Parents of young kids are legendary for being overly protective, but when it comes to flying with children, protecting delicate ears from the ravages of propeller noise is near the top of the list.
The explosion of headset choices in the past few years has resulted in a wide array of headsets tailored to the youth market. Some are new designs tailored specifically for a small head while others are essentially a regular headset with a smaller headband.
All can be converted, nominally at least, to a regular adult model by swapping the metal headband and sometimes replacing the ear pads with larger versions. Some manufacturers include the hardware to enlarge the headset while others make you buy it separately.
We assembled a variety of youth and adult headsets and had nearly 40 kids pick their favorite. We also sampled a handful of adults with smallish heads, just to see if the junior-sized units tickled an unexpected fancy.
The tests on kids mimic those of adults picking headsets. The results remind us of the answer youre most likely to get any time you ask a lawyer something: It depends.
In presenting the headsets to the kids, several things quickly became clear. Noise reduction rating, microphone fidelity and speaker quality are essentially meaningless to the ramp rats. Quality of construction may be important to you, but its a feature thats lost on those who dont pay the bills.
For smaller kids, visual appeal and weight appeared to be the primary criteria by which they selected their favorites. Older kids were more tuned into comfort. By age 10 or so, adult headsets overtook kids headsets in popularity among our test subjects.
The contenders included the stalwart AvComm AC-250, the David Clark H10-13Y, the Pilot Cadet, the Sigtronics S-45 and the SoftCom Prince. Just to make things interesting, we also supplied three adult models, the Lightspeed QFR Solo, the Lightspeed 25XL and the Telex 4105, the latter two of which are active noise reduction headsets.
A new model from Peltor, the Junior Aviator, was unveiled at Oshkosh but a copy was not available to include in our tests. Our brief examination at AirVenture showed the Junior Aviator to be an extremely lightweight headset, but it left us unimpressed with the construction quality.
However, we hesitate to draw any conclusions based on a perfunctory look at an early production – or possibly even pre-production – version.
The Aviation Communications AC-250 has been around for a few years and is among the low-price champs in the kids headset market. At more than 14 ounce, its also the heaviest kids unit we tested.
The AC-250 comes with the hardware required to convert the kids model into an adult model, with a set of larger ear pads and a bigger headband. However, we found the kid-sized ear pads were too small for any of our test subjects, so all of the tests were done with the adult ear pads and the small headband.
The adult ear pads got high marks, but the wimpy pad on the headband did not. The microphone hinged wire boom has three elbows instead of the usual two, making for a broad range of adjustments. In addition, the volume knob was a low-profile affair that we found resisted tangling in even the longest hair.
The H10-13Y is the youth version of the popular H10-13.4 and in fact converts to a 13.4 by swapping the metal headband, which costs extra.
The lineage of David Clarks youth headset is both a blessing and a curse. The companys customer service is legendary, as is the durability of its products. Given the ability of kids to subject equipment to tortures most manufacturers cant foresee, this is an important plus.
However, this performance comes with a price tag. The H10-13Y is easily the most expensive of the group, yet its extremely large headband pad makes it fit more snugly than any of the other units and limits its adjustability. Like all David Clarks, it reeks of quality. However, its appeal was limited in our tests because the oversized headband cushion wouldnt allow the headset to fit older kids, yet the color was not attractive to younger kids. Those in the middle, around 5 to 7 years old, were the most receptive to this model.
The Pilot P-51C Pilot Cadet goes all out in the quest to appeal to kids sense of style. One ear cup is blue, one is red. It has a flexible boom mic that kids seem to appreciate.
However, the Cadet suffers in comparison to the other headsets because the foam ear pads and especially the headband pad are thin enough to be fast food hamburgers. The Cadet is also the only one of the units that did not come with a foam windscreen on the microphone, an admittedly small squawk.
Even though the Cadet requires a wrench to loosen and tighten the nuts that control the adjustment of the headset, plastic liners between the headband and the earcup stirrups make the unit easy to adjust when the nuts are moderately tight. This feature is shared by the David Clark and the Sigtronics, but not present on the AvComm or the SoftCom.
The Cadet is available in a mono/stereo switchable unit, so if stereo sound is important in your setup, this capability may overcome some of the models shortcomings.
The Sigtronics S-45 was popular among 5- to 8-year-olds, who liked the mooshy gel-filled ear pads. Notably, many of these kids also expressed interest in the David Clark, but picked the Sigtronics because the extremely large headband pad made the DC too small.
The Sigtronics has a good range of adjustability and gender-neutral medium blue ear cups. In addition to the gel ear pads, the headband pad is also gel.
The Sigtronics does have a few design flaws, in our view. The microphone boom includes a ball-and-socket joint at the elbow. While this may add to the menu of possible microphone adjustments, the quality of the joint is such that, on our test unit, the chrome started peeling almost immediately. In addition, the joint seemed to be highly efficient at snagging long hair as the unit was put on and off.
Another fly in the ointment came when we tested the headsets for sound quality. Our subjective assessment put the Sigtronics far behind the pack.
The speakers in the other units were roughly comparable with each other, but the Sigtronics was tinny and hollow. If your mission includes connecting the headset to an intercom with a music input, this may not be the proper unit.
The Sigtronics youth headband can be fitted to any of its models, not just the S-45. We opted to test this model because it was recommended by the manufacturer as a youth model and it is priced competitively with the other models.
The SoftCom C-45-10 Prince was the lightest headset in the group and was the choice of the youngest children tested. They ranged from 18 months to 7, although the 7-year-old who picked it has a rather small head.
One difference between this unit and the others is the use of plastic in the headband components. Although the main piece across the top of the head is metal, the stirrups that hold the ear cups to the headband are plastic. The plastic stirrups do not pivot as the metal ones do.
Another difference is that the nuts that tighten the headband adjustment are finger nuts, rather than conventional nuts that require a wrench. We found them easy to tighten to the point where the headset didnt change size and easy to loosen to adjust – something we cant say about the other models.
This headset also folds into a much more compact size than the other headsets and features gold-plated plugs. It is also the least expensive model tested.
Testing the Headsets
Although frequency-response curves and other technical specs are part of the equation when evaluating headsets, kids models face unique challenges – the first of which is getting a child to wear the thing.
For that reason, we focused on finding the headsets preferred by kids. We figure any headset is better than no headset, and in fact the noise reduction ratings and other performance parameters arent that different among the models.
We laid out eight different headsets, five youth models and three adult headsets that can be adjusted enough to fit even very small heads. We let the kids play with them for a while (think Britney Spears) and then asked them to pick their favorites.
Kids under 6 tended to snatch a headset, usually a red one, and not give it up. Summoning all of the collective parenting skills present, we induced them to try all the headsets on. Invariably, they gravitated back to their original choice.
Interestingly, color and weight appeared to be the driving forces behind the favorites in kids younger than 9, with the SoftCom and the Sigtronics headset the clear favorites. We then put the headsets away for a while. When we got them back out, the choices sometimes changed, but the SoftCom and the Sigtronics remained the overall favorites.
We noted several 7- and 8-year-olds gave more than passing glances to the adult headsets, even though most of them opted in the end for a kids model.We then enlisted the help of a fifth-grade class at a local elementary school. For those who havent been inside an elementary school in a while, fifth grade is a watershed year.
Some of the kids have started the pre-pubescent growth spurt, while others seem like little kids hauling around a teenagers brain. We decided it was a perfect environment to help draw the line in the sand on whether a kids headset or adult headset would be more appropriate.
Of the 24 fifth-graders tested, the adult headsets were the clear winners. The Lightspeed 25XL got 15 votes and the Telex got two, leaving only seven kids in the class who would pick a kid-sized headset on their own -a finding that should have some bearing on your headset decision, in our estimation.
Youth headsets, it appears, begin to lose their appeal among kid who are 8 to 10 years, depending on the size of the kids head-and his or her fashion sense.
In smaller kids, color was a big selling point. Every kid under 10 except one picked a youths headset – and that one, my 7-year-old son, is a cross-country veteran who has a rather big head and has been around headsets for years. He showed good taste and selected his dads Lightspeed 25XLs.
Most of the kids responded to questions about their choices based on the color of the headset. When picking between the two red headsets, smaller kids always picked the lighter one.
Remember that the weight of a headset is substantial to a kid who is battling an oversized head (by adult standards) in the first place. Every ounce you can shave off the headset increases the childs tolerance for wearing it, up to about age 6, it would appear.
The enthusiastic reception given to the SoftCom headset, combined with its low price, makes it the value winner in our book. Although the Sigtronics was also a popular model, we were so put off by the poor sound quality we hesitate to recommend it. Perhaps a different Sigtronics model fitted with the youth headband would be a better choice.
If price is no object, the David Clark – easily the most expensive of the youth models tested – represented a solid contender. Although only two kids picked it as their first choice, it was number two on the list for many. We suspect David Clark green just isnt hip enough to keep the kids attention.
Based on our tests, we can only conclude that, if the idea is to get the kids to wear a headset, performance has to take a backseat to personal preference.
No big surprise there, but the forces that drive those preferences are different in children than adults, something youll need to keep in mind when you shop.
-by Ken Ibold
Ken Ibold is editor of Aviation Safety magazine and has been trying for years to convince his kids to keep their headsets on.