January 22, 2022
As pilots who are accustomed to cockpit noise, depending on the type of aircraft we fly, we may not even think the noise is all that loud. However, The FAA Hearing and Noise in Aviation safety brochure reminds us that sound levels in a small single engine cockpit can reach 90 dB and sustained exposure to noise over 90 dB can cause permanent hearing loss. This means it’s time to reach for hearing protection in the form of a pilot headset.
Headsets provide more than just hearing protection and decreased cabin noise though. They also offer hands-free communications with ATC and passengers, making it even more appealing to fly with a headset.
None of us enjoy purchasing something we don’t really need, so the first question many new pilots ask when scanning a recommended gear list is, “Do I really need to buy my own headset? Can’t I just rent or borrow one from my school?” While a rental or loaner may be possible, at least to get started, for most pilots it still makes sense to purchase your own headset even if your budget can only support an entry-level model.
For starters, the communal headsets that you may find through a school will probably not be the top-of-the-line models and they will have already sustained plenty of wear and tear from other students. A used entry-level headset is likely to be uncomfortable and potentially ill-fitting.
Now imagine wearing someone else’s snorkel mask, earbuds, or baseball cap that they have already sweat in. Sure, you can wipe them down and try to sanitize them, but do you really want to mess around with that bacterial breeding ground when you could avoid it altogether? This is why it just makes sense to secure your own personal headset.
You’ve decided to skip the grunge factor and purchase your own piloting headset. Now what? There are so many brands and styles of headsets to choose from plus a slew of features that can easily seem overwhelming at first.
Before you aimlessly click through pages upon pages of potential options, decide what features you are looking for. This will narrow your search results to only the headsets that are the best fit for you.
Consider the following variables when picking an aviation headset:
One of the main criteria that differentiate headsets is the type of noise reduction measures they use. The most common types of noise reduction are passive noise reduction and active noise reduction with some higher-end headsets also using dynamic noise reduction.
The most basic low-tech version of noise reduction is to physically stop the unwanted sounds from entering your ears. This is achieved by erecting a barrier around your ears in the form of ear cups and seals. Headsets using this means of ear protection are called passive noise reduction or PNR headsets.
Since a PNR headset must form a protective seal around your ear to offer protection, all PNR headsets are over-ear rather than on-ear or in-ear models. These headsets are the least advanced, and the most affordable type of headsets on the market.
The next step above PNR headsets is ANR or active noise reduction headsets. You may also see them referred to as electronic noise canceling (ENC) headsets. ANR headsets require a power source (usually batteries located in the earpieces or on the wires). They electronically monitor incoming sounds using a tiny microphone which can be placed inside or outside the ear cup. Some higher-end models improve the sensitivity by positioning mics both inside and outside.
The microphones of ANR headsets are designed to reduce mainly lower frequency noises generated by engines and turbulence. These sounds typically fall between the 20Hz and 300Hz range of the spectrum. Higher frequency sounds are not reduced, so your radio transmissions and on-board conversations can still be heard.
When the microphone of an ANR headset picks up a noise within the spectrum it is designed to reduce, it triggers a small speaker to broadcast a sound wave on the same frequency as the noise but with a 180-degree phase difference. In plain English, that means that the incoming soundwave and the outgoing soundwave cancel each other out and the offending noise is eliminated.
The more advanced technology comes with a correspondingly higher price tag. Expect to pay significantly more for an ANR headset than you would for a PNR one.
Dynamic noise reduction headsets take ANR headsets one step further by digitally removing unwanted noise from incoming headphone signals. DNR headsets scan for repetitive identical noise signals on the transmission then suppress just those portions of the signal. Look for DNR functionality on only the most high-end of ANR headsets.
Aviation headsets come in three styles: over-ear, on-ear, and in-ear.
Remember that PNR headsets only come in the over-ear configuration. Over-ear PNR headsets work well for pilots of aircraft with open cockpits or high-performance engines. Over-ear headsets are also made using ANR technology. An over-ear ANR headset benefits the pilot by providing the extra passive noise reduction of the ear seals in addition to the active noise reduction of the mic and speaker.
On-ear headsets use a type of earcup that, as their name suggests, rests on top of the ear rather than encasing it. This type of headset provides less passive noise reduction, so it is intended for aircraft with lower decibel levels like commercial jets.
In-ear headsets look like earbuds or earplugs with an attached headpiece and microphone. Like on-ear models, in-ear designs are intended to be worn in lower-decibel level cockpits. They do not provide enough noise reduction aboard smaller single-engine aircraft.
If money were no object, you could simply purchase a Bose A20 and be done with it, but for most of us, budget matters. The least expensive pilot headsets are over-ear PNR models whose prices can range from less than $90 to more than $400. The average PNR headset is priced between $150 and $300. An entry-level ANR headset on the other hand, starts just under $300 and can go over $1,000, though the average ANR headset runs from $450 to $700.
The number of hours you plan to log in the cockpit impacts your hearing protection needs. Students and private pilots who fly infrequently can opt for a less expensive entry level PNR headset while those who fly more frequently, or over longer distances should consider an upgraded PNR or an entry-level ANR model. Flight instructors and professional pilots should budget for an ANR or even a DNR model.
You should easily be able to wear your headset for the duration of your flight without becoming uncomfortable. The choice of materials impacts comfort. Heavier metal headsets may be less comfortable than lighter plastic ones, but on the other hand, the metal is more adjustable. Gel ear seals are heavier than foam, but they can also provide better cushioning. Knit or cotton ear seal covers are less likely to make you sweat in hot weather, but vinyl covers provide a better seal.
Also consider the potentially uncomfortable clamp force generated by the ear seals of on-ear headsets (the Bose A20 has 30% less force than standard), and the location of ANR headset batteries as these can get in the way if positioned along the wires.
Both PNR and ANR headsets express the degree of their ability to block noise using a noise reduction rating. This rating is expressed in decibels (dB) of attenuation. The higher the noise reduction rating, the more decibels of potentially damaging noise the headset blocks.
The auditory frequency of aircraft noise varies depending on the source. Engine noise is a lower frequency, typically below 300 Hz, while air moving along the fuselage emits a high frequency noise up to 3,000 Hz. The frequency bands that a headset’s noise reduction rating applies to are called its “frequency response range.” For the most hearing protection, choose a headset that provides significant noise attenuation across a broad frequency spectrum.
Most aviation radios are designed to work with mono headsets, that is headsets which send the same auditory signal to both ears. A mono headset is fine for radio comms, but if you plan to use your headset for listening to music, stereo will give you a richer sound profile. Stereo headsets have a switch function to toggle between mono and stereo.
The most effective type of microphone for crisp, clear communications is an electret noise-canceling version covered in a noise suppressing foam muff. Also confirm that the mic boom’s position is adjustable.
Many of the higher-end ANR headsets have an option for built-in Bluetooth. Choosing a Bluetooth enabled version allows you to wirelessly connect with your GPS, smartphones, and tablets with fewer in-cockpit cables required. Since Bluetooth requires power, no PNR headsets have Bluetooth capability.
The cable plug type you need will be dictated by the type of aircraft you fly. If you fly multiple types of aircraft, you may be able to use a single headset across all of them by purchasing a plug adapter.
Most general aviation aircraft use dual male, otherwise known as PJ, plugs which come standard on most PNR headsets. Cirrus and newer Beechcraft planes require a 6-pin LEMO plug which you may also see advertised as a “Bose style connector.” Pilots flying Airbus, Boeing, and select ATR aircraft will need headsets with a single 5-pin XLR connector also called an “Airbus plug.” Finally, civilian helicopters use a single U174 plug.
Most pilot headset purchases include some form of factory warranty. Average warranties range from 1 to 5 years, though some headsets are backed by a 7 year or even a lifetime warranty. Learn the lengths and compare the warranty coverage of your final headset contenders.
Congratulations – you have learned what to look for in an aviation headset and now have a good idea which type of headset you want to purchase. It’s time to go shopping, and here are some suggestions to get you started:
Now that your headset is ordered, this is the perfect time to brush up on your radio communications skills. PlaneEnglish has you covered with our Aviation Radio Simulator, ARSim. The “by pilots, for pilots” simulator (available as an app for mobile devices or on the web) helps you master the nuances of ATC comms and charts the easy route to aviation radio proficiency. Download the app from the AppStore or Google Play or access it on the web and get started today so you’ll be ready to put that shiny new headset to good use as soon as it arrives.
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