Why spend the extra $200-1500 for your own personal aviation headset? Which ones should I get? What’s good value? Like most things in life, it depends.
Actually, let’s start even before that. Why even wear a headset? Most planes have a speaker and microphone on board anyways. There are three main reasons: noise fatigue, communications, and safety.
First is noise fatigue. Having to listen to the drone of the engine and wind noise will progressively irritate and distract you. Not a good emotional state to be in when operating a fast and heavy machine thousands of feet in the sky.
The second reason is to easily communicate with others. As mentioned, it gets loud due to all the noises of the engine and air. The headset (in addition to reducing noise) will also incorporate speakers into it to allow clear communications between the pilots and passengers on board, ATC, and other aircraft. It’s just simply easier to understand what others are saying in a quieter environment compared to a loud environment. The included microphone also makes it much more convenient by freeing up your hand.
Last and most importantly, planes are LOUD. The most obvious source of noise is the engine. The engine, propeller, design of the muffler, and the distance between you and those parts will vary the intensity of the sound. Another source of noise is air moving past the aircraft. The faster the air is moving, the louder it will be. Depending on the aircraft, the intensity of the combined sounds can range from 80-120 db. The more common planes (C172, PA44, A320, B737, etc) are 90-110 db. A normal conversation is around 60 db, while physical pain begins around 125 db. Studies have shown that long exposure to noise above 85 db can cause permanent hearing damage. There is no “getting used to it”. It just hurts less because hearing loss has already occurred.
This happens due to the way we humans sense sounds. There are tiny hairs inside our cochlea (part of the inner ear) that senses the vibrations of sound as it’s transferred through the ear and processes the sound wave into an electrical signal for the brain. Sound is a pressure wave. Compare popping a balloon and an exploding a bomb beside a patch of tall grass. The grass would feel the vibrations of both, but the bomb would also shear the grass from the soil. The grass will grow back, but unfortunately for us, these tiny hairs inside our cochlea don’t. No hairs means nothing to detect sound, which means hearing loss!
Inside the cochlea, the higher frequency hairs are at the entrance of the cochlea, while the lower frequency ones are at the back. So the higher frequency hairs would ‘feel’ all frequencies, even a loud low frequency sound. To sense the higher frequencies, the hairs are thinner, which also makes them even more fragile. That’s why we lose hearing in the higher frequencies first as we age. The concerning part is, speech is considered high frequency.
As with anything that has to do with our bodies, genetics will play a role. We all will have individual resistances to hearing damage. A pilot that can still hear properly after 30 years with no headset is not evidence that you’ll be fine with the same exposure.
Protect your hearing. Protect your ears. Protect your medical.