Operating general aviation, turbo-prop and even many jet-powered aircraft is uncomfortable and damaging without a proper headset. My father learned to fly in a Piper Warrior with the microphone draped over his right thigh and communicating with the instructor by yelling over the drone of the engine and crackle of the overhead speaker. Thankfully those days are gone and the decibel level has been reduced with a variety of headsets, also allowing the pilot to have both hands free to control the aircraft, not the radio.
Headsets designed for those aviating now cover a formidable array of designs and prices. Though sometimes referred to as head-clamps, these tools allow pilots to communicate with air traffic control and eliminate a huge amount of noise. Furthermore, passengers in most light aircraft will appreciate avoiding the nauseating cacophony produced by the engine, propeller and airflow.
There are two methods to reduce the decibel level experienced by the user of these products. Nearly all products offer some sort of passive noise reduction. This is typically offered with foam or gel filled ear-cups and a spring steal frame to clamp them to your head. A more advanced method, which works well in conjunction with the passive reduction, is active noise reduction (ANR). Some manufacturers refer to this as active noise canceling (ANC). Reduction is a more appropriate term, as I have never experienced a complete cancellation of the noise.
If you are just beginning flight training it should be possible to borrow some headsets for a while, but after a few flights with headsets covered in other's sweat and germs, you will probably want your own. Additionally, flight schools typically do not offer very good units. I have seen many students purchase the least expensive and they end up unhappy. The headsets wind up not working well in the airplane, they are difficult to use and make it more challenging to learn. Inevitably, they end up purchasing another, higher quality pair.
There are many manufacturers of aviation headsets. Bose, David Clark, Peltor, Sennheiser, Telex, and Soft Comm are just a few of the players in the market whose name comes to mind. For a huge listing you can investigate Sporty's Pilot Shop. They have an extensive catalog of everything related to aviation and are well known throughout the flying community.
Key Items To Evaluate
When you investigate a headset, you need to do more than try it on in a store for a few minutes or read comments by others online. Sometimes the manufacturers have risk-free trial programs or you could find somebody with the model you are considering. Buying any headset that you haven't used for day of at least 3 hours of flying is not wise.
It has been my experience that any headset with an active noise reduction system may consume batteries at a startling rate, especially the older systems. It is very annoying and momentarily disconcerting when you are in instrument meteorological conditions and flying an approach to minimums or simply talking to the tower and the ANR quits. The noise level not only increases but also changes in pitch. The high-priced headsets are now no better than an old-fashioned passive noise reduction model and perhaps worse. If you don't mind buying or recharging batteries and fiddling with the battery pack as part of your preflight then this is not a problem.
Bose was the leader in active noise canceling headsets and is least on their third generation. The newest model is the Aviation Headset X, which itself has been updated. Bose does a fantastic job marketing and also makes a very comfortable headset. The microphone remains in place and the ear cups are good. The ear seals are filled with gel and seem far superior to foam.
This is a good headset, aside from the current price of nearly $1000. I have never found it uncomfortable on my head and the amount of noise reduction seems reasonable; though, I have discovered better. Battery life on the original model was meager. In contrast, the Headset X will last upward of 40 hours on a set of AAA batteries.
David Clark is most likely the best recognized aviation headset manufacturer. Most general aviation pilots use their products and all regional airlines that I know of do too. These products withstand daily plugging-in and unplugging, on and off a variety of heads for 15-20 hours a day, day after day at the regional airlines. They are durable to say the least. If some sort of failure were to occur the company has a fantastic reputation for product and customer service.
Both passive only and passive combined with ANR headsets are available. They are all of a similar style and I find them to be very comfortable; though not as pleasant as the Bose models. Overall, I have found the H10-20 model to suit my needs extremely well. The H10-20 offers enough comfort to wear them for 8 hours a day, every day combined with great passive noise cancellation. These are in the middle of the price structure amongst all manufacturers. This is the model I recommend to all my students.
This is also an ANR model and one that seems to work better than Bose's. Initially, I discovered it was impossible for me to find a comfortable situation on my head with this unit. I used these headsets for 30 agonizing hours of flight before tossing them in the back of the airplane due to microphone problems. I was relieved to finish a long trip with my standard David Clark H10-20's.
In another instance I was forced to used the HEMC 300 and found them to be incredibly comfortable. I was amazed and learned that the owner of this particular set had taken the liberty to bend the headband. He was experiencing the same problems I was initially and solved it in less than a minute. This time I found this to be one of the best headsets I had ever used. I so enjoyed this headset that it is now on my shopping list to replace my old, but sturdy, DC-H10-20's.
Sennheiser also offers an option for those that own their aircraft versus rent. The headset and intercom systems can be modified eliminating the battery pack. Power to operate the electronic noise reduction system is tapped from the tip of the microphone plug. This is an excellent option but removes the possibility of ever using these headsets in non-equipped aircraft to their potential. Other manufacturers offer built in power systems for their headsets also eliminating battery packs; though, Sennheiser is the only one to offer the microphone tip power.
I first used this headset on a 2-week trip in a Piper Seminole from Boston, MA to Los Angeles, CA and back, accumulating over 50 hours in that short period. After my skull crushing experience with the Sennheiser HEMC 300, I was afraid I would be pulling out my David Clark H10-20's for relief; however, that was not the case. I found this model to be as comfortable as my DC's which I have used for the previous decade.
The noise canceling is not as fantastic as I anticipated. The Seminole was not equipped with a propeller synchronizer and I believe the small wave created by the slightly differing propeller speeds was enough to confuse the HEMC 400. There was a change in pitch when I activated the noise canceling, but I am not sure it was any quieter. Again, I am pleased with the comfort after an 8 hour day of flying.
I have forgotten how loud piston powered aircraft are and am spoiled by the relative tranquility of the Embraer Regional Jet. There is a marked difference in noise level with the noise cancelingturned on when I am in the Embraer. Even though it is a jet, nearly all the pilots wear headsets with at least passive ear protection. I am much more please with the HEMC 400 in the EMB than the Seminole. I really need to try these headsets in a single-engine piston powered airplane. Regardless of the aircraft; however, I now always use earplugs in conjunction with any headset.
Battery life is acceptable at around 12 hours for a set of 4 alkaline AA's. I will most likely be switching to the rechargeable NiMH AA's very soon for the cost savings as I use the headset nearly daily. The Low Batt indication illuminates very soon; however, there is no degradation in noise canceling and the ANR continues for several more hours with this indication. Construction seems to be solid. A year spent in the service of a regional airline pilot will be a true test. This headset comes with a 10-year warranty as a bit of insurance.Update:
5 months after using the headset the coupling for the battery pack cracked; though, was still serviceable with a bit of coaxing. 7 months after use one of the speakers in the earcup developed an untolerable resonance. I called Sennheiser and told them about the two problems. They wanted me to pay to ship the headset back to them, and offered no loaner set in the meantime. David Clark will first send you a loaner set and pay for shipping the broken unit back to them. I explained this and after much discussion could only get them to cover the shipping. The headset returned well repaired in about a week and a half.
My experience with Sennheiser's customer service and their products has lead me to sell this headset on eBay. The customer service representatives were polite and in the end it did not cost me a dime to have the unit repaird; however, it is clear that this headset will not endure the rigors of near daily use. I am headed back to David Clark products.