 180-degree rotation, but regardless, the gear-driven camshaft whine in concert with the booming V4 exhaust note is a music chain driven cam engines do not play.
Honorable V-Four Mentions: Yamaha V-Max, Aprilia RSV4
4. Yamaha Inline-Four with Crossplane Crankshaft –
The inline Four-cylinder is the most ubiquitous engine in motorcycling, but the crossplane format of Yamaha’s recent MotoGP YZR-M1 MotoGP machine and street-legal R1 models sets it apart from other inline-Fours. It growls unlike any other inline-Four, pleasing eardrums with a roar reminiscent of a V-4 yet a sound distinct from anything else.
5. Harley-Davidson V-Twins –
In the ’90s H-D attempted to trademark the sound of its common crankpin engines but eventually gave up after years of opposing litigation from competing manufacturers. Nonetheless, the “potato, potato” sound will forever be linked to Harley-Davidson no matter how closely another brand emulates the iconic cruiser manufacturer
6. British parallel-Twins –
Just as Harley has a lock on the quintessential sound of the 45-degree V-Twin, Triumph, Norton, BSA and decades’ worth of other British motorcycle manufacturers are the marquees most closely related to the Parallel-Twin engine. From Triumph’s original Speed Twin to the last Norton Commando, these Parallel-Twins produce a garbled "thumpity-thumpity" tone that’s more athletic than a loping V-Twin. Thankfully, you can still hear the note today in motorcycles from Triumph’s Classic line.
7. Honda NR (New Racing) –
If the sound of a sweet V-4 perks up your ears, you need to know about the only engine in existence constructed with oval pistons; the NR750. Originally designed in the late ’70s as a four-stroke competitor to the 500cc two-stroke engines dominating Grand Prix motorcycle racing, the oval-piston V-Four engine is decidedly unique. With eight valves per cylinder and eight connecting rods, it’s nearly a V-8, but it was never able to match the lightweight two-strokers in GP competition and was replaced by the two-stroke NS500 in the early ’80s.
A precursor to the modern MotoGP era, Honda returned to Grand Prix motorcycle racing following a decade's-long absence with the oval piston NR500.
The failed NR GP bike begat the NR750, a bigger displacement machine built for endurance racing. A road-going version came to fruition in 1992 with the limited-production NR750. There is literally nothing like it.
Oval pistons, dual connecting rods and 32 valves. The Honda NR 750 V4 not only emits a distinctive sound, it construction is unlike any internal combustion engine in existence.
8. Top Fuel Drag Bikes –
If you want to feel the sound of an engine reverberate through your chest cavity, look no further than a Top Fuel drag bike. With upwards of 1500 horsepower, they are the fastest accelerating machines on two wheels. Each individual component is custom-made to withstand the immense punishment of trying to get through the quarter-mile as fast as humanly possible. These things are loud, frightening, and blast through the quarter-mile just a tick past six seconds.
9. Inline-Triple –
The wail of a modern Triumph three-cylinder is the kind of sound you can’t help but fall in love with. It combines the raspy, throaty tones of a parallel-Twin at low rpm with the high-pitched, fast-action scream of a four- cylinder once you really get it spinning. In doing so it creates a symphony all its own. From the original BSA Rocket lll and Triumph X75 Hurricane to Triumph’s latest Street and Speed Triples, an Inline-Triple makes a sound like no other
10. Ducati Desmosedici –
Raw, unencumbered performance. That’s what the bark of the Ducati Desmosedici tells those within firing range. Thumb the starter and it instantly commands respect. Even at idle the V4 rumbles with a note that says, “I’m pissed.” If you’ve ever attended a MotoGP race, you understand how loud those racebikes are. Now imagine Ducati deciding to make a street-legal version and the sound should start to make more sense. It’s loud, it’s intense, and it’s fast. That’s really all you need to know.
A subjective topic such as this makes for great discussion. Whether you agree or disagree with the choices, or wish to submit your own selection of great sounding bike engines, please post your choices.