Last summers EAA AirVenture at Oshkosh saw the introduction of a number of advanced, third- and fourth-generation ANR headsets.
The Bose Aviation Headset X created quite a stir, being a radical lightweight design purported to perform better than the market-leading Series II.
LightSPEED introduced its 25K, primarily a technological upgrade on the 20K, with expectations that it would equal Bose in performance.
DRE Communications introduced the 6000enr, a conventional-looking David Clark-type design. And last, Peltor rolled out the Model 1750 Stratosphere, returning to the ANR market after a long absence.
In whats fast becoming an annoying habit among avionics companies, both the Bose and LightSPEED proved to be further from production than claimed.
In the end, Bose didnt start filling orders until December and as of this writing, LightSPEED wasnt expecting to do so until January, at the earliest. Credit DRE and Peltor for delivering on their promises.
The bated-breath question of the day: Was the Bose worth the wait? It depends. At $995, the Aviation Headset X is no better a bargain than its predecessor, so unless youve got cash to burn, were not sure the Xs improved performance is worth upgrading from an older Series II. For those upgrading from other headsets, even ANR models, the issue is clearer. If the ergonomics work for you and you want the performance, its worth considering.
Our volunteer testers unanimously agreed that the new Bose did a better job canceling noise than did the Series II we used for comparison. The difference was most noticeable at the lower frequencies, where the Bose X virtually eliminated background rumble. At higher frequencies, the supposed improvement was less noticeable.
Traditionally, ANR design is a compromise that must balance earcup volume, speaker size, clamping force and power requirements. For best ANR performance, the ideal is a small volume in front, on the ear side, with a large volume behind on the earcup side and a tight seal around the ear. These are contradictory requirements. Putting a small volume around the ear reduces passive attenuation, which is part of the overall noise reduction, and a too-tight seal causes discomfort.
Bose has adopted a radical approach to the problem that includes holes in the earcup itself, which they call TriPort technology. This addresses the volume requirements needed for best ANR performance by allowing low frequency sound from the back of the speaker to freely escape the earcup through a specially designed labyrinth, which, in effect, enlarges the earcup at low frequencies.
The labyrinth prevents mid- and high-frequency noise from getting into the earcup, resulting in improved low-frequency response without high power demands and smaller, lighter earcups with lower clamping forces.
If the ANR fails, the passive noise attenuation of the Bose X is worse than any other ANR headset weve tested. Better than nothing, no question, but not very good. Wed be sure to keep a pair of earplugs around for emergency use.
The headset weighs in at a svelte 11.5 ounces on our scale (Bose claims 12 ounces), the lightest ANR headset weve tried. Lighter weight has been achieved by stripping the design to the basics, use of magnesium in the headband and reduced size and weight of electronics.
While clamping pressures are reasonably light, theyre not adjustable. The only padding on the headband is a small 2 x 2 x -inch thick foam pad with small runners extending along each side piece at the top, glued in place. It isnt much and was the source of a number of complaints from testers. Gone are the beautiful and heavy silicone gel earseals, replaced with foam seals.
The headset is handed and the earcups are set at a noticeable angle to the headband, an even greater angle than used by LightSPEED and one that isnt adjustable. It didnt work for everyone. The microphone and cable entry can be relatively easily switched from the left to right earcup; two small screws hold the assembly to the bottom of the earcup.
The boom mic ratchets at the earcup pivot, low on the earcup, and has a flexible boom with a compact microphone at the end. The small size is welcome. With no swing-away pivot anywhere along the boom and a very stiff, non-adjustable ratchet joint at the earcup, moving the mic out of the way and then back into place is not as easy as it ought to be.
Power comes from a control module in a plastic box (3 1/8 x 2 3/8 x 1 inch) housing a single 9-volt battery, good for about 20 hours. It should be noted that three of the four headsets we review here use 9-volt batteries. While these generally cost twice as much as AA-cells, only one is required.
Power is controlled by a small semi-recessed slide switch on one side-a small LED on one end flashes green when its on, red when fewer than five hours of battery life remain. At night, this was occasionally annoying and during the day, it was often too dim to see. The headset is also available for a hardwired interface and this is compatible with existing Bose interfaces.
Controls, Rough Spots
The volume control is also located on the module and may go down in history as one of the worst, in our view. Its far from intuitive. The control has a stowage position thats retracted into the box. Depressing the switch pops it out, allowing you to adjust the volume.
In this position, the rotary knob adjusts volume in the left ear. To adjust volume in the right ear, you have to pull the switch out another step. Not so bad once you figure it out, but anyone flying with a novice user will have to spend time explaining how it works. The primary benefit, of course, is that once set, it stays put.
While theres a very nice clip on the back of the box, we found it quite useless because the cable leads are too short to allow clipping to anything. The box simply had to hang down from the plugs, hardly a satisfactory solution, especially in a headset this expensive.
In addition, the clip is essentially backwards from where it ought to be, leading us to wonder if the person writing the manual ever handled the real thing. The manual suggests clipping the box to your clothing, which is physically impossible unless the headset jacks are between your legs or perhaps on an arm rest. (Few are.)
Most pilots who saw the original and subsequently refined Series II Bose headsets commented that they looked and felt like the high-priced technological marvels that they were. Not so with Bose X, which looks and feels more flimsy, in our view, and, in our version, suffered from poor production clean-up of molded plastic parts.
A sharp point on the ends of the yokes where you naturally grab them to put on or take off the headset drew the annoyed attention of virtually everyone who tried the headset.
We finally dressed it with a couple of swipes from a Leatherman file. Given the pinching problems with the original design, we wonder why Bose didnt address this.
Bose had quite an act to follow with this new generation headset and as a result, expectations are perhaps higher than reasonable. Those who tried this sample were about equally split between impressed and not. That said, the comfort from the lightweight and lower clamping forces wasnt there for half our testers.
Bose offers a two-year warranty, although owners of earlier headsets with problems out of warranty have been effusive in praising Bose for taking care of any problems at no cost.
The only obvious external difference between the LightSPEED 25K and its 20K predecessor was the embossed name on the earcups. The prototype we had wasnt 100 percent production specification, but was close enough, according to LightSPEED, for us to draw some conclusions.
But first, an interesting marketing decision. Foremost is LightSPEEDs offer to allow 20K owners the option of trading in an old headset on a new 25K for a $200 credit off the $599 list price. This applies not just to a recently purchased headset, but any 20K. Without much promotion, LightSPEED says they already have more than 500 owners on the waiting list. (Theyre still considering what to do with all those used 20Ks.)
In another interesting twist, the 25K will ship with two different sets of earseals, both the two-layer from the 15K and the three-layer from the 20K. Experience has shown that generally, women prefer the 15K seals while men prefer the 20K style. You get both so you can decide when the headset arrives.
A significant and welcome change, which wasnt incorporated into our sample, is an auto-off function to keep the batteries from dying during non-use, a longtime complaint from many LightSPEED users.
Beyond these changes, physically the headset is still relatively lightweight, still mostly plastic and still offers all the advantages and disadvantages weve grown to love…or not, as the case may be.
The flexible mic boom still doesnt swing neatly out of the way. The volume sliders on the control module still move too easily. The mic and cord are still fixed on the left side, no matter what. If the weather is cold, the Confor foam earseals and head pad are still hard as rocks until they warm up.
The 25K was also the only headset in this review that didnt work in ANR mode with our ICOM IC-A22 handheld, a problem we had with earlier models as well. With the ANR on, all we got was noise from the ICOM; nothing was intelligible. It worked fine with the power off. These drawbacks were relatively minor annoyances at the lower price of the 15K and 20K. At close to $600, our tolerance for such deficiencies tends to diminish.
The significant changes to the headset are in the electronics. LightSPEEDs aim was to meet or beat the ANR performance of the Bose Series II. After hours of side-by-side comparisons of noise reduction in the cockpit, it appears they succeeded.
Sound quality isnt quite on par with Bose, but its improved over the 20K. Battery life from the pair of AA-cells is claimed to be about 50 hours, or about twice that of the others tested here. We werent able to confirm this by testing.
Comfort is a widely variable issue and, as before, our testers were about evenly split. If you like your 15K or 20K, youll probably like the 25K. LightSPEEDs headsets come with a three-year warranty and the company has been generally responsive to problems in earlier models, according to feedback weve received.
Peltor, now a division of Aearo Co., was a popular choice when the ANR revolution first started. To the distress of many, that original Peltor ANR headset was withdrawn from the market as the result of Bose going after Peltor claiming patent infringement. Peltor has avoided the ANR wars since then, although they did provide the basic headset for Sennheiser, who uses it in their NoiseGard ANR unit with their own electronics, a headset we reviewed a few years ago.
It took far too long, but Peltor is finally back in the ANR fray with a new entry. At $660 list, it falls into the upper- middle of the ANR price range. The model 7104 Stratosphere looks and feels like any other Peltor aviation headset, with a few exceptions.
Same stainless wire yokes and spring-steel headband covered with minimal padding and a plastic cover. Same collapsing storage capability. Same infinitely adjustable dual sliders for earcup adjustments. Same earcup design and combo foam/gel earseals.
Except for a bit of extra weight at 16.25 ounces, comfort is almost on par with non-ANR Peltors, which most people seem to either love or hate. Compared to the Bose X and Pilot PA-17 series, the lightweight champs, the Peltor is heavier, but its about equal to the LightSPEED.
While a couple of ounces may not seem like much, in the end, we found it just enough to take the edge off the comfort weve normally experienced with Peltor headsets, which are prized for their light weight. Overall, opinion was about evenly split in this regard.
One earcup includes a cavity holding a 9-volt battery (giving approximately 25 hours of operation). A black plastic cover plate is secured by a knurled screw, marring the simplicity and clean design of the headset, but simplifying power provision. Balanced by the mic and cord on the other earcup, the relatively heavy battery didnt unbalance the headset.
The single detachable cable has a coiled section and is 48 inches long, 96 inches when extended fully. Individual left/right rotary volume controls are incorporated into a small control module, along with a stereo/mono switch, where the audio cable splits for the two jacks. Overall, we like this concept of batter-in the-headset and no battery box for portable units; it works well in this iteration. The on/off toggle switch is installed on the side of the earcup holding the battery with a tubular aluminum guard to prevent inadvertent switching. Theres no power-on or battery-level indicator, although the toggle switch provides better visible indication of whether the headset is on or off than does a push-button. This didnt keep us from forgetting to turn it off, however, thus killing the battery.
The mic is standard Peltor with an adjustable ratcheting attachment to the side of the earcup, a sliding wire boom that swings out of the way on an adjustable ratcheting pivot and a flexible boom. If you cant get the mic positioned comfortably where you want it with this combination, youre not human. The mic boom rotates fully so you can use it on either side.
Performance was generally excellent, virtually on par with the Bose Series II overall, with better sound quality than most we have tried. If youre a Peltor headset enthusiast, and we find that people are rarely ambivalent about them, this may be the ANR headset for you. The Stratosphere comes with the standard three-year Peltor warranty.
Oh yes, one other point: Despite the price, Peltor doesnt include a storage case of any sort. Maybe they figure that it collapses so well that it doesnt need one, but this only serves to make the headset appear to be less of a value than it might otherwise be. A little drawstring bag would be fine.
At a time when many ANR headsets are moving away from the David Clark design concept, the DRE 6000enr stays with this tried-and-true format. But the 6000enr is not a cheap clone and appears to be well constructed.
The headset itself is conventional in appearance with black earcups and a removable headpad with plastic-encased foam pillows that provide a modicum of comfort. Clamping pressures are relatively high compared to the Bose or LightSPEED, as you might expect from a conventional design,
The foam earseals have fabric covers that improve their comfort, but DRE notes that youll get better ANR performance by removing them. Passive noise reduction was among the best weve encountered in an ANR headset. Considering the design, weight is a relatively modest 17 ounces, less than an ounce heavier than the LightSPEED.
The mic is attached to the side of the earcup with an adjustable friction pivot and a telescoping section with a knurled friction lock. While the telescoping section isnt as easy to adjust as a slider, the set-up otherwise works well and provides plenty of adjustment and swing-away capability.
The audio cable leads to a small splitter box that incorporates the stereo/mono switch. A pair of 12-inch leads exit the splitter to the plugs and theres a separate 48-inch power cable which plugs into the power module.
The module is a 3 3/4 x 2 5/8 x 1 1/4 inch well-constructed plastic box that holds a pair of 9-volt batteries in trays, which makes changing them a breeze. (You can also run the headset on ships power.) Only one battery is required for operation and each one provides about 20 to 25 hours of use.
A smart power management feature shuts the headset down after 10 minutes of non-use, a nice feature. An on/test momentary pushbutton switch gives you battery level indication via a trio of LEDs.
ANR performance was generally on par with the LightSPEED 20K, with good sound quality. With a $450 list, that makes for a good value if you like the traditional design. But DRE offers only a one-year warranty, too short in our opinion and less than most of the better brands.
The headset comes with a nice padded nylon storage bag that includes an outside pocket for the cables and an inside pocket to store the power module, a feature we appreciated.
Were beginning to sound like a broken record-you do remember records, dont you?-but we must again note that experience reinforces our opinion that choosing an ANR headset is a subjective exercise.
Numbers dont count for much and egg-shaped test pods in a tradeshow booth are not even remotely like real world airplanes. You simply must try the headset in the aircraft you fly.
Not practical, you say? Sure it is. Dont even consider buying a new ANR headset without a reasonable, full-money-back trial period. Test any headset on a good long flight, not just a short hop around the pattern.
That said, the new Bose X is not the home run the original and the Series II were. The ergonomics just didnt work for a significant number of testers. We suspect that used Series II headsets will thus become much sought after. We were disappointed in some of the apparent quality lapses and feel they hardly befit a unit that costs so much.
The Bose X does appear to offer generally superior ANR performance, so Bose is still the leader in this respect. But it isnt so big an improvement that anyone who has a Series II will see this as a lead-pipe cinch upgrade.
For those who found the headset comfortable, the light weight and low clamping forces were a big plus. Pilots moving up from other manufacturers models or non-ANR units may find the Bose X more appealing, but the performance gap has narrowed and the price vs. performance curve no longer shows Bose a clear cut winner at the premium end of the market.
The LightSPEED 25K appears to equal the Bose Series II in ANR performance, the gold standard up until now, and we suspect still so for many. It isnt as quiet as the Bose X and sound quality still suffers somewhat. But for a third less money, that still makes them a good value, if you can put up with the minor annoyances. The auto-shut-off feature, which we havent tried, should solve the dead-battery problem.
LightSPEEDs trade-up for 20K owners makes the upgrade more appealing than it might otherwise be, but even with the discount, its still nearly the price of their original headset.
Peltors Stratosphere headset also approaches Bose Series II performance and will appeal to Peltor lovers everywhere. Theres nothing exceptional about the new headset, but theres not much to complain about either, except for what you dont get. (The bag.)
The DRE 600enr offers a good alternative for those who prefer a traditional-style headset, as opposed to the LightSPEED or Pilot designs that we favor. Its performance is credible but we dont much like the minimal one-year warranty. Other ANRs offer buyers more protection.
Also With This Article
Click here to view the Bose Checklist.
Click here to view the Headset Addresses & Contacts.
-by Douglas S. Ritter
Douglas R. Ritter is an Aviation Consumer contributing editor.