Tuesday, December 17, 2013
Headsets Buyer's Guide 2014: Smaller, Lighter And More Affordable
Pilots demand better comfort and affordability in headsets as the market expands further
In an aircraft cockpit, most noise comes from the engine, exhaust, propeller and the ambient air flowing over the fuselage and control surfaces. The engine and exhaust sounds account for much of the noise and are concentrated in the low-frequency range of 100-150 Hz. In an open cockpit, noise comes mostly from high-frequency airflow on the aircraft and pilot's head.
OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health administration) has developed some specific hearing-loss figures and guidelines. They show that hearing damage starts when you're exposed to sounds with intensity levels of 90 dB or above, depending on the duration of the exposure. If exposed to 90 dB for eight hours or more, permanent hearing loss begins. To demonstrate the effect of duration vs. intensity, exposure to noise at 115 dB results in permanent hearing damage in just 15 minutes. The problem is that FAA and NASA noise studies show that our average general aviation cockpits routinely expose us to noise in the 100-110 dB range, especially in older aircraft. That's where headsets come in.
Headsets To The Rescue
Until the late 1970s, few people in general aviation wore headsets. Today, almost all of us do, and we all should. Even a cheapie headset decreases noise exposure by a good 15 dB, and those two-dollar wax-impregnated moldable foam earplugs designed for industrial and shooting use offer up to 35 dB of noise protection! You can see that even in a warbird generating 120 dB of noise (like a P-51 Mustang), just about any headset will bring the noise to manageable levels, at least for short durations. Combine a good headset that offers 25 dB or more of attenuation with foam earplugs, and you've got the best combination available.
Headsets come with either passive or active noise reduction. Passive ("PNR") headsets block noise using mechanical means: the ear cup, clamping pressure, ear seals and cup shape. Active noise reduction ("ANR") uses a technology developed in the '50s to sample the sound of the environment then block it using the same frequency as the offending noise, but "inverted." Think of it as blocking a sound with its identical-but-opposite "anti-sound."
Headset choices today range in price from $89 to over $1,000, with everything in between. The number of headsets on the market is staggering, and several manufacturers have come and gone in recent years. The best way to choose the right headset for yourself is to avoid the marketing hype and make your own evaluation. Modern retailers almost universally offer money-back guarantees, and aviation trade shows always feature major headset vendors.
Having tried literally hundreds of headsets myself in both my aviation and musical careers, my best advice to new pilots is to get the cheapest headset to start because you don't know what you don't know. It took me a good 30 to 40 hours of flying before I even thought of my headset or what I desired in one. I know people who plunked down big money for a whiz-bang ANR headset and ended up regretting it because their environment wasn't suited to that headset. And price is more about brand names, marketing and reputation. While I know plenty of pilots who swear by their $1,000 headsets, my favorite headset to date is a $200 passive unit that I "hot-rodded" with $100 worth of accessories to create the perfect open-cockpit setup. It's not what I'd use in a business jet, but for my environment, it's right, and that's the key.
ANR is perfect for cockpit environments that don't change much. Most jets and turboprops, technically advanced GA airplanes like Cirrus, Diamond and the like, are tailor-made for ANR headsets. Even the Beechcraft, Cessna and Piper line work well with ANR. But for demanding environments like open cockpits, warbirds, seaplanes and backcountry flying, PNR should be looked at carefully. Also, manufacturer attenuation numbers are almost meaningless. More useful are attenuation curves that show the headset's performance across many frequencies. Most manufacturers are reluctant to give these out. That's why "try before you buy" is a must.
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