It's almost a given that the Bose Headset X is at or near the top of every pilots wish list, in large part because the $1000 noise-canceler is comfortable, quiet and sleek.
Now comes the LightSpeed Zulu, a clear shot across the Bose bow. So here's the question: Can the $850 Zulu's performance earn it best-in-class status?
Although LightSpeed claims that the Zulu is the quietest headset on the market, there's more to beating the Bose than just noise reduction. Along with quietness we also weighed comfort, audio fidelity and the headset's feature complement.
This was a subjective pilot test, conducted in two different cockpits: a pressurized Lancair IV and a 2-year-old Columbia 400.
The Columbia had a jack setup, combining Bose's unique single connection and the two-plug industry standard in the same jack, so we could have two headsets connected at the same time, swapping them in seconds. It was as close as you could get to back-to-back using one pair of ears.
LightSpeed's Zulu uses full-coverage magnesium ear cups because this lightweight metal is claimed to be a better sound barrier than plastic—10 times better than any plastic at passively blocking noise, according to LightSpeed.
The manufacturer also claims that the technical result of this cup/seal combination is the best passive noise reduction combination you can buy.
Compared to the Bose X, we noticed a significant reduction in cockpit noise in passive mode, which is only marginally important because most headsets will be powered at all times.
When the ANR system (active noise reduction) was turned on, the Zulus got even better. How much? The techies say the combined passive/active noise reduction is about 8 decibels better than anyone else.
Regardless, in our subjective testing, the Zulus were more than a match for the Bose Headset X, though its not a runaway victory: "very good" versus "even better."
Both the Zulus and Bose's X are extremely light—13 ounces for the Zulu and 12 ounces for the Bose X. Both have low head-clamping pressure, too. In 2-hour flights, they both felt comfortable and unobtrusive. Call the comfort contest a tie.
The Zulus audio quality was extraordinary. Supposedly, LightSpeed's engineers spent significant development time and dollars on sound fidelity. While ATCs calls won't be made or broken by this, we sure noticed it when listening to music.
If cockpit music isn't your thing, this will not be a significant measure. But if you've opted for satellite-delivered music along with your invaluable new in-cockpit weather, you will notice the difference.
As one iPod-listening teenager asked, "Do we have to leave these in the plane?" The superiority is hard to quantify.
It's like trying to assess the difference among in-home speakers in an audio component store—you know which you like better, but to articulate why you use adjectives like "richer" and "fuller" and "purer."
New models always have the advantage in features. After all, the competition is already out there, so you know exactly where you can outgun them.
Because the Bose X doesn't have a cellphone interface, much less Zulu's Bluetooth wireless capability, the features area is a no-contest. So what?
Well, when its expedient to call ATC for a clearance in some remote location instead of trying to contact them by radio on the ground, or if you have cell-phone-delivered Nexrad weather, this is not only a valuable convenience but a real-world safety feature.
The icing on the cake is the Zulus "FRC" capability. The initials stand for front row center, and when it's engaged and you're listening to music, it has a live concert quality. Gimmicky in an aviation headset? Depends. How important is in-cockpit entertainment to you?
So, better than the Bose X? We say the Zulu is as good or better in every category, and when you add the fuller feature set to the slightly (by $145) lower price, the gap widens. Its not a slam-dunk, but it sure looks like Bose has serious competition. Bring it on!
New Zealand’s LightSpeed agents, Special FX Supplies Ltd, recently sent KiwiFlyer Magazine their demonstration Zulu headset for us to evaluate.
Given the many commendations already bestowed on this product, our expectations were high.
We weren’t disappointed to start with a conclusion, the Zulu really is very light, very quiet, very comfortable, very capable, and delivers near audiophile quality sound.
No wonder Aviation Consumer Magazine named it their "Headset of the Year". That said, in the interests of providing informative commentary rather that gratuitous babble, we’ll move straight to the specifications.
The specifications starting with weight and materials, the Zulu weighs just under 400 grams due to being constructed predominantly from magnesium and composite plastics.
In particular, the earcups are made from magnesium, said to also provide a more rigid barrier for sound attenuation. The foam earcup seals are covered in soft leather.
It's headband has a vented head pad and is designed for low side pressure. We can confirm that the whole package makes for a very comfortable headset indeed.
Zulu offers acceptable passive noise reduction and exceptional active noise reduction. According to LightSpeed, their engineers focused ANR efforts on the parts of the noise spectrum that create the most discomfort.
The result of their effort creates a perception of quietness that exceeds the actual decibel numbers quoted. A Bluetooth compatible wireless phone and music interface is provided and the Zulu can be easily synced (if you follow the instructions) with your Bluetooth device.
The battery box contains all controls for the headset as well as an input for a wired auxiliary device. A switchable auto-mute function can be set to activate for radio and VOX comms.
Hard wiring to the panel is also an available option, as is the choice of a helicopter plug and coiled lead. Anyone who enjoys music in the cockpit will love the Zulu’s "Front Row Center" button and the exceptional audio quality that this and the other audiophile grade componentry provides.
Front Row Center is designed to eliminate the problem created when the left and right sound channels are completely isolated from each other by headphones. The Zulu provides overlaid sound to the left ear that would normally be heard from the right speaker and vice versa.
The result is an audio experience you will not previously have heard anywhere near a cockpit. In fact, you’re very likely to find yourself wearing the headset on the sofa at home, listening to your favorite music there as well.
What other pilots and reviewers say there are plenty of reviews, both from magazines and individual pilot purchasers that can be browsed on the internet. By far the majority rave about the comfort and clarity of communications and users are delighted with the Bluetooth interface and savings this makes regarding the traditional tangle of cables.
Quite a few people complain that the microphone and lead are fixed to the left earcup. However the earcups are individually shaped and hinged for left and right which is undoubtedly part of the comfort equation.
It seems that if you want the comfort you have to tolerate a left only mic position. Some users have been disappointed with the level of passive noise reduction but the answer to that is surely to put some batteries in it and use the ANR that it was designed with.
There seem to be only good experiences reported regarding any service or warranty issues. No obligation trials. The demonstration set we tried is available to any prospective purchaser though you may need to book a place in the queue.
Special FX Supplies also offer a 30 day refund or replacement policy if for any reason you aren’t completely satisfied with the product, providing it is returned in original condition.
Given how good everyone says these are and the fact that you can easily borrow the trial set from Phil, anyone in the market for a top of the line headset is doing them self a disservice not to try a Zulu.