The Universal Headset

Flying to Catalina in a Cirrus SR22 to re-create our first date.

Nothing ruins an otherwise pleasant flight faster than a throbbing headache brought on by the weight and clamping force exerted by a cheap, beat-up, or poor-fitting headset. Perhaps my noggin is just unusually sensitive, but I find that vice-grip pain especially frustrating because one of the primary reasons for wearing a headset in the first place is to avoid such maladies.

I’m fortunate to fly a wide variety of aircraft on a regular basis — it’s one of the things that keeps aviation fresh and exciting — but unfortunately, it also means a big pile of equipment, especially where headsets are concerned. In the Gulfstream, for example, the 3 ounce Telex 750 is perfect. Lightweight, simple, and virtually indestructible (Lord knows I’ve stepped on, sat on, bent, tossed, and twisted that thing every which way!).

Hop into an open-cockpit Pitts, however, and that 750 is quite worthless. A loud, aerobatic biplane demands serious passive noise reduction, so out comes the trusty David Clark H10 series with their gel-filled ear seals, and a leather helmet to keep the thing on. If I’m donning a DA-42 TwinStar, RV-6 or a King Air 90, my go-to option is usually the comfortable Bose X ANR headset because of the excellent low-frequency noise reduction.

At the risk of sounding like my wife as she stands before a closet full of clothes, it took quite a while to figure out what to wear for each occasion. Headsets are a very individualized choice because of the varying size and shape of each person’s head. A model which might be comfortable under normal circumstances can be quite different when, say, sunglasses are worn. They can dig into the side of one’s skull under the clamping pressure of a traditional headset. Who hasn’t felt that wonderful sensation or been frustrated by the ANR disturbances and increased noise allowed past the headset seal by the temples on a pair of otherwise top-notch shades?

It’s interesting to see how various people solve this issue. My friend Dean Siracusa came up with a creative solution via his Flying Eyes sunglasses. Me? I’ve tackled it from the headset side. A few years ago I discovered the Clarity Aloft headset and have never looked back. It (along with other in-ear headsets like the Quiet Technologies Halo) is the only solution I’ve seen that work in every single aircraft. It looks perfectly at home on the flight deck of a jet, yet has sufficient passive noise attenuation and low enough mass that I can wear it during strong negative-G aerobatics in an Extra 300 without it flying off. In-ear headsets have no traditional head band, so they can be worn with any type of hat — perfect for the follicly-disadvantaged (ie. me!) when flying RVs and other glass canopy style aircraft. They’re light and compact, so they store easily when not in use.

I also appreciate the fact that they don’t require batteries. As much as I love the Bose X, when the batteries run dry it goes from being one of the best headsets to one of the absolute worst. Even when the circuitry is getting good power, the headset doesn’t always cooperate. I once ferried a King Air across the country, unpressurized, at Flight Level 250. That was the day I discovered the Bose’s altitude limitation the hard way: coast-to-coast with no ANR. In their defense, Bose does publish this data — if you know where to find it.

Anyway, in-ear headsets are not a solution for everyone. Some people don’t like having foam earbuds in their ear canals for hour after hour. The design also has a few difficulties. The Clarity is also a pain to put on and take off because the earpieces take time to expand and create a good seal. And speaking of those ear buds, any oil, dirt or grease on my hands seems to end up on the foam — and probably in my ear canal, too, come to think of it.

But if they work for you, they’re a wonder, and it’s always comforting to know no matter what I’m flying on a given day, the “right” headset is always at hand.


This article first appeared on the AOPA Opinion Leaders blog at http://blog.aopa.org/opinionleaders/2013/10/07/the-universal-headset/.

3 comments

  1. I bought a second hand head set in 1996 and haven’t looked back since. its a 20-10. I get it serviced once a year at David Clark (which is an AMAZING company) and they work fine. I’ve always, of course wanted an ANR, and having a (Jewish) mother who is also an Audiologist, you would think I would have got one sooner, but who has $1,100 for a headset these days. Its a load of an investment. Now that the new Zulu’s have come out this month, the Zulu2’s should drop in price and I should be able to pick one up for 550 – 600 second hand. Of course, I dream of having the “problem” the author of the article has by having quite a few varied types of headsets. But alas, I’m not about to give him a hard time at all. 1) He is a professional and 2) he flies a myriad of A/C and 3) he did clarify especially that some headsets are not at all suited for all sorts of A/C.
    For now, my 20-10s will live on and they work stunningly well. I’ve actually never experienced ANR before. I wonder if they will let you demo one. Hmmm.
    -Graeme

    1. It’s true, there’s never enough money to go around! But you picked up on an excellent point: the crush of new headset designs coming to market has the beneficial effect of pushing down the price of used units from LightSpeed, Bose, and others. I got my top-of-the-line (at the time) Bose X about eight years ago when a student ordered a new SR22. The airplane came with four LEMO Bose X headsets, so the student sold me his virtually new one for $500. Today, I’d imagine you could get that same headset for significantly less.

      One of the best features of an ANR headset is that it allows you to turn down the radio volume. I theorize that this means less punishment on your auditory system, not just from the cancelled outside noise (which is the main marketing argument for them), but also by reducing the volume of the sound being generated by the headset itself every time someone speaks over the radio and/or intercom.

      Most shops DO allow you to demo their headsets. Aircraft Spruce’s Corona location let me take one for a flight.

      1. Thanks sir,
        For now, my 20-10s are great for the 4 hours I put in a month. Am still in the market for some ANRs. Let’s see what happens to the zulu2 prices

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