Lightspeed Headset (Final Print Version—Did not appear on SW Aviator's public website)

For the value-conscious consumer, it's often a good idea to hold off jumping onto the bandwagon of the latest technological trend. There are always bugs to work out, and prices are prohibitive for the first few years. Take Active Noise Reduction (ANR), for example. When Bose first introduced ANR headsets in 1989, the technology worked pretty well, but the comfort was questionable, and they sold for an exorbitant $1000.

Just over a year ago, Lightspeed entered the market with the 20K: a headset which boasted Bose-like quality and superior comfort for less than half the price. Though $440 isn't cheap, it was low enough to be worth considering—if the manufacturer's claims were true.

Passive headsets depend wholly on the dampening effect from the materials which make them up. The earcups block out some external noise, but are only effective at blocking out midrange and high frequencies. Unfortunately, some of the loudest noises a pilot experiences—like propeller blade rotation, exhaust noise and cabin wind noise—are in the lower frequency ranges.

Noise reduction becomes "active" when it requires power from an external source. The Lightspeed headsets have a small control box on the connecting cables which houses two AA batteries. The control box also has stereo volume controls, a battery level indicator, and an on/off button.

When the on/off button is clicked, an amazing thing happens. You literally "turn down" your environment. Microphones in the earcups pick up sounds entering the headset; the speakers then send out-of-phase signals which cancel out the noise.

Because these headphones are designed to cancel out the lower frequencies, it actually helps you hear the sounds you want to, like the engine, audio communications from ATC, and your passengers. With prolonged use, the headset will prevent a good degree of the hearing loss which used to be an almost unavoidable consequence of flying.

The noise elimination abilities of the 20K are nothing short of impressive, but you sacrifice some of the higher range cancellation that most passive headsets offer. Also, the sound volume and quality from the speakers lags when the unit isn't turned on (Though with almost 30 hours from each pair of batteries, you might as well have the system on all the time!).

When it comes to designing headsets for comfort, engineers probably hate people like me. I'm the reason they had to learn the meaning of ergonomics back in school. I've got Dumbo ears, an oversized cranium, eyeglasses, and I get headaches if something doesn't set on my skull just right.

Somebody at Lightspeed must be my long-lost twin. This headset is almost impossibly comfortable. The ear cushions are large and have a natural triangular shape; no part of the headset actually touched my ear. The temperature-sensitive gel within the pads works seamlessly with eyeglasses or sunglasses. The unit weighs under a pound, and this weight is evenly distributed across the headband.

The price you pay for all this luxury: a goofy-looking headset. With the 20K on, my head was effectively doubled in width.

Overall, Lightspeed has constructed a fine headset at a affordable price. The company is scheduled to relase a new high-end model, the 25K, very soon (late spring). With any luck, this may push the prices of Lightspeed's other models—the 20K and the low-end 15K—down even further than their already reasonable rates.

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