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Looks same, acts different

The surprising new Bose A30

The first surprise about the new Bose A30 headset is that it looks almost identical to its predecessor, the Bose A20, and weighs about as much, too.

The A20 set the standard for high-end, noise-canceling headsets when it was introduced 13 years ago, and it’s still the market leader. So why would Bose replace it with something that looks essentially the same?

The company says that even though the appearance is similar, the new A30 is more comfortable (less clamping force), has a better microphone, cancels more noise, is 100 percent digital, and runs an astounding 45 hours on two AA batteries.

“We focused on comfort,” said Matt Ruwe, senior manager for Bose aviation and military headsets. “To do that, we had to bring new technologies to bear.”

The A30 is made from different materials, and none of the parts in the two models are interchangeable.

“There are no pieces in common with the A20,” Ruwe said. “Even the headband is made from an aluminum alloy instead of magnesium in the A20.”

The demo Bose A30 arrived at AOPA headquarters just in time for a torture test.

First, a four-hour cross-country trek in the AOPA Extra 300L; then a two-hour ferry in a stranded Bonanza, and finally a five-hour marathon in a Beechcraft B55 Baron to get home. The unmufflered Extra exposed the headset to extreme noise, the Bonanza tested its ability to link via Bluetooth to multiple devices, and the Baron placed it between a pair of roaring 285-horsepower engines for 1,000 miles.

The reduced clamping force of the Bose A30 makes it more comfortable to wear, and more likely to be dislodged during aerobatic maneuvers. Photo by Dave Hirschman.

First impression

I seldom wear noise-canceling headsets in aerobatic airplanes because the battery box tends to flop around, and loud engines and hammering propellers simply overwhelm them. But this was going to be a (mostly) straight-and-level trip, and a good chance to get to know the Bose.

Strapped in tightly to the Extra’s ratcheting seatbelt harness, I plugged in the two-prong headset jacks (the headset also is available with a LEMO plug that uses ship’s power), pressed the power button to turn on the active-noise-canceling, and started the engine.

The growling Lycoming IO-540 sounded as though it was sitting in my lap, and I double-checked the headset to confirm the power was on. The blinking LED light indicated it was operating normally, but the slider on the battery pack that selects high/medium/low noise cancellation was set to low. Clicking it to high instantly shushed Lycoming.

(Truthfully, the medium and low settings seem incompatible with general aviation piston engines, and I expect GA pilots will select high noise-canceling all the time.)

Taking off in an Extra is a bit like sitting in the percussion section of a symphony orchestra playing Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. Yet the A30 tamed it.

The A30 requires a complete ear seal, and pilot accessories such as hats and sunglasses can easily interfere.

Also, in aerobatic flying, the A30’s light clamping force demands a canvas helmet or chin strap to keep it in place. Hang from the straps at one negative G is enough to remove the A30 from a pilot’s head (as I found out somewhere over South Carolina).

Bonanza ferry

The civilized and highly refined A36 Bonanza is relatively quiet inside. This one is equipped with SiriusXM radio, and pairing the A30 headset to it was a simple matter.

Despite clear skies, I considered filing an IFR flight plan, or at least getting flight following. But the exceptional sound quality of the music through the A30 convinced me not to be bothered with air traffic control.

Next, I paired the A30 to the iPhone in my pocket, and it sounded like I was on stage with Creedence Clearwater Revival. Or Linda Ronstadt was in the right seat of the Bonanza. Or Sheryl Crow had somehow stowed away in the back seat.

It had been a long day, and I was hangry and tired when I stepped into the Bonanza. But the stirring sounds, gorgeous scenery, and still air revived me.

I resisted turning off the music until I absolutely had to communicate with ATC. Even then, the A30 gives you the option of muting the music during aircraft radio transmissions, mixing music and radio, or silencing the music entirely.

Marathon twin

A Beechcraft Baron presents a tough test for any headset because the engine noise and prop pulses are so physically close to the pilot.

The A30 had no difficulty during a full-power takeoff and climb to 11,500 feet.

A fellow pilot, Kyle Campbell, accompanied me on this trip, and I wanted to find out whether he noticed any difference between the A30 and the A20 already in the Baron.

He noticed the lighter clamping force right away, and he said that made the entire headset feel lighter even though the A30 weighs only a paper clip or two (six grams) less.

The Baron trip involved flying through busy airspace, and I found myself pressing the ear cup against the side of my head at times to get the speaker closer to my ear. But that habit turned out to be self-defeating.

Effective noise-canceling requires a precise amount of air in the ear cup, and squeezing it makes the headset squeal, or sound like the ocean. Better to simply leave it alone.

The A30 has a “tap” feature that allows the wearer to turn off noise canceling with a double tap on an ear cup. That’s meant to enable cross-cockpit communications outside the intercom, but it wasn’t useful in the airplanes I flew.

Deep inside the A30 battery box are a half-dozen switches that allow for user customization. Mono/stereo intercom; auto-on/auto-off for activating the battery when it senses ship’s power or saving the AA’s when inactive; turning on the tap feature; and a mysterious “reversionary” mode that hints of future software upgrades.

The ear cups are labeled left and right, and the microphone boom can be switched from one side to the other.

The best for last

For some products, and in some situations, success means blending into the background—and the Bose A30 achieves that.

It’s so simple to use that you don’t have to spend much, if any, time reading a manual. It’s so light and comfortable you forget you’re wearing it. Communications are so crystal clear that you don’t miss radio calls, and controllers don’t have to ask you to repeat.

I didn’t find a dramatic difference between the Bose A30 and A20 on short flights. The improvements in the A30 only became obvious on long trips where physical comfort and musical enjoyment became so noticeable.

Finally, the price. After a year in which inflation rose faster than any other in the last four decades, the retail price of an A30 is $1,249. That’s $54—or 4.5 percent—more than its predecessor, and about half last year’s inflation rate. Bose still commands a premium among high-end, noise-canceling headsets. But the fact that the price barely budged, in these times, is astonishing.

The new Bose A30 headset looks nearly identical to the A20, but performance and comfort have both been dialed up. Photo by Chris Rose.
Dave Hirschman

Dave Hirschman

AOPA Pilot Editor at Large
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Dave Hirschman joined AOPA in 2008. He has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates. Dave flies vintage, historical, and Experimental airplanes and specializes in tailwheel and aerobatic instruction.
Topics: Headsets

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