Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Headsets On Parade

Newer colors, better performance and more upgrade options lead the headset pack

It's ironic that even in a multimillion-dollar aircraft, the ultimate cockpit situational awareness comes through a pair of headsets that can be anything from an $80 pair of eBay budget buys to $1,100 ANR big-namers. Our most precious commodity—communication with ATC—is all done through a piece of equipment that hasn't changed much in the last few decades, and runs the gamut in quality and performance.

It seems pilots are in two distinct camps when it comes to headsets: Those who don't care less what they put over their ears as long as they make sound, and those who are so attuned to sound that they notice every sonic nuance and frequency variation in each pair of headsets. Those "sound snobs" (of which I'm embarrassingly a part) aren't so much picky, but just more conscious of the difference a good headset makes.

If you've ever worn an excellent headset—and by excellent, I don't mean expensive—then you know what a pleasure it is to fly with them. A headset that's right for you literally adds to the pleasure and safety of a flight—and that's not just some magazine-speak for the advertisers; it's absolute fact. Unfortunately, those who are ambivalent about headsets don't know what they're missing! Like the difference between a $19 pair of discount sneakers and competition-grade running shoes, the two just aren't the same.

The good news here is that, surprisingly, price isn't the prime factor in headsets, as we'll examine. The key to headsets is finding the right one for you and your environment. It takes trial and error to find what's the perfect fit for your individual situation. Believe it or not, that $1,000-plus headset may be entirely wrong for you and your flying world.

We hope our buyer's guide will help you wade through the muck and mire of marketing brochures and buzzwords so you can find the headset that's right just for you. Once you find it, you'll find yourself concentrating more in the pilot's seat, feeling more rested after a flight and shedding the frustration that goes with constant "say agains" and lost radio calls. And don't forget that a good headset will make you sound clearer and more confident.

ANR Vs. PNR: Not What You Think
It isn't hyperbole to say that the headset is one of the most important pieces of equipment in the cockpit. Think about what goes through that unit and how it can affect your flight. It's important then to understand what makes a good headset and what makes a lousy one.

The two basic categories of headsets are active noise reduction (ANR), and passive noise reduction (PNR), and it's this difference that confuses pilots the most. I can't tell you the number of times I (being a sound snob) ask a pilot why they own a specific headset. "Well, ANR is better," is the usual response. But that's just not always the case! There's a reason why major headset manufacturers offer both ANR and PNR models, and it's not price. Several ANR headsets out there are actually less expensive than some passive headsets. The problem here is one of "environment confusion."

By now, most pilots know that ANR is "active" in that electronics onboard the headset sample sound coming into the ear cups and create an "anti-sound" that's a reverse image of the offending noise. This serves to cancel out the noise that reaches the speakers and thus the pilot's ears.

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