The universal headset

October 7th, 2013 by Ron Rapp

Nothing ruins an otherwise pleasant flight faster than a throbbing headache brought on by the weight and clamping force exerted by a cheap, beat-up, or poor-fitting headset. Perhaps my noggin is just unusually sensitive, but I find that vice-grip pain especially frustrating because one of the primary reasons for wearing a headset in the first place is to avoid such maladies.

I’m fortunate to fly a wide variety of aircraft on a regular basis—it’s one of the things that keeps aviation fresh and exciting—but unfortunately, it also means a big pile of equipment, especially where headsets are concerned. In the Gulfstream, for example, the 3 ounce Telex 750 is perfect. Lightweight, simple, and virtually indestructible (Lord knows I’ve stepped on, sat on, bent, tossed, and twisted that thing every which way!).

Hop into an open-cockpit Pitts, however, and that 750 is quite worthless. A loud, aerobatic biplane demands serious passive noise reduction, so out comes the trusty David Clark H10 series with their gel-filled ear seals, and a leather helmet to keep the thing on. If I’m donning a DA-42 TwinStar, RV-6 or a King Air 90, my go-to option is usually the comfortable Bose X ANR headset because of the excellent low-frequency noise reduction.

At the risk of sounding like my wife as she stands before a closet full of clothes, it took quite a while to figure out what to wear for each occasion. Headsets are a very individualized choice because of the varying size and shape of each person’s head. A model which might be comfortable under normal circumstances can be quite different when, say, sunglasses are worn. They can dig into the side of one’s skull under the clamping pressure of a traditional headset. Who hasn’t felt that wonderful sensation or been frustrated by the ANR disturbances and increased noise allowed past the headset seal by the temples on a pair of otherwise top-notch shades?

It’s interesting to see how various people solve this issue. My friend Dean Siracusa came up with a creative solution via his Flying Eyes sunglasses. Me? I’ve tackled it from the headset side. A few years ago I discovered the Clarity Aloft headset and have never looked back. It (along with other in-ear headsets like the Quiet Technologies Halo) is the only solution I’ve seen that work in every single aircraft. It looks perfectly at home on the flight deck of a jet, yet has sufficient passive noise attenuation and low enough mass that I can wear it during strong negative-G aerobatics in an Extra 300 without it flying off. In-ear headsets have no traditional head band, so they can be worn with any type of hat—perfect for the follicly-disadvantaged (ie. me!) when flying RVs and other glass canopy style aircraft. They’re light and compact, so they store easily when not in use.

I also appreciate the fact that they don’t require batteries. As much as I love the Bose X, when the batteries run dry it goes from being one of the best headsets to one of the absolute worst. Even when the circuitry is getting good power, the headset doesn’t always cooperate. I once ferried a King Air across the country, unpressurized, at Flight Level 250. That was the day I discovered the Bose’s altitude limitation the hard way: coast-to-coast with no ANR. In their defense, Bose does publish this data—if you know where to find it.

Anyway, in-ear headsets are not a solution for everyone. Some people don’t like having foam earbuds in their ear canals for hour after hour. The design also has a few difficulties. The Clarity is also a pain to put on and take off because the earpieces take time to expand and create a good seal. And speaking of those ear buds, any oil, dirt or grease on my hands seems to end up on the foam—and probably in my ear canal, too, come to think of it.

But if they work for you, they’re a wonder, and it’s always comforting to know no matter what I’m flying on a given day, the “right” headset is always at hand.

Ron Rapp

Ron Rapp is a Southern California-based charter pilot, aerobatic CFI, and aircraft owner whose 7,000-plus hours have encompassed everything from homebuilts to business jets. He’s written mile-long messages in the air as a Skytyper, crop-dusted with ex-military King Airs, flown across oceans in a Gulfstream IV, and tumbled through the air in his Pitts S-2B. Visit Ron’s website.

The opinions expressed by the bloggers do not reflect AOPA’s position on any topic.

  • http://iflyblog.com Brent

    Ron,
    I completely agree, I wear a Halo in my airplane because I hate the clamps and I like to wear funny hats; the passenger gets the used Bose X since I don’t imagine they’ll be into sharing the foam inserts with others; and at work it’s the Telex. One size doesn’t fit all indeed.
    Brent

    • http://www.rapp.org/ Ron Rapp

      I feel for your passengers, Brent… nothing but a $1,000 Bose X noise-cancelling unit to keep their ears protected. :)

      But seriously, you do bring up another limitation of the in-ear headsets: even with a fresh set of ear pieces, getting a proper fit with the inserts requires specific technique, at least with the Clarity. Investing the time and effort to train a passenger who might only be on board for a single flight is probably not worth it. It’s much easier to hand them a traditional headset.

  • Chris

    I too wear a Clarity Aloft headset while flying. I ditched the foam eartips for triple flange eartips off Amazon because of the potential for contamination squeezing the foam eartips after being used once, and the ease of simply stuffing them in the ear and pulling them out. I didn’t notice any major effect in noise reduction between the two, so that’s all I use. Because they are not the screw-in types like the Comply foam eartips that come with the headset, they will eventually become too loose to stay on, but that takes several months (took me about a year flying about every other week). I love this headset!

    • http://www.rapp.org/ Ron Rapp

      Great tip, Chris (no pun intended!). I’m going to have to check into those.

      There’s quite a bit of creative thinking when it comes to these headsets. I’ve seen people use the Comply tips with the QT Halo, and vice versa. Likewise, there was a guy out there who was converting Bose non-aviation ANR headsets by adding a boom mike.

  • Pingback: The Universal Headset | The House of Rapp

  • Keith Wood

    So, the best solution is the one that Plantronics developed (and NASA discovered) 50 years ago, a lightweight electronic module with acoustic tubes for earphones and mike.

    The MS50/T-30 weighs pretty much nothing. It can attach to the frame of whatever sunglasses you like, to a lightweight and comfortable headband, or you can even have a custom earmold made which will support it by plugging it into your ear!

    The standard kit comes with eartips of various size, but I have preferred their “Versa-tip” for decades. There is also an eartube kit that plugs into both ears, though I prefer the redundant microphones of two separate modules on a single headband.

    NASA types discovered that if you put on a longer eartube, you can either wear it normally or loop the headband around your neck and still have the eartip plugged in. Another possibility using longer eartubes is to install the modules in a helmet, and plug them in as you put on the helmet.

    It just goes to show that newer doesn’t mean better.

    • http://www.rapp.org/ Ron Rapp

      I’ve seen MS50s in use, but can’t recall seeing them with secondary mics and earphones. The MS50′s single earpiece never appealed to me, but it’s hard to beat their design for low cost and simplicity. In an era of throw-away products, it’s pretty amazing to think that they’re still making those things a half century after the first ones were manufactured. It’s the “King Air” of headsets, you might say.

      Then again, I’m not sure that headset would be the best choice in a loud aircraft like a Pitts. You need some serious noise attenuation to avoid hearing damage and there are options out there — albeit at higher cost — which provide superior passive and/or active noise reduction.

      • Keith Wood

        There is a two-ear tube kit (used mostly in business environments) that works with all of the Plantronics headsets which use an acoustic tube.

        The secondary mic / earphone setup I use is simply another MS50 on the other side. They used to have a headband with the holders for two modules — I just put a second holder on the headband I already was using.

        Not only are the still making them, one of mine dates back to at least 1970 (I got it used in 1971) and is still working fine.

        If you need more attenuation, simply install them into the earcups of a headset or helmet, and go for the “Snoopy Cap” look.

  • Bill

    Interesting subject, Ron. What about the idea of trying to get maximum hearing protection by wearing the in-ear type headsets underneath active noise cancelling ear muff type headsets?

    On a related subject, based on your experience in multiple aerobatic aircraft, do you feel you can rate them in terms of noise level? Do any stand out as quieter or noisier (from the cockpit)? I’m trying to gather info in hopes of acquiring an aerobat that won’t make me go deaf.

    Thanks,
    Bill

    • http://www.rapp.org/ Ron Rapp

      I don’t know if the in-ear headsets would work underneath a traditional ear cup because the in-ear units have ear buds that protrude somewhat, and wires which extend from those earpieces. What I have seen people do is put in foam earplugs and then cover them with a pair of, say, David Clarks. I never tried that because it seemed to me that I’d simply have to crank up the radio volume even more.

      As far as aerobatic airplanes go, the Citabria and Decathlon are relatively quiet. The higher performance, AEIO-540-powered aircraft like the Extra 300 and Pitts S-2 series are considerably louder. I don’t know quite how to quantify it, but I’d say twice as loud, owing both to the larger engine and the importance placed on keeping the aircraft’s weight down to enhance performance, meaning there’s no consideration given to insulating the occupants from noise. I’d recommend a test flight to see if the noise level is something you are comfortable with. Keep in mind, these are all tandem seat airplanes and my perspective on those airplanes comes from instructing, and the front cockpit is always going to be louder than the rear seat. That three feet or so of distance makes a big difference!

      Open cockpit airplanes like the Great Lakes, Stearman, and even some Pitts models, are going to be louder still. The wind noise on downlines and other high-speed figures can be pretty significant. You might also look at a Christen Eagle. Pitts-like but with the smaller engine and a beefier canopy. The Eagle always seemed like a decent mix between the entry level aerobats and the advanced/unlimited designs.

      At the end of the day, I wouldn’t let noise dictate which aircraft you pursue. The aircraft may not have gotten any quieter, but the hearing protection has certainly advanced a lot! :)

      • Bill

        It’s been some time, but I do want to say thanks very much for your considered reply on this, Ron. I appreciate you sharing your impressions. Of course, I agree I’ll need test flights to see for myself (and have done so in the S2B), but it’s valuable to have the impressions of someone who has spent more than a flight or two in these planes. I do hope to check out the Eagle.

        B/t/w, I am a person who wears foam earplugs underneath my noise canceling (Lightspeed 3G) headset. I think it helps, because exposure in my fairly noisy aircraft (RV4) gets the tinnitus going. I do have to crank the volume up to full, but still think I benefit because it cuts down the other noise, and most of the time you’re not communicating. I take a plug out when communications become expected/critical though, such as in the pattern.

        Happy flying.

  • Joe

    I have used the Lightspeed Mach 1 for a couple years as a recreational flyer, and I really like them. I also went the extra effort with the custom fit ear-canal inserts option. I don’t share them. Couldn’t share them actually, cause everyone’s ear canal is different. Kinda like the finger print. It does take a moment or two to put them on. My passengers get the Lightspeed Zulu 2.

    • http://www.rapp.org/ Ron Rapp

      The Mach 1 certainly has its share of fans! Unfortunately, it was discontinued by Lightspeed a couple of years ago, so it’s not much of an option for those seeking a new headset. How has yours held up over the years? I’ve had some quality control issues with their products, although I have to say the customer support has always been excellent.

      If you’re passengers get the Zulu 2, they’re received the deluxe treatment. That’s quite a nice headset!

  • Cary Alburn

    I’ve been a David Clark fan since purchasing my first DC in 1978–it’s still going strong, but my regular headset is a 25 year old 13.4 modified with Oregon Aero comfort items and a Headsets Inc. ANR conversion. While all that works fine, DC’s latest offering, the new DC Pro-X is intriguing. Any comments about it?

    Cary

    • http://www.rapp.org/ Ron Rapp

      I haven’t tried the Pro-X yet, but it looks interesting. I’m not sure it would do the trick in an open cockpit situation or a really loud piston aircraft. But I could be wrong!