The computing power in the new Lightspeed Zulu PFX headset (PFX stands for “Personal Flying Experience”) rivals that of the Apollo missions’ guidance computer that took men to the moon. A headset like this could only be dreamed of as science fiction years ago, and its feature list reads like a tech-nerd’s dream. It’s amazing to admire complexity of today’s aviation headsets, and the PFX leading the “gee-whiz” parade with a host of intriguing technological features.
The crux of Lightspeed’s new PFX headset is that it adapts itself not only to your noise environment, but also to the physical characteristics of your ears. The “P” in the model name is the marketing department’s way of reminding you that this is designed to be like a custom headset created just for you. And, in many ways, it is. But, before diving into the technical traits of this impressive headset, a few words need to be said about the unit’s design.
A very young company, Lightspeed introduced their first product (the K-Series ANR headset) at Oshkosh in 1996. Admittedly obsessed with “relentless product evolution,” Lightspeed introduced a lot of “firsts” to the aviation headset world (for example, they were the first to switch from six batteries to two, among others). On this headset, a great deal of attention to detail and usefulness is evident. Ergonomics has always been a hallmark of the brand, and with the Zulu PFX, it seems the company went all out on its design.
The PFX sports a clean and modern look, with some beautiful design aesthetics. The headband and length adjustment mechanism, for example, are both things of techno-beauty, with satin-finish alloy forming the delicate-but-industrial frame of the headband, and a metal detent bracket on each ear cup providing satisfying “clicks” at each stop of its length. It recalls the best of German automobile engineering. On the comfort front, Lightspeed has wisely moved away from silicon ear seals and provided “memory” foam seals covered with buttery leather, which serves to make the PFX comfortable on long, hot flights. The gathered ear seal covers are a nice design touch, adding to the luxurios feel of the headset.
The headset’s cord is a strange contrivance, but at once useful and durable. Instead of the ho-hum straight or coiled audio cable, the Zulu PFX sports a twisted, rope-like cord that’s actually silver-coated copper alloy wrapped around a Kevlar core, designed to deliver flexibility, strength and clear sound. I loved the microphone clip, which is a departure from every other brand’s throwaway little gizmo. Instead, it has a broad clip that’s bigger than your thumb with enough clamping power to never move from wherever you clip it—another nod to detail.
Which brings us to the big control box. To be fair, Lightspeed says the control module is large because it houses the CPU that controls the headset. Just writing that sentence impresses me with the fact that this headset needs a CPU at all. The control module measures seven inches in length, and nearly two inches in both width and height. That’s a good-sized brick to have attached to your headset. It’s one of the few things pilots have noted in online blogs and forums. But, as Lightspeed says, this control box is the “nerve center” of the unit.
The defining characteristic of the Zulu PFX is that it creates a uniquely personal flying experience by actively conforming to your ears, your environment and your preferences. What Lightspeed has trademarked as “Streaming Quiet™” is active noise reduction (ANR) that continuously adapts to your environment using tiny-but-efficient internal and external microphones to sample the sound environment around your ears. The unit does this some one million times per second, changing the amount of noise cancellation—as well as the frequency range of that cancellation—throughout the flight. Lightspeed tells us their “acoustic response mapping” also measures your noise environment, and adapts the resulting audio to your ear shape and size. How it does this isn’t evident from using the headset.
Kudos to Lightspeed for placing both the “in” and “out” cables on the same side of the control module. This and a handy metal hanging clip (included) makes it convenient to attach the control module to a map pocket, flight bag, seat belt or other location near the pilot. The module houses stereo volume controls, a power switch, Bluetooth switch and four AA batteries. In another brilliant move, Lightspeed made the PFX’s firmware field upgradeable, which means new enhancements can be uploaded into the PFX through a USB cable (provided). The PFX will interface with Bluetooth devices, making wireless cell phone calls and music listening a snap.
Of special note is the unique mobile device application called FlightLink. FlightLink is the free, proprietary app developed by Lightspeed for the iPad and iPhone that adds enhanced functionality to Lightspeed headsets. When combined with the Zulu PFX, FlightLink allows users to set a variety of personal audio and operational preferences, as well as record communications to their devices and more. It’s a cool little app.
The PFX, like its competitors at the high-end, has its own sound “personality.” This is where pilots have to try the headset and decide if the sound signature fits their needs. When listening to music, the Zulu PFX sounds fabulous. The clarity and range of the speakers is sizzling. In the cockpit, I found it flat, though that’s not a complaint. One thing pilots need to accept is that our comm radios haven’t come out of the Stone Age, fidelity-wise. Cockpit communication with ATC will never sound like today’s music, which has been mastered and compressed specifically for headphone listening. The noise attenuation was excellent.
In the stratosphere of headsets, comparing the Lightspeed to, say, a Bose or Sennheiser, is like comparing a Fender Stratocaster to a Gibson Les Paul. Which is better? It depends on the listener. The bottom line is the PFX is a very comfortable and great-sounding headset with enough noise cancellation to protect pilots in almost any environment (like most ANR headsets, it didn’t do well in the open cockpit). It’s safe to say Lightspeed has set a high bar and can be considered state of the art today.
|The nerve center of the Zulu PFX is the control module. It houses a CPU that monitors the sound environment, and maps your ear shape and size, changing noise attenuation to fit the noise profile in real time. The result is customized sound.|