by Lionel Lavenue
You dont have to be old to remember when we flew without headsets. A cabin speaker cranked up to max volume in a 95-decibel cockpit was business as usual.
How did we ever stand it? And now that we all fly with headsets, the more appropriate question is how do we stand them?
If youve ever wondered why theres no alternative to the standard over-the-head, dual-cup aviation headset, you may be a candidate for one of the new in-the-ear aviation headset devices that recently hit the market.
These in-the-ear devices may or may not require a band over your head but even if they do, they dont create any of that vise-like pressure on your noggin. Instead, the devices simply fit snugly in your ear with a weight best described as feather light.
We recently tested three of these devices, the Panther CAT System by Panther Electronics and the AuriComm and UltraFlite by Quiet Technologies.
We first learned of the Panther last year and we immediately sought a demonstration model. Surprisingly, the Panther folks told us wed need to buy a $495 unit but agreed to provide a refund after testing. During the conversation, we also learned about two options. You can buy either a universal earpiece for about 31 dB noise reduction or a custom earpiece for about 46 dB noise reduction. We opted for the custom unit. For a custom fit, an ear mold is necessary to obtain the best seal of the molded earpieces to the ear canal, so we arranged to meet the Panther techs at Sun n Fun in Lakeland for a personal molding.
When we stopped by the Panther booth, however, it was mobbed with customers so after the show, we submitted the order form and within a few weeks a fitting kit arrived. The box contained a videotape, an envelope of sponge-like pieces connected to string, several containers of clay putty of various colors, a large syringe and a set of instructions.
Frankly, we were a little intimidated. The instructions explained that the medical-looking devices were needed to take ear molds needed for the creation of the in-the-ear device. The instructions clearly explained how to mix the two colors of putty, insert it into the syringe and then ooze the stuff into the ear canal. To keep the putty from being pushed too far into your ear and to allow the putty to be removed after it hardens, you must carefully insert the sponge far enough into the ear canal. The string is kept accessible so the sponge can be removed, along with the putty mold.
After reading the instructions, I knew that this process wasnt for me, frankly. My dad, a pharmacist, had always told patients that you shouldnt stick anything in your ear any smaller than your thumb and Ive followed that advice. Besides, I like conventional headsets just fine. But my wife Teresa hates wearing over-the-head headsets and she was immediately ready for the challenge. We watched the instructional video, which was helpful because the written instructions, while good, werent necessarily intuitive. After the material has been injected, you must wait several minutes before removing the mold using the string, which is attached to the sponge inside the ear. This was comical but all seemed to work well enough.
Once you pop the hardened molds out, you send them to Panther for the creation of your personal in-the-ear device. You can pick virtually any color, but Panther recommends different colors for each ear. This is necessary because one earpiece serves as the speaker, while the other earpiece serves as the microphone, sort of like World War II carbon mics that strapped to the pilots throat. Teresa picked pink for the mic earpiece and purple for the speaker earpiece.
We then packed the molds into the provided return box and shipped everything back. About six weeks later-an unusually long wait due to the heavy ordering at Sun n Fun-we received our Panther.
The 1-ounce unit was cute and Teresa loved how it looked, especially her custom colors. But to her disappointment, there was no case for the small device. For $500, we at least expected a small container. Although no case is provided, ear lube is. This ear lubricant-a clear lotion-is applied to the earpieces to obtain the best seal, making for a better earpiece-to-ear connection.
Although I thought this lube was somewhat gross, Teresa had no such qualms, readily using it and popping the devices into her ears. And the lube does seem to make a difference in the way the earpieces fit and seal.
During our testing with the Panther unit, we flew about 30 to 40 hours. Teresa was ecstatic. No more vise-like headset for her-she was sold on the Panther. The comfort was unbeatable compared to any regular headset, in her opinion. She rated the sound attenuation as excellent, despite the fact that the Panther is passive and has no ANR. But it compared well with my Bose X headset, even though Teresa thought the Panthers sound damping could stand improvement.
Because the Panther is made specifically for each persons ear canal, it can only be used by that person, thus I wasnt able to grease up and pop the device into my ear for a second opinion. Strangely, no instructions were provided with our unit. Good thing its use was intuitive.
The unit is connected to a small blue box-the control unit-with a volume control. This is useful for passengers who hate listening in busy ATC sectors. It has a single button which we eventually discovered was a mute control. The little box was simple and functional but, in our opinion, the wire from the earpieces to the box should be lengthened.
At first, we couldnt decipher the purpose of the mute button, but we quickly found out why its needed. Because one earpiece is a mic, it picks up all sounds, including eating. So if you eat chips, the crunch-crunch sound blasts through the intercom, including lip smacking and even swallowing.
To avoid this nuisance, you must press the mute button when you eat. Unfortunately, on our version, mute button was a momentary switch that had to be pressed constantly-not an on/off switch. Since we bought our test unit, Panther has added the option of an on/off mute and we recommend that you pick that.
There were a few other nuisances. If you insert and remove the device during flight, it periodically creates feedback in the intercom system, similar to that nasty feedback screech at a concert. Also, wearing sunglasses can deform the ear, breaking the seal and causing distortion. Most distressing, during our testing, the unit stopped working twice and then started working again. We never discovered the cause.
The largest drawback is the sound quality. I sometimes found it hard to hear my wife through the earpiece microphone. Some days it was worse than others and we never determined the cause, although we suspect it had something to do with the ear-to-earpiece seal. Also, other Panther users have reported complaints by ATC, which prompted them to quickly return their units for an upgrade offered by Panther.
Nonetheless, despite the occasional problems, my wife loved the unit and swore shed found her new best friend in a headset. She said it was weird hearing in only one ear after years of hearing in both, but comfort won the day. She even found that she could sleep in the airplane with the Panther in her ears and she had never been able to do this with any other headset.
AuriComm and UltraFlite
Soon after we had completed testing the Panther, we received two demo units from Quiet Technologies, the AuriComm and UltraFlite. Because these are also in-the-ear configurations, we figured that the Quiet devices would make for a good comparison. They did.
The AuriComm and UltraFlite are similar, in that both units are lightweight in-the-ear headset devices. The UltraFlite weighs 1.5 ounces and the AuriComm is an astonishing 0.4 ounces in weight. Both products form the seal with your ear using small, malleable-foam earplug cushions surrounding a small sound channel, a design that promises 25 to 35 dB noise reduction. Each product comes with a package containing various sizes of ear cushions for various sized ears.
The primary difference between the products is that the UltraFlite has a small headband, whereas the AuriComm doesnt. Both products include two earpieces, plus a microphone on a boom extending from an earclip on one of the earpieces.
Before Teresa had even seen these products, she liked the concept. Both products come in cute little purses, as my wife described them. (Theyre black, so dont worry, guys; theyre plenty butch.) Admittedly, with either of these products, you wont notice them in your flight bag; the cases are small and dont get in the way.
The Quiet devices simply slip into your ear; no ear molds or ear lotion, unless you want them. (Custom ear molds are available as an option.) You simply compress the malleable foam-specifically, patented Comply foam ear inserts-and place the earpieces into your ear, exactly like foam earplugs. The foam then slowly expands and seals each earpiece to your ear.
The boom mic extends from one of the earpieces from a small, comfortable earclip. Theres a small controller box, but its smaller than the Panther box and lighter. The box has a single function feature-a volume control with stereo option. Theres also a mono/stereo switch.
If you want the custom ear molds, Quiet does notrecommend the squirt-your-own-ear approach. Instead, the company says that you should visit your local audiologist for the ear molding. Quiet notes both advantages and disadvantages with the custom ear molds. An advantage is that the boom mic has a more stable platform with the custom mold. A potential disadvantage -other than the fact that you have to use the ear lube- is that the ear molds frequently have a worse low-frequency sound attenuation. For this reason, Quiet recommends the standard cushion earpieces for most customers.
Another advantage is that the Quiet devices may be used by more than one person. Also, if youre worried about dirty earpieces, dont be. Quiet provides a number of the foam pieces and you can order more when the old ones become soiled.
As with the Panther, we tested the Quiet devices for about 30 to 40 hours. Teresa strongly preferred the AuriComm unit over the UltraFlite, because she dislikes anything resembling a headset. No vice-grip on the head for her. And the AuriComm fit the bill perfectly.
She found that the Quiet devices are also, surprise, quieter-even quieter than the Panther to her ears. Although Panther advertises a higher sound reduction-46 dB for the Panther compared to 23 to 35 dB for the Quiet units-she much favored the Quiet devices. She found the sound was more natural, especially as she could hear out of both ears and speak normally into a mic.
This is one of the primary distinctions of the Quiet devices over the Panther – the Quiet devices are binaural and can be stereo. Panther cant offer this because the product only has sound in one of the two earpieces. In fact, Quiet advertises the stereo sound quality of its headsets and recommends connecting them to music sources. All the technical details mattered not a wit, though, because once Teresa put the foam earpieces into her ears, she was immediately sold.
In comparison to the Panther, AuriComm weighed less and the sound damping seemed better. But the added comfort won the day. Plus, there were none of the technical issues associated with the Panther; no occasional failures, no feedback, no issue with a mute button, no ear lube to fool with.
Flying as well as eating and sleeping are no hassle with the Quiet units and theyre no problem with sunglasses-theres no effect on the device at all, unlike with the Panther, which tends to lose its seal. As for a comparison to standard headsets, Teresa found that the positioning of the mic is not as convenient in that it doesnt have a full range of motion. Also, adjustments to the mic are a little tricky, in that an adjustment can cause the earpiece to pop out. With practice, its possible to overcome this inconvenience. In our view, the Quiet devices have excellent mics, even better than the David Clark and Peltor headsets that we now leave home.
Surprisingly, both of the Quiet devices are relatively inexpensive-especially compared to the $495 Panther unit-at only $325. When we checked pricing on Quiets Website at press time, Quiet was also offering an optional stereo configuration for $39.95, included as a bonus upgrade. Custom ear molds were available for $15, discounted from $60. Best of all, Quiet has a 30-day money-back guarantee, something which Panther doesnt offer.
In contrast to the ANR over-the-head headsets, none of these in-the-ear devices require batteries-a significant advantage. As a dedicated devotee of ANR headsets, I find it nice to know I dont need to cart around another set of batteries. Also, youre not limited by your ANR circuitry. I originally had a Telex ANR, but when the circuitry went haywire, I borrowed a Bose X during the repair and then later bought it. Forget that with these units. The in-the-ear devices are bargains in comparison to the ANR crowd-only $500 for the Panther and $325 for the Quiet units, compared to $1000 for my Bose and $700 for my Telex. True, some ANRs are now below the $500 mark, but in our view, they cant match the comfort of the in-the-ear models.
In the end, we prefer either of the Quiet units over the Panther, for the above stated reasons. And at $325, its a deal. Too bad, in a way. Now I have to buy one of Quiets AuriComms for my wife.
Also With This Article
Click here to view “First Look: LightSPEED Thirty 3G.”
Click here to view “Checklist.”
Contact – Panther Electronics: 4540 Lake Gentry Road, Building 100, Saint Cloud, FL 34772, 877-957-1600, 407-957-1600, www.pantherelectronics.com; Quiet Technologies, Inc: 122 Timbercrest Drive, Ridgeland, MS 39157, 866-784-3883, www.quiettechnologies.com.
Lionel Lavenue is an Aviation Consumer contributor and owner of a Cessna 206.