by Coy Jacob
When we embarked upon our current round of headset testing, we were stunned by one undeniable reality: there are too many to choose from. Making sense of the market from a price, performance and quality standpoint could morph into a full-time job.
You dont have time for that and neither do we so weve sorted headsets into three broad categories defined by price and active noise reduction (ANR) versus passive-only models. In this article, well examine the upper tier of the market, reporting on high-performance ANR headsets costing $500 or more.
High-performance is somewhat of a misnomer, however. Our continuing research has revealed that even inexpensive ANR headsets-we reviewed those in the February 2004 issue-perform nearly as well as those costing twice as much. In fact, increasingly, as ANR technology improves, our test panels find it more difficult to discern much difference in ANR performance. Although Bose once and still sets the standard, perceived performance and comfort gaps between the most and least expensive ANRs arent as wide as they were five years ago.
What We Want
As noted in our previous article, our criteria for an ANR headset are comfort, mechanical robustness, convenience of power supply, weight and ANR performance. Comfort is subjective, of course, and is largely determined by clamping pressure.
All of the manufacturers seem to have taken comfort and clamping pressure to heart, although Bose, LightSPEED and Telex have done the best in this regard, in our estimation.
Youd think that durability would be a given, but it is not. ANR requires delicate, sophisticated electronics that must survive the rigors of wide temperature swings in a parked aircraft, vibration and being dropped. Here, at the expense of comfort, David Clark excels. We hear complaints about LightSPEED and occasionally Bose headsets breaking but beefs about David Clark products are rare.
In our view, battery boxes and interfaces should be well-designed, robust and easy to use, without being placed along the audio cord at a point where theyre a nuisance or difficult to get at. Auto power turnoff and some kind of battery condition or power status indicator is a must, too, so you can tell when the headset is turned on. Last, a cellphone interface is a terrific, useful feature that every premium headset ought to have but only about half do.
How We Tested
Even though we triaged by price, we still found nine headset models in the $500 to $1000 range, as described in the chart on page 20. We borrowed these from the manufacturers or from suppliers and, with the exception of David Clark, all of the manufacturers were cooperative and helpful in our review.
As ANR has progressed, the favored technical evaluation of the technology has tilted toward definitive laboratory testing, which we may undertake at a future date. But what were really interested in is how these headsets perform where it matters most, in the cockpit. Lab tests simply cant determine if the earcups will pinch your ears or if the power module is difficult to operate.
We assembled a panel of four experienced pilot/passengers and flew with all of the headsets in a noisy Mooney cockpit made even noisier by a defective door seal. We passed the units around inside the airplane and recorded our observations on a spreadsheet for later analysis. In addition, the headsets were also flown individually by other pilots and their comments were sought out. Because David Clark refused to cooperate with our evaluation, we offer thanks to Jerry Carbone at Tropic Aero (www.tropicaero.com) for providing a David Clark H10-13XL.
Improved Bose X
Bose shocked the aviation world with the first $1000 ANR headset more than a decade ago and its never looked back. Bose prides itself as being an innovative audio industry leader that boasts of spending freely on research and development. Frankly, it shows.
Boses original Series I ANR set the bar high for ANR performance and other manufacturers have been playing catch-up every since. The improved Aviation Headset X is the fourth generation ANR for Bose and is a compact, 12-ounce design with something Bose calls TriPort technology. These are calibrated orifices which vent to the ambient cabin and supposedly improve the ANR performance.
The frame itself is of superbly machined magnesium and the earseals are just thick enough to be comfortable, without causing the ears to sweat or creating any discomfort. Two of our testers would have preferred slightly thicker earseals. Clamping pressure is featherlight. In our view, it was one of the most if not the most comfortable of all the headsets due, in part, to its wispy 12-ounce weight.
The new improved battery pack, one of the best designs weve seen, uses two AA batteries that are supposed to last up to 40 hours and will switch off automatically should you leave it on after use. The module has individual left/right volume controls along with dimmable tri-color LED indicators showing on/off/low battery.
We found that the Bose has excellent perceived ANR performance and exemplary fidelity and audio clarity. If your radios or intercom are marginal, the Bose will get the most out of them.
Beefs? It has little if any passive noise attenuation and no cellphone interface. The solution is to keep it powered up and keep fresh batteries on hand or buy one of Boses panel powered units.
Unfortunately, even at $995, the Bose doesnt have a dual-power option; you either buy one with battery power or one capable of ships power. One minor issue: a reader reported he experienced feedback or oscillation noise in a Bose headset at altitudes abov e 15,000 feet. Well examine that in a future issue. Overall, our team loved the Bose X and we think its still is the one to beat is every regard except passive noise reduction.
Telex Stratus 50D
While Telex has two less expensive ANR models, at a street price of $695 , the 18.5-ounce Stratus 50D is the companys top of the line. At that price, we expected excellent performance and we got it.
Interestingly, the headset is reversible, allowing the boom to be used on the left or right, something unique among high performance ANRs. We especially like the fact it has dual power capability but we didnt care for its bulky four AA in-line battery pack that requires a separate plug in for ships power.
We found the Stratus to be comfortable long-term, especially when wearing sunglasses, thanks to its oversized, soft foam ear cushions. It has automatic turn-off, low power/on/off LED indications, but the instructions were somewhat lacking as to how to lock in the ships lighter power cord adapter.
While the Stratus doesnt have a cell interface, we were impressed with its dual-power capability and we give the headset a superior rating overall. We would consider it on par with the LightSPEED Thirty 3G and even the Bose. In short, it was a stand-out surprise.
LightSPEED has established itself as a market leader in ANR with a line of continually evolving mid-priced headsets noted for exceptional comfort. At a $599 retail ($650 panel powered), the 15ounce LightSPEED Thirty 3G is a good-make that a great deal, overall-offering some 28 to 30 dB active and 12 to 22 dB passive noise protection.
LightSPEED claims only 20 to 30 hours battery life and, in our opinion, it does nearly everything right and even has a cell/music interface. Its significantly better than David Clark clone designs in comfort and has a better-than-average overall ergonomic design, in our estimation.
The headset is largely built of plastic parts and the earseals are large, thick and also among the least likely to cause ear sweating, in our experience. Our panel found that its ANR performance was first rate; some will find it as good as the Bose, some not quite as good.
We would like to see a better carrying case-the one provided has no padding-with a pouch for spare batteries. Dual power capability in a headset of this price is a must-have. A cell/music interface is planned for all LightSPEED models shipped after April, 2004.
Overall, we think the LightSPEED is worth the price but we have one complaint. Readers continue to report failures in these headsets, ranging from minor mechanical issues to ANR anomalies. We have an older LightSPEED thats on its way back to the factory for its third repair.
We were impressed with the overall look of this headset, which has contoured left/right earseals and a padded carrying case complete with pockets for spare 9-volt batteries. (It requires only one.) At 13.4 ounces, this $559 headset is among the lightest reviewed and its overall construction appears adequate, if not exceptional.
But its ANR performance was average, at best, according to our panel. Flightcom advertises 20 dB of ANR with about the same passive protection, but when switched off, we found little perceived passive attenuation. Not a showstopper but keep fresh batteries on hand.
Unfortunately, as with the Bose, its only available in either panel power or in-line battery pack power, not both. Thanks to the single 9-volt battery, the pack is small but not as ergomically pleasing as the Bose.
While comfort was noticeably better than the typical passive headset, to a man, our panel complained about its lack of passive noise protection when the ANR was turned off. Interestingly, our panel liked Flightcoms budget Classic ANR as a good if not better choice at $389.
This headset is a Clark-clone type design with an outstanding padded case, a robust 16.5-ounce metal frame and a reasonable $575 retail price.
We were impressed with its 2.5mm cell jack interface port that allows for a variety of cellphone options. We also felt it gave respectable ANR performance and better than average passive protection. However, its performance and design doesnt make it a standout in this crowd; its merely a competent design. But DRE is a standout in one regard. The company is among the best to deal with. We found them cooperative and helpful at every turn.
Peltor 7500 ProGT
Peltor gained fame for nifty little headsets with egg-shaped earcups and a band that allowed the whole thing to fold up in a little ball. While the ProGT doesnt fold up, at $690 retail, it offers a respectable 20 dB in active noise reduction and weighs a svelte 13.5 ounces. Its powered by a single 9-volt battery.
Despite its rather bulky battery compartment, it was popular with our review panel and it surprised us with its good to excellent ANR performance.
It has gel earseals but a marginally padded headband and significant clamping pressure so our panel deemed it not as comfortable on long trips as the Bose, LightSPEED or Telex.
In our opinion, its passive noise protection wasnt up to the standards of the heavier headsets but that wasnt especially surprising. The GTPro has a nice padded bag and automatic turn-off but no dual power, cell interface or an individual left/right volume control. We think these are features any headset in this price class should have.
Sennheiser is, our view, somewhat of an underrated company. Weve found their products to be excellent in the past but they dont market aggressively in U.S. We tried two Sennheiser units, the HMEC400 ANR and a lightweight model called the HMEC25-KA.
The HMEC400 is a robust, high-quality but light ANR at 13.1 ounces. It comes standard with what we found to be the best padded case of all the products tested. The HMEC400 is dual-powered and at $799 retail, its in upper end of this price group.
Uniquely, the 400 can be purchased with whats called tip power, which means the mic jack tip is hard wired to your aircraft to furnish power to the ANR electronics. We wonder why other manufacturers havent followed this lead in using the typically dormant mic jack for power. It makes sense to us. Theres also a battery pack option that requires four AA batteries.
A surprise hit among our testers was Sennheisers jet/turbine-style lightweight HMEC25-KA, with an ANR rating of 16 dB. While not ideally suited for noisy piston singles, its a great choice for quieter cockpits. Our pilots liked its super light weight of only 5.9 ounces, minimal clamping pressure and lack of bulk. For some users, it may be worth looking into and at retail price of $599, it can also be dual powered if purchased in tip powered format.
Our top pick remains the Bose. But its not as simple as that. While other headsets are sold discounted, the Bose is not so its possible to buy, say a LightSPEED, for a little more than half the price of the Bose. But, in our view, the Bose isnt twice as good.
Although the performance and comfort gaps have narrowed, Bose still retains its standout top rating among all who tried it. If price isnt an issue, we think you cant go wrong with the Headset X from Bose. Readers report good performance from this headset.
That said, the real bell ringer in this group was the Telex Stratus. With your eyes closed, you might not be able to tell it apart from the Bose and its more than $100 cheaper. Kudos to Telex for good R&D on this product. Were not sure we would call it a second choice so much as an alternate choice to the Bose.
At $589, the LightSPEED Thirty 3G has impressive performance and exceptional features . For the money, you cant do any better and we select this as our best value choice. However, we cannot ignore the durability issues we and readers have experienced. We think LightSPEED needs to address this with more attention to point-of-failure analysis.
LightSPEED and all of the manufacturers seem to do well with quick turnaround and customer support, living up to the standard David Clark established back when the earth was cooling.
Worth more than an also-ran mention is the Sennheiser HMEC25-KA, a comfortable, lightweight headset with impressive noise cancellation for being such a little slip of a thing. We think Sennheiser deserves a nod for innovative design in this product.
-Coy Jacob is an Aviation Consumer contributing editor.