In-ear headsets haven't caught on to any large degree with pilots of light airplanes, and while I'm not sure that will change any time soon, there are at least a couple of in-ear headsets on the market that offer great comfort, incredibly light weight and excellent noise attenuation.
Since they showed up on the market a short while back, I've been curious to see just how they stack up against conventional over-ear padded headsets, like well-known ones from David Clark, Telex, Sennheiser and Bose.
Typically in-ear headsets, just as the term suggests, use small foam plugs that actually go inside the ear canal, just like those foam earplugs used for hearing protection. The foam tips surround a small speaker, so they do two jobs, canceling noise and delivering communications over the intercom and aircraft radio. Of course, a separate microphone of some kind has to be added, so the pilot can speak his piece. It might sound like a simple design, but it's actually a complicated engineering project to cancel noise in the tips while allowing good sound to come through. And the need to add a boom mic of some kind is even tougher, as the very light weight of these systems tends to make it hard to support the boom.
The two systems we tried out, the Lightspeed Mach 1 headset and the Clarity Aloft stereo aviation headset, came up with very different ways to make very lightweight stereo headsets with extra features. Both are expensive, though cheaper than premium ANR padded headsets. The Mach 1 goes for $525 (not including custom ear molds, if you want them); the Clarity Aloft stereo headset also sells for $525.
I wore both headsets on multiple flights over long cross-country legs and on short hops to nearby airports. I carried them around in my flight bag, and generally lived with them for a few months.
At first sight, the Clarity Aloft stereo headset looks too small to be true. It's made up of a single support piece that runs behind the head with bent ends that you wear over the ears, like the ends of eyeglass temple pieces. The cord is connected to the back of the support wire, and the earpieces dangle from there. Lower down on the cord is a small control box with a rotary volume control. There's also an input for a cell phone or audio player. Lightspeed takes a completely different approach to the same problem with its Mach 1 headset, which features a left-side plastic earpiece that wraps over the ear. The boom extends from that piece, as does the left in-ear speaker. The main cord is also attached to this ear piece. A control box has a single volume control, an aux jack for a cell phone or audio player, and an on/off switch for the aux input.
Here comes the part of the story where I talk about the one big issue with in-ear headsets. A lot of people absolutely hate to have anything stuffed into their ear canal, and I have to admit that I'm not crazy about the sensation either. There is an alternative, to have custom ear molds made, and I did just that, ordering a pair from a well-known lab, Sensaphonics, that works closely with Lightspeed. The ear molds are very comfortable, and while they don't cancel as much noise as the in-ear tips, they are pretty quiet and an alternative for those who don't like the sensation of ear plugs. Lightspeed says that a large percentage of its Mach 1 customers order the ear molds, which adds a couple of hundred dollars to the overall bill.
Lightspeed Mach 1
Right out of the box, I really liked the design of the Mach 1, which is intended to be thrown on and off and worn. There's no fitting of a support band, as there is with the Clarity Aloft product, before you can get going. That's convenient.
But it also compromises the design. The left ear tip is short, so it was hard for me to get a good fit on the plug. I wound up finding a long, segmented, clear silicone tip that fits perfectly, though. It stayed in place nicely and felt very comfortable. It wasn't, however, as quiet as the foam tips, which, no matter which one I tried, just weren't long enough to stay in place well. The right side tip wasn't a problem. I wound up using a foam hearing aid tip included within the Lightspeed kit, and it fit and stayed nicely. As I said, I also tried a pair of custom ear molds from Sensaphonics. They were comfortable, not as quiet as foam, but on the left side tip, they tended not to provide enough strength to keep the boom in place. On other peoples' ears, the fit would be different, but I stopped using the molds after a couple of short trips.
With the right tips (for me) selected, I found the Mach 1 to be a very comfortable and quiet enough headset. If foam tips would have worked for me, they would have made the Mach 1 quieter still. I found that I could wear it for long legs with very little wearer fatigue, something I can't even say about the significantly quieter Bose Aviation Headset X. The Mach 1 is remarkably comfortable, though your left ear will start to feel the weight of the earpiece after wearing it for a long time. The sound quality is also good, and the mic sounds great too, though it tends to pull away from the mouth a bit if the fit of the earpiece isn't quite right. Luckily, it still seems to work fine even when the placement doesn't seem ideal. The aux input is a handy addition. I used it not only to listen to music on longer legs, but to connect my cell phone to get clearances at airports where no ATC radio communications were available.
Clarity Aloft Stereo Headset
After figuring out how to wear the Clarity Aloft headset for best comfort, I wound up using it a lot. It was quiet, almost as quiet as padded active noise canceling over-the-ear headsets, and it was supremely comfortable while offering excellent sound. The biggest obstacle was getting the support band to fit right. To do this, you have to use the included plastic alligator clips, which attach to the cord. By clipping them to a piece of clothing - I sometimes used my ball cap or the pocket of my polo shirt - you can keep the weight of the cord from rotating the wire band down and away from your head. Once on correctly, the headset seemed to disappear, and I could fly long legs with almost no fatigue. As was the case with the Mach 1, you do feel a bit of pressure around where the band goes over the tops of your ears, but it's no worse than how a substantial pair of plastic sunglasses might feel.
The sound quality for the speakers and mic is excellent. The design of the mic boom works well to keep it in place throughout the flight, though it's easy to get it out of the way when you want to do that, too. Like the Mach 1, this headset has a built-in jack for a cell phone or music player. Unlike the Lightspeed set, it doesn't have auto mute for incoming transmissions, something I'd like to see in future products. It features a push-to-talk button, unlike the Lightspeed, a feature that works well but that I don't need or use. You can also adjust the balance of the headset, a handy feature for those pilots who hear better out of one ear than the other, though to adjust it, you need to use a small screwdriver to access a recessed control.
Whenever I review an aviation headset I always include the disclaimer that the fit and feel of a headset is a very subjective thing. One pilot's idea of heaven can be another's description of the opposite experience. So shop with care. If you're interested in trying out an in-ear headset, I'd suggest, well, actually trying them out. Also, find out about returns. That way, if you wind up being unhappy with the in-ear experience, you're covered. For information about the Lightspeed Mach 1 headset, visit www.anrheadsets.com. To learn more about the Clarity Aloft headset, visit www.clarityaloft.com.