Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Headsets: The Critical Component

Defining your mission is the key to finding the right headset

What To Look For
Headsets do two things: allow you to clearly transmit your verbal message and save your hearing. That’s it. Modern headsets have added goodies like the ability to connect your cell phone or MP3 player wirelessly via Bluetooth, or more comfortable head pads or lots of other things. But the basic role of the headset is to make transmissions clear and to block harmful noise.

Harmful noise has been defined by the Occupational Safety and Health Organization (OSHA) as any sound louder than 90 decibels (dB). The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines it as anything louder than 85 dB. Sounds at those thresholds cause permanent hearing loss; permanent as in “irreversible” and “incurable.” That’s why we pilots need to take headsets seriously.

Most pilots know that ANR headsets use active circuitry (hence the name) to block noise by generating a sound in the ear cups that’s acoustically “opposite” the noise, thus cancelling it out. Passive headsets (PNR) use foam, clamping force, ear cup design, ear seals and different materials to simply block harmful noise. ANR is best in cockpits where the low-frequency hum is present, which is in most GA airplanes. PNR is great where high- and midfrequencies are the offenders. Both block noise very effectively.
Pilots talk quite a bit about “the mission,” that is, the intended and normal use of the aircraft they’re flying. Whether buying an aircraft or buying a headset, defining that mission is critical. It means carefully examining the noise environment of your airplane.
The microphone, as with my experience in my friend’s Decathlon, is critical but often overlooked. Pilots just take what they get with the headset. But pilots should know that there are options for better microphones. Without going into detail on the effects of impedance and gain, the important thing to remember is that you can replace the microphone on many models (not all) with one that puts out a stronger signal and rejects cockpit noise. Enhancements like the specialized windscreens and covers made by aftermarket retailers can make a dramatic difference in the quality of your transmissions.

Comfort is critical and not much needs to be said here, other than each person’s head is different and what I think fits nicely could be your medieval torture device. Trying headsets out is the name of the game, and air shows with manufacturer booths are great places to “look and feel.” Finally, look at the newer “in-ear” sets put out by several manufacturers. Though passive, many pilots say they’re quieter than ANR sets. They use tiny speakers that fit directly into the ear canal and offer amazing performance for their almost imperceptible weight.

Price shouldn’t always drive your purchase, though $75 eBay bargains should be suspect. I recommend going new instead of used since manufacturers always are improving their headset lines, and technology is moving faster than it ever has before. By defining your mission, educating yourself a bit and wading beyond the marketing hype, you can find the perfect headset for yourself—the one you’ll be happy to put on as soon as you step into the cockpit.


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