Got Your Ears On? A Guide to Headsets

As a pilot there is little doubt which piece of equipment is often regarded as top gun. Headsets. In fact, it’s not a stretch to say that one can feel naked without them. And if you have no means of communicating while flying, in many cases you may as well be flying blind.

Amongst the various pilot lingo used in aviation there’s one phrase that seems fitting when discussing headsets: “Got your ears on?” Are you on air and listening? SkyGeek has compiled some information that you can log into your noggin.cartoon-headset

Headphones or Headsets?

Of course we all know that aviation headsets are more than glorified headphones. Whereas headphones are primarily used for listening to music, headsets offer so much more since they have to compensate for variances in pressure and altitude–something not experienced in your average home.

For starters, wearing headsets is a way to reduce ambient noise. A plane is a battleground of sounds competing to annihilate your ear drums. Engines, propellers, gears, hail, airflow— these are just some culprits you want protection from. Prolonged exposure to high decibel levels (with planes, think of a leaf blower on steroids) will inevitably lead to hearing loss. Thus, headsets are a recommended means of avoiding damage to your ears. (Some say they should be mandatory and really, if you are repeatedly exposed to any kind of loud noise why wouldn’t you wear them, but that is a debate for another time).

The other highlight of a headset is its enhanced communication capabilities. Whether it’s between passengers or other planes or air traffic control (ATC), headsets are designed for radio transmission and reception, a device for relaying messages. Unlike headphones, many headsets have microphones in addition to speakers.

A headset is a big-ticket item that, depending on your preferences, may be pricier than expected. Headsets without all the bells and whistles can be under $100 but the high-end ones can easily exceed $600. So the more knowledge you have the more sound your purchasing decision.

It’s time now for a little cockpit commentary.


When buying headsets, ever encounter terms that sound impressive but fly circles around your head? Here are a few phrases to part the clouds of confusion…

Attenuation – Fancy way of saying that your headset can reduce a signal with minimal distortion; measured in decibels (dB). Since attenuating something means to reduce it, a headset with high attenuation will reduce a lot of sound.

Frequency Response – The ability of a headset to reproduce audio frequencies; it is measured in hertz (Hz). This figure can be misleading as manufacturers may not accurately reveal a headset’s numbers, opting instead to present a range. You shouldn’t rely too heavily on this figure to make the final decision.

Impedance – Refers to a component on the headset that resists the electrical current passed through them; it is measured in Ohms. Should you look for low or high impedance? Like many answers, it depends. High impedance devices may not be compatible with older hardware so that may aural quality issues. Many modern systems will be able to adapt to both low and high impedance. Remember though, compatibility is key. Check to see if your headset fits with the system you are plugging it into, e.g. a low impedance headset and a low impedance system. Low and high either way may cause problems.

Electret – A combination of the word “electricity” and “magnet.” It refers to a material used in microphones that creates internal and external electric fields that support not only headsets but other electronic devices like GPS systems. It is mainly used so that a polarizing power supply is not needed. Electret microphones are usually considered high-impedance as opposed to dynamic microphones, which are associated with low-impedance. Dynamic microphones are commonly used in the military, in older model planes, and in helicopters.

Panel Powered – If a headset is labeled as “panel powered” it means you can use, say for instance, an ANR headset without batteries since you will receive power from the aircraft panel. However, when using this feature, make sure you have the panel specifically wired for this kind of headset. Otherwise, your headset may not be compatible with the aircraft radio and intercom installation.

TSO – An acronym that stands for Technical Standard Order. It is a minimum performance standard established by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). It is becoming increasingly more common for pilots to wear TSO-certified headsets. By following such a standard quality assurance can be monitored in regards to the equipment used. However, much controversy surrounds TSO-certification as some believe it is not necessary.

Passive vs. Active Noise Reduction

Aviation headsets usually highlight their ability to reduce noise levels because, as already mentioned, noise not only damages your ears but also interferes with communication. This is accomplished either passively or actively. Passive noise reduction (PNR) headsets mechanically block sound waves. They often consist of specialized ear cups that feature noise-proof insulation. A major benefit is their affordability, especially when compared to their active noise reduction counterparts.PNR headsets generally offer noise reduction up to 15 to 20 decibels.

In addition to the features of PNR headsets, active noise reduction (ANR) headsets often contain specialized microphones located outside each ear cup. Their claim to fame: their ability to cancel ambient noise with opposing sound waves. Of course, this added bonus tends to increase the price tag as it is more effective. ANR headsets reduce noise up to 30 decibels.


Visual aid showing the efficacy of active and passive noise reduction in a military setting. Graph provided by Esterline.

To give you a better idea of how PNR and ANR work in reducing noise levels, check out the graph provided by the folks at Esterline and compare the decibel levels with and without these reduction techniques. Based on the graph, you can see typical noise in military environments can easily exceed 100 decibels. But that’s just for ground vehicles. According to this same source, fast jets can approach 150 decibels, a level that exceeds the parameters of this graph! Even if you don’t fly military aircraft, this demonstrates the practicality of headsets that incorporate PNR and ANR technology.


Once familiarized with some of the lingo, narrow your search for the right headset by choosing between type. This can be quite easy. The names indicate their use but just in case, here is a quick breakdown.

Military headsets are used in military aircraft, particularly those with a single jack (e.g. U-93A/U) and low impedance systems. Civilian helicopters with a single jack such as the U-174/U or U-93A/U will link up with helicopter headsets. Pilots who fly for a living on business airliners should investigate commercial headsets, which offer comfort to the cockpit environment. General aviation headsets are designed for fixed wing planes, especially those with two standard jacks—PJ-055 and PJ-068.

Headsets aren’t only for pilots but can be for passengers. Kids or adults with smaller head sizes will benefit from children headsets. SkyGeek even carries animal headsets for your pet pooch.


When it comes to selecting a headset based on brand, SkyGeek will not play favorites. Brand loyalty is something that is a personal choice; all manufacturers have their strong points. All we can do is offer you as many options as possible. That’s why we stock headsets from ASA , David Clark , Pilot USA , Telex , Sennheiser , FlightCom , Lightspeed , SoftComm , and Rugged Air. Clarity Aloft and Bose are other known and reputable brands.


Illustration by Lauren Horgan©2013

SkyGeek recommends researching not only among the models within each brand but between the brands as well. As you examine the product pages of each headset you will come across overlapping features and will be able to discern one headset’s advantage(s) over another.

Final Thoughts

A headset is something that ultimately comes down to what feels right and what works best. Comfort is essential. Time and money are better spent on a headset that doesn’t weigh a ton or doesn’t crimp your ears. Use is another factor. If you are a professional or frequently fly to the point where you are practically sleeping in your cockpit, you don’t want to skimp on costs. When it comes to long term use, headsets made of durable material and cutting-edge designs (both which drive the cost upwards) will endure and provide the best return on investment. However, if you are really frugal and don’t see the need for advanced technology and top-of-the-line features, then buy something that is affordable. It all depends on your level of commitment to having the best protection and communication available given your budget.