Ever since the days when ADF replaced LF as the navigation mode of choice, music has been an option in the GA cockpit, albeit a limited one. AM radio is noisy and despite its lofty price, the audio section in a typical ADF doesnt hold a candle to a car radio costing a quarter as much.
The introduction of the CD player has changed that, as has the stereo-capable audio panel. With the availability of high-fidelity music in the cockpit, audio panel engineers quickly took note and introduced music canceling, which mutes the music when anyone speaks through the intercom or an incoming ATC transmission arrives. With all this capability, owners are taking note and the sale of this gear-audio panels, CD players and radios-is on the rise. This makes the cockpit a more pleasant place to be, especially on a long flight, but its also a boon for passengers. The right upbeat music soothes nervous flyers and calms the terror-inducing cacophony of the typical light aircraft cabin.
But theres little point in having an expensive sound system if your headsets arent up to the task. The old standby David Clarks are great for radio work but perhaps not so good for music.
In recent years, the market has been flooded with high-priced noise-canceling headsets, some of which claim to be stereo capable. Setting aside ANR capability, which headsets are the best strictly for listening to music? (The assumption here is that if theyre good for music, theyre more than adequate for radio communications.)
We decided to test various headsets from different companies to see how they handled music. We came at this as educated listeners, having played stints in bands and being a regular audiophile, with a six speaker/subwoofer, Digital Dolby Entertainment system in the office.
We make no technical claims about measured frequency response and the like. Were just interested in how the headset sounded compared to a high- quality stereo system.
For our trials, we selected only noise canceling headsets because we think theyre the best at blocking out engine noise, even if the companies who make them make no claims about hearing protection. (It stands to reason that they must offer some protection against hearing loss, however.)
Two companies, David Clark and Pilot Communications, declined to participate in the trials and we didnt pick every model from every manufacturer. The models tested included Boses Aviation Headset X, the Telex ANR-1D, Headsets, Inc. EM-1 Aviation headset, DREs 6000, the LightSPEED 20XL and the Sennheiser 300.
All ANR headset tests were conducted in the same airplane while in flight at different altitudes and at different RPMs. The airplane used was our personal Cessna-T210, equipped with a Garmin GMA 340 audio panel and a CD player from Avionics Innovations. The frequency response on the CD player is 5Hz to 20 kHz. That means the CD player can produce lower lows and higher highs than the human ear can possibly hear.
The CD music used varied from hard rock to easy listening. Numerous hours were spent in the air, including cross-country trips. Once again, our conclusions are based on subjective observations of sound quality and comfort.
As noted in previous reviews (see Aviation Consumer March, 1999), the Bose Headset is the companys third generation ANR and at $995, it rightfully occupies the top of the general performance heap. Its comfortable and lightweight, although we had some complaints about its mechanical construction and found the boom microphone somewhat hard to keep in place.
In our previous review, we found its ANR performance to be ahead of the other entrants, but other companies have closed the gap and, indeed, Sennheiser may have surpassed the Bose.
The Telex ANR-1D, a digital design, is our personal headset and had just come back from the Telex factory a week earlier with updated software.
A company representative acknowledged that our headset would be used to represent their product. This headset is unique because it talks to you with command confirmations when you push a button on the control module. The product is nicely made and lists for $775.
Headsets, Inc. is best known for its kits to convert standard headsets into ANR models. Or, it will do the conversion for you, for a price.
It recently introduced its own product into the ANR field, the EM-1. Headsets magazine ad claims a four speaker sound system and the fact that its acoustically balanced to provide stereophonic sound. Suggested list is $445.
The EM-1 is well made, has volume control on both ear cups and is powered by a 9-volt battery in its module. Our only complaint was the ear cups were a little small for someone with big ears. This headset is children friendly, however.
DRE has been in the intercom market for years and recently entered the headset fray with a range of products. We were impressed with the DRE-6000 stereo headset because it offers a number of features, the most important of which is the ability to plug the power module into the airplanes cigarette lighter should the headsets batteries fail in flight.
The power module also offers room for two 9-volt batteries and the system turns itself off automatically if the headset is not in use. In addition, the power module also offers a test button so that the pilot can see the remaining life of the batteries. Similar in construction to the EM-1, the DRE 6000 offers larger ear cups, which we found refreshing. Suggested list is $299, a real bargain.
The LightSPEED 20X is one of the most popular headsets on the market and at $445 retail, we can see why. Its made virtually entirely of plastic and makes generous use of conformal foam for the earcups.
The 20X finished at the top of the value curve in the review of ANR headsets we published in the September, 1997 issue. Users report that its comfortable and durable. We found this headset to be children friendly.
The Sennheiser 300 is a German import that we havent previously tested among the general run of the ANR field. At a suggested list of $599, its priced halfway between the Bose and the LightSPEED. But we found its ANR performance equal to or better than the Bose.
The battery module takes 4 AA batteries and we found the headset to be nicely made. The earcups were comfortable and fit well, shutting out ambient noise.
How They Compared
We found all of the headsets to be excellent in voice communications with both ATC and fellow passengers and all were mechanically well made, even the lighter plastic construction of the LightSPEED, which has finished well up on the value heap in previous headset tests.
What we found interesting was the noise canceling ability among the various headsets was very similar if not the same, at least initially. Yet over the course of a long flight-more than a half hour-subtle differences become more obvious. Although Bose has held onto the lead in ANR performance in the past, the others are clearly catching up.
The accompanying chart (see end of story) summarizes the results among this group of headsets. As noted in the chart legend, we assigned a subjective value to each of four criteria, including bass response, middle range response, overall noise cancellation and comfort.
Five is the best, 1 is the worst. Cost is similarly graded, but the impact on your wallet defines this consideration. Five is the best or least expensive, and 1 is the worst or most expensive.
Overall Sound Quality
In order to judge for overall sound quality, we used different types of music ranging from The Beach Boys to Enya. When evaluating music we listened for stereo separation, highs and lows and distortion. In stereo separation we wanted separate instruments to come out of specific earcups depending, of course, on how the sound engineer mixed the music when it was first recorded.
Now that DVD players are starting to make their way into the backseats of GA airplanes, its important to have good separation so that movies will be heard just as they would in a movie theatre. To judge distortion, we listened for the purity of individual instruments while an orchestra or band played and noted how this was maintained through various frequency ranges.
For rock music, we listened particularly for the bass player and the highs of the guitar. From our past music experiences, theres nothing more exciting than hearing a Fender Jazz Bass or a Fender Jazzmaster being played through a pre-CBS Fender tube amplifier.
Without question, the best overall high-fidelity sound came from the Bose X headset, which should come as no surprise, given Boses reputation as a leader in stereophonic sound of all kinds.
Surprisingly, however, headsets costing far less gave the Bose a run for its considerable money. The DRE-6000 and Headsets, Inc.s EM-1 performed almost as well, delivering excellent subjective stereo separation, little or no distortion, terrific high and low frequency response and excellent mid-ranges, something you dont expect from mid-cost sound equipment.
The only reason the Bose beat out the other two was because it had a noticeably better bass response and slightly brighter highs, the extreme edges of the sound envelope. If youre an aficionado of pre-CBS Fender equipment, this is the headset for you. But even if youre not an educated listener, youd notice the difference if you listened to the same passage of music from the same audio source.
The LightSPEED 20X and the Sennheiser 300 offered good sound in our view, but the mid-range didnt excel, as it did in the top three performers. Again, the casual listener might very well notice this and therein lies the value of buying the right headset to match the quality of the CD source playing the music.
Our own Telex ANR 1-D-which we like as a good general headset-came out in last place. Its an excellent aviation headset but when it came to music, it took a backseat to the other entries in perceived sound quality.
Curiously, we noticed that altitude has a noticeable effect on stereo headset performance. Above 18,000 feet in the unpressurized 210, we noticed that frequency response in the Bose fell off; the highs and lows sounded muted, while the EM-1 and DRE-6000 maintained excellent fidelity.
We called Bose after our tests and spoke with one of their managers. He told us he was surprised with the results of our tests and had no explanation for the performance loss. The Bose X utilizes a so-called Tri-Port design, where the circuitry balances the air pressure between the inside and outside of the earcups.
He added the company hadnt assessed high altitude testing and would look into it. We might add that the Bose X manual notes that the headset has been tested to 15,000 feet, as required for a FAA TSO approval. The Bose spokesperson concluded that although the headset does well with music, the company had focused primarily on voice communication.
In terms of best noise canceling-with no other factors considered-we thought the Sennheiser 300 stood out. If we were to fly a war bird or other loud airplane and werent interested in music, this would be our top choice. The headset was comfortable, fit snugly and the heavier earcups gripped our ears tighter than the Bose.
If your AME were to tell you that you were losing your hearing and needed an ANR headset, this would be the one to get. We think it just edges out the Bose and given the cost difference, it may be the better value.
The overall value winner in this symphonic showdown is the DRE-6000, in our estimation. Besides offering outstanding high-fidelity sound, its a value price wise, delivering nearly the performance of the Bose for less than one third the price.
Although not quite as light as the Bose X, we like the fact that the DRE headset offers ANR power through the airplanes cigarette lighter, a feature that might be a real lifesaver. The DRE-6000 headset module also offers a battery test switch and room for not one but two 9-volt batteries that the company claims allows 40 to 50 hours of battery time.
A word should be mentioned about the CD player from Avionics Innovation. At $1595, we think this unit is well made and performs as claimed, suffering not a bit from the rigors of being mounted in an airplane, including vibration, cold and altitude. In a future issue, well be reviewing this unit, along with its competition, a CD/intercom combination from PSEngineering. (Contact AI at 760-788-2602.)
In conclusion, were finding that music/radio and DVD players are the future in GA aviation and that headset and airplane manufacturing companies can no longer focus primarily on voice communication. Cockpit entertainment will have to be factored in and these headsets are the cutting edge.
Also With This Article
Click here to view the headset checklist.
Click here to view the headset comparison.
Click here to view “Kudos for Clark and LightSPEED.”
Click here to view the headset addresses & contacts.
-by William Scherer
William Scherer is a freelance aviation writer, a graduate of the National Test Pilot School and owns a C-T210. He lives in Aptos, California.