Buying a Headset

This page reflects my personal opinions and experience with headsets. Your head and ears may not agree with mine.
How to Buy | Lightspeed | SoftComm | Sennheiser | Bose | David Clark | Accessories

How to Buy a Headset

When you buy a headset, look at the numbers for noise attenuation, but make sure it fits YOU. People's heads are different sizes! Ask to wear it in the store for at LEAST 15 minutes. (Adjust it to fit, then sit down and read a book). If you can, borrow one from someone else to wear on an actual flight.

Consider how well it fits, the quality of the physical construction, the weight, the passive and (if present) active noise reduction, the quality of the sound you hear, how easy it is to adjust the volume, and the length and coverage of the warrantee.

Other features such as a built in push-to-talk switch or a cellular phone attachment may be of interest to you. It may sound stupid, but both can be useful. I've used the built in PTT in situations that otherwise would have been an in-flight comm failure or a cancelled commercial flight. I don't have the cell phone attachment but I've wished I had when I've used a cell phone in a running airplane on the ground to check on late co-workers, to close or amend a flight plan, or to ensure maintenance will meet an airplane that needs attention. I've used a cellular phone in the air in a communications failure and it was VERY hard to hear ATC without a cellphone jack in the headset. Non-emergency use of cellphones is forbidden while flying.

Don't worry about making a mistake buying your first headset. If you decide you want a different headset later, there is no money lost, because the first headset will become your spare, that you lend to passengers or use when your main one is being repaired.

Active Noise Reduction

Active noise reduction (ANR) is one of the terms you will hear associated with headsets. All headsets provide passive noise reduction. That means that they physically block sounds from entering your ears, by virtue of covering your ears tightly with sound-deadening material. The compressions and rarefactions in the air that make up sounds do not propagate well through foam and gel. Advanced headsets also have active noise reduction, also called electronic noise cancellation. These headsets contain sensors that monitor the sound waves inside the headset, and for those noises that are steady and repetitive, like your propeller and engine, circuitry in the headset generates opposite waves that cancel out the noise. It's like if you make an extra $50 this week, but your spouse reacts to this by spending $50 more than usual, you don't end up with any more money in your bank account. It sounds impossible, but it works really really well.

Better noise attenuation improves the clarity of ATC calls, reduces stress and fatigue in the cockpit and prevents long term hearing damage. The reduction of engine an propeller noise actually allows you to better hear problem sounds, such as a clunking in your landing gear or an irregular engine noise.

Drawbacks include the need for batteries, and that ANR interferes with some older intercom systems. 

Headset Reviews

I have owned four headsets, and field tested others. Here's what I think of them. The links to the manufacturers' sites will give you more technical specifications than I do, but won't tell you the problems I find with each.


This is my favourite, and my current main headset. I estimate that I have put over 1500 hours on it. There are three models, the 15, 20 and 25. I bought the middle one, so my comments apply to it. According to the manufacturer, the noise cancellation increases with the number. There is a new series out now, and Lightspeed has a trade-up program, so watch this space for a review of the 3G series.

This is the most comfortable headset I have ever worn. I have worn this headset through a day where I logged nine hours of flying, and never had the desire to escape from the headset. There is no pinching, no head clamping, no ear mashing and I don't notice the weight at all. Flying with a friend in a small airplane, I will go to sleep wearing my headset while the other pilot flies. The earcups are large and triangular with buttery soft, thin covers on the ear seals. They get a little stiff in cold weather, but don't feel cold against my face. My ear seal covers are ripped a little bit, probably because I sometimes forget to remove my earrings before flying, and they snag and tear it.

The active noise reduction is powered by two AA batteries, which really do live up to the manufacturer's claims and last for 50 hours or more. Not only is there an auto shutoff that saves your battery if you forget to turn the active noise off at the end of the flight, but three LEDs - green, amber and red show you your battery status. The headset gives about five hours warning before the batteries fail. The long lasting AAs will save you quite a few dollars over the life of the headset, and they are probably the same batteries you use in your flashlight and GPS - useful in a pinch, and saves having to carry different sorts of batteries in your flight bag. A little control unit integrated in the cord holds the batteries and includes independent volume adjustment for each ear. The box is easy to reach and the volume stays where you set it. In some cockpits a hook or clip on the box would be handy; maybe Lightspeed will put one on the next model, because I did ask them nicely.

The Lightspeed is still a good, working headset without batteries or with the batteries dead.  It reverts to being a comfortable passive headset. Sometimes I forget to turn it on.

The super-lightweight plastic frame may become brittle in cold weather. After I had put about 800 hours of flying on the headset, I had the earcup stirrups (the U-shaped part that cradles the earcup) break while I was putting on the headset on a very cold day. However, Lightspeed offers excellent warrantee service. Even though I didn't have the receipt, Lightspeed rapidly replaced not only the broken parts, but also the torn ear seal covers, and they sent me extra spare strrups with replacement instructions. The company told me that the new stirrups have been redesigned. I have had no problems with the replacement parts, but I haven't done as much cold-weather flying since the repair.

The headset is a little weird looking: it's bulkier than metal-framed headsets, and the earcups are sort of triangular. I have been in (tiny) cockpits where the bulkiness of the earcups was a problem.  If you fly a closed-cockpit ultralight, borrow and check.

LightSPEED Aviation

LightSPEED Thirty 3G

I haven't had a chance to get my ears on one of these yet, but the physical appearance puts me off. I guess LightSPEED wanted to advertise that it was something new, but did they have to make it light blue and beige?  I don't shrink from flamboyance, but this headset is gaudy. Give me a black one, please. The battery box has been redesigned; it's now an elongated teardrop shape and comes with a clip so that it doesn't need to dangle free.

As for the noise cancelling, after engine start I asked my student, "did you turn your headset on?"  He looked at me quizically, so I reached over and activated the noise cancelling on his set. The "WOW" look on his face makes me think that perhaps I should look past the mismatched appearance of the headset and try one for myself.


I own two SoftComm headsets, a C-60 Silver Edition and a C-40-20 Silver Fox. I learned to fly in the C-60 and still use it for passengers and students. It now has about 700 hours on it. I considered it a good enough value that I bought the Silver Fox as a passenger headset.

The fit is reasonable for a headset in its price range, and both gel ear seals are available for about $20 more than the standard foam ones. Gel ear seals are more comfortable and form around your ear better, giving better noise protection. I don't really feel the difference, but I think some people have more sensitive ear cartilage than me. Left seat: SoftComm C-60 and right seat: unknown model of David Clark

One advantage of SoftComms is that the mike is reversible, so you can have it come from the left or the right side (by turning the headset around and flipping the microphone boom over the top). This is useful if you sometimes fly from the right and sometimes from the left, or if the position of the headset jack varies among the aircraft you fly. Why would you care? If the headset cord crosses over your body or wraps around you it can be irritating, can lead to damaging the cord by yanking on it, and it's possible that it could delay your exit from the aircraft in an emergency.

The C-60 features a built-in push-to-talk switch. You can see it: the orange button in the lower part of the earcup, on the woman with her head turned in the photograph. This is useful to a flight instructor, because she can make a radio call while the student is flying without putting her hand on the yoke, and she can make radio calls in an aircraft that only has a PTT switch on the student's side. I've also used this feature to avert what would otherwise be a communications failure.

The microphone boom articulates in different places so you can adjust the position of the microphone and then leave it there. I like this better than the fully flexible booms, even though the manufacturers consider the latter to be a selling point.

SoftComm headsets are awkward to adjust to fit different heads. The adjustment system involves friction screws that are supposed to hold sliders in place so you can change the length of the headband, and other screws that theoretically help you to adjust the earcup angle.  I find that the available adjustment is slow to use, and gives unsatisfactory results. Also the screws must be periodically tightened, or they work their way loose, and get lost.

The position of the volume and stereo adjust knobs, is also irritating.  They are right on the earcups and stick out enough that they are easily turned as you pull the headset out of its bag, or touch your head against the side of the cockpit. One of the adjustment knobs switches from stereo to mono and one adjusts the volume, but because the headset is reversible, and both knobs feel the same, it takes a lot of fumbling to get set up properly. It's annoying to have to reset the volume level every time you put the headset on.

SoftComm Products website


My passenger wearing a SennheiserThe Sennheiser is compact, light, easily adjustable and an excellent fit. The volume control knob is on the earcup, but it is not right on the outside point, and thus doesn't get inadvertently turned the way the SoftComm does. The microphone boom is flexible and can be placed in any position.

The headset is bright blue, so it's not discreet. It is also available in an ANR edition, which in the store seemed comparable to Lightspeed's ANR, but I bought the passive set. I use this one when I'm flying an old airplane with an intercom system that is confused by ANR, or when I have to pack it with me to go somewhere where I might go flying. In the picture you can see it being worn by a passenger, with the edge of the SoftComm C-60 on another passenger in the foreground. That's the SoftComm volume control knob poking up in the top corner of the frame.

Mine came with a very stylish headset bag, but it's a little harder than it should be to get the headset in and out of the bag. (Talk about minor complaints!)

Sennheiser Electronic Corp. website


I wore the Bose X on a 30 day trial.  I tested it for about 60 hours in a C172 plus a couple of flights in a Beech Dutchess. It was slim and compact, really attractive-looking and folded up to take less space than other headsets in its carrying bag. The noise reduction was excellent: it felt like being in a quiet carpeted room.  After about an hour of flying I would become annoyed by pressure at the top of the head where the hinge was, and my hair got caught in the hinge during the flight.  

For that money it had to be absolutely perfect, and it wasn't.

I understand that Bose now includes a sheepskin cover pad that eliminates the hinge pinch aspect, but we're still talking $1000 US.  I think that if money were no object I would buy Bose for the passengers, but keep Lightspeeds for myself.

Bose Corporation website

David Clark

The David Clark headset is the de facto aviation standard. The pilot in every movie you've ever seen wears distinctive copper-green David Clarks. I hate them.

The headset frame is huge, inflexible, and hard to adjust. I was once told by a salesperson that it is the same frame as the SoftComm, but with different earcups and padding. The David Clark earcups are sloppy on me: I have a small head. Big-headed people suffer severe headset clamping in DCs. If a company provides headsets for employees, that's what you'll get. Headset racks and cockpits are designed to accommodate them. This is obviously a personal preference but I feel they are overpriced just for the name. They have huge market share and name-recognition. In their defense, they are very durable. The achilles heel is the connection between the headset cord and the earcup. If you're willing to replace that every thousand hours, the rest of the headset appears indestructible.

David Clark headsets with the electronic noise cancelling option use 9-volt batteries. These are a little more expensive than AA's, a little harder to find for sale in out of the way places, and more of a fire hazard if you have it in your poket with some conducting metal or you drop them into some corner of your aircraft, because the terminals are so close together. A pilot I know who owned an electronic noise cancelling DC headser had problems with terrible feedback in the headset, where the circuitry enhanced rather than cancelled!

I recently spoke to a pilot who bought a David Clark H20-10, with their new plastic frame. He has had so much difficulty with the fit that he plans to sell it at a loss and buy another brand. The headband is too flat and the only adjustment makes it stick up above his head, so that when he looks down, it falls off.

You can see the edge of a David Clark headset on the right seat pilot in the picture above that shows the SoftComm.

David Clark Company Inc. website

Headset Accessories

There exists a celular telephone adapter for headsets. This is on my Christmas wishlist. It's a gadget that allows you to plug a cellphone into any airplane (sorry, rotary wing people, I don't know if it's available for you) headset.  It can also be used with your portable music player, or to record ATC transmissions or flying lessons. My Pilot Store offers this adapter, but I have no association with this company, and I don't remember ever doing business with them. They haven't even given me a free adapter. Darn. They should, shouldn't they?

You should definitely get a bag for your headset if it didn't come with one. The money you spend on the bag will be saved on headset repair. Don't pay $40 for a fancy headset bag, though. Buy an insulated (padded) lunch bag from your local discount department store for about $12. (Even less if you're willing to carry a bag with My Little Pony or Pokemon on it). The thermos pocket is perfect for a flashlight, and you can put charts and pens in the other pockets. I swear, the exact same bag is sold to pilots at triple the price.

If you use rechargeable batteries in a noise cancelling headset, always carry spares. The low battery warning feature does not work well with rechargeables, because they have such a square power profile.  (They stay good for a long time and then drop quicky to dead, unlike regular batteries that drop off more gradually).

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This page written 29 June 2003 by Robyn Stewart.  Last updated 12 June 2004.
Copyright 2003 Flying Start Initiatives