Nick Ugolini's website has motivated many pilots to build their own aviation headsets inspired after the Clarity Aloft. I tried the Clarity Aloft headset at Oshkosh a couple years ago along with several other major name brands like Bose, David Clark, etc.
I did like the Clarity Aloft because they are so light, but the small wires made them seem fragile. It's probably just my perception. I haven't been in the market to lay out $500+ dollars for headsets quite yet, so I passed.
When Nick posted his website I thought it was a great idea. I could try out a cup-less headset without the expense and make it too boot! After all, part of the fun of being an EAA member is building and using what you've built.
I built mine about a year ago when I was finishing up my ticket. I really like it and would now actually consider buying the Clarity or even the Lightspeed Mach 1. But in reality if these hold up and are reliable, I may never buy a high dollar headset.
On the advice of Nick, I purchased a set of Shure E3C headphones. The E3C is basically one step up from the bottom in the Shure product range and is reasonably affordable. My brother's church uses the E2 and they are considerably more bulky than the E3C. I opted for the professional E3C units. There is not much difference between the different models. The consumer version is white so is matches the Ipod for 'Hip' crowd. The gamers version is black and has a slightly shorter cord. The professional versions is all gray and can only be purchased from professional audio stores (no big deal). All three units have different packages to suit their market. I didn't want a white headset because the general public (and thieves) know that seeing a white headset means a high-dollar MP3 players is nearby.
Thoughts on the Shure E3C
As a side note I use the Shure headphones all the time. I fly around Australia about once a month and fly back to the states a least couple times a year. I have fallen in love with my Shure headphones while flying commercially and have abandoned my two old noise canceling headphones altogether. The Shure beats both of them hands down and is still small enough to fit in my pocket. Did I mention I love my Sure Headsets?
I wholeheartedly agree with Nick's opinion of the Comply Foam tips. I purchased 6 of them and they are the only thing I use. They are more comfortable and quieter than any of the other tips that Shure provides with the E3c. I purchased the standard size tips. I have noticed the one in my right ear is slightly tighter than the left. I must have a small right ear canal. I know I'm weird. Comply does make a slightly slimmer Comply Tip that may fit my right ear better.
This is the first unit I built as a prototype. It does not have microphone incorporated. The few times I flew with it I used the hand held mic or placed my normal heads around my neck and use its mic. It proved to me that the project was worth pursuing.
This is second unit I built and I used a Radio Shack project box. I used an audio transformer to help match the power level between the plane and headset. Check out Nick's website and the links below for assistance in wiring the transformer. Nick used a fix resistor to control his headset volume, but I wanted more control. Radio shack has two dial style potentiometers (volume controls). One is linear and the other is logarithmic. As a human perceive sounds getting louder, the db level is increasing exponentially. This is the reason you need a Audio or Log style pot. The Radio Shack Audio-Taper (Log) Potentiometer is not really logarithmic, but two linear tapers combined to create an artificial log pot. From what I understand it is much easier and cheaper to create one this way versus a true log pot. In my all knowing, non-engineering mind, I thought I could do better. Researching the internet, I found that combining a standard resistor and the regular linear pot would create a true logarithmic curve. I don't remember what size resistor or pot I used, but I calculated the wrong resistor and now my home-made log pot is overly sensitive. I'll eventually change it to an audio-taper pot. It's what I should have done in the first place.
Another option is to skip the pot and spend another $10 when buying the Shure headphone and get the in-line attenuator. I use one when flying commercially because the in-flight audio is uncomfortably loud even when set at the lowest level. This gives me much finer control over the volume.
In the box I wired an 1/8" jack for the headset and used about 12 inches of cable and a standard 1/4 inch headphone jack to plug the box into the plane.
Behind the head wire Mic Holder
Taking cues from Nick and Clarity Aloft, I started working on the wire frame for the mic. I started with light duty wire and began to create a shape. Mine starts by curving over my left ear, down around the lower portion of my head and upper neck. Then is goes up over my right ear and finally down to my mouth. The portion around the back my neck helps counter-balance the mic.
I wanted the permanent frame to be very flexible, but still hold its shape. I looked for the heaviest gauge piano wire I could find. Fortunately my wife is an accomplished classical pianist and our piano tuner is a close family friend. I phone call later yielded me about 4 feet of the heaviest wire she had available.
Bending up the piano wire to make the same shape is tedious and time consuming. To create the gentlest of curves required curling it quite tight. The trick is not to kink the wire. Since I've started using it, the frame has held its shape nicely and acquired no accidental bends.
I scrounged around for an old headset mic. My good friend, Mike 'Dust' Skorija, from the Canard Aviation Forum came to the rescue. He had built a homemade headset from RST Engineering. The headset works, but in some Pipers and Cessnas there has a terrible buzz when transmitting. RST promised Mike a filter but it was never received. This buzz did come back to haunt me later.
I ripped the headset apart to salvage the mic, plastic mic holder, the electronic circuit board, and the aviation mic plug.
The plastic mic holder was cut and sanded down to just large enough to hold the mic and be floxed to the the wire headband. The electronic circuit board which came from the RST earphone would be placed in the box with the audio transformer. An audio wire would need to be run from the mic to the box. Out the other side of the box with about 12 inches of cable is the aviation mic plug that will hook up to the airplane mic jack.
I didn't want to hard wire the mic wire from the mic to the box. I knew a setup like that would be asking for trouble. I wanted a mic jack on the box next the the headphones jack. I also intentionally did not use a standard 1/8" (3.5mm) headphones jack. I didn't want the possibility of confusing the two. Instead I used a cordless phone style jack which is 2.5mm.
To connect the mic to the box I used a cordless phone headset extension. It has 2.5mm female plug on one end and male on the other. Starting at the male end, I cut off what I thought would be a comfortable length to run from the mic to the box.
I measured the distance on the wire headset frame from the mic location to the back of my right ear. That is where my mic wire will leave the wire frame. This is how much of the outer insulation will need to be striped from the cut end of the phone extension cable.
I purchased a 3 foot length of heat shrink from the local electrical supply house. It has a nice flat black look. Slide enough heat shrink over the wire to cover the striped insulation. Also slide a 1-2" section of larger heat shrink on top of the first. DO NOT HEAT SHRINK YET. At last I solder the mic wires to the extension wires.
In the last picture you can see half of the plastic mic holder on the mic.
Assemble Headset Frame
Now it is time to attach the mic to the wire frame. Take the wire frame and feed it mic end first into the smaller shrink tube attached to the mic audio wire. It may be a tight fit. Feed the wire from the plug end to the mic end. I then bent a small V on the mic end of the wire to help position and hold the mic. Assemble the plastic mic holder around the mic and flox it to the bent wire. Let it cure.
Now slide the heat shrink up next to the mic. Begin shrinking it while carefully aligning and straightening the mic wires underneath so they run neatly along the piano wire. Leave the larger heat shrink alone for now.
To finish up the headset frame, slide more heatshrink tubing from the other end of the frame. This will butt up to and under the mic wire leaving the frame. This will give the entire headset a black look and make it a little more comfortable to wear. Also lightly sanding and coating the piano wire with 5-minute epoxy will keep the heatshrink from twisting or moving.
Next slide the larger heatshrink up and slightly over where the mic wire leave the frame. This gives a little additional comfort over the ears and finishes the headset nicely. Finally add a mic cover.
I don't know what the circuit board does or even if it's needed, so I decided to take the safe route and include it in the box. Only the mic functions are used as the I cut speaker wires off. I installed a 2.5mm female jack in the side of the box next to the 3.5mm headset jack. Soldered a short piece of wire from the headset jack to the circuit board. MAKE SURE YOU MATCH CORRECT WIRES FROM THE MIC TO THE CORRECT WIRES ON THE BOARD. Somewhere along the line I reversed mine and had to re-solder them. Don't forget to slide on heatshrink on before soldering the joint. (GUILTY) Now using the salvaged aviation mic plug, I connected it to the box with about 12 inches of cable and soldered it to the circuit board.
My box is tangle mess of wires. The circuit board could not fit and had to go in at an angle. I'll most likely make another one someday and clean up the installation.
**Added May 4, 2007**
Excluding the headphones I purchased the following from Radio Shack:
Project Box, Audio Transformer, 3.5mm female jack, 2.5mm female jack, Volume control, and Heat Shrink. I think I spent between $20 and $30.
Now I did already have or was given the following: Junk Headset for Mic, Aviation Mic and Speaker Plug. Piano Wire, Epoxy, Cordless Phone Extension, misc wire.
If you had to buy everything, you could probably still build one for less than $50 if really shop around and find a junk headset on the cheap.
I really liked the idea of the Shure headphones and I knew that with my upcoming job transfer I would be flying commercially frequently. I think I paid $150-$200 for them plus a few dollars extra for the Comply tips. They have come down a little since then. A year later I am only on my second pair of Comply tip, they seem to hold up well.
I have probably 20-30 hours on my headset and absolutely love it. It is extremely quiet and comfortable. The nasty buzz daemon came back to haunt me. With one of the C172 I rent, there is a terrible buzz anytime I press the PTT button. The intercom works fine, but there must be a compatibility problem between the RST mic and the radio. There are no problems with the other planes I've flown.
A nice addition is a clip on the wires to attach them to your shirt. It will keep the wires from pulling at the headset.
I'd really like to be able to source a reasonably good mic and associated electronics so we don't have to scavenge for old parts. If anyone knows how to to this, let me know! I regret not taking more photos, I didn't expect to write a how-to article.
My appreciation goes out to Nick for inspiring me to build my own headset. Thanks Nick!
Examples built by other people
- Nick Ugolini (Cup-less Headset) - The Master Himself
- Pete Howell - A Van's RV flyer
- Carl Peters - Another Van's RV flyer
- HardCorePawn - Another builder in New Zealand
- Smitty Smith - The editor of Fun Places to Fly and RV builder.
- Clarity Aloft
- Halo Technologies
- Comply's Canal website by Hearing Componets. Typically a pair (2) will cost about $4 a set.
- Trick Audio is a good place to buy Comply tips.
- The Ear Plug Store is another source.
- Good Article on using Headphones in Airplanes by Jim Weir of RST Engineering.
- RST Engineering headset from where I scavenged my mic.
- Aircraft Spruce has a few Mic & Accessories. I wonder if you need any electronic to drive these mics?
- Mobile One Electro Acoustics - My thanks goes to Spodman for the link. Good source of info on mics.
Some Misc websites I found about Volume Controls:
- Resistors: Turn up the volume
- The Secret Life of Pots
Link to this page:
or use this shorter link