The explosion of headset choices during the past few years has left many pilots stuck with outdated hardware that soon gets relegated to the lowly role of back-up.
Headsets have come a long way in comfort and performance but owners of older headsets now have the option of upgrading some models, rather than ponying up $500 for a replacement.
Oregon Aero Inc., well known for its custom seat padding products, also markets headset upgrades that can breathe new life into an old headset that works fine but falls short of modern standards in both comfort and noise attenuation. We put Oregon Aeros claims to the test using a 1988 vintage Telex D-950 headset. The headset had compiled a perfect service history over 13 years and hundreds of hours of flying. Its lightweight and adjusts small enough to fit a six-year-old child. But the earpads and headpad had lost what little umpf theyd ever had.
The loss of comfort, combined with relatively minimal noise attenuation, made this headset barely better than no headset at all. We selected three components to update the headset: the SoftTop Headset Cushion, SoftSeal Ear Cushions and the HushKit Passive Earcup Noise Attenuation Kit.
The headset cushion is made of sheepskin wool and attaches with either rubber extrusions or Velcro, depending on the model of headset. Where the original vinyl and foam rubber cushion was about 1/2- inch thick and easily compressed, the Oregon Aero version is nearly 1-inch thick and distributes the load over a larger area.
The SoftSeal ear cushions are 1 1/8-inch thick for the Telex D-950, but some headset models use 3/4-inch thick ear cushions. The ear cushions have 200 to 300 percent more volume than original equipment. In our test headset, the original earseals had shrunk to only 3/8-inch thick.
The Oregon Aero cushions are covered in synthetic leather. The company also markets cloth covers for the earseals to wick away sweat ($8), but we opted not to install them.
The earcup attenuation kit consists of several high-density foam layers that Oregon Aero says cuts noise in the 700-7000 Hz range better than active noise reduction technology does. One layer of foam is installed behind the speaker, one layer around the speaker and a thin layer covers the speakers.
We were immediately struck by how different the materials were from original equipment. Inside the earcup, Telex had installed a layer of foam rubber thin enough to see through. Around the speaker was another thin layer of foam rubber. The speaker was open to the ear.
Installing the earcup attenuation kit was straightforward, involving disassembling the headset (two screws per side to get the cups apart and then two more screws to unmount each speaker) and putting in the new foam.
The new foam, however, more than filled the earcup and we were faced with the decision of compressing it all into the cup or trimming some of it to avoid squashing it excessively.
In the interest of science, we did both. We trimmed some of the foam from the cup with the microphone/cord attachments, because the connections put a crimp in the available space. In the other cup, we crunched it all in. We were unable to discern any difference in attenuation from ear to ear.
Once reassembled, the ear cushions popped into place with minimal effort. But it was here that we ran into our first squawk with the upgrade. The earcups for the D-950 are rectangular, rather than oval like just about every other headset on the market. The new ear cushions were oval, and we were forced to stretch them onto the corners of the earcup. They fit and anchored snugly, but we saw this as a potential wear point.
We removed the ear cushions and took a Dremel tool to the corners to shave part of the offending shape away. We couldnt remove it all, however, because the cushions need something to hold onto. We dont think this would be a problem in any headset with standard oval earcups.
Once done, we discovered squawk number two. The flanges on the ear cushion that hold the cushion to the earcup are different sizes. One ear cushion fits onto the earcup with about a quarter inch of material to spare. The other has more than 5/8ths of an inch. So far we havent decided if its worth trying to cut them to be consistent.
The headpad attached quickly with Velcro and we were done. Total elapsed time was 20 minutes before hauling out the Dremel, which added another 15 minutes to the task. Not bad.
The old Telex was the source of conflict between my wife and daughter because they both liked its light weight and low pressure on the ears. Both of them expressed delight in the new comfort of the old friend.
Putting the headset to the test in the airplane yielded similar results, with one test subject asking, Are you sure this is the same headset? The noise attenuation was markedly better. Its not in league with a modern top-of-the-line ANR headset, but then no one expected it to be. The modification definitely gave the Telex a new lease on life as a preferred passenger headset rather than a headset of last resort.
The headband cushion lists at $24, the ear cushions at $43 and the noise attenuation kit at $24, bringing the total cost of the upgrade to $91, plus the minimum shipping charge of $9.50.
The question to ask is it worth $100 to upgrade a headset thats seen more than a decade in the air? In our view, the answer is a definite maybe.
Were not sure if it was money well-spent on a low-end model like the Telex D-950. If we compare the final result with a modern low-end headset like a $140 Lightspeed QFR Solo, wed probably skip the update and opt for the newer one and cough up another 40 bucks.
Someone on a budget, however, might be well-served to pick up an unloved old headset and turn it into something that can give years of comfortable service. Updating a quality headset like a David Clark H10-20 or 30 may be well worth the money. If the headset is working fine, theres no reason to throw away the expensive parts just because the cheap ones have worn out their welcome. In that case, the Oregon Aero headset upgrades may save the cost of a new headset.
And consider this, if you have three other headsets besides your own, replacing them with something decent will cost $500 to $1500, depending on what you buy. You can upgrade all three for $300 and we think that represents a value worth considering.
One last word about Oregon Aero: the company has first-rate customer service and weve been impressed that its products live up to the promotional claims.
Contact – Oregon Aero, 34020 Skyway Drive, Scappoose, OR 97056; 800-888-6910; www.oregonaero.com.
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-by Ken Ibold
Ken Ibold is an Aviation Consumer contributing editor and editor of Aviation Safety magazine.