Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Headset How-To

Today, aviation headsets sport more features than ever before. Use this guide to navigate your way through the headset jungle.

headsetAsk any two pilots what the best headset is and you’ll get two distinct answers, each with solid claims to back it up. There are scores of headsets on the market, and the different features of each model make choosing the correct headset a quagmire of myth, hearsay and fact.
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A headset that feels okay for a few seconds in a pilot shop might feel a lot different after two hours in a hot cockpit.
JH Audio Aerous VX3
Microphone Quality
Besides protecting hearing, a headset’s job is to make communication inside and outside the cockpit clearer. The microphone accomplishes that task. The quality of a headset’s microphone influences price and can make a huge difference in transmission quality and clarity. While most midpriced aviation headsets use dynamic microphones, the king of the hill is the electret microphone.

Noise-canceling electrets are typically found in the upper-end models from various manufacturers. Some headset companies offer upgrades that let an owner swap out cheaper dynamic mics for noise-canceling electret microphones. The sound quality of electret mics is excellent, and the ability to block noise makes them the perfect solution for open cockpits and other loud environments. Some pilots say electret mics also provide that “airline” sound.

No matter how good a headset sounds, it has to be comfortable. A headset that feels okay for a few seconds in a pilot shop might feel a lot different after two hours in a hot cockpit. Several factors affect a headset’s overall comfort.

David Clark X11
The amount of attenuation listed for any headset isn’t enough to determine its ability to block noise. Pilots must also consider the frequency range that a headset attenuates. Individual cockpit environments vary and will determine whether ANR or PNR is best.
Clamping strength refers to how tight a headset mashes your head. To seal out noise, a headset has to be tight, although ANR allows for less clamping pressure than PNR. Any headset is going to put some pressure on your head, so when trying on headsets, leave them on for at least 5 or 10 full minutes to get a better idea of how they’ll feel in your cockpit.

Heavy headsets will feel even heavier after a few hours of flying. Unfortunately, the cheaper the headset, the heavier it will be. Consider the mission and the purpose: A featherweight headset might not work in an open cockpit, and vice versa. Feel the ear seals. Silicone gel is comfortable and won’t create hot spots. It also seals out noise better than foam, but it’s a little heavier. Headbands can create pressure spots on your scalp. Materials like sheepskin feel better than vinyl, and wide headbands distribute weight more evenly than narrow ones. Again, try before you buy.

ASA AirClassics HS-1
In today’s consumer-driven world, accessories can make or break a headset. Besides obvious goodies like a nice carrying bag, most high-end headsets will allow you to plug in MP3 players, cell phones and other devices like digital recorders into dedicated mini-jacks.

A new headset innovation is multi-channel Bluetooth connection technology. These headsets allow wireless connections to various devices at once. For example, a pilot can use a cell phone and, say, an iPod with a dongle—both wireless. Controls in a small unit plugged into the headset allow for volume adjustments, channel changing and other functions, all ergonomically positioned. Though Bluetooth compatibility isn’t new, the ability to use multiple wireless devices simultaneously is an interesting development.

Click on the image above to view in a larger scale.
Other headset nice-to-haves include individual volume controls, stereo/mono selector, different windscreens and—for ANR headsets—the ability to become a passive set if the batteries die. Pilots should also consider the way the boom mic is attached and adjusted. Some people love the single flex-boom instead of the metal adjustment hardware that makes you look like a refugee from the 1970s, with braces and headgear.


There’s one truth about price that takes a while to learn: Don’t go with a cheapo first headset, because you’ll end up buying something better later, and it will cost you the price of both headsets. Those $80 eBay “deals” are fine for the student who hasn’t figured out if flying is for him or her or for the intermittent and casual flier. But if you intend on making flying a serious pursuit, do yourself a favor and buy the best you can afford: PNR or ANR.

Ultimately, your purchase will be a personal one and will be based on your own preferences and research. The worst thing to do is to be bullied into a purchase by a well-meaning pilot friend or, worse yet, a salesperson. Just slow down, do your research and take your time. Aviation trade shows are great places to try before you buy. Eventually, you’ll decide on the headset that’s right for you.


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