What is the best headset for pilots?

If we look at some of the manufactures of aviation headsets, we quickly realize that there is a lot to choose from. 

Very few of the above produces headsets for every environment, so once you know how and where you intend to use the headset you can start narrowing down the list of manufacturers. What is best depends on what aeroplane flight deck you intend to use it in, the operation and your head shape.

Here is some general guidance:

  • Helmet style headsets are for military operations and civil helicopters. 
  • The smaller headsets and in the ear headsets are used on commercial jets.
  • Bigger headsets that capture the whole ear are used in civil helicopters, light aircraft, turboprop and on commercial jets.

If you are beginning commercial flight training it is of course difficult to know exactly what type of job you will be getting but going with one of the bigger headsets will give you more options. 

Why invest in a top of the range headset?

Here are 5 reasons.

  • Safety
  • Stress
  • Learning
  • Tiredness
  • Comfort

In aviation the interpretation of communication can be the difference between life and death, so for safety reasons you should have the best headset you can possibly get. When you are trying to learn to fly your mind is already working overtime having to concentrate to hear makes things worse. If you cannot hear probably what is being said, it can lead to stress and poor learning. Constant noise makes you tired and having a bulky headset is really uncomfortable for your neck, ears and skull. Constant high noise may also lead to hearing loss.

What features should I be looking for:

Noise reduction

  • Active noise reduction (ANR) is an electronic feature 
  • Passive noise reduction (PNR) is the damping of the noise solely down to material.

Most headsets have ANR but the PNR varies a lot.

“The ANR plus PNR together is what gives the total noise reduction.”

“The higher the flight deck noise the more important the PNR becomes.”

When you know this, it is easier to understand why a headset that seals the whole ear or that sits in the ear like a plug, provides better overall noise reduction than something that just rests on the ear. The noise levels in small airplanes, turboprop and helicopter usually makes the smaller headsets that just sits on the ear insufficient as the PNR is not good enough.

If you use the headset on a flight deck with very low level of noise PNR does not matter that much, then it is more about being able to hear the transmissions from air traffic control or from your colleagues over the intercom. That is why you see the use of the smaller headsets on a lot of commercial jets.

Bluetooth

This is not a must. Bluetooth connectivity is useful though your colleague will look weird at you when you start talking phone calls from Operations etc on the ground. As for flying like the Iron Eagle (cult aviation movie by the way) with music, it is possible as with the type of headset that supports a function where the music is stopped when a transmission on either the frq or intercom is detected. We just don’t think it goes hand in hand with being a professional pilot to listen to music while operating. 

Cord

Spiral or straight. Most pilots we know prefer the straight cord.

Connection

This depends on what aeroplane you use it for. Most light aeroplanes have jack. You can get various types of adapters, but some are quite expensive so if you already know what type of aeroplane you are going to fly, it can be smart to check out what plugs are in use. 

Microphone boom

What you need to look for is that the boom is long enough to reach your mouth. Sounds simple but some headset types have a really short (or long) boom. If you have a boom that is either too long or too short you tend to end up compensating by adjusting how the headsets is worn and this may impact the PNR.

Battery pack or power from aeroplane

If you go with battery pack you cannot go wrong but of course you need to bring spare batteries with you. On the other hand if you fly the same type of aeroplane where you can take power from the aeroplane system, there is no point in the battery pack. 

If you go with the battery pack it is important to look at where it is located and how you connect to the aeroplane. You don’t want a loose hanging battery pack becoming a boxing speed bag in case of turbulence or an obstruction to the flight controls.

Battery indicator light

If you have a battery pack it could have a little light on it indicating battery status. If you fly at night this light can be a little annoying. Also not all manufacturers have really thought about the colours they use, for instance the Sennheiser HMEC 26 BK had a “yellow light” for when battery was fully charged. This is really not cool when yellow is used for “master cautions”. In general anything that sits blinking around eye level is really not cool if you try to get a good night vision. You could always end up putting some tape on the light to solve the problem. 

Weight of the headset

The longer you fly the more important it is to have a light weight headset. Of course some of the lightest on the market are the plug type. For longer flights (+5 hrs) having a plug in your ear might start getting a little uncomfortable. 

 Individual adjustment of volume and single ear pad

Most prefer to have the same volume in both ears so this feature is not a must have in our view. Some headsets come as single ear pad. In our view these are not ideal for flying and more for ground bases roles.

What is the price?

A top of the range aviation headset is about 1000 EUR. If you are travelling it may be worth checking prices in different countries as prices and local taxes do wary a lot. Also sometimes you can get a free accessory like a headset for multimedia or sports, so it is worth checking different dealers.

Which one do we think is the best all round headset?

aviation headset
Bose A20

Our view is that the Bose A20 is the best all round headset you can get at the moment. For long-haul flying it does get a little bulky but the superb sound clarity and noise reduction outweigh this. One downside is that the PNR and ANR is so good that you will need to take it off one ear when the cabin crew comes in to the flight deck to be able to talk. This headset you can use regardless of fixed wing, helicopter, turboprop or jet. If you are looking for a headset that you could keep from your first training flight to you are left hand seat in an airline, this would be our suggestion.

How long does a headset last?

Headsets usually comes in a bag that protects the headset. If you ensure to neatly pack your headset down every time and if you also ensure that the headset is not tossed around on the flight deck, there is no reason why it cannot last +10 years. Over this time you will probably change the microphone filter and the ear seals a few times. Warranty depends on the manufacturer but most offer 5 years. If you do need your headset repaired outside warranty it can quickly run up to 30- 40% of what you paid for the headset so you need to consider if it is worth it. Sometimes the manufacturer will give you a discount on purchase of a new model but it depends on the nature of the failure. If you have clearly not taken care of the headset you are less likely to get any offers. 

Common mistakes or misunderstandings

You cannot use the headset if it runs out of battery. A battery powered headset will still function. You will however be losing the ANR function. If you have a battery pack with a battery life indication, you will be able to prevent losing the ANR at a critical stage of flight. When you lose the ANR the transmissions become less crystal clear and the overall sound reduction suffers considerably.

It is dangerous to have a plug type headset in case of a decompression. Wrong! They are not going to be ‘sucked in’. In case of a decompression the ear plugs will be expelled assuming the pressure differential is large enough to overcome the friction in your ear canal. The pressure outside your ear canal will be lower than within the ear canal and thus the inside pressure will seek to normalize by expanding. 

Buying cheap replacement ear seals for your top of the range headset. The PNR of non-genuine ear seals is rarely on par with originals. You could significantly reduce the overall noise reduction of the headset. You also need to ensure that the fabric is comfortable, coping with heat and providing an effective seal to your ear.

Wearing sunglasses that lift the ear cup so the ear seal is not tight. If you have a headset that seals the whole ear, you might be ruining the PNR. What you need is a pair of sunglasses that follows your skull very tight. Wearing sunglasses with a headset that is plug type or just rests on the ear is usually not a problem.

Forgetting to protect your hearing when you are outside the flight deck. The airport environment can be noisy. Make sure you also invest in some earplugs you can wear for example when you do the walk around. 

Don’t be the person that ruins the communication module on the plane. Sometimes you need to disconnect one of the pins when you use an adapter. We strongly recommend that before you use your own headset on a commercial plane make sure it is cleared with the engineering department.

Happy landings

Ask A Pilot