Comfort Considerations for Choosing a Pilot Headset

Headphones are an invaluable asset for pilots and aircraft passengers. Not only do they protect against hearing loss, headphones also facilitate radio and navigation communications. While ear protection and communications clarity should be major considerations when choosing earphones, aviators should not overlook the importance of comfort in aviation headphones.
The multitude of headphone models on the market provides pilots with an abundance of options to consider. Several features contribute to the overall comfort a pilot headset offers. Aviators should consider the variety of features below to select the best model for their type of flying.

Weight: Though this seems like an obvious consideration, pilots often overlook a headset's weight in favor of other factors. Sure, electronic noise cancellation (ENC) and Bluetooth connectivity are nice, but additional features usually mean increased weight. Consider the tradeoff between weight and optional features. How long is your average flight? How much additional protection does an ENC model provide? How often will you use the Bluetooth features? Be sure to consider the benefits of any amenities before accepting additional ounces.
Headband: A headset's band should be carefully considered when determining overall comfort. The headband, particularly on longer flights, can be a source of great discomfort for aviators. To mitigate the soreness associated with headbands, look for bands designed for increased comfort. Many headbands incorporate a pillow-like cushion to dissipate pressure. Consider such headsets in favor of comparable models without added cushioning.

Ear Cups: The style of ear cups can have a profound effect on headphone comfort. In addition to blocking unwanted sound, ear cups exert pressure on, around, or in the user's ears. The amount and location of pressure depends primarily on the style of cup selected. However, design features incorporated into each style can also affect the comfort level a user experiences.
The most common style of ear cup is the over-the-ear design. These cups encircle the user's ears and generally have good passive noise reduction qualities. In addition to reducing fatigue from engine and propeller noise, over-the-ear cups are generally among the most comfortable style for users. A large part of the comfort is due to the larger surface area the cups contact. This larger surface area allows the cups to dissipate any pressure over a wider area, resulting in less direct pressure at any particular contact point.

Another type of ear cup is the on-the-ear design. These cups are smaller than the over-the-ear style and rest directly on the user's ear. Aimed primarily at jet and corporate aircraft fliers, on-the-ear cups tend to block less passive noise than their over-the-ear counterparts do. In addition, discomfort can be greater than in over-the-ear models, as pressure is exerted directly on the user's ear. However, on-the-ear models are significantly lighter than their over-the-ear brethren.
The least common type of ear cup is the in-the-ear design. A relatively new style, in-the-ear cups are similar to ordinary earplugs. The difference lies in the fact that sound from radio, intercom, and navigation equipment is piped through the cups and into the user's ears. In-the-ear headphones are extremely lightweight and lack the clamping force of larger, full-coverage headbands. The main source of discomfort comes from the cup being located within the ear canal. This discomfort increases with length of use and frequent changes in altitude and pressure.

Ear Seals: A choice of ear seal type is generally limited to the over-the-ear cup style. Within this style, aviators have the option of two types of ear seals. Foam seals are found on all types of ear cup designs. These seals are normally quite effective at blocking out passive noise. Gel ear seals are usually available only on over-the-ear headsets. While providing exceptional passive noise protection, gel seals are best known for their comfortable fit. Gel seals are also good for accommodating glasses under the ear cups.
Additional Considerations
Pilots should consider the overall comfort headphones provide when selecting ear protection. Rather than focusing on individual comfort factors, aviators should note how all features contribute to the headset's overall support. Besides cushioning, is the headband easily adjustable for different head sizes? Does the type of ear seal complement the cup style well? Is overall weight evenly distributed between the headband and ear cups? Does the headband/ear cup design clamp too tightly? Be sure to consider overall comfort and support in addition to individual features.
Besides researching component styles and features, aviators should make every effort to try prospective models before purchasing. If possible, visit a pilot shop or airport and try on different models. Speak with fellow fliers and ask about their headset comfort. Read online reviews of different styles and models. With a little research, prospective purchasers can discover their best options for comfort and value in a pilot headset.

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