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A guide to buying an aviation headset

Part of the fun of taking up a new hobby is diving in deep and buying all the kit that goes with it. And when you start flying, nothing makes you feel like a pilot more than a headset.
Photography by Chris Rose
Photography by Chris Rose

It can also be one of the most vexing things you’ll buy. With dozens of models to choose from and a confusing array of features, finding the right headset can be a challenge. Don’t fret. Here’s the ultimate guide to buying a headset.

What is a headset?

First, it can be helpful to know what a headset is and how it’s made. Aviation headsets provide a means to clearly hear and communicate with air traffic control and other people in the airplane. They are created with the goal of delivering good audio quality when both receiving and transmitting. Equally important is their ability to reduce cockpit noise. Small airplane cockpits are loud enough that flying without a headset is not only more difficult, it can also permanently damage your hearing.

A good headset should be comfortable to wear for a few hours at a time, reduce noise, and be durable. These are the basics. Additional features can be nice to have and can make life easier, but they aren’t necessary.

Although aviation headsets may look like nothing more than a couple of plastic or metal ear cups attached to a piece of steel with some cables coming out, headset development is a complex and highly specialized endeavor.

Lightspeed Aviation is a manufacturer of premium headsets, and the company is respected for being first with many features now considered standard in the industry. According to Executive Vice President Teresa De Mers, the process of building a new headset begins with customer feedback. “A lot of what informs our decision-making is being in the community and talking to customers,” she said. From there, ideas are gathered and considered as part of a structured development process that includes engineering, validation, prototyping, manufacturing, refining, and more. Through each step, a trusted group of beta testers tries the product and provides feedback that helps further refine the design. The goal is to make a headset that is quiet, but according to Lightspeed President Allan Schrader, comfort is maybe even more important.

“Wearability can be the biggest differentiator,” he said. For that reason and many others, development at Lightspeed begins with the hardware, or the physical components, and moves onto the software that refines its performance.

While in development and after a product is released, customer feedback leads to more improvements. Study a Lightspeed Zulu ear seal and you’ll find that it’s smaller than many others on the market. It’s also a quite thin oval shape. Those choices were deliberate. Schrader said that a bigger oval requires more pressure to get a good seal, so the company kept it as small as it could, while still attempting to fit the largest number of people possible. The newest ear seal on the company’s Zulu 3 model is thicker on the bottom than the top because the jaw area isn’t as flat as the area above the ear, so it makes a better seal.

These and thousands of other decisions go into developing a headset. But as Schrader said, none of it matters without…

Headsets

Comfort

More than performance, price, or features, the most important factor in purchasing a headset is comfort. If it isn’t comfortable you won’t want to wear it. And like a helmet, it’s useless if you don’t wear it. In fact, Lightspeed considers its headsets safety gear, and with wearability being a primary design consideration, the parallels are obvious.

This brings up a chicken-and-egg scenario. How do you know if the headset is comfortable without trying it, and how do you try it unless you buy it first? Thankfully many headset manufacturers and retailers are motivated to see every pilot find the perfect headset, so many trial periods are available. For example, Lightspeed has a 60-day money back guarantee on its headsets, and Bose Aviation offers 60 days, as do Sporty’s and others.

Another option is to go to a big airshow or large pilot shop and try multiple models in quick succession. Then you’ll have a better idea what feels right.

Put the headset on and immediately note how it feels. Is it heavy, tight around your ears, feel imbalanced, or just generally uncomfortable? If so, move on to another model. Any minor annoyance after a few minutes will amplify over a three-hour flight.

Style

Aviation headsets come in two basic styles: over-the-ear and in-ear. Most pilots choose to fly with over-the-ear, for reasons that range from historical to cost. But in-ear headsets have gained popularity in recent years, and many pilots of turbine aircraft favor them. With in-ear headsets you’re limited to a few companies, and not many styles. Those who like them talk about the lack of clamping pressure and light weight as big selling points. Some pilots have tried in-ear models and don’t like the feeling of having something stuck in their ears. The band that goes across the back of the head can be uncomfortable for some users as well.

Over-the-ear headsets come in a much wider variety of styles, and they offer more choice in terms of functions, price points, company support, and more. Unlike a lot of other hobbies where style can be a primary consideration in everything from helmets to equipment, headsets don’t offer much in this area. A David Clark headset will be green, a Bose black, a Lightspeed silver, and a Faro black or a carbon fiber weave. We encourage you to ignore the color and minor styling cues and instead focus on fit. Because color isn’t much of a choice, most pilots tend to ignore this aspect, which takes away the pressure of having to keep up with the latest trend.

Features

Headset features have two main categories: method of noise reduction and Bluetooth. Noise reduction is accomplished either with passive design or active software, and Bluetooth is either integrated or an optional extra.

Most consumers are familiar with active noise reduction, and it has become the gold standard in aviation headset performance. With few exceptions, headsets tend to have equal performance across brands. The companies that do ANR do it well and effectively target the noise reduction at the low frequency range from the droning of the engine and propeller. And passive noise reduction is also consistent across the brands, with minor differences in ear seals, materials, and so on.

The decision of whether to spring for ANR comes down to a few factors. Can you afford it and what type of flying do you do? ANR will increase the cost of a headset by at least a few hundred dollars. If you plan to fly anything more than about two hours in a day, it is worth the premium. ANR reduces fatigue, makes communication easier, and generally raises the enjoyment of the experience. Also, because noise is reduced by software, weight and clamping pressures are generally lower on an ANR headset, which makes them more comfortable to wear.

That said, ANR isn’t magic. Certain airplanes will overwhelm its capabilities, whether because of wind buffeting such as in an open-cockpit aircraft, or noise, such as in certain aerobatic airplanes. In those cases, a good passive headset is a better choice.

Unless you fly an airplane with a power jack (LEMO plug), your headset will need batteries, so you’ll need to plan ahead. ANR headsets perform poorly with the feature turned off.

Bluetooth’s benefits are less obvious. Sure, you can listen to music in your headset, but that hardly seems worth the premium. The lightbulb moment occurs the first time you try to call someone with the engine running. It’s nearly impossible without Bluetooth. This may not seem necessary when you’re in training. You shouldn’t be making doctor’s appointments and checking in on grandma while flying, after all. But there are legitimate reasons to make phone calls with the engine running, including calling for an instrument clearance, phoning an FBO, or checking in with a trusted mechanic. For these more critical moments, Bluetooth is a nice feature to have.

Price

Although price is usually a primary consideration in a purchase, we’d argue that with a headset, it shouldn’t be high on your list, at least not before selecting fit, comfort, and features. Once you narrow down those options, you won’t have too many choices on price. Passive headsets tend to cost between $200 and $300, and quality ANR is $700 to more than $1,000. Of course, there are exceptions. You can find headsets for less than $100, and there are some good ANR headsets for less than $500. But the reason these are cheaper is because the materials aren’t as good, the support might be questionable, and durability could be an issue. We suggest buying the most headset you can afford, with the knowledge that the investment should last over hundreds of hours of flying.

There’s nothing like a headset to make you feel like a pilot. The joy of plugging it in before the flight and carefully wrapping it up afterwards never fades. Happy shopping.

Ian J. Twombly

Ian J. Twombly

Ian J. Twombly is senior content producer for AOPA Media.

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