The first time I ever went up in a private plane, it was in the two-seater that my uncle built by himself in his garage. I remember climbing up into the sky, the air whipping through my hair, and the ground beneath me fading into a soft-focused tapestry of colors. It was the most exhilarating experience of my young life.
My uncle was a licensed pilot and had been flying for most of his adult life. Building planes was his hobby, but flying was his passion.
While we were up in the air, I had his comforting and calm voice in my ear via a headset. When he let me take the controls, he coached me through a barrel roll (he was certainly still flying the plane, but I didn’t know it at the time).
I came away from that experience with a lifelong love of flying and a new appreciation for all the equipment that makes for a safe and fun flight.
One of the most important pieces of equipment a pilot owns is his or her headset. It connects him to the co-pilot, the passengers, and air traffic control. If you’re currently a student pilot, you are probably learning how best to communicate while up in the air, including learning the Aviation Alphabet.
Clear communication makes the difference between a successful flight and a disaster. This is why anybody who goes up should be sure to invest in an excellent headset.
The first thing you realize when flying is that a cockpit is a noisy place. For that reason, any headset that you plan on using while flying must have noise-canceling capabilities. There are a lot of headsets on the market that dampen outside noise, but this is not an area where you want to skimp. Invest in a pair that can block out all unnecessary background noise.
PNR headsets are generally the most affordable but also the least effective for reducing noise, relying on the cushioning and seal around the ear to block out sound. PNR is sufficient enough for headphones and general usage, but for an especially noisy flight, they leave something to be desired.
ANR headsets are far more effective at reducing noise, which is why they tend to be priced higher than PNR headsets. ANR often rely on separate battery power for an internal mechanism that “hears” outside noise and produces a mirror signal to essentially cancel out the sound. ANR technology is pretty common in aviation headsets.
The most expensive but also most effective type of noise-canceling headsets are DNRs. DNR headsets rely on the same system as ANR, except with a digital electronic signal that makes the noise-masking even more effective. Some DNR headsets can cancel a noise signal up to 3,500Hz, which covers the range of the human voice.
Keep in mind that, while reducing background noise is important, you never want to completely block out all outside noise while flying. Your plane will talk to you while you’re up in the air, and you want to be sure to hear what she’s telling you.
Other important factors
Headsets for pilots also require a good, adjustable microphone. The last thing you want when communicating with the tower is to sound like a fuzzy announcer on a New York subway. When you’re speaking, you need clarity, good volume, and no feedback or buzzing. There are occasions where even a second of confusion can be catastrophic.
Finally, there’s one more important factor not to overlook: comfort. Whether you’re a student getting in all your training hours, or you’re a professional pilot flying long hauls, you will regret it immediately if you buy a headset that chafes.
The earpieces and head pads (the part that rests on the top of the head) should be cushioned, but not so much so that the set fits awkwardly. You also want a headset that’s sturdy but not too heavy. I recommend going into a store and trying on a few different sets before making your purchase. Once you’ve tested what’s out there, you’ll be able to buy with confidence.
What are the Best Aviation Headsets?
Alright, now we’re ready to get down to brass tacks. There are countless headsets on the market that you could technically use in the cockpit, but some stand above the rest.
The first thing you’ll notice when shopping for aviation headsets is that a few brand names come up over and over. David Clark, Faro, and Lightspeed are some of the most respected (but, by no means the only) brands out there. Each of these brands sells a variety of different sets in different price ranges. Let’s look at a couple of examples of each.
Most Affordable: Rugged Air RA200
The RA200 General Aviation Pilot Headset by Rugged Air is the most affordable option on our list. For the price, at below $100, you really can’t find a reliable headset for less than this. But don’t get your expectations up too high, this is a budget option if you just need a basic headset. The comfort, noise reduction, and sound quality get a passing grade but none of these features is anything to get excited about.
The earcups are not particularly comfortable and the sound quality may be an issue if you are flying in airspace with lots of chatter and heavy traffic. If you just need a set to get started (or need a cheap passenger headset) these will do but if you are getting serious about flying you may want to consider scrolling down for better options.
Budget Headset: Kore Aviation KA-1 PNR
This Kore Pilot Aviation Headset is one of the top picks among beginner students that are on a tight budget. If you are just getting started and not ready to invest in a higher-end headset, this is a solid option in this price range. The PNR technology used in this Kore headset is has a Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) of 24db to protect you from the loud hum of a small plane. Keep in mind, this uses PNR reduction so you will not get the performance of ANR headset but taking into the price, the noise reduction is quite good.
The set also features Mono & Stereo Support and the Dual Volume Control is a nice feature that allows you to control the volume in each ear cup separately. This also comes with a handy cloth cover which is useful. This Kore set meets expectations for a beginner set and could also be a very nice one to keep as a passenger headset if you ever decide to eventually upgrade.
Best Value For Money: David Clark H10-13.4
The David Clark H10-13.4 and the David Clark DC Pro-X (below) are both highly regarded sets. The H10-13.4 is the standard for the brand, one of the most popular sets available. It uses PNR sound-cancellation technology and retails around $350 (click to check the current price on Amazon).
These come in at about a fourth of the price of higher-end Bose or Lightspeed noise-canceling headsets but for the money, they deliver very comfortable ear pads and clear sound quality. David Clark is known for build quality and this model is no exception. It can stand up to a lot of wear and tear and is one of the reasons many flight schools use these for student sets.
While they may not have the high tech features you’d find on a Bose headset (audio input for GPS or Bluetooth connectivity for taking in-flight phone calls), many of these features really are not needed for students and may actually be an unnecessary distraction when you really just need a reliable and sturdy headset to get you through flight school.
David Clark DC PRO-X
By contrast to the previous model, the David Clark DC Pro-X costs roughly twice as much, but it is equipped with Bluetooth and has ANR noise-cancellation (which is one of the main reasons for the price difference).
This full-featured set weighs in at just 7.5 ounces, making it one of the lightest, ANR headsets in this price range and class.
The Hybrid Electronic noise-canceling sets it apart from the previous models we’ve reviewed. While you may hear a slight hiss with these on (and cancellation activated) in a very quiet room, once you are in the air in the cockpit the sound is unnoticeable resulting in great sound quality and great active noise attenuation (30dB).
While this would make a great headset for a student, the features and quality of the noise reduction also make it a viable option for commercial pilots for even the noisy 747 cockpits and taming the loud noises associated with high wind speeds. Several commercial pilots have commented that they actually prefer this one over the Bose A20 since they do not feel totally closed off from their co-pilots as they would with the full isolation of the Bose headset.
Faro G2 ANR
This Faro G2 ANR headset excels with its noise reduction. Compared to the budget models above that had a rating of 24-30db, the G2 delivers 52db of Noise Reduction using Active noise compression technology. The G2 also functions as a passive noise-canceling headset when there is low or no battery power.
The clear audio sound and additional hearing protection make this premium set tempting to serious students as well as experienced pilots. Faro also offers a Three-Year Replacement Warranty and provides customer service via Pilot Care Service Centers in the U.S.
Another model to possibly consider would be the Faro G2 PNR is one of the more affordable headsets on the market as well as one of the most commonly used. It’s lightweight and comfortable but doesn’t boast some of the advanced tech of the company’s more expensive models, such as the G2 ANR.
Lightspeed Sierra ANR
Of the brands mentioned, Lightspeed headsets tend to be priciest, but they are still an excellent value.
The Lightspeed Sierra ANR has fantastic noise-canceling capabilities and is equipped with Bluetooth capabilities. The Full Bluetooth® Integration provides crystal clear audio call quality.
The headset is also compatible with the FlightLink app, an in-flight cockpit recording application for the Apple iPad® and iPhone®
A little higher up on the price chart is Lightspeed’s Tango model, which is wireless in addition to being ANR and Bluetooth equipped.
Bose A20 Aviation Headset with Bluetooth
Bose, one of the most respected names in headphones and sound systems, also makes a highly-acclaimed aviation headset.
The A20 Aviation Headset uses ANR technology and comes with Bluetooth. It is lightweight, incredibly comfortable, and provides the sound clarity Bose has built its reputation on. While this is probably above and beyond the budget that most beginning student pilots would want to spend on their first headset, if you are someone who likes to have the best gear, this is the one for you.
The A20 is considered by many to be the top headset on the market with all the bells and whistles. However as mentioned earlier, many of these may go unused by a beginner. If you are looking for a set you can start out with but also use for years to come and you like to have a full-featured headset than you may want to take a close look at this premium set from Bose.
It’s one of the top headsets on the market but it also has one of the highest price tags of any aviation headset, coming in at over $1000.
As a student pilot, there’s really no reason to get too extravagant. A reliable but affordable set like the David Clark H10-13.4 or the Faro G2 should be sufficient for your needs.
Whatever headset you settle on, be safe up in the air and, while you’re soaring over the rest of us, don’t forget to take a moment to appreciate the pure pleasure of flying.
If you are just getting started you may be wondering what else, besides an aviation headset, you might need for flight school. Here is an overview of things you might need (or need to do to prepare for getting your pilot license).