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I am currently working on my private pilot license and am using a headset from the flight school. I am coming up to my first solo and thinking about purchasing my first headset.

There are many different types of headset on the market, so what should I look for in a headset, and how do I go about picking the right headset for me?

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    $\begingroup$ I've modified your question a little bit to make it more generic and less of a shopping ("Which headset should I buy?") question and more a "What do I look for?" question -- If you want to talk about specific headset brands you might want to stop by chat, I'm sure the folks there will have some recommendations. $\endgroup$ – voretaq7 Aug 12 '14 at 16:34
  • $\begingroup$ Not to be cliche, but you really do get what you pay for. A 100USD headset might work at first, but will lack the quality of something in the range of 350USD. Similarly, a 350USD headset will work, and last a lifetime, but won't have the noise cancellation characteristics of a 1100USD ANR headset. As for me, I have a 350USD David Clark headset and I love it, but in the future I would like to upgrade to Bose. $\endgroup$ – Keegan Aug 18 '14 at 15:31
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First, do not buy any headset without trying it on. Ignore those who say My Brand is the best! Heads come in different shapes and to get a headset that is comfortable for you, you must try it/them on. If possible, borrow a different one for each flight you take before you decide.

Second, if you are at all serious about this flying thing, pay up to get ANR headsets. "Active Noise Reduction" (ANR) comes with different names (ENC is another that you will see) but they all reduce noise by creating "anti-noise" which has the same wave form (but inverted) as the noise you would otherwise hear, thus cancelling it out. ANR headsets cancel the noise in the lower frequencies (engine rumble, exhaust noise, etc.) but permit higher frequencies to come through so that hearing radios, speech over the intercom, etc. is not affected.

Remember, loud noise damages your hearing, and the effect of noise is cumulative over the years. In most cases the hearing loss doesn't really manifest itself until later in life. Act now to protect your hearing. This is the reason that the diminishing number of WWII aviators are almost universally hard of hearing.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm probably one of the few people who isn't an ANR convert, mainly because I switched to in-ear headsets - you can get pretty excellent noise attenuation from those (-35 to -40dB in the low frequencies). For traditional earcup headsets though I agree ANR is a must-have $\endgroup$ – voretaq7 Aug 12 '14 at 18:16
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    $\begingroup$ I am with Skip on the ANR. I wish I would have done it sooner. I now suffer from Tinnitus, ringing in the ears, due to a hearing loss. The audiologist says my hearing loss is in the range they see for piston pilots. I ended up with Bose headsets, and Dave Clark also makes some good units. Both companies have excellent service and will often fix issues (frayed cables, ripped pads, etc) for free. $\endgroup$ – JerryKur Aug 12 '14 at 18:29
  • $\begingroup$ @JerryKur The service from David Clark is particularly legendary - Folks have sent them decades-old headsets for repair and received completely refurbished units in better-than-factory-new condition. $\endgroup$ – voretaq7 Aug 13 '14 at 16:57
  • $\begingroup$ @voretaq7: I use a DC ANR every time I fly (approaching 700 hours now). I like the product and its reliability but your comment on their legendary service may be not true anymore. The last time I requested a replacement foam mike muff I had to pay for it. Oh the Horror! $\endgroup$ – Skip Miller Aug 13 '14 at 19:52
  • $\begingroup$ Wow. Sorry to hear you had to pay for the mike muff. Maybe they have gone cheap. With Bose I told them one of my gel earpads when felt a little flat and they FEDed me a replacement. At Oshkosh Bose used to have a truck where they would refurbished your headset while you wandered around $\endgroup$ – JerryKur Aug 14 '14 at 17:42
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The two main purposes of an aviation headset are making the cabin quieter, and making it easier to talk to ATC while keeping your hands free, so in selecting a headset you want to find one that will do both of those things very well.

To figure that out there are three major things you'll want to look at when picking a headset:

  1. Noise Reduction Rating (NRR)
    This value, expressed in decibels (dB), indicates how good the headset is at preventing cabin noise from reaching your ears. A higher noise reduction rating cuts out more engine and wind noise (which prevents hearing damage and noise fatigue) and makes it easier to hear radio calls.
    Higher values are better - a headset with a 30dB NRR is quieter than one with a 24dB NRR.

    Noise reduction ratings may be expressed as a positive or negative number (it's attenuation, so negative is "more correct"). 24dB or -24dB means the same thing when reading specs.

  2. Headset Style
    There are three basic styles of headsets, and one type will probably most comfortable for you.
    Earcup headsets have earcups that surrond your ear, like classic David Clarks.
    In-Ear headsets have earbuds/eartips that fit into your ear canal.
    Over-the-Ear headsets are like headphones and sit "over" your ear (mainly for quiet cockpits). David Clark Earcup Headset Clarity Aloft in-ear headset Plantronics over-the-ear headset

  3. Weight
    Self-Explanatory: You're going to have this thing on your head for the duration of your flight. Wearing a 20-ounce (0.6 kg) headset is more fatiguing than a 10-ounce (0.3 kg) one, and you might have some neck pain if the headset is too heavy.

    Earcup headsets tend to be the heaviest - 12 to 24 ounces. Over-the-Ear headsets usually weigh in at 3-4 ounces, and in-ear headsets are generally 3 ounces or less.

Secondary things to consider include:

  • Do you prefer Active or Passive noise reduction?
    Active Noise Reduction can make a very light headset extremely quiet, but requires power (battery or ships power) and cost a bit more.
  • What accessory functions would you like?
    There are headsets with Bluetooth, headsets with music inputs, etc.

Ultimately the best way to pick a headset is to try several to see which you like best. You're evaluating them on some objective things ("How quiet is it?") but also a lot of personal/subjective things: "Is it too heavy?", "Do the earcups/eartips fit my ear well?", "Is the clamping force like having my head in a vise?", etc.

Your flight school may sell headsets, in which case ask to try a few different ones on your next few lessons to see which you like best. You can also chat with other pilots and try to get a ride with them to try out their headset (the exception to this often being in-ear headsets -- some folks get grossed out at the idea of having someone else's ear gunk on their tips).

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