LightSPEED Thirty 3G ANR Headset

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AVweb's Russ Niles moved up from no cockpit noise reduction to a passive headset only 10 years ago, and now has tried the latest active-noise-reduction (ANR) set from LightSPEED. He's a convert, and now he won't willingly fly without an ANR set, preferably LightSPEED's.

Product Review

I was 33 by the time I slid into the left seat of the 152 for my first lesson, and by the time we'd finished the run-up and were pointed down the runway, I'd had my first gnawing doubt about being able to do this. My instructor, Pamela, was handling the radio work and I couldn't understand a thing that was being said. Then, yelling above the din of prop and Lycoming up front, she somehow made it understood that we were taking off. Pamela, you see, didnít wear a headset, and with almost 10,000 hours of single-engine time, she clearly believed it was the right way to fly.

I ended up coming to the conclusion that she'd decided I should be able to fly without a headset in case I had to one day, but I don't know if that was her real motive. Of course, I got used to picking out the sounds on the tinny Cessna speaker, and anticipating the responses to my calls helped to fill in whatever gaps a sudden wind gust or other noise might mask. The next checkride I had was with an ex-military pilot who handed me a headset as we were signing out the plane. "I've never flown with a headset," I protested. "You'll never fly without one if you're with me," he replied briskly. And I've never flown without one since. As we climbed out, I lifted the thin foam cups away from my ears and was astounded by the cacophony that existed beyond them. Best of all, you could hear every word that other pilots were saying, clearly and without misunderstanding.

Although I knew that prices and designs for headsets varied considerably, it never occurred to me that performance and comfort could also be so varied, until I started looking for a new headset for my plane. About that time, I was given the opportunity to review LightSPEED's latest model, the Thirty 3G Active Noise Reduction (ANR) for AVweb. I put off any purchasing decisions until I'd had a chance to test this top-of-the-line model with its leading-edge technology. LightSPEED ANR headsets start at $299 for 10-12 db of cancellation. There's a 16-18db model for $339, a 22-24 db model for $399, 24-26 db for $479, and the Thirty 3G tops out with 28-30 db at $599. There are also passive models, ranging from $139 to $199. At the time, I wasn't sure that any headset could be worth the $599 they were asking, but I have to say I've revised that position. In general, this is a marvelous piece of equipment (it's not perfect, though), and I'm saving my pennies while getting by with something vastly inferior in the meantime. I've also learned a lot about cockpit noise, its effects -- both long- and short-term -- and why it's all-important.

Tech Details

Sound Reduction

If you're like me, you've heard about ANR technology and know basically that it works by creating sound waves that cancel out the incoming noise. Stretching back your memory to 11th-grade Physics, you understand how this can work. But if you've never tried an ANR headset before, nothing prepares you for the tranquility that they provide in the clatter of most cockpits. My vow never to fly without a headset has now been modified to specify never flying willingly without an ANR headset.

In a nutshell, the 3G does what it says it's going to do, and it offers a few extra features that help justify its luxury price tag. In addition to 30 db of noise cancellation, the highest available, it allows auxiliary sound sources, like CD or MP3 players and cellphones, to be plugged right in. That may sound a little ostentatious for the cockpit (an MP3 is decidedly out of place in my C-140), but they're nice features that I bet will get used a lot more than most pilots will be willing to admit! There is one feature that will be silently thanked thousands of times: The headset senses when it is not being worn and turns itself off, thus preserving the two AA alkalines (which normally last about 35 hours).

For those of you who are slaves to the technical details, LightSPEED's online spec sheet should provide all the numbers and graphs you can absorb. But we can't go any farther with the rest of you without a brief primer on the technology and the special place it has in aviation. ANR headsets work by gathering the ambient noise with microphones in the earpieces and sending it to a processor. The electronics flip the sound waves around and send them to a speaker inside the muff that plays them exactly out of synch with the noise around you. The great thing about the technology for aviation is that it works best with the big fat sound waves at the low end of the graph. In most airplanes, particularly the piston-powered ones most of us fly, the greatest amount of noise is created right in the range that ANR technology is best at deleting it. LightSPEED has created a five-part tutorial about the fine details of why ANR works, but from a purely subjective point of view it's nothing short of amazing. Touch the button on the control module and it's like going from a rock concert to a poetry reading.

LightSPEED Thirty 3G

When I first opened the box, I have to admit to some disappointment, however. Pilot stuff is supposed to be rugged, lean and business-like, isn't it? The 3G to my eye looked cumbersome and overstuffed. What's more, in my opinion it was sort of cheap-looking with its all-plastic construction and almost toy-like appearance. (They do have a three-year warrenty, though.) First of all, it's big. The earcups, with their full inch of heat-sensitive foam, are almost as thick as they are long. The headband is a thick slab of plastic with a built-in adjustment track cushioned by another half-inch of foam. Well, we learn in the tutorials that the massive earpieces and thick seals are an integral part of the ergonomic and technical features that allow the bits inside to do their job, which is to deliver the noise-canceling signals to the optimum place for your ears. Plastic construction is a given because we want these things as light as possible (16 ounces), and a closer look reveals that there's nothing cheap about the materials used at all. The stitching, fit and finish are all top drawer and the bulkiness is part of the price paid for the performance they deliver.

Follow the wire from the left earcup (which is always the left earcup, because the headset is not reversible) and you get to the business end of the headset. A teardrop-shaped control module, about three inches long and an inch and a half wide, provides all the controls and accessory plug-ins. There's a power switch (flashes green when the set is on), separate volume controls for each ear, mono/stereo selector and a built-in equalizer for optimizing the sound of the CD or MP3 player. For radio calls, the headset is already optimized to provide the best voice clarity. It should be noted the volume controls only work for the headset and will not regulate the accessories. The equalizer button is also used to enable or disable the muting feature that allows radio calls to override whatever else is plugged into the headset. Make sure you know how this feature is set before plugging in the tunes or the cellphone. The module controls work well and the box itself didn't seem to get in the way during our flights.

Heavy G.A.

Since my flying experience is limited to light aircraft and not much in controlled airspace, I asked a few friends to try the headset before I even put batteries in it. Rob McDicken spends the winters as an instructor at Okanagan Aviation in Vernon, B.C., but summers will find him in the left seat of a Firecat, a 1950s-era Grumman S2F Tracker set up as a water bomber. Rob loved the headset for what it can do, but he was dubious about it doing it for long in his environment. "It seemed to work really well but I don't know how it would stand up in the real world," he said. "But for a GA pilot who's going to look after his stuff, I don't see how you could go wrong." Rob kicked the tires pretty well, making cell phone calls and twiddling all the knobs. "It works as advertised. It's really pretty nice," he said. But his David Clarks will remain in the Firecat, simply because of their durability and interchangeability of parts. "I need something a little more robust."

Corporate Quiet

Volume/Control Module

Bill Houghton, chief pilot for a tire company that flies two Conquests and a Citation, had the same initial impression. "Hmm. All plastic," he said as we prepared to take company executives to Prince George and Smithers, about 250 nm north of his base in Vernon. Then, as we squeezed into a Conquest's cockpit, he tossed the headset into the right seat. The control module's battery door popped open and the door and batteries fell down beside the seat. We never did find one of the batteries, but we did find a pair of glasses -- belonging to another pilot -- that had been "lost" a few weeks earlier. It was not a proud moment for the 3G and it made Bill, who's flown everything from DC-3s full of car parts to Twin Otters in the Arctic, skeptical of its performance from the start. He suggested I wear them on the first leg. My first disappointment was that the cellphone cord wouldn't fit mine and I'd neglected to check. Otherwise, I left the ANR on the whole time. The Conquest is a relatively quiet airplane, but the headset negated the prop noise while letting through other sounds in the aircraft. I could hear the pax in back chatting. (LightSPEED spokesman Mark Shepard said there have been only a few complaints about the battery door, and the company has come up with a "holster" for the control module that should keep things together. It costs $10.)

Corporate pilot Bill Houghton gives his impression of the performance of the LightSPEED Thirty 3G. He was less enthusiastic about its design and construction.

Bill took the headset for the second leg and the battery door tragedy was forgiven, if not forgotten. In his stoic way, it was easy to tell that he, too, was impressed with the ANR and the overall comfort of the headset. He's spent thousands of hours with something over his ears and he said the 3G was as comfortable as any full-coverage headset he'd tried. "Tell them itís a 6.5 or a seven out of ten," he said. "It works well but I don't know how it would stand up." When we got back to the hangar, I ran into the maintenance chief and told him what we were doing. "You let Bill try them? He doesn't like anything," he said. Seven out of 10, it would seem, was high praise indeed.

Low, Slow, and Silent

The headset finally ended up in my airplane, a C-140, a few weeks ago, and has logged a few hours of low and slow over the beautiful Shuswap area, near Salmon Arm, where the plane is based. My partner Jim Clark, a veterinarian and ham radio hobbyist, couldn't find anything to criticize. He'd recently purchased one of LightSPEED's passive headsets and was disappointed when I took the 3G away from him to prepare this review. "It really, really works," he said. And I have to agree. My initial worries about the durability of the headset have abated. It's performed flawlessly in all conditions and I can't imagine flying without ANR again. As for whether it would stand up to everyday professional use, it's a moot point for most of us. I consider myself a "GA pilot that's going to look after his stuff" and expect a long -- and quiet -- relationship with LightSPEED.