One encouraging piece of news is that there are no truly bad headsets on the market. Even a basic entry-level headset will provide decent levels of comfort, performance and reliability. So if you can afford and are interested in the extra bells and whistles such as active noise reduction or bluetooth connectivity, by all means go for them, and if not, rest assured that even the most basic headset will be an excellent companion to you in your flight training journey. Another good thing about basic headsets is that if you ever decide to upgrade later down the road, your old headset will not go to waste; it can be used by your passengers.
In terms of features, the biggest decision to make is whether to go with passive vs. active noise reduction (PNR vs ANR).
Passive Noise Reduction Headsets
Passive noise reduction headsets are the less expensive ones. They sit snugly around your ears, and block out the engine noise with their big squishy gel pads. While they do not eliminate engine noise, they reduce it to very comfortable levels, allowing for clear radio communication at a normal speaking volume. The pros of this type of headset are the lower price and no need for an external power source (batteries). The cons are that they tend to be somewhat heavier and bulkier than the active noise reduction (ANR) headsets and do not accomplish quite the same amount of noise reduction as the ANRs are capable of.
A typical entry-level headset of this type is an ASA AirClassics HS-1. I own an HS-1 myself -- bought it for passenger use -- and I can attest that there is nothing wrong with this headset. While it is slightly bulkier than more expensive headsets, and the adjustments are slightly clunkier, it's still plenty good enough, so I would not hesitate to recommend it if you're looking for a budget-friendly option. This headset can be bought for less than $200CAD.
A step up is a David Clark's HS10-13.4 with its signature green domes and somewhat vintage look. This is my own primary headset, and I find it to be comfortable and easy to adjust. If you're overwhelmed by options are and looking for a solid dependable headset, this is an excellent option.
Active Noise Reduction Headsets
Active noise reduction (ANR headsets) incorporate technology that will generate sound waves that cancel out the sound waves around you, reducing engine and wind noise to nearly a whisper. That helps increase pilot comfort level and eliminate fatigue. They also tend to be lighter than the passive headsets. Many will also incorporate features such as bluetooth connectivity so you can pair it up with your phone (although beware of the distractions such a pairing could result in!) There are, however, a few drawbacks to ANR headsets as well. An obvious one is price - ANR headsets tend to cost around $1,000, compared to $150-450 for most passive headsets. A few other disadvantages include:
- Some people feel an uncomfortable pressure on their eardrums when wearing headphones with active noise cancellation technology.
- The need to always carry spare batteries. ANR headsets rely on the noise cancellation technology rather than on a tight seal between your ear and the outside, so if you run out of battery, things will become loud -- louder than with most passive headsets.
- Finally, some pilots feel that ANRs do a little too good of a job cutting out noise, depriving the pilot of auditory clues that something might be amiss. ANR technology works by figuring out what the repetitive, monotonous noise is and generating a counter sound wave, so any sudden unpredictable noise will cut through; however, you might miss things like a whistling of wind because your door has come unlatched or asynchronous propeller beat on a multi-engine airplane.
I am not very familiar with this segment of the market, so I would instead redirect you to online reviews, such as the ones in this article.
Where to Buy
Online shopping will probably be your most cost-effective option for headset-buying. In Canada, VIPPilot is by far the most prominent online aviation store. U.S. websites such as Sporty's tend to offer better prices; however, be aware that as Canadian, you would have to pay duty on any items bought in the U.S. which, along with an unfavourable exchange rate, can end up costing you more in the end.
A local aviation store is the place to go for headsets if you want to actually see and touch what you're buying. Your flight school may carry a small selection of headsets as well, but be sure to compare prices before buying: a smaller vendor such as a flight school might have a higher mark-up on their items. In Toronto, the best prices and selection for most items would be found at Aviation World located near Pearson International.