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ANR Headset Test

May 6, 2002

[Background] [Tests] [Active Headsets] [Passive Headsets] [Data] [Results]
[Links to Manufacturer's Websites]


When the idea for this article started growing in my mind, I started thinking about all the things I wanted to do to make it better than all the other articles on the topic that I had seen previously. Most notably, I noticed that nobody else had ever compared all of the headsets that I was interested in. Unfortunately, shortly into attempting the procurement of the sample units for this article, it became apparent why nobody wrote such an article.

I contacted close to a dozen manufacturers regarding their headsets, from Bose to Telex, and only three replied. Three out of 12, or 25%. The initial contact was done all via e-mail, based on information on the manufacturers' websites. Followup calls were made to the 9 companies that hadn't replied within a week. None were returned. As much as i'd like to give the companies the benefit of the doubt (after all, I was asking for a free headset loan...), I can't help but think that the lack of response is an indication of the level of service that I would receive if I had a problem with my headset. As I write this article (a few months after the initial contact was made) there's still been no response from the other manufacturers.

The Tests

Empirical “Laboratory” Testing

Empirical testing consisted of concocting an arrangement whereby we could broadcast discrete sound frequencies at the headset, and measure the level of attenuation that the headset provided. The highly scientific test fixture for the headsets consisted of my head (Figure 1) and an earplug with a sensitive microphone glued to the end of it (Figure 2). A signal generator was hooked up to a high-end home theatre system (Figure 3), which broadcast the signal out a large speaker located approximately 2' from my ear. The microphone fed it's signal into a fancy oscilloscope (Figure 4), which my assistants manipulated to measure both the active and passive attenuation at each frequency.

[Figure 1] [Figure 2] [Figure 3] [Figure 4]
Figure 1 Figure 2 Figure 3 Figure 4

I'm sure you're thinking that this is a pretty mickey-mouse arrangement, and it kind of felt like it during the test. We found many gotchas about the method, that forced us to re-do some measurements. In the end, however, the attenuation curve that is published by Lightspeed for their 20XL model headset fit very closely to our measurements. So, even if it wasn't the most scientific of measurement systems, I expect that it is at least representative for the group of headsets tested, and can be confidently used to make a relative comparison.

Practical “Real World” Testing

The practical tests consisted of a series of flights conducted in real-world situations.

Our first flight was a night flight from Boundary Bay (CZBB) to Victoria (CYYJ), Nanaimo (CYCD), Pitt Meadows (CYPK), and back to Boundary Bay. The aircraft selected for this operation was a Cessna 172, rented from the Pacific Flying Club. Apart from being a nice night for a flight, stops at Nanaimo and Pitt Meadows allowed us to change seating and headsets between three occupants.

The second flight was done in a Druine Turbi, which is a two (tandem) seat wooden homebuilt powered by a Lycoming O-235 engine. With the different construction material and powerplant, we thought we may find that diffferent headsets performed better or worse depending on the aircraft, but none of the testers came up with different opinions of the headsets based on the aircraft they were testing them in.

The Active Headsets

Headsets are listed in alphabetical order. Prices are street prices taken from the Marv Golden Discount Sales website at . I have no affiliation with Marv Golden, rather I have found their site to consistently have the best prices on headsets. MSRP may be higher for each model.

[Figure 5]
David Clark 10-13XL

Street Price: $625US for XL model, $549.95US for X model.
Power Source: 1.5V AA (6)
Pluses: Passive attenuation equal to 10-13.4 (non-ANR) model, Feels just like every other David Clark headset, comes with David Clark's almost legendary reputation for quality service.
Minuses: ANR circuitry seems to remove noise well, but adds a background hiss in the process.
Accessories Included: none.

David Clark provided for us their standard test unit, a 10-13XL. This model differed slightly from the X model that you may choose to buy in that it had connectors that allow you to disconnect the ANR module and plugs from the system. This allows for panel mounting, etc. The hard-wired model is reportedly identical functionally, but doesn't come apart, and sells for slightly less money.

All testers reported noticing a faint background hiss when using the headset, which is believed to be an effect of the ANR circuit design, which adds white noise first before removing it again. It's not loud, but it's there and it's noticeable.

[Figure 6]
Flightcom Denali

Street Price: $439US
Power Source: 9V (1)
Pluses: Looks. Comfort. Looks. Weight. Did I mention looks?
Minuses: Passive attenuation is not as good, so the overall performance is poor.

By agreement of the entire test team, Flightcom has done a great job of making a headset that's pretty to look at and comfortable to wear. Everyone who saw it immediately hoped that it would be the winner of the group, as it was certainly the best looking. Unfortunately, both the empirical and the practical tests proved that the headset was not the best in the group at attenuating noise. Flightcom could teach the other manufacturers a fair bit about packaging, however. The Denali arrived in its own zippered, contour-lined bag for storage of the headset when not in use. I originally thought this would be a nuisance in practise, but it turned out to be easy to use, and made me a lot more comfortable about handling an expensive headset.

[Figure 7]
Lightspeed 20XL

Street Price: $399US
Power Source: 1.5V AA (2)
Pluses: Comfort. Good attenuation.
Minuses: Non-intuitive power/battery test controls. Poor Passive attenuation.

This headset turned out to be the second largest surprise of the test. Widely regarded as the second headset in line for anyone buying an Active headset (first choice being Bose, if you could afford one), we expected this to be the best performer of the bunch. That was not the case. While the headset worked admirably below 110 Hz, above that point the headset struggled to perform as well as many of the Passive-only headsets we tested. Add to that the poor Passive-only performance of this headset, and you're left with a very poor choice in noise attenuation, in the opinion of all of our testers.

We should note that this is not the top-of-the-line model, so there may be more performance available if you are willing to spend the extra $115 to get the 25XL model. It apparently uses a different ANR circuit design that improves attenuation even further, but retains the same overall package that the cheaper models use. This may translate into poor Passive performance as well, which is a significant consideration for a battery-powered unit.

[Figure 8]
Lightspeed QFR Cross Country

Street Price: $265US
Power Source: 1.5V AA (2)
Pluses: Price. Good Active Performance. Good Passive Performance.
Minuses: Looks.

Despite the fact that this headset was the least attractive (physically) of the set, we quickly found that you can't judge a book by its cover. The QFR proved to be the best overall headset of the entire bunch, and at the best price of the entire bunch as well. In fact, it worked so well, that one of our testers recieved it as a christmas present. This headset when turned off attenuated noise as well as a stock Passive David Clark headset, and when turned on attenuated noise better than any of the Active headsets.

[Figure 9]
Radio Shack Active Noise Cancelling Headset

Street Price: $70CDN
Power Source: 1.5V AA (2)

This headset was tested alongside the other active headsets in our “laboratory” test. We were curious what the performance of a consumer-grade headset would be compared to an aviation-oriented headset. We discovered that while it may be useful for travel by commercial airliner, it really isn't suitable for use in light aircraft. We didn't bring it along on our flying tests.

The Passive Headsets

Also for this test we brought out a few of our passive headsets, so we could test them alongside the Active ones and see just how much of an improvement we would get. Between us we were able to find a David Clark 13.4 (Figure 10), a David Clark 20-10 (Figure 11), an older FlightCom (Figure 12), and a new headset called a Vector (Figure 13).

[Figure 10] [Figure 11] [Figure 12] [Figure 13]
Figure 10 Figure 11 Figure 12 Figure 13

I should point out that below 120 Hz, all of the Active headsets (when turned on) outperformed all of the Passive headsets. Above that point, it was very frequency sensitive as to which headset (passive or active) performed the best. At some points it's an Active headset, at others it's a Passive one.

The Data

In the interests of saving publication space, i'm going to point anyone interested in seeing the raw data and graphs from our “lab” tests to the Chapter website, where I will post a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet with all of the numbers and graphs so you can form some of your own opinions. There's a lot of data there, take the time to look through it. The other reason for not publishing it here is that there is a significant amount of colour used to try and make the graphs clear, that would not reproduce well in a black-and-white publication.

So, point your browser to the following website:

There you will find a link directing you to an HTML-formatted version of this story, complete with graphs and pictures .

The Results

Comparing the construction of each headset, it may not be too hard to understand why certain headsets performed better than others. The 10-13XL and the QFR Cross-Country were both derived from existing Passive headsets, and as a result brought along a long history of effective Passive noise cancellation technology. The 20XL and Denali were designed from scratch to be Active headsets, that clearly rely on the ANR circuitry to maintain the level of attenuation they provide. When that circuitry is disabled (by batteries dying or electrical malfunction), performance suffers.

Weighing all the factors of price, weight, active performance, passive performance, and durability, by unanimous opinion of the testing team the clear winner was the Lightspeed QFR Cross Country. Tied for second place are the David Clark 10-13X/XL and the Lightspeed 20XL. The David Clark edges out the Lightspeed a in accoustical performance, but the Lightspeed edges out the David Clark in price. In third place is the Flightcom Denali.

It should be noted that all of the Active cancelling headsets performed well, and in general performed better than the Passive headsets we tested. If you're in the market for a new headset, and are considering ANR models, we believe that any of these models would outperform your existing headsets. In particular the QFR Cross Country, at it's attractive price/performance point, would be an excellent choice.

Our thanks go out from the test team (Figure 14) to all of the manufacturers who allowed us the opportunity to conduct this test.

[Figure 14]
Figure 14

Links to Manufacturer's Websites

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