When last we checked with Pilot Avionics, they had introduced a nifty, affordable and lightweight ANR headset, the PA 17-76 Freedom. We thought the combination of price, performance, comfort and built-in rechargeable battery such a great idea that we named it the best new ANR headset in our Gear of the Year review.
Apparently not content to rest on their laurels, Pilot seems to be aiming for some sort of record for new ANR headset introductions. Since that review in the May issue of Aviation Consumer, Pilot has introduced the PA 17-79 Independence, which builds on the basic concept of the Freedom, but claims better noise reduction and other improvements.
Theyve also rolled out the PA 50-50 Concorde, a new ultra-lightweight ANR headset. We compared the new headsets to Pilots original Freedom, LightSPEEDs 20K and the longtime performance leader, Bose.
This headset is based on Pilots original de-clutter-the-cockpit Freedom ANR headset and uses many of the same components. For example, the headband, suspension system, outer portion of the earcups, earseals and audio cord are identical.
Externally, the obvious differences, aside from the matte black versus burgundy earcups, is the new microphone boom and the increased depth of the earcups. These two features provide most of the increased performance over the original design by way of improved passive noise attenuation.
According to Pilot, the Independence was originally designed for the military and helicopter operators who demanded greater noise attenuation. The new headset has been updated with a redesigned electronics package that Pilot says has closer tolerance mil-spec components. These tighter tolerances are also claimed to result in some additional active noise attenuation. The net result is a claimed improvement of 3 to 5 dB over the original, a significant improvement when you recall that the dB scale is logarithmic.
The electronics are powered by a rechargeable nickel metal hydride (NiMH) battery that is claimed to give more than 400 percent greater battery life, approximately 45 to 50 hours on a full charge. As before, the battery is installed inside the earcup and a pushbutton on/off switch is located on the top of the cup.
Its a sealed switch protected by a black rubber bootie that we initially found difficult to get to and operate. But putting some slack in a crossover wire, which was binding against the cup, improved this. Like the Freedom, a small green LED on the side if the cup illuminates when the ANR is switched on. Its bright enough to see if you look at it, but not so bright as to be a problem at night.
A welcome change from the Freedom is that when battery power drops to 7.5 volts, the LED ceases to illuminate, even though the electronic ANR will likely continue working for up to an hour longer, offering at least a minimal sense of how much battery life remains.
The new microphone boom design allows the mic to be worn on either ear, or removed entirely for field repairs. This is a major ergonomic improvement, in our view. One of the things that bugs us most about many ANR designs is the inability to choose which side to have the mic on. Besides pivoting the boom form side to side, the Independence can be easily moved from one earcup to the other, the only headset that offers this kind of flexibility. Its a nice touch.
The new boom is attached under the earcup pivot suspension point, which closes off a large penetration point into the cup, improving ANR performance, according to Pilot. If the headset is to be worn sans microphone, a small plastic plug, attached to the headset crossover wire, must be inserted or the ANR performance will be compromised.
Overall, this boom and mic design worked well and was easy to position to all the testers satisfaction. The boom swings out of the way and back without disturbing the basic geometry youve set, a nice feature.
The single audio cable is attached to the headset via a quick-connect fitting at the bottom of one of the cups. A single cable with a coiled portion extends from the headset, 62 inches long when fully extended, to the split. The individual left/right rotary volume controls are incorporated into the small stereo/mono switch where the audio cable splits for the two jacks, with a nice clothing clip provided for the audio cable.
The deeper earcups have more enclosed volume and provide a major portion of the improvement in noise reduction. This was significant enough to be readily noticeable with the ANR switched off. They were quieter and while they wont match the best passive headsets, they were at least equal to most of the better ANR headsets in passive mode.
The combined half inch of added depth also increases the clamping forces slightly, although not so much as to be uncomfortable. In spite of this, we did notice that for some testers, this headset was more susceptible to breaking the seal with head movement than with the original Freedom, with a resulting increase in audible noise.
As before, the headband is an integrated plastic unit that isnt adjustable for clamping force, thus it will be more comfortable for some than for others. And since ANR performance is noticeably affected by how well the headset seals, performance can vary. It simply works better on large heads than smaller ones.
Fitted to the top of the headband is a somewhat smallish Oregon Aero sheepskin Soft Top head pad attached with a Velcro loop. The earseals are matte finish plastic-encased foam approximately 5/8-inch wide glued to the face of the cup. These seals are comfortable for most who tried them, but compress quite a bit. Pilot told us it planned to introduce an upgraded silicone-gel filled seal at Oshkosh which will reportedly further improve low frequency noise reduction.
The added bulk of the earcups and other changes in the Independence results in a two-ounce increase in weight over the original Freedom. At 14.8 ounces, according to Pilot, 17 ounces on our scale, this headset is still very light. The difference in weight is barely noticeable.
This unit uses a compact battery charger that plugs directly into a wall receptacle and is inserted into a jack in the earcup, same as the Freedom. As with the mic cord connection, a plastic plug must be inserted into the recharging jack when the headset is in use and the recharging jack isnt in place. The two jacks, one on each earcup, can serve as either the power jack or the mic jack, depending upon how you have the mic boom fitted.
Another noteworthy improvement over the original is that the ANR will function if the optional ($29.95 ) DC-to-DC charger is being used to charge the headset from a cigarette lighter socket. This solves one of the most significant drawbacks of the Freedom; the inability to use the ANR if you run the battery down en route or neglect to charge it.
As we noted previously, the rechargeable battery concept has its plusses and minuses. Pilot claims the battery is good for 1000 charges or 5000 hours use. A clear advantage of a rechargeable is that it will save money compared to a headset with an appetite for alkalines, especially expensive nine-volts. On the other hand, you have to remember to recharge it.
The brief manual that comes with the headset says it takes 10 to 12 hours to fully charge a depleted battery (2 to 4 hours longer than the Freedoms). Pilot says the NiMH battery can be topped up any time without harm to the battery, unlike some NiCads which develop memory and reduced battery life if charged when not fully run down.
On the other hand, they also say its a good idea to discharge the battery completely every 50 hours of use. When we spoke with Pilot about this apparent dichotomy, they explained that this is not the traditional memory effect, rather, after a period of time the amperage output of the battery is slightly reduced and the discharge-recharge cycle prevents this from occurring. They also said it isnt strictly necessary, just recommended by the battery manufacturer.
Seems the best idea is to stick it on the charger immediately when you return from a flight. The built-in battery means you have no alternative if the battery runs down or you forget to charge it up after the previous flight, so a wise investment would be the DC-to -DC charger to run the headset off ships power.
Within our test group, opinions varied on the Independence. Some loved it, others werent quite so enthused. The difference in ANR performance between the original Freedom and the Independence was noticeable, but not so great as to wow us. On the other hand, the added features make it a more practical and overall better headset and well worth the extra couple of ounces.
Sound quality is very good, equal to the Freedom and among the best weve tried. ANR performance placed the Independence up with the better units, at least equal to, perhaps slightly better than the LightSPEED 20K. Compared to the Bose Series II, though, theres still some distance to go.
Then again, the Independences price-$459 discounted-is less than half that of the Bose. The difference in street prices between the original and this upgraded version is only about $70, so the added features and slightly improved performance dont cost a bundle. If any are important to you, then its well worth the difference. Pilot provides a generous five-year warranty.
The Concorde is not for everyone, anymore than its namesake supersonic airliner is transport for the masses. Also, unlike its namesake, it doesnt take a small fortune to enjoy it. Pilot set out to produce the worlds lightest practical ANR headset for use in lower noise environments, such as high-performance twins and turboprops and they seem to have succeeded.
The headset is the result of a technology partnership with Holmberg GmbH & Co. KG of Germany. The Concorde utilizes the lightweight German 84 Series passive headset design and incorporates Pilots ANR electronics. The result weighs only 9.2 ounces on our scale, incredibly light by any standard. As you might expect, the passive noise reduction is abysmal, given the light weight. Pilot tells us that the Concorde is currently standard equipment on all Airbus jets, not exactly a high-noise environment compared to a an old Mooney. So the electronics better work or youre likely to be a deaf camper.
Unlike the Independence, this unit has a separate battery box. Even so, Pilot has done a good job minimizing the clutter. Only a single, very light, 60-inch cord runs from the headset to a small splitter/control unit, the same one used on the Independence, with dual volume controls and the mono/stereo switch. From the splitter, a pair of audio cables and a coiled power cable emerge to be inserted into a jack in the battery box.
Pilot calls the battery pack matchbox size. Well, not quite. Its 2 3/8 x 2 1/4 x 1 inch; more like cigarette-pack size. It has a sealed pushbutton switch and a small red power-on LED. Heres a good idea: The power cant be turned on and the battery drained if the power cord isnt plugged in. On the other hand, theres no means to attach the battery box to anything so a Velcro patch or two might prove handy.
Inside the battery box is a rechargeable 9.6-volt NiMH battery providing about 10 to 12 hours of use. The box can be opened by removing two small Phillips head screws and the NiMH battery replaced with a standard 9-volt alkaline, giving 20 to 30 hours of operation.
Ratcheting up the expense, you can also substitute a lithium battery, which lasts about 100 hours, but costs $30. Best value: The rechargeable with an alkaline or second rechargeable as a back-up.
The headset itself is a mixed blessing. Its light and well made and that counts for a lot. Impressions of comfort ran the gamut among our testers, some loving it, others not liking it much at all. Despite the light weight, the lightly padded metal headband came in for some criticism. Some felt it uncomfortable at the top of the head. The size of the earcups also bothered one tester with larger than average ears. This same individual had a similar problem with the LightSPEED.
The headset has a metal headband covered in a soft black leatherette material with approximately -inch of light foam installed on the underside of the headband. Clamping pressure is adjustable by the traditional expedient of bending the band.
The earcup slides up and down guides with tension on the wires keeping the cup in position. Overall, the cups dont have much adjustability and this hurts comfort a bit. Aside from the size problem for one tester, most found the foam earseals reasonably comfortable.
Given the sophisticated mic booms used on most ANRs, the Concordes seemed nothing short of an anachronism. On the positive side, it can be rotated from one side to the other, so it can be worn either on the left or right. On the other hand, the single cord is attached to the opposite earcup, which is hardly conventional and for the majority of pilots, results in an awkward configuration with one or the other, cord or mic, on the wrong side. Not exactly ideal.
The boom rotates at the pivot point on the earcup and is attached with a ball joint, providing a reasonable range of motion. However, the boom itself is rigid and of fixed length so theres no way to adjust where the mic and your mouth meet. Dont like the mic at the corner of your mouth? Tough luck. Exchange your noggin for a smaller one. The cynics among our testers thought this a characteristic of German influence; you vill like it the vay ve built it!
Not having a turboprop or jet handy in which to test the headset, we were somewhat handicapped in evaluating the ANR performance. With limited passive noise reduction, the Concorde didnt fair well in comparison to our other ANR test samples.
However, it didnt miss the mark by much, so youd expect it to work quite acceptably in a relatively lower noise environment. Combine that with the ultra-light weight and you might have the perfect ANR headset, if it fits and details like the less-than-stellar-mic boom and odd cord location offend.
The Concordes discount price is the same as the Independence, $459. It comes with Pilots standard five-year warranty. If it works for you, with all the caveats enumerated above, at that price its a pretty fair value, in our estimation.
Both headsets come with the molded foam headset case Pilot is now shipping. We dont like it any better this time around than we did the first time we saw it. It still looks cheap but does stand up to reasonable abuse for the short time we had the headsets. The clamshell design, with a one way zipper, is a pain to use inside a crowded cockpit.
The Independence carries the good points of the Freedom up to the next level with minimal increase in cost and weight. Not a bad tradeoff. It solves many, if not all of the Freedoms drawbacks. The battery-on-the-cup design seems like a winner to us and Pilot fixed the minor complaints we had with the Freedom.
The Concorde is so-so, at least for noisy piston cockpits. This headset, more than most, prompts us again to offer this caveat: Try before you buy in the aircraft in which youll be using the headset.
With ANR headsets, this is especially important. Its best to get a few hours, at least, between the earcups before making a decision. If you cant get a loaner or borrow a friends, make sure you buy from a source who gives you at least a 30-day, no-questions-asked, full money-back guarantee.
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by Douglas S. Ritter
Douglas S. Ritter is an Aviation Consumer contributing editor. He maintains a Web site on survival-related topics at www.equipped.org.