Lightweight Headsets: LightSPEED is Tops

LightSPEEDs new Mach 1 is the overall best performer but Clarity and Quiet also earn high marks. Panthers Bluetooth worked surprisingly well.

by Lionel M. Lavenue

Believe it or not, its been nearly two decades-17 years, to be exact-since Bose stunned the aviation world with its $1000 noise-canceling headset. One thing many buyers liked about the original Bose was its light clamping pressure compared to the then-gold-standard David Clark models.


Who would have thought then that some buyers wanted even less clamping pressure? But that was and is so, thus the advent of the lightweight or in-ear headset. Despite the advantages of noise canceling, many buyers will give it up in exchange for featherlight earsets and mics than require no clamping pressure. We first examined these in our February 2003 issue, when we compared the two in-the-ear headsets at that time: the CAT system by Panther Electronics and the AuriComm by Quiet Technologies. We gave the AuriComm the nod as being the most quiet and comfortable.

Since then, other makers have come into the market with their own in-ear models, including improved designs from AuriComm, CAT, Clarity Aloft and, more recently, a revised lightweight offering from headset giant LightSPEED. We can say without reservation that this technology has improved across the board, although its still not necessarily for everyone.

Why Light?
Were always surprised at the number of readers who absolutely detest conventional headsets. We don’t necessarily blame them. Even the best of the noise-canceling models from LightSPEED, Bose and others have shortcomings. Although not necessarily heavy, theyre certainly a noticeable presence on the noggin.

Mic booms are an irritant, too, since they seem to wear out and fall out of adjustment. In hot weather, no matter how we’ll designed, a conventional headsets earcups make your ears and head sweat, often uncomfortably. But its the clamping pressure that gets to most of us and the longer the flight, the more annoying it can become.

Lightweight headsets address this by either using a very light headband or none at all. Mic booms are tiny wisps of tubes that are a fraction of the weight and size of a conventional headset. In place of earcups, a foam plug-sometimes custom molded-is inserted into the ear.

In exchange for the lighter weight, what do you give up? Active noise canceling, for one. None of the lightweights offer noise canceling, relying instead on better passive noise attenuation through the use of foam plugs in the outer ear canal. Second, lightweights arent good choices for the always-needed universal headset you can plug into any cockpit station. Even if you don’t have a custom-molded ear plug, you’ll need to offer another user a clean universal plug. Its just easier to hand a passenger or sometime co-pilot a cheap headset and get on with the trip.

Quiet Technologies
Quiet Technologies now offers the AuriComm 2.5, a newer version of the AuriComm II we tried previously. We reported in the July 2005 issue that Quiet Technologies was working on the AuriComm III, but that new unit was discontinued. The AuriComm 2.5 has some of the planned new features of the AuriComm III, including an improved earpiece-the ear hook-and an improved mic. The AuriComm 2.5 also includes a headband if you don’t like the earpiece. However, the 2.5 doesnt have a music/cellphone adaptor.

Frankly, we didnt notice much difference between the AuriComm II and the AuriComm 2.5. Both are excellent in-the-ear headsets and we strongly prefer the comfort of in-the-ear headsets that use an earpiece as opposed to a headband.

Quiet Technologies has also reintroduced a previous model that uses a headband. As we reported in our February 2003 review, Quiet previously offered two models: The AuriComm and the UltraFlite. The two headsets were similar, except that the AuriComm used only an earpiece while the UltraFlite used a headband. Quiet has now reintroduced the UltraFlite as the Halo, described as “a headband/soundtube foam-insert headset.” Like the former UltraFlite, the Halo uses a headband, but the headband is covered with a comfortable tubing material described as a “soundtube.” The Halo headband can be worn over-the-head, behind-the-head or even on-the-shoulders.

After flying with the AuriComm 2.5 and the Halo, we preferred the AuriComm 2.5, primarily because we like the earpiece design instead of the headband. However, both the AuriComm 2.5 and the Halo performed well, as we would expect from Quiet products.

Quiet has also recently introduced yet another new in-the-ear headset, the yPod. The yPod is designed for aircraft passengers who don’t wish to speak a lot-or whom the pilot wishes would not speak a lot. (Think children and mothers-in-law.) The yPod has two speaker pods with eartips attached via a Y-connector, but there’s no mic boom. Instead, if the yPod user wishes to speak, the Y-connector that contains the mic must be moved to the lips.

We were surprised by the comfort of the yPod and were tempted to buy an extra yPod for passengers who wish to sleep or who don’t plan to talk with the pilot. The yPod is so comfortable that it could be easily worn and forgotten, thanks, apparently, to the use of sound tubes to carry the signal from the speakers in the Y-connector to the ears.


The new AuriComm 2.5 is priced at $385, including custom ear molds, which is by far the best deal of all the in-the-ear headsets. The Halo is $340; add $70 for custom earmolds. The yPod is $289. Each of these models has a 30-day money-back guarantee.

Aloft Technologies
We also retested the Clarity Aloft in-the-ear headset. Although little has changed since our July 2005 review, we did visit the ever-impressive Clarity Aloft booth at Sun n Fun, where we were treated to personal fittings of the Clarity Aloft headband and eartips.

We had favorable comments about the Clarity Aloft unit, especially the patented Comply foam eartips, which are the best of the bunch, in our view. However, we didnt really like the headband. The folks at Clarity explained that you must aggressively bend the headband for the best fit and the results were indeed better. Also, we learned that you have to squash and stuff those eartips into your ear for best performance. However, after time, we still find that the headband becomes noticeable on the head.

Priced at $650 in 2005 ($550 discounted), the Clarity Aloft is now $525. Replacement Comply eartips are $24.95 for a package of 12 and we’ll worth the cost, although they hardly ever need replacement. Clarity offers a 30-day money back guarantee.

Panther Electronics
In our first review of in-the-ear headsets in February 2003, we did an exhaustive study of Panthers CAT system. We flew with it for some 40 hours and although we liked the design concept, we didnt like the integrated mic/earpiece because it caused feedback and speaker issues.

Panther still sells that unit but its new and improved product is the CAT Bluetooth, which adapts commercial cellphone technology to produce the worlds first wireless aviation headset. Getting one to try out proved to be a chore. Panther declined to loan us one so we bought one, specifying the Bluetooth version via a phone order. Several days later, the wrong model arrived. Panther insisted they sent what we ordered and although they agreed to a swap, they wouldnt pay for the shipping.

The Bluetooth CAT has a unique configuration, in that there are no wires between the actual headset and the aircraft. The pilot wears a commercial version of a wireless Bluetooth earpiece with the mic element connected to traditional foam eartips via a pair of thin wires. The Bluetooth earpiece is a high-quality Sony earpiece that communicates with the small transceiver connected to the aircraft audio. Bluetooth signals are processed by an adaptor connected to the standard CAT controller, a small blue box.

Neat as this idea is, we had some initial problems getting it to work. When we ordered the product from Panther, we were told that it would arrive charged and ready to go. That turned out not to be so; the earpieces batteries were DOA. More frustrating, the Bluetooth equipment was also supposed to be “paired” as shipped, but that wasnt done either. It took a number of back-and-forth calls to Panther to sort all this out. The instructions with this product are voluminous and, at time, daunting.

After several weeks of fits and starts, we finally got everything charged, paired and ready and we went flying. After all the configuration issues, we were dubious that the Bluetooth CAT system would actually work, but it not only worked, it worked terrifically. The Bluetooth earpiece is light and comfortable and the eartips performed well.

Surprisingly, Panther includes top-of-the-line Comply eartips with the Bluetooth CATS system. We were told by Aloft Technologies that the Comply eartips are only approved for aviation with the Clarity Aloft unit, but Panther sells Comply eartips labeled “for musical use.” The only problem we experienced with the Bluetooth system is the mic. Its extremely sensitive and the aircrafts vent fan would sometimes produce audible wind sounds on the mic. No complaints from ATC, however.

If the idea of wireless appeals to you, this headset is worth a look. But you may need patience to configure the Bluetooth system and its long-term durability and robustness is an unknown. But, just think, you can go to the head in your VLJ while monitoring ATC.

We paid $649 for the CAT Bluetooth system with the universal eartips. The same system with do-it-yourself custom earmolds is $699. Unfortunately, unlike every other manufacturer of in-the-ear headsets, Panther doesnt offer a money-back guarantee. So if you don’t like the product, youre stuck with it.

LightSPEEDs Mach 1 headset is the follow-on product for its initial entry into the lightweight market, the L1. The Mach 1 comes in a black leather case in an eye-catching all-black box. The Mach 1 looks and feels like high quality. Its constructed of a magnesium alloy, which provides a strong, lightweight structure. Incredibly, the Mach 1 weighs less than one ounce.

One side of the headset is simply an attachment point for an eartip and the other side is a combined ear clip containing both the other eartip and a boom mic. We were able to comfortably don the headset without instructions, something not necessarily possible for some of the other products.

The headset components connect to a control box about the size of a deck of cards, also made of the same lightweight magnesium alloy. The control box contains a volume control adjustment and has an auxiliary port for music or cellphone inputs as we’ll as a control button to turn the aux port input on and off. The control box also has an isolate button, so the user may isolate the headset from others on the same intercom, as when listening to music or using a cellphone.

Interestingly, the control box also contains a round CR2032 battery. However, don’t fret, because like all the in-the-ear headsets, except the unusual CAT Bluetooth system, the Mach 1 doesnt require batteries. The Mach 1s battery is necessary only for the auxiliary port, providing 100 hours of use, according to LightSPEED.

We have flown several hours with the Mach 1 and the sound quality is excellent. The eartips are the key to any in-the-ear headset and the Mach 1 comes with four different types. These are different sizes of foam to accommodate different-sized ear canals plus a flanged silicone tip. The blue eartips are standard, patented MATRIX “No Roll Foam Ear Plugs” by Howard Leight. We liked the blue eartips the best, although they arent as comfortable as the Comply eartips sold with the Clarity Aloft headset.

LightSPEED touts that the Mach 1 with the standard eartips provides 35 to 40 dB of noise attenuation. However, LightSPEED recommends the use of custom earmolds, which are supposedly more comfortable and provide more noise attenuation (see sidebar on page 6).


According to LightSPEED, the custom earmolds provide up to 42 dB of noise attenuation, but most important, LightSPEED advertises that the custom earmolds provide improved noise attenuation across a wider range of noise frequencies, which apparently results in more effective overall noise attenuation.

We were particularly impressed with the boom mic on the Mach 1. In fact, its the best mic of all the in-the-ear headsets that weve tested. The mic on the Mach 1 sounds perfect, whether youre talking with others in the airplane over the intercom or with ATC. Best of all, the mic doesnt need to rest on your lips to operate properly. Instead, once you position the headset in your ear, you don’t even notice the mic is there.

Of course, no headset is perfect, but the Mach 1 is close. We tested and retested all of the current in-the-ear headsets on a recent flight to New York and on the way home, we decided that the Mach 1 was the clear overall winner.

Our only criticism is that the MATRIX eartips became a little uncomfortable after extended periods. Interestingly, we swapped the MATRIX eartips with the Comply foam tips from the Clarity Aloft product and found the comfort much improved. Unfortunately, the Comply eartips are only available for the Clarity Aloft. The Mach 1 sells for $550 and the headset has a 30-day money-back guarantee. If you wish to obtain custom earmolds, plan on another $138 and a trip to an audiologist.

Depending on your needs and preferences, each of these in-the-ear headsets could satisfy your requirements. If you prefer an in-the-ear headset with a headband, the $525 Clarity Aloft is the top pick. With proper fitting-by manipulation of the headset and a firm push on the eartips-Clarity Aloft fits the bill. Better yet, you’ll have the best eartips on the market.

If price is an issue, the $385 AuriComm 2.5 is the top choice at a price that includes custom earmolds. We have used the original AuriComm for the last three years with excellent success and factory support for all of the Quiet products is superb.

However, if you prefer an earpiece over the headband, as we do, and if price is not the driving factor, the $550 Mach 1 is our top pick for in-the-ear headsets. LightSPEED did its homework on the Mach 1 and its exceptional. LightSPEED is famous for long-term customer support so were sure the products warranty will be honored and repairs taken care of.

What about the Panther Bluetooth? It turned out to be the surprise dark horse in this group. The Bluetooth concept is terrific and Panthers execution is satisfactory, although we wish the instructions were a little easier to follow.

We also wish Panther would wise up and allow money-back returns for customers who might not be happy with the product. In an era of intense competition, this is just Business Ethics 101. Further, Panthers general customer support could also use improvement, in our estimation. We had lots of back and forth on the phone and found the company not as responsive as it competitors.

-Lionel Lavenue is a patent attorney and a pilot. He bases his Malibu Mirage in Northern Virginia.