Review by Johan Hjord // Photos by Nils Hjord and Johan Hjord
Specialized has been making helmets for a long time, but they have been slow to develop an extended coverage half-shell which has become the go-to helmet type of choice for most aggressive trail riders and/or enduro racers over the last couple of years. They took their time to get it right, and when we first laid eyes on the new Ambush lid, our first thought was that it was time well spent. Read our review to find out what some trail time would reveal.
Specialized Ambush Highlights
- Aramid-Reinforced Skeleton provides internal EPS support.
- “Energy Optimized” Multi-Density EPS construction helps to manage impact energy.
- “Mindset 360” fit system provides a secure, customizable fit with 360-degree tension adjustment, five height positions, and an integrated dial for easy, on-the-fly adjustments.
- Micro indexing visor allows for a wide range of fast, secure on-trail adjustments, as well as convenient goggle stowage.
- “4th Dimension Cooling System” with massive vents, internal cross-channels, and aligned exhaust ports increases airflow to keep you cool.
- Low profile in-molded shell with smooth, snag-free exterior shape.
- Extended coverage for added protection and durability.
- Lightweight, quick-drying liner features a “Gutter Action Brow” that channels moisture away from eyes.
- “Tri-Fix” web splitter for improved comfort and ease of strap adjustments.
- Sizes: S, M, L
- Colors: Green, Grey, White/Grey, White/Red, Orange, Cyan
- MSRP: $180.00 USD
Pulling the Ambush out of the box, the first aspect to make an impression was the weight, or rather the lack thereof. At just over 300 grams, the Ambush is among the lightest helmets in the class. Second, it was immediately clear that Specialized sought to build a well-ventilated helmet. The Ambush features 20 large vents, many of which connect together internally to form what Specialized calls the “4th Dimension Cooling System”. That sounds decidedly space-age and probably a bit over the top, but as we were going to be testing this helmet over summer, we were eager to see if it would translate to a real-life benefit as well as something cool to print on the box.
Continuing our inspection of the Ambush revealed a helmet that appeared to have been very well put together, and also an innovative approach to fit adjustment. Of course, the marketing guys went to town when naming it, but more importantly, the “Mindset 360” system also actually offers something new: the classic fit dial has been integrated in the helmet shell, and the internal harness adjusts itself around the whole head. The result is first of all a system that should give a snug and easy to adjust fit, but also make more room to extend the helmet’s rear coverage, since interference with the dial is no longer an issue. Interestingly, each size can now also cover a broader range (our Medium sample is recommended for heads sized 54-60cm, a range that would typically require 2 sizes to cover).
Concluding the initial overview of the Ambush, the visor features an indexed adjustment system that offers enough range to be pushed back to accommodate your goggles between runs, as well as the “Tri-Flex” strap splitter that is meant to provide plenty of space between the straps for the ears and be very simple to adjust. Notably absent from the roll call are MIPS and any kind of POV camera mount. Some people believe that if you have hair, you probably don’t really need MIPS, but you should of course make up their own mind on that. As for the ubiquitous POV mount, there is a pretty big flat area on the top of the helmet that will accept the classic stick-on mounts, but at $180 USD MSRP it would not be a big ask to have an integrated solution.
On The Trail
Getting the Ambush to fit couldn’t be easier. Pop it on your head, and twist the adjustment dial until the helmet is snug. Adjust the chin strap length and you’re good to go (no need to worry about the how long the straps around the ears should be, since they are set at one length thanks to the “Tri-Fix” system). The height/position of the helmet on the head can also be adjust by sliding the top part of the internal harness in or out, with 5 positions to choose from here. Those with weird headshapes (or ponytails!) will be stoked to know that the range of this adjustment is such that you don’t have to worry about your headshape or hair pushing the helmet too far down in your face, a common issue with certain other helmets out there. In terms of aesthetics, looks are subjective and the dreaded mushroom look is always a menace to be taken seriously when it comes to mountain bike half shells, but we think the Ambush is one of the better looking options out there.
The initial impression of lightness carries over to the trail. The helmet makes itself forgotten in a hurry, snug but never uncomfortable, secure but never constricting. The pads are relatively thin, which doesn’t give you that near full-face feeling of some other extended half-shells, but that also means the Ambush breathes a lot better. You can feel the shape of the forehead pad when you first put the helmet on, but this never translated into a pressure point for us. We’ve had plenty of long days in the saddle to test this aspect, and the Ambush was never anything but comfortable.
A helmet is not usually worn by itself, and Specialized did a great job of making sure the Ambush will play nice with eyewear of different kinds. The shape of the helmet just around the ear provides enough room for the temples of your sunglasses, while the rear of the helmet features an area specifically designed to secure your goggles if you decide to go full enduro. As previously mentioned, the visor has a wide range of adjustability designed into it in order to let you push your googles up onto the front of the helmet out of the way for the climbs. Note that if you use particularly tall goggles, they may well push the helmet up/back on the head (depends on the shape of your head/face). We got better results with a slightly lower profile goggle.
In terms of safety, the Ambush features an internal aramid skeleton and a multi-density EPS liner, and it is CPSC, SNELL, and CE 1078:2012 certified. We’ve thankfully managed to avoid taking any serious hits to the head while using the Ambush, so our first-hand experience falls short on this particular point. Objectively speaking however, the helmet fits securely and it really wraps around the rear part of the skull, leaving us no reason to feel anything less than well-protected with the Ambush.
So what with all that ventilation? We received the Ambush at the start of a very hot summer, and it very quickly became our first choice when going out riding. It is quite simply one of the absolutely most well-ventilated helmet we have tested so far in this category. No, the “Gutter Action Brow” thing doesn’t actually work when your face turns into the Niagara Falls, but we have yet to come across an actual working solution to this particular problem anyway. For the rest, there’s plenty of airflow and the thin pads help your head to not feel like it’s sat in the pressure cooker waiting to boil.
Things That Could Be Improved
The Ambush features awesome ventilation, but the absence of any kind of internal netting means that stuff can also get in through all those vents. It’s not a major point, but when you make that many vents the question of adding a little netting to keep flora and fauna out becomes legitimate. Personally, we’ll take our chances with the bugs if it’s the price of keeping cool.
Other than that, we’d point to the price as one aspect we think can be improved upon. Sure, it’s always easy to complain about price, but looking at what else is available in the market, the Ambush sits close to the top. The lack of a POV camera mount in the spec list becomes harder to look past as the price increases too. Having said that, if we judge the Ambush purely on performance and comfort, it’s worth every cent.
Long Term Durability
We’ve been using the Ambush for just about 3 months now, and it seems to be holding up very well to life on the trails and in the trunk. The finish is very resistant to scratching, and the interior of the helmet is still fairly fresh, despite having to cope with ridiculous amounts of sweating and no maintenance so far. We see no reason why you wouldn’t get multiple seasons of use out of the Ambush, especially since Specialized include a spare set of pads in the box. The EPS liner is not designed for multiple impacts however, so if you do take a serious hit to the helmet it will need to be retired.
What’s The Bottom Line?
Specialized took its sweet time coming up with the Ambush, but after 3 months on the trail we certainly feel it was worth the wait. The Ambush is light, comfortable, and breathes exceptionally well for a helmet in this category. The extended coverage adds protection, while the innovative adjustment system is easy to use and provides a very secure fit. Some will undoubtedly feel that the pricetag is a bit steep, especially given the lack of MIPS or a POV camera mount, but if we judge the Ambush purely on function, it’s an awesome performer and should definitely find its way onto your helmet shopping short list.
More information at www.specialized.com.
About The Reviewer
Johan Hjord loves bikes, which strangely doesn’t make him any better at riding them. After many years spent practicing falling off cliffs with his snowboard, he took up mountain biking in 2005. Ever since, he’s mostly been riding bikes with too much suspension travel to cover up his many flaws as a rider. His 200-pound body weight coupled with unique skill for poor line choice and clumsy landings make him an expert on durability - if parts survive Johan, they’re pretty much okay for anybody. Johan rides flat pedals with a riding style that he describes as "none" (when in actuality he rips!). Having found most trail features to be not to his liking, Johan uses much of his spare time building his own. Johan’s other accomplishments include surviving this far and helping keep the Vital Media Machine’s stoke dial firmly on 11.