When LightSPEEDs innovative lightweight ANR headset hit the market nearly two years ago, we had a hunch that its low price and impressive performance would carve out a healthy market niche. And thats exactly what happened.
Yet within the past six months, three new ANRs have muscled their way into whats already a crowded field. These new products represent second- and third-generation designs and include some significant innovations. Unfortunately, innovation doesnt always equal improvement.
The three new offerings come from Flightcom, Pilot and Telex. The Flightcom 6ANX and Pilot Freedom headsets are both being sold as inexpensive ANRs obviously intended to go head-to-head with the LightSPEED products. Telexs new ANR-1D-a mid-priced ANR-is cheaper than the premium Bose but it can claim one distinction: Its the worlds first talking headset.
The 6ANX looks like a typical David Clark clone with a black metal headband and black earcups. At $425 list and $399 on the street, the 6ANX is a bit cheaper than LightSPEEDs top-of-the-line 20K. That price includes a nice padded headset case.
Individual volume controls are located on each earcup. The left-handed-only boom mike combines a sliding adjustment at the earcup with a flexible end piece and this proved easy to adjust.
The separate power and audio cords created the usual mess of wires in the cockpit that weve come to expect from ANR headsets. One minor annoyance involved all the wires attached to the lower portion of the left-side earcup. The wire for the mic rubbed the audio and power cords, creating a squeak at the slightest head movement, although clipping the wires to our shirt quieted the chirping. The power cord is attached to a Radio Shack style plastic battery box that holds a single 9-volt battery beneath an easy-access sliding cover.
Theres no power-on indicator and the on label peeled off during our short test. Theres also no battery-life indicator and since its easy to flip the switch inadvertently, its best to disconnect the power cord for storage. Youre on your own to secure the power box in the cockpit; no clip is provided.
The earcups have gel earseals with a smooth plastic surface. Flightcom touts the importance of using only the factory earseals, claiming the electronics and acoustical cavity were tuned to these seals. They even supply a spare set. While reasonably comfortable in cool weather, the shiny plastic gelseals induced noticeable ear sweating on an 80-degree spring day.
In contrast to the seals, the head pad is a very comfortable foam padded fleece material which is easily removed and can be washed. Clamping pressure is adjustable by the usual metal headband method, judicious spreading or compressing of the headband. The headset weighs 19.4 ounces; not exactly a lightweight.
Comfort is on par with any decent DC clone with gel earseals and a good headpad. In other words, acceptable but not incredible, in our estimation. In comparison, the LightSPEED 20K seals are simply not as comfortable, although weve heard users complain that their ears dont fit inside the 20Ks unconventional triangular-shaped seals.
We would rate the 6ANXs performance generally on par with the 20K. If theres a difference, it wasnt readily apparent in side-by side-comparisons. Sound quality seemed superior in the 6ANX; passive noise attenuation is fair.
Overall, the Flightcom 6ANX represents a reasonable alternative to the LightSPEED 20K with both pluses and minuses, in our estimation. But these are the sort of things that can be individualized, so try before you buy one or the other.
The Flightcom comes with a three-year warranty on the headset, but only one-year on the ANR module, leading us to wonder what they know about the reliability of the ANR circuitry that we dont. By contrast, the 20K has a three-year, all-inclusive warranty.
Look Ma, No Wires
Pilot deserves credit for attacking the wire clutter problem head-on. The Freedom PA-17-76 DNC headset has but a single audio cable with a coiled section attached via quick-connect plug to the left earcup. Power is provided by a rechargeable 9.6 volt nickel metal hydride (NiMH) battery inside the left earcup.
Theres no bulky external power pack, just left/right volume control sliders incorporated into the small stereo/mono switch where the audio cable splits for the two jacks. In terms of hassle-free cockpit set-up, no other ANR headset comes close to the Freedoms simplicity.
We see pros and cons to the rechargeable battery design. Pilot claims the battery is good for 1000 charges or 5000 hours use. On the plus side, youll save on alkaline batteries in addition to avoiding the wire fuss. Pilot claims a fully charged battery will last 10 to 14 hours. We used the headset for six hours and it was still going strong. But if the battery dies in flight, you cant snap in a replacement and although you can recharge from ships power, you cant use the headset at the same time.
Pilot says it takes eight hours to fully charge a depleted battery but that it can be topped off anytime without harm, unlike some NiCads which develop memory and reduced battery life if charged before fully run down. So, your best bet is to stick it on the charger right after each use. However, our rechargeable battery expert suggests that simply leaving it plugged into the charger may not be a good idea, since that can shorten overall battery life.
The battery cant be changed in the field; the headset must be returned to the factory. Still, if the battery lasts 5000 hours, or even half that, this design might be a winner.
A small plastic plug is attached to the headset crossover wire and must be inserted into the recharging jack when the headset is in use, or ANR performance suffers. Whether that plastic plug will last 5000 hours of use and abuse is debatable, in our view. An optional DC-to-DC converter can be used to charge the headset from a cigarette lighter. The fact that you cant use the ANR and charge the battery at the same time is a potential Achilles heel.
All Plastic Design
The headset is all plastic and the clamping pressure is not adjustable. (Pin head pilots will be more comfortable than fat heads.) The earcups are attached to the headband via flexible rubber fixture. The flexibility of the rubber allows for movement and adjustment; theres no hard metal detent.
The rubber fixture slides along the plastic headband to adjust earcup height, with position maintained purely by rubber-on-plastic friction. Only field experience will show how durable this design will be, but it works fine out of the box. The headset weighs in at miniscule 15.1 ounces on our scale, although Pilot claims 12.1 ounces. Either way, its still the lightest ANR headset weve tested. An Oregon Aero Sheepskin Soft Top is fitted to the headband, making for a comfortable fit topside. The earseals are matte-finish, plastic-encased foam and are simply glued to the face of the earcup. The seals compress in use such that some testers complained that their ears touched the cloth speaker coverings, which proved more disconcerting than uncomfortable.
A small green LED on the side of the left earcup illuminates when the ANR is switched on via a pushbutton switch on the same cup. Its bright enough to see if you look, but not so bright as to be a nuisance. The mic is lefthand only and pivots off the side of the earcup with a ratchet, making it easy to swing out of the way without losing your basic setting. The mic boom has a flexible end piece that can be adjusted for length which we found somewhat complicated but adequate, once mastered.
The Freedoms ANR performance was at least equal to the LightSPEED 20K, in our view, although its not as effective as the Bose Series II, still our standard of comparison. Sound quality was excellent; among the best weve heard and far better than the 20K. While list is $599, street price is about $389, making it a heck of a bargain, especially since you dont have to feed it batteries.
The molded foam headset case Pilot sends along looks cheap to us but would still likely survive reasonable abuse. Functionally, the clamshell design, combined with having to store the charger inside a foam block, makes for tight quarters in the cockpit. Call us old fashioned; we like soft headset cases.
Is this rechargeable battery the way of the future? We think its either the greatest thing since sliced bread or itll bomb, perhaps on reliability and ease-of-use issues. In any case, Pilot offers a generous five-year warranty which ought to take the sting off any failures.
The Telex ANR-1D arrived sans any instructions, but since it talks you through adjustments and function options, that turned out to be no problem. You read that right: This digital headset has a voice of its own.
The controls and digital brain are housed in a separate, rather large (6 x 2 5/8 x 1 1/4 inch) battery and control box which has a robust wire clip on the back. A single cord is permanently connected to the headset, the audio jack cord exits the other end of the box. The cords are both of the paired wire variety, like a lamp cord, and we continually had problems with them knotting up, an aggravation at times. As large as the control box is, ergonomically, it might be better if both cords were both located at the same end.
Power is supplied by four AA-cell batteries and battery life is rated at 30 hours. A DC power cord is included, but if you want to plug it into a cigarette lighter, youll have to add an adapter to the bare wires at the end of another cord which is apparently designed to be hard-wired. That cord fits into a jack at the top of the control box. The box is adorned with an array of cellphone-style rubberized pushbuttons and these are used to interface with the headset. None are lit, so if your maiden voyage is after dark, have a flashlight nearby.
The Power and ANR buttons at the top are self-explanatory and have bright LEDs which are distractingly bright at night. The center is comprised of equally self-evident volume and balance controls using up and down and left and right buttons. When the balance control is set to zero, it tells you so, since theres no visual indication. Along the bottom of the control panel are a pair of Program buttons labeled, Menu and Set, and another labeled dB. The menu button steps you through the options with the voice telling you whats been selected and the set button used to select or toggle a choice: battery life remaining; auto power off or on, which will turn off the unit after five minutes of inactivity; low battery announcement on or off (the power LED also flashes to indicate low battery, defined as 20 percent battery life remaining); auto stereo/mono detection which can be set to on or one or the other of the choices; and finally, a choice of voice or stereo enhancement.
It took us a little longer to figure out the dB button, which turns out to supposedly calculate noise level in the cockpit. Why you want to know that is beyond us, but its a cute trick.
The headset is conventional in appearance but hides some nice features and at 18.1 ounces, is relatively light. A wide metal headband is attached to plastic yokes within which the plastic earcups pivot. Height is adjusted by sliding the yokes up or down the metal headband section with very stiff detents assuring itll stay where you set it.
Rather than bending the headband to adjust clamping pressure, the headset has an eccentric block on the top of each earcup yoke, with three degrees of adjustment. It works quite well and everyone who tried it was able to find a comfortable setting. Unfortunately, unlike the height adjustment, this setting is easily changed inadvertently when the headset is placed in its storage pouch. The plastic-covered headband pad is comprised of a set of five foam- and air-filled chambers, yielding adequate but not exceptional comfort. The gel-filled earseals were among the best weve tried but some still preferred the LightSPEED foam, which is drier in warm weather.
The microphone can be used either left- or right-handed, a feature we prefer and which is too often dispensed with in ANR headsets. The flexible boom mic is attached to the bottom of the earcup and rotates almost completely around, making it easy to switch sides and to swing out of the way when necessary.
Telex claims this also eliminates peripheral vision problems with side-mounted mics, but weve never noticed a problem in that regard. Gain adjustment is easily accomplished via a small screw in the face of the mic housing.
The headset cord enters through the mic-boom pivot. This, along with the crossover wires entering via the yoke pivot points reduces openings in the earcup to a minimum with claimed improved ANR performance. You could have fooled us. Telex claims improved ANR over a wider range for this headset as a result of the advanced digital design, but we couldnt hear any improvement in our practical tests.
In fact, in general, we found ANR performance was only slightly better than average and the sound quality was the worst we have experienced. It was very tinny, no matter the position of the voice/stereo enhancement setting. Moreover, moderate head movement or light turbulence resulted in an annoying clicking noise as the headset shifted.
Passive noise attenuation was among the best weve seen in an ANR headset. Thats good, because it wouldnt function in ANR mode with our IC-A22 ICOM handheld, only being useable in passive mode with the power off. The Telex was the only headset of the three that proved incompatible with the handheld. We should note that the LightSPEED was also unusable in ANR mode with the same handheld.
The Telex ANR-1Ds come with a three-year warranty. Telex includes a zippered pouch for which some naugha gave its all, not a real headset bag. While this headset folds into a convenient bundle, the bulky control/battery box does not. Given the $745 price-$650 street price-the least they could do is supply a decent bag. Of course, for the price, they could also supply a good ANR headset, which despite all the digital geegaws and nice ergonomics, this is decidedly not.
Until the debut of the latest Flightcom and Pilot ANR headsets, LightSPEED largely owned the low-price ANR market. Now they have credible competition. All three of these low- to mid-priced ANRs have advantages and disadvantages. None of the three finishes as a clear leader, in our view.
The Pilot Freedom has good ANR performance and its innovative self-contained battery is excellent. If you find them comfortable-not everyone will-and can live with the limitations of the rechargeable battery, its an excellent value and would be our choice for an inexpensive ANR.
That said, we would like to see Pilot improve this unit so it can be used while being charged by the aircrafts DC system, add some means to determine battery life and tweak the earseals a little for comfort. If all that added a few bucks to the street price, it would still be a good deal.
Flightcoms 6ANX offers the proven advantage of a basic design thats reasonably comfortable, if not particularly light. ANR performance is competitive, sound quality is excellent and the price makes it a good value. Not a bad combination. The units biggest failing, in our view, is the jumble of wires and cheap battery box. As with the Pilot Freedom, a battery remaining indicator would be welcome.
The Telex ANR-1D was a disappointment. That it talks and is comfortable doesnt offset its relatively weak ANR performance and poor sound quality. The latter especially detracts from other positive attributes this product may have. The ergonomics of the bulky and heavy control/power unit are also a drawback. Finally, theres no good reason for it not to work in ANR mode with a handheld. This one needs work.
The variability in comfort and effectiveness between testers only serves to drive home a point weve made before: The best advice we can give is to try these in the aircraft you fly and wear them for an extended flight before making a final decision. How ANRs work and feel in your aircraft can be a far cry from how they work and feel in one of those sales-booth egg chairs.
The LightSPEED 20K remains a good value and many will find it the most comfortable of the lot. But its no longer the only low-end choice. Both of these new competitors offer marked advantages in some areas, including price, that LightSPEED had best take notice of if they want to remain competitive.
-by Douglas S. Ritter
Douglas S. Ritter is an Aviation Consumer contributing editor. He operates a Web site at www.equipped.org.