It's almost a given that the Bose Headset X is at or near the top of every pilot's wish list, in large part because the $1000 noise-canceler is comfortable, quiet and sleek. Now comes the LightSPEED Zulu, a clear shot across the Bose bow. So here's the question: Can the $850 Zulu's performance earn it best-in-class status?
Although LightSPEED claims that the Zulu is the quietest headset on the market, there's more to beating the Bose than just noise reduction. Along with quietness, we also weighed comfort, audio fidelity and the headset's feature complement.
This was a subjective pilot test, conducted in two different cockpits: a pressurized Lancair IV and a two-year-old Columbia 400. The Columbia had a jack setup, combining Bose's unique single connection and the two-plug industry standard in the same jack, so we could have two headsets connected at the same time, swapping them in seconds. It was as close as you could get to back-to-back using one pair of ears.
LightSPEED's Zulu uses full-coverage, magnesium ear cups because this lightweight metal is claimed to be a better sound barrier than plastic ... 10 times better than any plastic at passively blocking noise, according to LightSPEED. The manufacturer also claims that the technical result of this cup/seal combination is the best passive noise-reduction combination you can buy.
Compared to the Bose X, we noticed a significant reduction in cockpit noise in passive mode, which is only marginally important because most active noise reduction (ANR) headsets will be powered at all times. When the ANR system was turned on, the Zulu got even better. How much? The techies say the combined passive/active noise reduction is about 8 decibels better than anyone else. Regardless, in our subjective testing, the Zulu was more than a match for the Bose Headset X, though it's not a runaway victory: "very good" versus "even better."
Both the Zulu and Bose's X are extremely light: 13 ounces for the Zulu and 12 ounces for the Bose X. Both have low head-clamping pressure, too. In two-hour flights, they both felt comfortable and unobtrusive. Call the comfort contest a tie.
The Zulu's audio quality was extraordinary. Supposedly, LightSPEED's engineers spent significant development time and dollars on sound fidelity. While ATC's calls won't be made or broken by this, we sure noticed it when listening to music. If cockpit music isn't your thing, this will not be a significant measure. But if you've opted for satellite-delivered music along with your invaluable new in-cockpit weather, you will notice the difference. As one iPod-listening teenager asked, "Do we have to leave these in the plane?" The superiority is hard to quantify. It's like trying to assess the difference among in-home speakers in an audio component store: You know which you like better, but to articulate why, you use adjectives like "richer" and "fuller" and "purer."
New models always have the advantage in features. After all, the competition is already out there, so you know exactly where you can outgun them. Because the Bose X doesn't have a cell-phone interface, much less Zulu's Bluetooth wireless capability, the features area is a no-contest. So what? Well, when it's expedient to call ATC for a clearance in some remote location instead of trying to contact them by radio on the ground, or if you have cell-phone-delivered NEXRAD weather, this is not only a valuable convenience but a real-world safety feature.
The icing on the cake is the Zulu's "FRC" capability. The initials stand for front row center, and when it's engaged and you're listening to music, it has a live-concert quality. Gimmicky in an aviation headset? Depends. How important is in-cockpit entertainment to you?
So, better than the Bose X? We say the Zulu is as good or better in every category, and when you add the fuller feature set to the slightly (by $145) lower price, the gap widens. It's not a slam-dunk, but it sure looks like Bose has serious competition. Bring it on!