A headset collection

October 1, 1997

What do you get when you cross a pilot with an octopus? A pilot with six extra reasons to buy a big, button-festooned watch.

We pilots do love our gadgets and accessories. Ten years ago I would not have believed that the market for headsets, for example, would ever be as big as it is. Five years ago I thought that handheld GPSs were a passing fad. It's a good thing I didn't go into marketing. Aviator watches, aviator sunglasses, handheld GPSs and transceivers, headsets, intercoms — they all seem like just nice-to-haves until you use them for a while, and then you realize just what nice additions they are to the cockpit.

One good thing about this job is that you get to try all of the new products. I have recently been flying with a variety of new headsets. For years my personal headsets were a pair of David Clark H10-30s. Lately, though, the H10-30s have become the backup set as I have flown with the newer David Clark H10-13.4s. Regardless of your preference, it's hard to find fault with David Clark's terrific service policy. If it breaks, they fix it, no questions asked. A few years ago, a short developed at the H10-30's mic plug. I sent it off to David Clark with a note explaining the problem. Ten days later, the set was back, fixed, cleaned, and working — no charge. Stories of David Clarks falling out of open-cockpit airplanes in flight or being run over by fuel trucks and then repaired by the company at no charge are legendary.

Another headset I've been trying lately is the Sigtronics S-65. Sigtronics owner Frank Sigona is the veritable father of the aviation intercom. He first developed an intercom for light aircraft in the 1970s. Since then his company has expanded and now sells intercoms and headsets to fire and rescue companies and for many other uses. In fact, many of the manufacturers that started in the aviation business now see many of their sales outside of aviation. David Clark and Telex headsets routinely show up on television in use by football players and coaches, for example.

Sigona is a big, burly guy who owns and flies a variety of GA airplanes and warbirds. His original headset designs were for pilots just like him who needed maximum hearing protection in a rugged headset. The black and gold S-65s, though, bring many refinements to the Sigtronics line, including more comfort and snazzy real gold plating on the trim. I recently made several long trips with them and found them to be quite comfortable and quiet. With heavy cords and durable connectors, they hold up well in the cockpit.

Selecting a headset is a very personal thing. One that fits one person supremely may feel like a vise to another. When my wife first started taking flying lessons last year, she tried a variety of the traditional-style headsets that were kicking around in my flight bag at the time. None seemed to fit her well. Finally, as a Christmas gift last year, I bought her a Peltor 7004 headset. These nontraditional, folding headsets, designed in Sweden, have far less clamping effect, yet still offer good noise attenuation. The Peltors did the trick and she's been happy ever since. Peltor now also offers two newer models, the 7006 and the 7005. The 7005, which we reviewed last month in " Pilot Products," offers the convenient flexible mic boom from the 7004 and new deeper ear cups. The shallow ear cups on the 7004 were my only complaint. After flying several trips with the 7005, I'm convinced it's the best Peltor model yet.

Much of the improvement in headsets in the last decade has come in the form of active noise attenuation. Here, electronics in the ear cups sample the incoming noise and then produce noise 180 degrees out of phase from the incoming noise — in effect, "canceling" the incoming noise. The result is a dramatically quieter headset. The electronics are particularly good at canceling noise in the lower frequencies.

Traditionally, though, the pilot has paid for this quieter ride in a number of ways. The top-of-the-line Bose headsets, which are arguably the quietest and most comfortable available, sell for more than $1,000, compared to passive sets that average $200 to $300. Bose, which pioneered the noise-canceling technology, is rumored to have a lower-priced version in development. Other manufacturers have since introduced lower-cost active noise-canceling sets.

The other penalty pilots pay is typically in weight and convenience. The active sets usually weigh a bit more than their passive counterparts, particularly when you include the battery packs many of them require to drive the electronics. The convenience penalty comes in the form of the extra cables running to the battery pack or the cigarette lighter.

Newer active headsets have overcome some of these inconveniences. Most now offer a kit that allows them to be installed in an airplane. Then the pilot simply plugs the headsets into a custom panel that provides the traditional mic and phone jacks and an electrical connection, thus eliminating the battery pack and stringing of wires over to the cigarette lighter. That's fine for the aircraft owner who doesn't mind paying for the installation, but what about the renter pilot?

With the answer comes Pilot Avionics and its PA 17-76 Direct Noise Canceling model, part of the company's new "Freedom Series." The aptly named model frees the pilot from extra wiring by placing the battery in the ear cup, thus eliminating the battery pack. In the ear cup is a nickel metal hydride battery that can be quickly recharged from a wall socket. It then provides 10 to 14 hours of service, depending on the noise level in the cockpit. The expensive NIMH battery can be recharged hundreds of times and doesn't develop a "memory" the way nickel cadmium batteries do. Therefore, the PA 17-76 can be recharged at any time, whether it's been completely discharged or not.

The PA 17-76 comes from the fertile mind of Lee Luzell, owner of Pilot Avionics. Entrepreneur Luzell seems to always have some clever design in the works. Among the unusual features of the 17-76 is the ability to disconnect the mic and phone cords at the ear cup, yet allowing the noise canceling to continue to function. Therefore, the headset can be used during preflight at a busy jet airport, for example, where the ambient noise is loud. You can also take it with you to the auto races to slash the noise from the cars. I flew most of the way to Oshkosh with the PA 17-76 and found it both comfortable and quiet. And with a price not much higher than some passive sets, the PA 17-76 is a good value too.

Also during the Oshkosh trip, I flew with the Sennheiser HMEC 25. Sennheiser offers several models of both active and passive headsets. The super-lightweight HMEC is an active set with a small battery pack in the cord. With its small lightweight ear cups that sit on the ears rather than enclosing them, the HMEC was designed for use in larger, pressurized airplanes, which tend to be quieter to start with. However, the company has discovered that pilots of lighter and noisier airplanes have started buying the set simply because it is so light and there is no clamping of your head. It attains almost all of its noise attenuation through the electronics. Most other active sets use enclosed ear cups to dim much of the din, and the electronics to dampen only the lower frequencies.

Not surprisingly, the microphones on the Sennheiser headsets are near works of art. For decades Sennheiser has been the primary supplier of mics for the radio, television, and music industries. Key the mic on the HMEC 25 and you sound as good as a professional announcer in an audio booth. All that's needed now is a special filter that gives every pilot that gravelly voice practiced by airline pilots.

Innovation in the headset business is never ending. We have yet to fly with the new Telex Digital ANR-1D headset, an active noise-canceling unit that talks to you. The voice feature will report to you the ambient noise level in decibels and also let you know what features are turned on or off.

Who would have thought 25 years ago, when your only choice in headsets was some clunky military surplus unit, that pilots would have such a voracious appetite for headsets? Credit the manufacturers, who, through continual improvements in design and features, have elevated the headset from a curiosity in the cockpit to a must-have piece of equipment.