Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Sennheiser S-1

With the introduction of the new S-1 and its adaptive, four-microphone sampling technology, Sennheiser sets a new headset standard

The S-1 features a special viscous foam that's light but creates a tight seal.
It's been a long time since I've been really excited about a headset. Over the past five years or so, improvements in headsets have come at a trickle. By now, headsets are so good that only minor differences exist in top-of-the-line models. While there have been new features added to headsets (Bluetooth, music- player inputs, multiple channels), the actual sound quality of the aviation headset has remained dormant for about a decade. Each year's new model is maybe just a little bit better than last year's. Not so with the brand-new S-1 Digital aviation headset from Sennheiser.

It should be noted that as a professional musician, I'm very familiar with Sennheiser. It is to recording studios and concert stages what the DC-3 or Beech Staggerwing is to aviation. The Sennheiser 421 is one of the most famous microphones in the world, and has been used to record drums and guitars on more hit songs than anything else to date. If you've heard the Beatles, you've heard Sennheiser. Since 1945, when the company started in Wedemark, Germany, audio quality has been their pursuit. They're no newcomers to the headset game.

I knew I was in for something special, even by the way I got this headset to evaluate. It was all very cloak-and-dagger, with my meeting the Sennheiser team in an undisclosed hotel room, under cover of night, far from the corporate offices, complete with a live demonstration with prerecorded sound files and detailed explanations. These guys were excited about the S-1, and I mean actually excited, not "marketing" excited. This was something different.

Sennheiser started with a blank page when they designed the S-1. It's not a derivative of anything they offer today, and it offers several features that I haven't seen on any headset currently on the market. The S-1 was created from the ground up, as a seedling of what will become a new family of aviation headsets. Development began about four years ago, and was done in conjunction with BMW DesignworksUSA.

Easily the S-1's most innovative and important feature is the way it attenuates harmful noise. The S-1 is an active noise reduction (ANR) headset, meaning, it uses circuitry to block damaging noise, in addition to employing traditional passive features, like the ear-cup design, contact pressure and acoustically absorbent materials. That's not new. What's new is the way it employs the active circuitry.

Traditionally, ANR headsets use an acoustic "trick" to help save your ears. They use a tiny microphone mounted on the inside of each ear cup. The microphone picks up harmful noise before it enters your ears, samples the frequencies and creates a duplicate of the sound, exactly 180 degrees out of phase, effectively canceling out the offending sound. The problem is that this method is effective in blocking mostly the low-frequency noise. The highs still get through and can cause hearing damage.


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