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An aviation headset is easily one of the most important purchases you make as a pilot, apart from an aircraft of course. Your headset will be your tool to communicate with others inside and outside of the aircraft. Not only will it help you communicate, it will also play an even bigger role: protecting your hearing.
Our human hearing system is sensitive to sound frequencies between 20 Hz and 20,000 Hz and amplifies the sound between 2,000 and 5,000 Hz, since that's where our human voice is situated. While sound frequencies are measured in hertz (Hz), the volume or intensity of sound is expressed in decibels (dB). A quiet room is around 40dB and a normal conversation around 50-80dB. Our hearing is sensitive to these so-called sound pressure levels (SPL), but it's also very vulnerable to sounds with higher intensity like a rock concert or airplane engines (120-130dB). When you are exposed to sounds of 90dB and more, you risk damaging your inner ear, resulting in temporary or worse, permanent hearing loss.
Pilots are exposed to high volumes, and usually in low frequencies, for a long period at a time. Hearing loss can and will occur if you're not protecting your ears properly. The good news is, you can protect them. The key to this is having a headset that does a good job handling and reducing this noise.
That's why having a decent aviation headset manufacturers headset is crucial, not only for safety when flying but also for your own ears. Since hearing loss is irreversible, prevention is always better than cure.
Types of headsets
First of all, it's important to distinguish a few different types of headsets. The main differences are the noise reduction technology the headset uses and the general look of the headsets.
In-ear vs on-ear
Just like normal headphones people use in their everyday life, aviation headsets come in two main categories. On one hand, you have the on-ear headsets, these are the most commonly used ones. On-ear headsets also offer the biggest choice of brands and models on the market. Well-known examples of on-ear headset brands are David Clark, Bose, Sennheiser and Lightspeed.
The David Clark H10-13.4 on-ear aviation headset
The second category is in-ear headsets. These headsets use little speaker plugs that are put inside your ear, just like the headphones of your smartphone. These headsets are less common, but offer the great advantage that they are usually more comfortable and weigh a lot less (and don't cause bad hair days). However, the way they feel and sit on your head mostly depends on your ears. While on-ear headsets fit almost everyone, in-ear headsets can feel different from person to person. Good examples of in-ear headsets are the Faro Air and Clarity Aloft headsets (more information about headsets those below).
The Faro AIR in-ear aviation headset (Get 10% off with code HANGARFLIGHTS)
PNR vs ANR & DNR
The second category of headsets is based on their ability to reduce or cancel noise and the noise reduction technology they use. We'll discuss passive noise reduction (PNR), active noise reduction (ANR) and dynamic noise reduction (DNR) headsets.
Passive noise reduction (PNR)
Passive noise reduction headsets are usually the least expensive ones. They have noise suppressing foam that fills the earcup cavity and passively reduces the noise by sealing off sounds that come from outside the headset. For proper noise reduction, PNR headsets should fit firmly around the side of your head.
PNR headsets can range from $60 to $600.
Active noise reduction (ANR) and Dynamic noise reduction (DNR)
ANR headsets actively reduce and cancel the noise by using electronics inside the headset to remove or suppress unwanted aircraft noise. These headsets are usually battery-powered and use a filter to separate the wanted signal from the unwanted signals, usually below 300Hz. The separated noise is inverted and mixed with the original signal, which results in the noise and inverted noise canceling each other. ANR headsets use a little microphone inside the headset to 'read' incoming noise and generate the anti-noise signal.
Active noise reduction headsets can usually obtain a noise reduction of 10-20dB, which means at 20dB, the noise is only 1/100th of the original level. Since you don't want to block wanted signals, like alerts or a sputtering engine, ANR headsets only block frequencies below 300Hz. ANR headsets are in most cases more expensive than their passive noise reduction counterparts.
There is also another kind of active noise canceling headsets, the dynamic noise reduction (DNR) headsets. These are more expensive then ANR headsets, but are lighter and provide an extra level of noise canceling by using digital electronic techniques to remove noise components from the incoming headphone signal. PNR headsets achieve this by digitizing signals in a series of numerical values, which are then processed to look for repetitive noise signals and remove noise components.
DNR headsets suppress noise by 15-25dB and noise signals of up to 3,500Hz can be detected and canceled. They can range in price from $250 up to $1500.
It's not only important to look at the types of headphones and their ability to cancel incoming noise, we'll also need to take into account the outgoing sounds from the microphone.
If the microphone of your headset does not have any suppression against noise pick-up, this noise can enter the audio system of the intercom in your airplane, or be transmitted over the radio to other aircraft and ATC, making your calls a lot less clear and understandable. You might have noticed a lot of microphones have a mic muff, or windscreen, to offer some suppression of cabin noise, but by itself, this is not enough to prevent all unwanted noise entering your mic.
Like the ear muffs, microphones need a quality noise suppressing foam muff. In addition to this, a 'jacket' over the foam will increase its effectiveness. Always make sure to pay attention to the microphone when purchasing a headset.
Things to consider
When purchasing a headset, there are a few other things to consider than just the way they reduce noise.
The first factor to consider is how comfortable the headset is. You will be wearing it for hours at a time, make sure they properly fit and feel comfortable. Ear cushions and the headband will have a big impact on the comfort, to make sure to try some different models and brands. Some headsets have the bad characteristic of starting to squeeze your head after wearing them for a while. Be sure to wear the headset for at least 10 minutes to really feel how they sit.
A common option for modern headsets is Bluetooth capability. Lots of devices, like GPS systems and smartphones, can be connected to headphones via Bluetooth, eliminating the need for extra cables in the cockpit. Having Bluetooth functionality on your headset can be a big advantage and a good reason to pay a little extra.
The Bose A20 ANR headsets can be purchased with Bluetooth capability
We've already discussed the different types of noise reduction of headsets. Deciding whether to buy a PNR or ANR headset depends on a few different factors.
First of all, set a budget for yourself and buy accordingly.