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ANR Headset Comparison

This month I am reviewing four of the very best ANR headsets and only missing a couple from the line up.

This month I am reviewing four of the very best ANR headsets and only missing a couple from the line up. I could not obtain a Bose set and they are quite a lot more expensive than the four compared here which all fall in the $450-$600 US bracket.

The sets we will compare are Lightspeed 25XL (retail approx $575 US), David Clark H10-13X, (retail $580 US) Sennheiser HMEC 300 (retail $599 US) and Pilot AN-17-79.(retail $489 US)

The tests were all done using a Cessna 210 and also using various different aircraft on FS2000 with four speakers and a Subwoofer. One of the very first things I noticed was that for relatively expensive ANR sets you can forget the technical advertising of how many decibels of noise reduction they tested out with. It really does not relate to your actual experience. Like the cake, the proof is in the eating.

Lightspeed Technologies 25XL ANR Headset

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LightSPEED 25XL

General comments and Field Test:
To test these sets we took our noisy 1960 Cessna 210 and fired up the IO-470 Continental and made tracks. The first thing we noticed with the 25XL sets was the comfort. We had tried them on at Arlington airshow (2000), and had realized right away that these were exceptionally comfortable. You can read many things about ANR headsets, about the frequency coverage and Decibels etc but if they don't make a good impression with fit and comfort then they are not worth buying. I have tried other sets and I compared them all to my old non-ANR David Clark headset with extra soft Gelseals installed, and most were not as comfortable. Until now! Finally I have a headset which just makes me want to go flying just to wear them.

I had not yet switched them on. The earpieces have a special fit and are nice and thick. As we taxied out I switched them on and felt immediately that I was inside a commercially silenced Piper Cheyenne or something pretty smooth. I had to do the take-off and climb out by very careful attention to RPM and mixture settings not by noise as per usual. I had read of ANRs where you now start to feel the engine through your feet on the rudders or your posterior in the seat, but I had not believed that. Well this was happening. The noise level was very smooth. The sets sat on over my glasses like they had been there ten years. We took a flight from Nelson in BC to Springhouse Airpark BC. All communications came through so clear that we had a most enjoyable 1.8-hour flight for our coffee and pie, courtesy of Judy at Lawrence Aviation. This 25XL really does cut out low frequency rumble. On a later flight to Alaska, I had a gear door pop back down and could feel and hear the windstream noise due to the engine being so quiet. That one experience sold me on the genre.

The theory of ANR is that a noise picked up is countered by an opposite phase generated noise resulting in the eradication of the sine wave which produces sound. That's the way I understand it anyway. As you lift off the 25XLs you hear an immediate buzz and you can tell it is generating noise OK.

Now to the details:
Older ANR sets had cumbersome battery packs. The 25XL has a light battery pack for 2 AAs and runs 50 hours (and they do!) and the battery pack has the volume adjustment and battery life indicators on it as well. It sits nearer the jacks (about 1 foot from them) and does not hang from the headset at all. It could be mounted somewhere for ease of access with Velcro. Maybe a very slightly longer overall cord would make the mounting easier in different aircraft. The 25XL has an automatic shut off so after a couple of minutes of being off your head it goes into sleep mode. I have noticed that I am developing that feature too as I get older-if I am ignored by the world for a couple of minutes I doze off. The built in Gel seals are really thick and soft. This is a critical feature as the immediate fit is important. An ANR headset should be as comfortable as the old headset you are replacing and should work at least as well without the ANR feature active. My gold standard was the David Clarks I had (non-ANR) and the 25XLs passed that test fine. The other thing I noticed right away was the very soft pad, across the top of my head, and the gap in the middle, so you can wear your favourite cap without having to go and seek out caps with no little bump on top. A small point but important. Even the cups on the 25XL are an unusual design, being triangular instead of oval and each set comes with a spare set of ear seals.

You have to wear the sets with the microphone on your left side, they can only be worn one way but have an easy to adjust pliable boom. The reason for this is explained in the Lightspeed website and has to do with fine design of noise cancelling features such that the shape of each individual ear is important and noise cancelling must work at the ear. The wind muff works well as I flew back this day in plus 30 centigrade temps on the ground and left air open on my face most of the way, with no noise pick-up in transmission. There was no noise leakage around the seals, especially a problem normally for those of us blessed with glasses (and that accounts for most of us who could afford ANR headsets in the first place). The 25XL was the only set that did not have a small lapel clip for keeping the headset line out of your way. This is a small criticism and the company is looking at it.

Conclusion:
LightSpeed 25Xl with ANR off; Very comfortable and up to all standards of old headsets
LightSpeed 25XL with ANR on; Super quiet.
General Construction; Nice and light to carry around-made of sturdy plastic-large comfortable ear fittings. Light handling attachment for the battery ANR unit.
Communication clarity; Very clear-voice enhancing.

David Clark H10-13X ANR Headset

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David Clark H10-13XP Headset

I should say right off the bat that I am very partial to David Clarks having flown with an older model (non-ANR) for years-so to a certain extent my gold standard immediately is 'Is this set doing as good a job with no ANR as my old set?' If they don't even feel good in the non-ANR state then it is a good bet that they will not be much better with ANR on. ANR can be deceptive in that it can be added to even a bad set of headphones and make some difference. But we are talking about spending several hundred dollars and maybe buying sets to last us 10 years or more of flying. These sets should be very comfortable. Now the David Clarks gave immediately that solid secure feeling of a well made headset and once on, even with no ANR gave great sound reduction, perhaps even a little more than the Lightspeed 25XL, but very close. Switching on the set in the Cessna 210 gave the familiar ANR buzz of background-generated noise, which you will only notice if the engine is not running.

The H10s have a little heavier feeling than the Lightspeeds and might cause a little more pressure on long flights but both these two did come in as the most comfortable to wear, even with no ANR on. I found the Sennheiser just a little less comfortable after one hour of steady wear. The Pilot AN-17-79s on this count do give away their military origin and were less comfortable than all the others. Back to the DCs! The boom is adjustable to come off the left ear or right and is a good solid boom. It moves easily to permit you to drink your in-flight coffee. The gelseals are slightly thinner than the old ones. They let in very little ambient noise and I understand are supposed to stay in better shape in really hot weather as well. There was no more hot weather by the time I got to testing them, but the gelseals did get more comfortable after wearing them for some time. One thing I began to notice with these quality headsets was that if you take a cheaper set and press them uncomfortably tight you will get good noise reduction, but would only be able to wear the set for 5 minutes. These quality sets (as in all four tested) do not cheat by having very tight fittings but it is perhaps a parameter that should be measured in comparing headsets, i.e. direct ear pressure. I have noticed headaches after one hour of flying with some sets. The Lightspeed did have a lighter pressure and a more anatomical fit than any of the others. These factors can affect fatigue over longer flights.

The 'noggin' fit, or the top of the head fit, was nice and thick on the DCs and could absorb the centre button of those baseball caps not designed for pilots. It was the second most comfortable after the Lightspeed. The AN 17-79s again have that military feel. When we come to the battery pack, the DCs are somewhat bulkier (6 AA approx 60hrs) than the Lightspeed and the AN-17-79s come out ahead of all others in that respect. The DC ANR unit will detach from the actual plug-in leaving a short length of cord in the plane if you wish to remove the headset. It gives a greater length of cord overall but is a somewhat bulky unit, albeit with a clip on for jacket. I would find somewhere to mount that unit as I could see it getting in the way otherwise. The Sennheiser is worse but the Lightspeed has only a small battery unit and the AN-17-79 has none.

Conclusion:
David Clark H10-13X with no ANR on; Very comfortable but a little tight fit with time.
David Clark H10-13X with ANR on; Not much to hear from the world outside.
General Construction; The usual professional solidity of the DC line, same style as all older DCs. Rather bulky battery ANR unit.
Communication Clarity; Very clear-voice enhancing.

Sennheiser HMEC 300 ANR Headset

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Sennheiser HMEC300/BP-03

These are a different set out of the package and it took me a few minutes to realise there was a separate unit to be attached to make them into an ANR set. They come with an XLR socket for mounting straight into the panel. You would need this to be wired to the 12v supply. This would be quite simple and removes the bulk of the pack. The BP-03 battery pack appears to be an accessory also and is quite bulky and takes 4 AA batteries. The ANR system has the usual approximate 25db reduction in the 25-500 Hz frequency range, but as mentioned before, it seems that all the good headsets are pretty similar in their actual ANR function. They all have a small microphone in the headsets, which detects the ambient frequency and then the unit generates an out-of-phase noise. The Sennheisers are perhaps the lightest of all four sets tested and have an ear grip somewhere in the mid-range, a bit less than the DCs, about the same as the AN-17-79s. Having left them on for about one hour at a time, I found them a very comfortable fit. Again, and I cannot emphasize this enough, they are a comfortable and good-functioning set before you switch on ANR. They have a sturdy mike arm, easy to adjust, and it will stay where you put it. The Sennheisers have the least padding on top of the head and wearing with a baseball hat, with button, will require shifting it for comfort. This may be a small point but can sometimes be annoying. Wearing hat and glasses does not interfere with the close fit or function of the headset. The DCs, the Sennheisers and the Lightspeeds all gave excellent non-ANR noise protection. Unfortunately the Sennheiser set started generating weird noises in the left ear after less than one hour of use and will no doubt have to be serviced. Presumably just bad luck on this set.

Conclusion:
Sennheiser HMEC 300 with no ANR on; Very comfortable, similar grip to the DCs
Sennheiser with ANR on; As quiet as all others tested.
General Construction; Heavier than Lightspeed and not quite as sturdy as others.
Communication Clarity; Excellent.

Pilot AN-17-79 ANR Headset

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Pilot Avionics PA17-79 Independence DNC XL

These headsets are probably the newest of the four tested and run about $120 US less than the Lightspeed. Price must be born in mind in comparing apples to apples. They are very sturdy and immediately they came out of the box, I was impressed with the carrying bag and with certain unique features. They are the only set tested that do not need batteries! They have NiMh rechargeables built in to the actual headset. They have achieved this with no noticeable increase in weight on the head. So all you have to do for safety and break-and-enter protection is unplug the headset, up by the earpiece, and take them home. This is a nice feature as many jacks are in awkward places (mine almost trigger the ELT arming switch when being unplugged) and you don't have awkward cables being dragged around. When you get the headset home you just plug it in and then it is ready to go the next time. We found that the charge would last a long time anyway. There was then only a volume adjustment to dangle off the cord, a minimal weight. This was a big advantage over any of the other sets.

The 17-79s claimed the most noise reduction but we found on wearing them that they has the least non-ANR protection from ambient noise. Once ANR was on there was a major difference but as mentioned above, all these quality sets did the ANR thing very well. The 17-79s sat a little tight on my head and after long flights were less comfortable than the other three sets. The ability to disconnect at the headset end was most useful however.

Conclusion:
Pilot 17-79 with no ANR; Less comfortable and noisier than the others.
Pilot 17-79s with ANR; Just as quiet as the others.
General Construction; Sturdy, military construction-would go well with a Harvard, looks like they would last a long time.
Communication Clarity; Excellent, voice enhancing.

Overall Conclusions

This was an extremely difficult comparison because we are dealing with quality headsets and if you were to get a Christmas present of any one of these ANR headsets you would not be disappointed. After some hours of use we did feel that the David Clarks and Lightspeeds and Sennheisers were a little bit better than the AN-17-79s. Between the other three it boils down to having to try them on. This is important, try to go to a dealer or an airshow and try the sets on. As I mention above the ANR feature works fine on all the sets tested. You are left with a low engine hum and wind noise even in my noisy 210. So it comes down to comfort and personal choices as to whether you mind odd boxes hanging here and there. My wife and I concluded that the Lightspeed had the edge on the opposition with the David Clarks a close second. Very close behind were the Sennheisers leaving the AN-17-79s fourth. We were not able to compare all these to the Bose, which are a more expensive set. If you do a lot of flying the ANR headsets are an excellent investment for less than a radio set. Your comfort and ear protection contributes to safety. All of these sets improve radio communication and once hooked on ANR you will not go back.

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About This Author:
John Dale has been a member of COPA for thirty years, since he began to fly. He has accumulated 2500 hours on 65 types of aeroplanes and added Flight Simming to his addiction about two years ago. He is an Aviation Medical Examiner in Nelson BC, where he belongs to the Nelson Pilot’s Association. He also runs Flynorth.com, which offers aerial tours to the north, as well as a database of BC and northern flying tips. Details of this can be found at www.FlyNorth.com.
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