Whilst headsets could be classified as pilot equipment, it’s a significant enough topic to warrant it’s own guide. Headsets are the key interface between the pilot and ATC, transmitting your voice, over VHF radio to the ATC, and their’s back to you too. Headsets for light aircraft are also used to block out the significant noise in the cockpit, where as commercial pilot headsets often focus on light weight, reliability and clear audio.
Headsets are very personal, everyone is different and therefore their headset selection should also change. There are some ubiquitous choices that you’ll see on pilots ears, for good reason, but that may not mean they are right for you. In addition it is recommended that you go to a physical shop and try on the headset, as buying online may not be as good an idea due to the varying shape of ones head or ears.
As with many things in life however, you do pay for what you get in the world of headsets. Cheap headsets often have poor quality audio, are noisy and can be uncomfortable. In the contrary, expensive headsets can sound like a good set of audiophile headphones, be extremely quiet and be so comfortable it’s like you’re not even wearing them. Headsets can be divided into four categories:
Passive headsets are standard headsets that rely upon the insulation of the ear cups that you wear. They require a high “clamping” force to your head to create a good seal between the ear cups and your head, meaning sound can’t get in so easily. The ear cups are usually foam lined to try and absorb as much noise as they can. Passive headsets are cheaper than ANR (see below), but do not provide the same performance in noise reduction
ANR, or Active Noise Reduction, headsets are a popular choice of modern pilots. Rather than using ear seals or foam padding for silencing, ANR headsets use complex electronics to “listen” to the noise in your aircraft, then invert that sound wave to cancel it out. They are very effective to the point a headset no longer needs to be clamping your head to be quiet, meaning they are often lighter and more comfortable. There are some disadvantages however; they usually require batteries, which can go flat in flight leaving you with a very noisy environment to operate in, so always carry spare batteries and secondly, they tend to be very expensive in comparison to ANR headsets. If cost isn’t an issue, ANR is without a doubt the way to go.
In ear headsets aren’t particularly common, though there are so notable examples out there. They tend to be used for aerobatics where the light weight nature of the headset means they will not slip of your head mid-flight under high G forces. Nose attenuation isn’t always the best, so they are often suited to shorter flight of an hour or less and are not entirely suitable for a busy pilot flying multiple hours per day.
Commercial headsets are not suitable for learning to fly with. Even if becoming a commercial pilot is your end goal, the noises in a jet versus the noise in a propeller aircraft are very different and you will find it uncomfortably loud after mere seconds. If you only intend to fly an Airbus or Boeing, then these are fine, but for piston, they should be avoided.
Commercial headsets can be easily identified by their small and light weight nature, often looking like a pair of 1980’s headphones. They come in both passive and ANR variants, sometimes with only one ear piece.
Below are some explanations of different price brackets that headsets come in.
£50 – £200
Most headsets in this price brackets are the same two or three units with different badges on the side. There are some subtle differences as you go through the price range however. Whilst most are modeled on the ever-reliable David Clark headset, they are not the same high quality units, which reflects in their price. Most of the value in these headsets are reflected in the audio quality and ear seals. Cheaper headsets tend to have thinner low density foam in the ear seats, so the noise dampening can be quite poor, but as you increase your spending the ear seals start to become gel filled, giving a great seal around your ears and glasses. Sound quality isn’t overly important in aviation headsets, these are not audiophile grade headphones, so pick a pair thats comfortable and go from there.
Remember headsets in this price bracket cost little more than 30 minutes to at most 90 minutes of flying, that’s not a lot of money to invest, so if you can budget more, it’s great to move up to the next step.
£200 – £500
Have you ever seen on TV, in the movies, in pictures or just about anywhere a pilot with a distinctive green type headset? Most likely you have, even without noticing it and they’re there for good reason. David Clarke headsets have been for decades the industry standard in quiet, reliability and performance. Whilst technology has moved on in the high end offerings, and some headsets are a lot cheaper, the mid range priced David Clark’s are a great quality, highly durable and fantastic headset that has stood the test of time.
There are other brands of headsets in this price range, but discounting the aforementioned David Clark’s, the mid range is not flooded with headset verity.
Once you get above the £500-600 mark, headset choices become focused upon sound (or the lack of) and comfort. Whilst many look at the price of high end headsets and dismiss them immediately, if you’re serious at flying they are worth the high price. Headsets in this range are almost exclusively ANR, meaning that they are considerably quieter than cheaper headsets. Headsets such as the ever popular Bose A20, or Lightspeed Aviation lines are becoming more common in light aviation. These models also come with Bluetooth integration to allow the wearer to listen to music whilst flying, or even make phone calls, though as a website we do not recommend doing either of these things in flight. Whatever brand you purchase, once you get to the £500+ bracket, you know you’re getting a good headset that your ears will thank you for in the long run!
Headsets are very individual, so don’t just follow what others do. Buy within your budget but remember the more you pay, the better quality headset you will get, nearly without exception. Ears are a vital part of flying, they even get tested during our class 1 and class 2 medicals, so treat them with care. Remember you’re not stuck with the same pair for the rest of your life, many people buy a less expensive pair until they pass their test, then treat themselves to a high end ANR headset, keeping their old one as a spare for passengers.
If only one piece of advice is to be taken from this article, it is to go to a store and try on all the headsets in your price bracket. What suits person A may not suit person B, and there is nothing worse than having to return your new headset rather than go flying.