Saturday, August 28, 2010

Lightspeed Zulu vs Telex Stratus Heli-XT

Since I am now flying between 5 and 7 hours every day with one of the doors off in my R22, I thought it might be time to upgrade my headset to protect my hearing.  I like listening to music and talking to people, and I would be really sad if these things disappeared because I didn't have a good enough headset.  I tried to do some preliminary research on the best headsets out there, and it seems to come down to the Bose Aviation X and the Lightspeed Zulu.  The Bose for me is automatically out: I don't like the noise canceling, I don't like the cord, I don't like the mic sound and position, and I really don't think they provide all that much protection (supposedly Bose won't publish the decibel protection because it is proprietary information).  So I basically had to either buy the Lightspeed Zulus, or find an alternative that was just as good or better.  On paper, the Heli-XT headset from Telex was at least as good, but I could not find any reviews on it, so here is my biased opinion.


As a helicopter pilot who flies for a living, price was a big deal for me.  I am still getting my career started, so naturally I am pretty poor.  Thanks Sallie Mae.  Anyway, the absolute cheapest I could find the helicopter version of the Lightspeed Zulus was $900.  There are a lot of websites advertising $850, but as far as I can tell those are all fixed wing versions.  For some reason the helicopter version has to be $50 more.  Makes sense, right?  $900 is a lot of money for a headset in my opinion, and I found the Telex Stratus Heli-XTs for about $550.  After shipping and tax and doc fees and delivery fees and licensing fees and registration fees, my total cost was $571.

First point goes to the Telex Stratus Heli-XTs for saving me $350

Noise protection

Lightspeed Zulu - total protection of 30db ( 
Telex Heli-XT - >29db passive and up to 16db active for a total of 47db (Telex  Heli-XT instruction manual).

In theory, the Heli-XTs should be a lot quieter than the Lightspeeds, but we all know that sometimes the numbers in theory don't match the end user experience in the real world.  However, the Heli-XTs should be a HUGE improvement over my 17db David Clarks.  It was very important to me to have some good passive protection, because as good as active noise reduction may be, all ANR headsets run off batteries (except Lemo) and I still want to be able to fly comfortably once those batteries run out.  This is another reason the Bose are out for me, once the batteries run out, you might as well not be wearing anything.  The Lightspeeds are similar, without the ANR the protection is minimal. In theory, even without the ANR, the Heli-XTs should be better than a lot of headsets out there. 

So how did it turn out in the helicopter?  The Telex are very quiet in the cockpit, and it gets even better once you turn on the ANR.  Telex claims that the ANR is tuned specifically to helicopter frequencies that are harmful for your hearing, and the ANR definitely takes a lot of the bass sound away.  Compared to the Zulus, I can't really say which headset is more quiet, they are just different.  The Zulus are really quiet, the Heli-XTs are really quiet - one is not clearly better, just different.  With the ANR off though, the Heli-XTs are the clear winner, I wouldn't want to run out of batteries with the Zulus. 

Second point goes to the Heli-XTs for better passive protection and great overall noise reduction

Comfort, Fit and Style

In my opinion, Lightspeed zulus look and feel sweet.  They are slim, sleek, light and cool.  They are comfortable  and fit well on my head, even with my sunglasses on.  The Heli-XTs are definitely bigger - 18.5 oz compared to 13.9 oz.  They are a bit bulky, and I was worried about getting a neck-ache after a long day of work.  I never thought of myself as a sensitive neck person, and it turns out the bigger Heli-XTs caused no comfort issues even after long days (7 hours plus) of flight.  Another common complaint is the clamping pressure.  Again, the Lightspeeds seem to have great clamping pressure - enough to keep a tight seal but not cause headaches, but I have never worn the Lightspeeds for more than 2 hours.  The Heli-XTs have 3 adjustable clamp pressure settings, and mine is currently on the highest pressure, and no problems at all.  I have never personally worn any headset that I thought clamped too tight, maybe I have a small head or I am just not a wuss, but this was not an issue for either headset.  I do have one beef with the Lightspeed's microphone - for some unknown reason, you can only rotate the mic one way!  In other words, you must have the mic on the left side of your body.  This is fine if you are sitting in the right seat, but if you are in the left seat this requires you to wrap the cord around your body, which I find very uncomfortable and annoying.  The Heli-XTs mic can be rotated so you can have the mic on either side of your head.  Another thing I don't like about the LightspeedsHeli-XT cord is a great length for a helicopter.  The control module with the power and mute buttons hangs down to just below my shoulder instead of dangling down by the collective. 

Third point is a tie - both are very comfortable and the Lightspeeds are cooler looking and lighter, but the Heli-XTs have the fit features that are important to me.


Both headsets allow you to connect your headset to a music player and a phone.  The Lightspeeds have Bluetooth for wireless connection to cell phones, but the Heli-XTs have a corded connection that plugs in to the hands free part of my cell phone.  I do like the Bluetooth option better, but the cord works just fine.  Both headsets have volume adjustment for each side, Lightspeed has the control on their battery compartment, Telex has theirs on the side of each ear cup.  Telex has a mute function to instantly mute cell phone calls or your music if needed.  Lightspeed also has an FRC option, which is apparently for listening to music or watching movies with great sound quality, but I really don't think I am going to be walking down the street listening to my mp3 player with my headset cord dangling down by my side.  Likewise I can't imagine listening to music at home with my helicopter headsets, so for me this feature is really pointless.  Overall, the only real difference in features is the addition of Bluetooth compatibility for the Zulu.  I really like Bluetooth, and I thought this was going to be a let down for me to not have it, but once I used the Heli-XTs with the cord for a cell phone call, I realized Bluetooth wasn't really that important to me.  The Lightspeeds automatically mute your music if there is any activity on the radio, even talking between occupants of the aircraft, and I was surprised to find that the Heli-XTs did not have this feature.  I was afraid that the music would drown out the calls or our conversation, but this was not the case.  The volume set on my mp3 player was such that I could clearly hear my music, but I just set the radio and intercom volume a bit louder, and I found no issue hearing the calls clearly.  In fact, in retrospective comparison I think the Lightspeed's automatic muting is annoying.  I prefer to have the music quieter but at constant rather than muted automatically for me, I just find it to be a more enjoyable experience, and not distracting at all.

Fourth point is a tie - essentially the features for both headsets are the same


This remains to be seen, since I have only had the Heli-XTs for about a week, but they do have a 5 year warranty (5 years!).  According to what I could find online, the Zulus have a 5 year warranty as well.  Not to pick on Bose again, but they originally had a two year warranty, and now apparently they have caught up to the competition with a 5 year warranty, but I know a lot of people who have had issues with their Bose sets - ear cups, head bands, etc.  The Lightspeeds and the Bose seem to be a little less substantial. The Heli-XTs seem like they are built like old Buicks.  I will update this if I have a problem, but until then, the jury will remain out on the Telex's durability

Fifth point is undecided


For first impressions the Telex Heli-XTs kill the Bose Aviation X, and are a bit better than the Lightspeed Zulus.  A big factor for me is the value - with the Lightspeeds and Bose being $1000, the Heli-XTs seemed like a great alternative and a chance to save some money.  I was very happily surprised to find that I actually like the Heli-XTs better than any other headset I have tried.  The only thing that could improve the Telex headset is to add the Bluetooth feature, otherwise they are just as good if not better than the Lightspeeds.  I may change my tune if they break easily or the customer service is bad, but for now, the Telex Stratus Heli-XTs are the clear winner for me and the things I care about in a helicopter headset.  

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