Less well known in aviation circles, Austrian-based AKG Acoustics is respected in the studio and stage performance market with products endorsed by top performers. This includes Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart and Stevie Wonder, to name a few. Parent company Harman nearly owns the automotive OEM audio market. Its products are standard in BMW, Mercedes, Land Rover and Toyota.
Remaining true to its musical roots, the AV100 headset that’s sold by AKG’s new aviation division has a list of standard features that focus on wireless entertainment audio input. But these features come at a price premium, making us wonder if the current market—dominated by Bose and Lightspeed—will embrace another high-priced ANR model.
We put the $1100 AV100 through its paces to see how it performed and are impressed with its Bluetooth performance and features, its music quality and comfortable fit.
Build and fit
It’s immediately apparent that the AV100 has a high-quality build and modern styling. Each earcup is attached to the steel headband with a metal-injected swingarm that articulates up to 90 degrees. The unit weighs one pound, which is slightly heavier than the Bose A20, at 0.75 pounds.
When selecting a headset, it’s important to look for build features that help safeguard against breakage. We found several on the AV100. For example, the swingarm attaches to the earcup assembly at two points. This might protect the set from a drop to the pavement or a crush in a flight bag. The set folds for easier storage and comes with a generous storage case. There’s plenty of strain relief where the audio cable attaches to the earcup, at the audio plugs and at the control module. These areas are the most prone to eventual intermittent connections due to stretching and flexing. The set has a two-year warranty.
The bow extension (that’s the adjustable piece that slides up and down the headband) offers plenty of adjustment to fit a variety of head sizes. We especially like the reference measurement marks on the slider so you can precisely adjust both the left and the right bow for a uniform fit. Our only beef is the measurement markings are difficult to read, blending in with the grey sheet metal surface on the headband slider.
Two compression-molded leather cushions are attached to the underside of the headband with Velcro and provided decent pressure relief on longer flights. We used the AV100 with and without a ballcap and were pleased with the overall comfort.
In fact, we brought along a Bose A20 and a Lightspeed Zulu during the evaluation flights and the AV100 consistently edged both for comfort. Our sense is that the Bose has a slightly lower clamping pressure, but the larger earcups on the AV100 offer a better fit around eyeglass temples. The downside is we struggled to adjust the glasses on the face because of the larger cup area surrounding the temples. It’s important to note that the size of the eyeglass temples can affect the noise-cancelling performance of any ANR headset. That’s why it’s critical to precisely adjust the headband.
The AV100 comes standard with a 6-pin LEMO connector and dual- plug adapter. This enables plugging the set into a panel module for ship’s power and audio (also used by Bose, Lightspeed and others), or plugging into standard microphone and headphone jacks.
The entire length of the cord is roughly 8 feet long. In many cabins, that’s long enough to reach the rear seats. What’s missing is an additional clothing clip (there’s only one) for securing all of that cable and the control module to an interior sidewall or any other place you want to manage the cable slack.
When not using ship’s power, the headset is powered by two AA batteries. AKG says battery endurance can be as high as 15 hours. A green LED power button flashes when the unit is on. There’s a power button for turning the ANR circuitry on and off when using batteries, but we like that the ANR circuitry automatically powers on when the module receives bus voltage when used with the LEMO plug. AKG calls this feature intelligent power management. We can’t count the number of times we’ve taken off with the Bose in passive mode because it doesn’t power on automatically.
Speaking of passive, the AV100 provides ample performance when used without the ANR circuitry turned on. From our experience, the Bose A20 falls short for passive performance. You could be faced with such a dilemma with spent batteries. A low battery condition triggers a red flashing LED annunciator on the AV100 control module. There’s also automatic shutoff to save battery life.
The control module has a total of nine buttons and switches, including rotary volume control wheels for left and right earcups. The volume control is linear throughout the range, and it was easy to set a comfortable listening level when plugged into a variety of audio control panels. In our evaluation, we used the headset with a PS Engineering 8000-series audio panel, a Garmin GMA340 and with a standalone intercom. The AV100 was a decent match for all of them.
There’s a mono/stereo slide switch for configuring the headset in different aircraft. Most modern audio systems have stereo audio output, but if the installer didn’t use stereo audio jacks in the interface, you’ll need to operate the headset in mono mode. In stereo mode, you’ll hear left and right channel stereo separation.
We initially thought the LED utility lights that are integrated in each ear cup were gimmicky, but they turned out to be useful. In a dark cabin, they throw plenty of light for reading a checklist or even illuminating the instrument panel. The lights are controlled with a pushbutton switch on the control module.
Any modern aviation headset should have wireless Bluetooth connectivity for making phone calls and for listening to music, and the AV100 excels at the task. There’s also an auxiliary input jack on the bottom of the control module for plugging in a patch cable. Bluetooth takes priority over the auxiliary input, so if the unit is wirelessly connected to a phone or music player, the jack is disabled.
Initial Bluetooth pairing is easy. Simply hold the Bluetooth button and an audible voice prompt announces that the system is in pairing mode. The system mode LED rapidly flashes blue when in pairing mode and flashes blue slowly when it’s connected to a phone. The LED double- flashes blue when receiving a Bluetooth audio signal. A triple flash of the LED indicates there is an active phone call in progress.
AKG takes the phone/music interface to a higher level with an audio source priority mode that’s controlled with a dedicated sliding switch on the control module.
When the priority switch is in the Off mode, only the intercom and aircraft radio audio is forwarded to the headset. When set to Mix, the headset mixes intercom, radio, the Bluetooth signal or auxiliary audio. When the switch is set to Auto, the Bluetooth or auxiliary audio is muted when there’s an intercom audio signal present and then fades back in once the communication has stopped. It’s impressive to see these built-in features that are often part of high-end audio control panels.
If that’s not enough, AKG includes a Bluetooth source volume control on the control module. The volume control is linear and eliminates the need to reach for the music device or phone to adjust the volume.
Directly below the Bluetooth volume control is a music play/pause control. It proved to be a fast way to stifle the music when things get busy. The button is also used for handling telephone calls. To answer or hang up a call, simply press the Play button. Want to reject an incoming call? Press the Play button for more than two seconds. AKG says the feature depends on the capabilities of the connected telephone, but the function worked with the iPhone 5 used during the evaluation.
The play/pause control also controls music track selection. A double click of the Play button skips to the next song, while triple-clicking the button jumps one song backward. A long press of the button stops music playback. Again, the function depends on the capabilities of the music source.
ANR, audio performance
Audiophiles will be impressed with the stereo music quality of the AV100. In our view, it’s terrific. Still, more important is the overall quality of the ANR circuitry.
Based on evaluating the AV100 in three aircraft—a Cessna twin, a Cirrus and a Piper single—we think the overall audio quality and noise-cancelling performance is average. Frankly, we had higher expectations than what the AV100 delivered. It’s not that it’s bad, but both Bose and Lightspeed have raised the bar on ANR performance and buyers expect a lot from a $1100 headset.
“The AV100 had more bass, but overall, its sound quality was lower than my Bose A20. The AV100 has better passive performance than the Bose and while the ANR performance is certainly effective, it’s noticeably worse than the Bose,” noted one evaluator.
During an evaluation flight in the Cessna twin, we noted distracting background noise that seemed to originate from the ANR circuitry whenever the propellers were out of synch. In other aircraft, there was more background hiss than we would have liked.
As for microphone performance, the AV100 did well. It never clipped modulation and did a great job of handling wind noise from an open cabin door during taxi.
We had hoped to include the new Lightspeed Zulu PFX ANR model (that’s expected to have a list price of $1100) in this review, but its release is delayed. While disappointing, we commend Lightspeed for not releasing a new product before it’s ready.
From what we can see, the Zulu PFX has a chance to move into the top ANR headset spot, especially since the $1100 Bose A20 has been unchanged since its introduction nearly five years ago. If the AV100 were priced lower, we think it could offer stiff competition.
All of the evaluators for this review fly with either the Bose A20 or Lightspeed Zulu series, so it’s natural to compare the AV100 to these high-end models. For comfort, ergonomics and features, the AV100 was a standout winner. We think its music-playing feature set is unmatched. But the unit’s overall ANR audio quality just didn’t blow anyone away. We’ll include the AKG AV100 in our high-end ANR headset shootout that’s planned for a future issue.