ANR Aviation Headset Buyers Guide
In the market for a new headset? There are dozens on the market across a range of prices, so think about your personal budget and what you'll use the headset for to help make your selection. You might choose differently if this is your primary headset and you fly 100 hours a year, or if you just want a backup headset for friends who ride along occasionally.
There are two buyer's guides: one for headsets that feature some kind of ANR, or active noise reduction. These headsets generally have a small battery pack and a controller that sends out phase-cancelling sound waves into your headset - the opposite of low droning engine frequencies, for example, making the ride much quieter for you.
The other buyer's guide just covers headsets with passive noise reduction. These headsets rely on earcups made of insulating foam or gel, and the clamping force of the headset to tightly seal your ears and block out noise. They cost much less than ANR models, making them great for pilots who don't fly much or who want an extra pair.
We try to provide a Noise Reduction Rating for each headset, as published by the manufacturer. A headset with a larger NRR will be quieter. The decibel system is a logarithmic scale, so you can't merely add together a headset's active and passive reduction figures to figure out how quiet it will be. For example, the effective noise reduction of a headset with 22 dB of passive protection and 24 dB of active protection is about 26 dB. A headset with an NRR of 30 dB will make sounds feel half as loud as a headset with a rating of 20 dB.
Once you settle on a budget, comfort will probably be your biggest consideration, especially if you regularly fly cross-countries more than two hours long. Comfort means not only how the headset feels on your head, but how much it dampens low frequencies from the engine and propeller that contribute to fatigue. This can be subjective, so ask to borrow your flight instructor's or friend's headset for a flight and see how it feels.
Different headset makers use different materials for the padding and cushion around the ears. Many people think gel pads are the most comfortable, though memory foam padding also rates highly and can provide a softer feel. If you wear corrective lenses or sunglasses while flying, make note of how well the pads seal around the ears and temples. Even small gaps will let in a lot of noise, making the headset much less effective. Pay attention to the headset's clamping force, as well. Does your head feel like it's being squeezed in the vice? Or is the headset so loose that it feels like it might flop forward or backward on your head? A headset that fits properly should rest snuggly across the top of your skull, with no tendency to slip forward or backward. The ear cups should completely encase the ear, not resting on any part of the outer ear.
The Bose A20 Aviation Headset is the newest generation of a line of headsets first released in 1999. The A20 is a favorite of many corporate and airline pilots because its light weight (just 12 ounces) and low clamping force make it very comfortable, even after a full day of flying. Bose's long history in high-end audio means that you can expect particularly crisp sound and a broad dynamic range in the A20.
Compared with its predecessor, the Aviation Headset X, the A20 now includes Bluetooth capabilities for listening to music, or talking on your cell phone without having to remove the headset. An auxiliary audio input for connecting your mp3 player is also available. Like other headsets with this feature, the Bose A20 will automatically mute the music when a radio transmission comes through, then resume the music at the end of the transmission. If you don't want the Bluetooth connection, a version of the A20 without Bluetooth is $100 less.
The long-time maker of passive headsets with a reputation for high quality and great customer service has lagged in recent years when it comes to ANR features. Even still, its distinctive pale green headsets are a staple at many flight schools because they're rugged and dependable.
The David Clark One-X Dual Plug Headset features an around the ear design, preferred by General Aviation Pilots. It has plush leatherette ear seals, and Bluetooth connectivity for added comfort on longer flights. It's been a favorite amongs David Clark loyal customers.
The DC PRO-X is one of David Clark's newest ANR models. It uses smaller earcups that rest over your outer ears and memory foam in the seals to ensure a pleasant fit on long flights. Microphones on the outside of each ear cup pick up engine noise so that the right frequencies get canceled out. The result is active attenuation of up to 30 dB at the low frequencies most common with piston engines. Light weight of just 7.5 ounces ensures comfort on long flights, and Bluetooth lets you use a cell phone or music player as well.
David Clark's H10-13X provide similar levels of active (22 dB) and passive (22-23 dB) reduction, but in a form factor more like the company's passive headsets.
Lightspeed Aviation has consistently developed new headsets with increasing levels of comfort, communications clarity, and innovative features. The new Zulu PFX uses Lightspeed's latest circuitry and algorithms to tailor the noise cancelling to your environment, both in the plane and within each earcup. It will even remember each user's customized noise-cancelling profile, which it determines by acoustically mapping the shape of your ear. The 14-ounce headset works with Lightspeed's smartphone/tablet app to save inflight audio recordings and customize your audio settings. The headset comes with several cord and plug options as well. Both the Zulu PFX and Zulu.2 (below) let you stream audio or talk on your cell phone with Bluetooth or wired connections.
The Zulu.3 keeps things quiet with increased active noise reduction and improved passive attenuation. Zulu.3 is more comfortable than ever with its light weight, reduced side pressure and new ear seals. Additionally, Zulu.3 provides enhanced audio quality, still offers an auxiliary input and features integrated Bluetooth. Zulu.3 is available with straight or coil cords; dual plugs, U174 plug, Lemo plug for panel power; and electret or dynamic low impedance microphones.
Lightspeed's Sierra headset combines quiet, comfort and clarity in a value-packed form, and weighs just 16 ounces. Sierra is comfortable due to its low side pressure and the ear seals it shares with its high-end sibling (Zulu.3). Its active noise cancellation system is unrivaled at its price point, and offers features such as Bluetooth (phone only) and auxiliary input that all pilots have come to expect. Sierra is available with a straight cord and dual plugs.
Want ANR in a compact and inexpensive package? Our own Sound Silencer ANR provides 16-19 dB of active attenuation, in addition to 25 dB of passive attenuation to block out a wide range of engine and propeller noises. And it includes an audio jack for your music player and volume controls on each earcup, plus PilotMall.com's 3-year warranty, all for just $239.
For commercial pilots, Telex offers several models with ANR that's geared toward cutting jet wind noise and the droning hum of cockpit avionics cooling fans. Telex's legacy models, the 850 and 750 (passive) were recently upgraded to the Airman 8 and Telex Airman 7 (passive). They remain extremely popular because they're so reliable and weigh less than four ounces. Jet pilots who fly all day will barely notice they have one on. The 8 uses mic power to provide 12 dB of active noise reduction, while the 7 is best for quiet jet cockpits and pilots who aren't bothered by typical wind noise.
- Neil Glazer