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Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Bye bye Bose, Hello again David

After having bought the wife a car for Valentine's Day, she repaid me by getting me a replacement headset for my birthday. My Bose X was nearing ten years old and after almost 4,000 hours of use was succumbing to the beatings of near-daily use. I'm sad to see it go, as it's seen me through almost every stage of my aviation growth, all the way from private pilot through airline captain. Nonetheless, like an old car that has fond memories associated with it but is getting too old to maintain reasonably, it is time to move on.

Since headset technology has advanced quite a bit in the decade since I got the Bose X, it was getting obsolete. It didn't have Bluetooth, as in 2007 Bluetooth was still an extra $350 option. However, what really made it obsolete for my use was the primitiveness of its active noise reduction. While good for its day, and while it did a great job canceling the lower-frequency noise during my days on the Dash-8 (and as an instructor in piston planes before that), it was totally useless at quieting the white noise in the jet cockpit. Not long after transitioning to the ERJ-145, I stopped even bothering to turn on the ANR (active noise reduction), since it didn't do anything.

I was happy with Bose as a company, but the last straw with the Bose X was when it got a loose wire going into the headset which would cause the microphone to crackle and/or cut out intermittently. Their products aren't the cheapest, but their customer service is outstanding, and they support the old models of their products for years after other companies would. Unfortunately, the cost to fix this loose wire would have been over $300, which is a pretty sizable chunk of what a brand new headset would cost.

I decided to take that money and put it toward a headset that wouldn't need something else fixed in a year or two due to its age. My short list came down to the Bose A20, the Lightspeed Zulu 3, the Clarity Aloft, a combination of a UFlyMike and an ANR headset of some kind, and the David Clark DC PRO-X.

Bose A20

The Bose A20 was on the list just because of my familiarity with their predecessor. However, this model itself is getting a little long in the tooth (it came out 6 years ago), and they are more expensive than everyone else. Sometimes Bose is more expensive because they are simply better—the Bose Companion 3 is by far the best 2.1 computer speaker I've ever had (it's much better than the high-end Klipsch 5.1 system it replaced), but they're 2-3x more expensive than most 2.1 systems. That said, sometimes Bose is like Apple in that they're more expensive just because of the name. I get the feeling that the A20 falls in the latter category.

Lightspeed Zulu 3

I've tried Lightspeeds on occasion before, and something about them just doesn't seem to fit on my ear quite correctly. Plus I'm trying to get away from the big "earmuff" style of headset. When you fly 5-8 hours a day, even the most comfortable headset gets tiring. I was looking to go with something lighter.

Clarity Aloft

For lightness reasons, I looked at Clarity Aloft's in-ear headsets. It would be hard to get lighter than an earpiece instead of an entire headset!

I've talked to a few pilots who use Clarity Aloft and they have good things to say about them. Nonetheless, I was still a bit skeptical about wearing an in-ear for several hours a day. I know that after a couple of hours at the gym, I'm ready to pull out my earbuds, and these aren't cheap plastic ones but SoundMAGIC E50S earbuds with extra-comfy eartips similar to the Comply eartips of the Clarity Alofts.

I didn't try them out, so I could be wrong, but reviews from professional pilots tended to say that while they are very comfortable, their noise reduction isn't very good and the sound quality is unimpressive. This ruled them out for me for two reasons.

First, while I don't fly pistons much at all (I don't have anything against them, but after 4-6 days in a cockpit, the last thing I want to do on a day off is to go to another airport), I still do occasionally give a flight review or ride along as a safety pilot. That means I still need something with good all-around noise reduction.

Second, one of the things I'd like to be able to do with any new headset is to also use it on deadheads or commute flights to listen to music while canceling out noise inside the cabin. This means that at least decent sound quality is a must.

UFlyMike + ANR headset

This is the closest I came to sold on anything but what I ended up getting. The combination of separate mic that can be used with a "normal", non-aviation headset was appealing, since I could choose which model of headset I liked best. Unfortunately, the price of the UFlyMike (around $300) combined with the price of a high-quality ANR headset (another $300) approaches or exceeds a dedicated aviation headset.

This in itself wasn't a deal-breaker, though. I'm willing to spend money on a quality tool that I use every day at work. And the "every day at work" thing was the problem. The people I've talked to who use this combination mentioned that while the microphone is tough enough, the headset itself needs replaced every year or two. Normal headsets aren't designed to constantly travel and be used for up to 9 hours a day. This means this route could end up being both more expensive and more annoying, because one of the things I hate is having to spend time fixing or replacing things, especially if the headset were to break on day 1 of a 5-day trip.

David Clark DC PRO-X

This one finally met all of my needs and at a nice price point as well. The thing that made me look at them when they first came out was the small size of the earpiece. Instead of being the size of big earmuffs, these were the size of a mini-donut. That means that instead of trapping the heat all around my ears, the back of my ears could breathe.

It's a unique size and shape, and one that definitely appealed to me. One of the nice things about the size is that I could use them in the cabin on flights to cancel noise and listen to music (or more likely to catch up on podcasts) without looking like a complete doofus.

Their price is nice. They're just over half as much as the Bose ($695 vs. $1095), but not because they're cheaply made. My first-ever headset was the very popular David Clark H10-13.4, which is built like a tank (and unfortunately is about as comfortable). David Clark's support is excellent, and you can send them in and have them rebuilt for a very reasonable cost, so I trust the company's confidence in their product.

Bluetooth was a must in a new headset. Not so much for the music but because now that I'm a captain, I need to use the phone occasionally to call Dispatch if there is a problem with the plane or we get a reroute, etc. It's much more convenient to stay plugged in while on the phone because then I can also listen to the communications radios at the same time and still be in the loop.

What sold me on the PRO-X was the reviews. Many of the Amazon reviews are by long-haul airline pilots: 777, 757, 767 pilots that wear them hour after hour and still like them. That was the biggest requirement for me, as I need something that will still be comfortable after 5-8 hours a day.

So after not having bought a David Clark in 11 years, I went with them again because of their great combination of price, comfort, durability, and features. I was lucky enough to get them the day before I left for a 4-day trip. I'm writing this after having used them for only a few days, and so far my reaction is one big WOW! They are an enormous upgrade over the old Bose X—and I liked my Bose!

Once I've had a chance to use them for a month, I'll write a more detailed review. Until then, I'll see you next Wednesday!

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The author is an airline pilot, flight instructor, and adjunct college professor teaching aviation ground schools. He holds an ATP certificate with ERJ-145 and DHC-8 type ratings, as well as CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, and IGI certificates, and is a Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program and a former FAASafety Team representative. He is on Facebook as Larry the Flying Guy, has a Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel, and is on Twitter as @Lairspeed.

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