Choosing a headset ultimately comes down to personal preference and budget.
Every brand and model has its fervent supporters and there is no better way to decide what suits you best than to borrow and try.
Attempting to make objective and scientific comparisons is difficult because data is often presented by manufacturers in inconsistent and confusing ways.
Variations between cockpit environments often mean that what works well in one is not so good in another.
Noise reducing headsets continue to increase their penetration of the market over passive headsets.
There was a time when even some people who sold headsets would openly say that they felt NR headset use in fixed wing applications was “excessive” and that they were only really required for rotary and other very noisy applications.
Now NR headsets are increasingly found in all flying applications – a far cry from the days of circuit training when student pilots on finals listened to everything on the cabin speaker and had to grab for the mike to make a transmission while fumbling with other controls like throttles.
A notable recent development is the increasing availability of relatively low-priced noise-reducing headsets in a field where NR was once dominated by name (expensive) brands that were often outside of the average pilot’s feasible price range.
Some of the early examples of budget NR models well and truly confirmed the ‘you get what you pay for’ axiom.
Although they theoretically had some noise reduction capacity, what they delivered often hardly matched the results from brand name passive headsets.
This is no longer always true.
The “commoditisation” of the electronics industry means that non-name headset marketers can put together quality components into a headset package that significantly reduces the performance gap between them and the top of the line competitors.
Are they as good?
Once again it comes down to personal taste.
The name brands may have more advanced technology and tend to score particularly well in terms of comfort in use over extended periods.
How they sit on your head and clamp your ears, accommodating your sunnies or whatever else you hang around your head, without getting sweaty, is all something you have to work out for yourself.
What is clear is that low-priced NR headsets are no longer a very dubious option. The protection they provide against long-term hearing loss is no longer in any doubt, making them an attractive proposition for any pilot.
The quintessential question – big ticket or cheapie?
If you are an aviation professional who spends long hours in the cockpit, and you are perhaps not immune to the cachet of wearing a brand pair of headphones, you can probably justify the considerable costs of shelling out to enjoy their benefits - both real and perceived.
However, if you are at the other end of the spectrum where you are just starting off flying and do not in the near term propose to do lots of long flights, you can look at buying a cheaper NR headset with a great deal more confidence than would have been the case a few years ago.
The difference in price between cheaper budget non-NR and NR can be less than a couple of hundred dollars and is probably money well-spent.
Some of the cheaper models you will find on the market tend to be well-made, if perhaps a little ‘no frills’ in places, and could be expected to give good service over a reasonable life.
If your flying develops, or you eventually get some money together again, you could move up to a name brand for yourself, and keep your original set as something you could hand to a passenger or guest of yours without feeling guilty.
A little about the technology
Australia’s own Microair Avionics provides some useful guidance on selecting a headset.
It is generally accepted that progressive hearing loss results from prolonged exposure to noise levels of about 85 decibels, which are commonly found in aviation.
Prolonged exposure to noise also accelerates the onset of fatigue and your ability to concentrate on a task.
Passive headsets rely simply on ear cushions and foam, with a good fit against the side of the head.
‘Active’ protection headsets use two electronics systems to remove or suppress unwanted aircraft noise - Active Noise Reduction (ANR) and Dynamic Noise Reduction (DNR).
ANR systems typically achieve noise suppression of 10-20dB and are used mainly on cheaper headphones.
They use a filter to separate the wanted signal from the unwanted noise – mostly at low frequency (below 300Hz).
The separated noise is “inverted” (anti-phase), then mixed with the original signal so they cancel each other.
ANR will not suppress noise above 300 hertz because it will also suppress the wanted audio signal.
Dynamic Noise Reduction, generally used on more expensive headsets, uses digital electronic techniques to remove the noise components from the incoming headphone signal.
They typically suppress noise from 15dB to 25dB, and noise signals up to 3,500 hertz can be detected and suppressed.
DNR works by digitising the incoming signal into a series of numerical values, analysing this data to look for repetitive noise signals, then removing predicted noise components from the signal.
A side benefit is that DNR technology can make headsets significantly lighter.
Microair also warns that if the microphone has no suppression against noise pick up, this noise can enter the audio system.
Most microphones have a mic muff to offer some suppression to the cabin noise, but most are useless.
Microair recommends the addition of a leather boot over the muff to increase its effectiveness.
It also warns to check compatibility of the headset microphones – dynamic, amplified dynamic, and electret with your aircraft radio.
Microair also recommends that when trying headsets in a shop, wear a new headset for at least 10 minutes before buying.
You will be wearing that headset for hours at a time and you want to be sure it remains a comfortable fit even after prolonged usage.
Pilot PA18-50 ANR headset
Pilot Communications Australia volunteered this $550 active ANR headset for a trial for this feature.
It is a solidly-built unit of traditional construction claiming active noise reduction of 16-19dB and passive 23dB noise reduction.
Features include dual volume controls, auxiliary audio interface for music etc, mobile/satellite phone interface, dual layer gel/foam ear seals with optional cotton covers included, fully flexible mike boom, a padded bag and three-year warranty.
On first wear I found them very comfortable with good head and ear padding, although I wondered if the clamping force was a little high.
However, after nearly two hours in use I did not experience any build-up in discomfort and, on removal, my ears did not have that chewed-and-stewed feeling that some headsets leave you with.
One area where budget NR headphones have tended to be lacking in the past has been their passive noise reduction, as a result of unsuitable or poor quality foam or other material in the ear seals.
Once adjusted, the PA18-50 earpieces seal well to your head and are very effective at muting noise.
The dual volume controls are on the cable where it splits to the two traditional plugs, with an extra cord which runs to the NR system battery box.
Compared to some systems which threaten to strangle you in a maze of cables and connectors, this keeps all the extra bits under control and out of your lap.
True, you have to search for the volume controls, instead of having them on the headsets, but as you usually only adjust individual earpiece volume once per trip at most, this is not a problem.
How well do they work in practice?
Again, we are getting into subjective impressions territory, but I felt they offered more than good value for money by effectively muting a large range of background noise, without leaving you feeling you are in an anechoic chamber.
Swap comparisons with others who wear headsets costing two and three times the price will predictably lead to them claiming that what they were used to was better, although none of them claimed there was a huge margin of difference.
Clarity Aloft - the low headroom option
When Giovanni Nustrini handed me one of these Clarity Aloft headsets as we embarked on a flight test (March/April 2009 issue) of his Furio aircraft in Auckland, I suspected it was some kind of joke – they look like something you would use in an executive jet or airline cockpit rather than in GA.
The Furio has a noisy cockpit and I was not so sure about how well the noise suppression was working, until Giovanni pulled out one of the ear plugs.
Then I was convinced.
The rig fits over your ears and round the back of your head, with customisable plugs going into your ears.
Despite being very different to what we are accustomed to in headsets, they proved to be a very effective – and comfortable – alternative.
With lack of headband and padding, they are particularly useful for tall pilots or low canopies.
The Clarity Aloft headsets employ patented Comply canal tips, composed of soft viscoelastic foam, the same foam tips used in advanced hearing aids.
It comes with a tin of various shapes and sizes and you select what suits you best.
It claims they provide full spectrum noise reduction of 35-45dB of attenuation, providing what Clarity calls ‘viscoelastic passive noise reduction (VPNR)’ that is superior to active noise reduction (ANR), especially in the speech frequencies.
This headset is well worth investigating – particularly if you want something light weight and low profile. For more information visit www.falcomposite.com or www.clarityaloft.com.
Aviall’s Telix Stratus Heli-XT
Features of Aviall’s Telix Stratus Heli-XT headset include ‘comfort cams’, for easy tension control and ‘clamp free’ flying, two foam seals and double pivoting to conform to the shape of the head, individual volume controls for each ear cup, and built-in recharging.
The Telix Stratus Heli-XT is specifically designed to address the needs of helicopter pilots and passengers.
The RRP is $961.00.
The Altronics range offers amateur and light commercial pilots value for money including traditional wire boom, flexible boom, ANR and helicopter models.
The Altronics range feature ventilated cushioning and soft gel filled ear pads and customisable fit.
A side-mounted volume control has memory and the universal mic boom may be fitted on the left or right side for the noise cancelling electret microphone. All Altronics headsets come complete with a three-year warranty.
Sennheiser HMEC 250
At a RRP of $997.00, this NR unit features peak-level-protection to safeguard your ears from volume peaks above 110dB, high attenuation due to effective active noise compensation, a talk-through function to allow direct communication in the cockpit, collapsible design for space-saving storage and transportation, noise-compensating boom microphone, separate left and right channel volume control, and audio-input facility for external audio sources including mobile phones and MP3 players.
Bose’s Headset X
Retailing at $1499.00, Bose’s Headset X is the latest version of its highly-regarded line.
Its lightweight magnesium construction and ‘TriPort’ structure, combined with sheepskin ear cushions, allow for excellent ear sealing to be achieved without high clamping force to provide good passive noise reduction with high comfort levels.
Bose noise reduction technology is recognised as among the best in the business.
The TriPort acoustic structure enables this smaller-than-average headset to deliver full-spectrum noise reduction while offering 50 per cent less clamping force than most active noise reduction headsets.
This results in superior noise reduction in a comfortable headset weighing only 340g.
The Aviation Headset X is avialable in various models including:
• the Portable Aviation Headset X with straight cable, twin plugs;
• the Portable Aviation Headset X with coiled cable U174 plug; and
• the Installed Aviation Headset X.
Lightspeed Aviation’s Zulu
Lightspeed Zulu NR headsets have recently gained a considerable following.
Made of magnesium, stainless steel and composite plastics, they weigh just under 370g.
With a vented headpad distributing the weight and a flexible spring steel headband, it provides low clamping pressure while earseals provide good passive noise reduction.
Bluetooth allows Zulu to connect wirelessly with your mobile phone, MP3 player, or other compatible devices.
The wireless phone interface with controls are embedded into the battery box, allowing easy switching between phone and music inputs.
Zulu’s features two independent auxiliary inputs, with one being wired and the other Bluetooth.
This audio system is underscored by the Electronic Noise Gating system, which eliminates intercom noise.
A new Lightspeed Zulu headset will set you back $1,295.00 and you can find them through local distributor and authorised repairer, the Moorabbin Pilot Shop.
The DRE-1000B - affordable yet reliable
The DRE-1000 headset features gel earseals, mic muff, and dual volume controls.
Retailing at a modest $229.00, this rugged and reliable headset is designed with the student pilot in mind.
It is particularly economical to buy but performs adequately compared to models with famous brand names that are three times the price.
Weighing in at just over 400g, the DRE-1000B also includes:
• Flex boom microphone;
• 24dB NRR hearing protection;
• BNC clear hear electrets mic; and
• Cotton cloth ear covers.
Included in the package is a five-year warranty and a carry bag.
The DRE-1000B is available locally through Concept Aviation Supplies, who offer reduced pricing for flying schools.
Available through Flightworks, the ANR AH-200H headset retails at $495.00.
It boasts a noise reduction rating of 24dB and tips the scales at a mere 600g.
It is available in sizes ranging from 10 to 14cm in height and comes with a 12-month full replacement warranty.
David Clark - quality that lasts
The well-established David Clark headsets brand retains strong loyalty from long-term users, who continue to buy its passive headsets, although a range of noise reduction models are also available.
Many people rave about how they are still getting good service out of DC headsets that are 20 years old or more. Upgrades to convert passive headsets to NR are available.
Tracking down audio problems can be a frustrating task, with all sorts of variables that may contribute to problems found in aircraft ranging from basic ultralights to large twins.
These problem are becoming more noticeable with the growth in recreational and experimental aviation, where home-builders and people updating their aircraft, often do their own avionics fit, without the benefit of the experience and expertise of a professional avionics shop.
People tend to blame their VHF radio for everything, but the problem is often more to do with integration of different components, including headsets.
Experienced avionics people point out that radios require approvals before they can be sold, and the explanation for so-called radio problems often lies elsewhere.
The differing structure of aircraft is a starting point – solid build aircraft need a grounded antenna while rag and tug skeleton-type aircraft operate with a ground independent antenna.
Non-enclosed cockpit aircraft are also more prone to wind interference through a headset microphone.
Intercoms and their setup are often misunderstood – particularly the VOX (voice operated) setting, which cuts microphone noise when no-one is speaking but will clip initial words if it is set wrongly.
Tip: Set VOX in flight, not on the ground, where the noise environment is different.
Intercoms often pick up unwanted noise, particularly from engine ignition if there is poor or faulty wiring with poor connections or wrong grounds.
Mobile phone, MP3 and other external connections generally work well but can cause problems, jamming the whole comms system.
Checks for compatibility before use are a good idea.
In some circumstances, mobile phones can damage aircraft systems.
Headsets can be a problem because there is no single standard for headsets and different headsets will often require different volume settings on radios and intercoms.
Active noise reduction headsets perform differently in different aircraft and often need to be tuned to current engine revs.
This information is based on a briefing by Sky Sports at Natfly 2009.
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