Bargain Headsets

Who can afford expensive ANR for every seat? LightSPEEDs QFR and SoftComms Phoenix are top values.

Where once occupants of even well-equipped airplanes shouted over the din of the engine, now even the rattiest rentals are likely to be headset-ready. Headsets add comfort and safety by improving communications, reducing fatigue and freeing up a hand that once fumbled for a microphone.

If youre an owner with a four- or six-place airplane, however, the bloom fades from the headset rose if you have to equip each seat with a $1000 ANR. Or even a cheaper ANR. So how about a bargain cheapie headset for the seldom-used stations?

Low-priced headsets are tempting bait for bargain hunters, but differences in headset comfort and quality raises the question of whether inexpensive headsets are really a bargain at all. While almost any headset is better than no headset, it can hardly be considered a good investment if its too uncomfortable to wear or it breaks frequently.

For the most part, low-priced headsets include fewer features and less comfort than their higher-priced brethren. In many designs, the guts of the headset-microphone/speaker performance and noise reduction-are identical to higher priced models by the same manufacturer.

Low-end headsets find their markets in several areas. Flight schools and FBOs may buy a bucket of them to offer as rentals, treating them essentially as throwaway items when the wear racks up or they get stolen. Student pilots already under the financial stress of flying lessons may find inexpensive headsets one way to cut costs. Aircraft owners often look for budget headsets for back-up or to equip seldom-used back seats.

Inexpensive headsets make up a substantial portion of the headset market. Quality, performance and comfort vary among the different brands and although some retailers offer liberal return policies, many buyers find themselves faced with one or two choices from an FBOs glass counter and a you-buy-it-you-keep-it attitude.

Low price is in the eye of the beholder, so we set an admittedly arbitrary cutoff point of $150 manufacturer list price. Many of the headsets we reviewed can be bought for substantially less through catalog or internet vendors. In addition, FBOs or pilot shops may also cut you slack on price. Actual selling price on many of these headsets is under $100.

Two factors influence whether an inexpensive headset might be right for you. The first is comfort. Wimpy ear pads and head cushions can be upgraded with aftermarket products such as those from Oregon Aero-see the September issue of Aviation Consumer for a review-but at a price that makes them more expensive than better units.

Comfort is subjective; one persons nirvana is another persons nightmare, so our conclusions about comfort are hardly the last word. But they should serve to reinforce the notion that you should find a retailer who will take the thing back if youre not happy.

The second is quality. Repairing a broken headset quickly becomes uneconomical if its not a quality unit to begin with. You don’t want to throw good money after bad.

We examined a sampling of low-end headsets from AvComm, DRE Communications, Edmo, Flightcom, LightSPEED and SoftComm. In cases where the manufacturer has several models listing for less than $150, we considered all of them and will pass on our recommendations.

AvComm, a family-owned company in Covina, California, has been producing its AC-200 for several years, although its now called the AC-200 PNR, for passive noise reduction. The company claims improved speakers give better sound with less weight.

Built of a stainless steel headband and stirrups and molded plastic earcups, the AC-200 is the quintessential low-end headset-simple and sturdy, if not particularly exciting. The headsets old-school wire mic boom is balanced by its gold-plated plugs.

The AC-200 performs we’ll in that the sound and noise attenuation are acceptable for this class of headset, but we think it falls a bit short when it comes to comfort. The headset is okay for an hour or so and as such would be fine for a student pilot, but any longer and the thin headband pad and earpads start creating hot spots.

The ears are worse than the headband, leading you to want to bend the headsets band outward for relief. But reducing clamping pressure decreases noise reduction. Thats true on virtually all passive headsets, but we think that balance can be improved in the AC-200 by beefing up the earpads. Buying aftermarket gel ear seals would help, but would add to the cost. Fortunately, with a list price of $106 and a street price of about $85, you could afford to do that to the AC-200 without breaking the bank.

The AC-200 also has a lot of nooks and crannies that can snag hair, such as the clips that hold the wire to the stirrups. The connection of stirrup to headband and the stirrup pivot point will take on virtually anyone with more than a buzz cut. Even so, the AC-200 is a good effort, backed by a company with good customer service. The company doesnt sell direct, but it does offer a five-year warranty.

We were looking forward to testing the entry-level products from DRE, given our good experience with DREs $300 active-noise reduction unit, the DRE-6000. We came away with a mixed bag.

The company offers three headsets that fall within the list price budget we set. The DRE-1000, -2000 and -4000 are all similar headsets in terms of construction and performance, with the distinction primarily in the creature comforts afforded.

The true entry unit, the DRE-1000, carries a suggested list of $89. Its a mono unit with a great pair of speakers. It has a wire spring mic boom and a volume control on each earcup. While that may sound appealing, the -1000 has a major shortcoming, in our view, with respect to comfort. The earpads are acceptable, but the headband pad is another matter. If there was a headband pad, that is. Actually, there is a pad, but its too insubstantial to provide much comfort. Athough some might not find this a problem, for us, it made the -1000 a non-starter.

Stepping up to the $129 DRE-2000 gets you a stereo/mono switch, a flex boom and a better headband. The -2000 is, to us, a more comfortable headset with nicer features. Whether its worth it depends on your point of view. On the one hand, its only 40 bucks more. On the other hand, 40 bucks represents a 45 percent price increase. Still, the headband pad remains a sticking point, as even the upgrade takes it only to about the level of the AC-200.

Climb another rung to the DRE-4000, which lists at $149, and you get what wed consider an entry-level headset with the potential to satisfy your needs for some time. The headband pad is thick and comfortable and the flex boom has adjustable length. This is essentially the DRE-6000 without the active noise reduction circuitry.

Comfort is acceptable on legs of a couple of hours, although the ear pads do start feeling hard after that. If you like to listen to music through your intercom, the sound on all three models is excellent- provided you can suffer the discomfort for that long.

DRE headsets arent discounted as much as other brands, so expect to pay closer to list price on these models. The manufacturer sells direct and offers a 30-day return policy if you don’t like them, which in our view is a requirement.

The Flightline HS-60 from Edmo is a staple at many flight schools, where its treated as virtually a disposable item when it starts getting creaky. That should tell you something about its price and performance, as most flight schools don’t have the resources to waste money on accessories that don’t fit we’ll in the value curve. With a list price of $129 and a street price under $100, the Flightline has some nice features, such as corrosion-resistant gold-plated plugs, flex boom and stuffed headpads. Its stereo/mono switchable and has dual volume control to balance the listening level.

The company doesnt sell direct, but has a wide network of dealers. The headsets are also available from many internet pilot supply sites, most of which have reasonable policies for returning headsets youre not happy with.

We were, frankly, surprised by the HS-60. Comfort and performance were better than average and on par with the more expensive passive David Clark H10-13.4. The HS-60 would be we’ll served by the addition of gel earseals and even factoring in the cost of those, youd be less than half the cost of a David Clark, albeit without DCs legendary reliability and customer service reputations behind it.

Like DRE, Flightcom has several products that fit within our criteria, the 4DX and the 4DLX. As you might expect from the naming protocols of Japanese cars, the 4DX is the less expensive of the two, with a list price of $115.

Like the other economy models, the 4DX has a couple of shortcomings. The headband pad, a problem spot on most headsets, is a problem here, too, by virtue of how thin it is. But there’s another shortcoming. The design features a wire spring mic boom, with two finger nuts at the knuckles. While this theoretically allows you to tighten the mic in the proper position, one Flightcom rep even volunteered that it frequently goes the other way: The screw gets loose and falls out.

Add a few bucks to the kitty and upgrade to the 4DLX and you get a more competent and feature-packed headset, in our estimation. The problematic wire boom is replaced by a flex boom, the headband pad becomes a wider, more luxuriant affair and the ear cups sport dual volume controls. In our book, thats worth $24 any day. The major drawback of the 4DLX is that its the heaviest among the list we tested – five ounces more than the LightSPEED QFR Solo, for example. In headsets, five ounces over two hours of flying is an eternity.

While we liked the 4DLX, wed like to see it go on a diet – without losing the features that put it near the top of the economy-headset heap when it comes to features.

Putting on a QFR for the first time feels like putting fish bowls on your ears. The ear cups feel positively cavernous and give that hollow you-can-hear-the-ocean sound. If thats off-putting, fire up the engine and listen to the quiet. At 28.7 noise reduction, the QFR Solo tops the list when it comes to passive noise reduction. Although part of this impressive number comes from rather high clamping pressures, you can bend the headset out a bit for comfort without losing much of the noise reduction.

On top of the quiet, the QFR is also the lightest headset tested, at 11.8 ounces. The weight loss comes almost entirely from the headsets unusual architecture, which gets rid of the classic stirrup-and-headband design in favor of a set of wires on which the headset slides to adjust. The headband is not a hugely padded affair, which LightSPEED can get away with because its supporting less weight.

Adding to the QFRs appeal is the high-quality sound. We plugged one into the home stereo and were very impressed by the sound of music. The microphone also transmits sound with excellent fidelity.

While the headset has a lot going for it, its not perfect. Some of the plastic parts that hold the headset together popped off rather easily on the unit we reviewed. While they snapped back on without fuss, we think that may bode ill for long-term durability.

In addition, the QFR can adjust to fit a very small head, but you may max it out if your head is above average. The other side of this is that the headset folds up quite small-ideal for something that may be stored in the back of the airplane until its needed.

SoftComm Products is one of the low-cost leaders, with six headsets that fall under $150. Four of those are the older-design C-40 series, which includes the C-40, the C-40-10, C-40-20, C-45 and the C-45-10. The fifth-and the most expensive of the lot-is the C-20 Phoenix.

The C-45 and the C-45-10 are the bottom of the line, listing for $99 and $89, respectively. The -10 is a child-sized model of the -45. Construction quality and comfort are good and the childs version came out on top in our earlier review of child-sized headsets.

While the -45 may make sense as a seldom-used back-up-it does fold up into a very small ball-we don’t think it appropriate for frequent use. The earcup stirrups are plastic and we can see them giving out with more than occasional use. Having said that, a rough-and-tumble four-year-old we know has played with the child version for more than a year -inside the airplane and out-without anything coming apart yet.

Go up the food chain a bit and you come to the C-40, C-40-10 and C-40-20. They are very similar, with differences such as mono vs stereo and volume controls. In a nutshell, the $119 C-40-10 is mono with one volume control. Pay another $10 and you get another volume control on the C-40. Ten bucks more and you get stereo. The color changes at every step, too.

The odd-man-out among the low-price SoftComms is the C-20 Phoenix. A newer design, the Phoenix boasts what the company calls new material technology for improved noise reduction, although the spec sheets for all of these headsets claim the same 23 dB reduction.

The Phoenix has improved volume controls and a flex boom. It also boasts a new headband pad and better sound. But where the rubber meets the road, or rather where the headset meets the noggin, its clear that the Phoenix is substantially more comfortable than any of its lower-priced siblings.

Recommending a low-cost headset comes with some caveats. Keep in mind that a headset is like a pair of shoes-wearing one for three minutes in the store is a far cry from walking home after missing the bus. Because comfort is so subjective and depends so much on the wearers head shape and size, we encourage you to try before you buy, especially if you can take advantage of a 30-day trial. If you cant return it, don’t buy it.

Remember also that a headset is supposed to be a durable purchase you’ll live with for a while. For that reason, we recommend stretching the budget to allow for the best model possible. Even if its for that rare rear-seat passenger, you don’t want to have them in agony when you land.

For frequent use, such as a student pilot or other budget-conscious frequent flier, we strongly recommend active noise reduction if you can afford it. Two good inexpensive ANR headsets-the DRE-6000 and the LightSPEED QFR Cross Country-come in at under $300. If the budget wont stretch, a low-end passive headset is the only alternative. In that case, we recommend the LightSPEED QFR Solo. Its comfort, performance and noise reduction stand head and shoulders above the other products we tested, although construction quality may not.

If the QFR is too small or you find the clamping pressures too high- and many do-try the SoftComm C-20 Phoenix, although Edmos Flightline HS-60 and the DRE-4000 are also worth considering.

Headsets are unique in aviation in that their comfort is heavily dependent on those with their heads in the vise.

Regardless of how good any headset looks on paper, make sure you can return it easily after you have a chance to try it in your airplane for a hop of reasonable length. If the seller wont accommodate that, keep shopping around. There are plenty of suppliers who will.

Also With This Article
Click here to view “Checklist.”
Click here to view “Bargain Headsets Compared.”
Click here to view “Buy Used? Bargains May Not Be.”
Click here to view “LightSPEED Repair Issues.”
Click here to view “Addresses.”

-by Ken Ibold