Lightspeed Aviation loaned our Air Racer in Residence, William E. Dubois, two pairs of its new wireless Tango headsets for a two-month, multi-race no-strings-attached field trial.
Here’s his report on what it’s really like to use this first-of-its-kind wireless headset system in the cockpit:
Something’s wrong with my engine. The tach is strong. Oil pressure good. The airspeed is coming up nicely as we barrel down the runway. But the engine doesn’t sound healthy. Instead of the throaty roar I’m used to, my engine sounds like a frickin’ weed whacker. My fingers dance on the throttle as I debate aborting the takeoff.
But I know it’s just the headset.
And sure enough, the plane lifts nimbly off the ground and soars, rather silently, into the sky. I turn to my copilot and say, “Well, that was weird.”
It was my maiden flight with the latest cockpit wonder: Tango, the wireless, Active Noise Reduction (ANR) headset from Lightspeed Aviation.
The Tango is a two-part system made up of a wireless ANR headset and a somewhat bulky device called a panel interface. Coming prominently out of one end of the panel interface are… uh… wires.
So let’s be honest. It really isn’t a wireless system.
Instead, what Lightspeed has done is cut the cable from the headset to the panel that has tied generations of pilots to their planes, increasing freedom of movement inside the cockpit, and for many, making getting in and out of the cramped general aviation cockpit easier, and perhaps safer, with no entangling wires.
Just how did they do it?
A new kind of wireless
It’s not Bluetooth and it’s not WiFi. I spoke with Lightspeed Executive VP of Sales and Marketing Teresa De Mers at AirVenture 2016, and she told me that the company had some unexpected challenges in developing a wireless headset.
Bluetooth wouldn’t work, because while it’s great for moving digital data, it’s a poor technology for voice communication in an aviation headset where you hear what you are saying while you speak. Apparently in this setting, Bluetooth introduces a maddening lag between speaking and hearing your own voice in the headset. WiFi had similar issues that made it equally unsuitable.
In the end, the company developed something it describes as being a hybrid of analog and digital technologies. An analog signal carries the pilot’s voice to the intercom, while a digital signal returns sound to the headset.
I guess you could say it’s analog “down” and digital “up.”
Fit and finish
Disclaimer: For the last several years I’ve been flying with a passive Sigtronics Model S-20 and have no complaints about it. I felt it cut the racket from my engine nicely, but left me aware of its health. I found the gel-filled ear cups comfortable even on 10-hour flying days, although by day’s end it was heavy on the top of my head.
Plus, it looks like what an aviation head set ought to look like.
By comparison, the $800 Tango looks a little more like something a DJ in a trendy nightclub would wear. It’s a bit overly modern for my taste, all plastic and no metal, decked out in several shades of soft greys and silver. The earphones are large and bulky. The mike boom is an infinitely adjustable soft cable that reminds me of necks of the Martian War Machines in the 1953 classic “War of the Worlds.”
I found the Tango to be light on top of the head, although initially bulky over the ears. On the first long cross-country I took wearing one, my ears felt uncomfortably warm, but I guess I’ve gotten used to them, as they don’t bother me anymore.
The earphones stick out from my head quite a bit farther than my old set, and still after nearly two months of use, I sometimes smack the left earpiece on my canopy or the right earpiece on my copilot’s headset.
Meet the dongle
Officially called the Panel Interface, the thick, 8-inch-long dongle-like controller is the part of the system that plugs into the plane, and is the command and control device that lets the wireless headset communicate with the aircraft’s audio system.
The dongle does have wires and, depending on the model, plugs into either a pair of traditional headset jacks or into a LEMO connector. I had originally thought I could just Velcro it up under the panel somewhere and be done with it, but, like the headset, the version of the dongle I tested needs to be recharged daily. It also has a power-on button and the Bluetooth controls.
Lightspeed provides a clip that can attach the dongle to a map pocket on the side of the plane and this worked great for my copilots, but the map pocket didn’t work for me.
I repeatedly turned off the dongle by bumping it with my knee, shutting the system down in flight. I never developed a solution that fully worked, but just generally dropped the damn thing on the floor, a far from perfect solution, but I still found it to be an improvement in cockpit clutter over a traditional corded headset.
In the cockpit
Getting into every airplane is different, and some would argue always difficult. In our case, our canopy slides down into the belly of the plane and you step from the wing up over the high fuselage wall and down onto the seat, then slide down deep into the cockpit.
It’s not unlike wriggling into a tight-fitting pair of blue jeans.
And like many airplanes in the GA fleet, our cockpit is cozy. So a tangle of wires like jungle vines has caused no shortage of near injuries to me and my copilots over the years. On a cross-country with a copilot and luggage, our range is only about 200 miles, so we’re stopping for gas every two hours.
There’s a lot of getting in and out of those tight jeans on any flight. The idea of a cordless cockpit was enticing, to say the least, and it lived up to its promise.
And in flight, the ability to twist and turn my head and torso in any direction without the tug of a cable is wonderful beyond describing — not to mention the lack of shoulder belt entanglements.
Setting up the Tango at the beginning of a flight is easy. You simply plug the dongle-looking panel interface into your twin headset jacks and press the on button. Next, press the on button on the back of the left earpiece. The light turns green, and you’re good to go.
Volume control is on the right earphone (although the mike boom can be swung 180° to be worn on the right or the left) and is a large rocker switch that makes volume adjustment a snap. Even after years of use, with my old headset I often spun the volume control knob in the wrong direction.
Our plane happens to be set up for mono audio. A simple switch inside the dongle sets the Tango up into a mono-friendly mode where audio signals are split between the earphones. This is a wonderful design, as I’ve used other high-end stereo headsets in which one earphone was silent and all sound came in the other side, which will drive you crazy in short order.
This ability to quickly switch back and forth between mono and stereo with one set of headsets would be handy for pilots who rent a variety of aircraft.
But even in mono mode, the Tango maintains stereo for streaming Bluetooth music. Well, at least for one member of a flight crew. We were unable to convince any of our iPhones to link to the two headsets at the same time. Likewise, one headset could be used for making phone calls in flight, a delightful new experience for me.
Overall, I found the audio quality to be excellent with the possible exception of the fact that my own voice on the intercom sounded a bit like I was trapped at the bottom of a beer can. That said, I’ve gotten totally used to it.
Care and feeding
One thing that took longer to get used to was having to recharge the headsets. Depending on where we spent the night in our travels to the races, we often left our old headsets in the plane, tucked up deep in the footwell out of sight. This is not an option with the Tangos, as they need to be charged each night, so we have two more things to schlep from the plane to the crew car at the end of the day.
The charging itself is simple enough. Each headset comes with a pair of USB cables and a two-jack wall adapter. There’s a pouch in the headset case that holds the wires and adaptor.
In the configuration I tested, both the headset and the dongle have separate batteries that need to be charged. The dongle has a charging port on the side accessible through its protective case.
The first generation of Tango headsets required the user to open the battery door to charge the headset’s battery. Although apparently aggressively drop-tested, this door appears flimsy and Lightspeed paid attention to customer feedback and added a rubber flap over the charging port so the battery can be recharged without opening the compartment. This innovation was introduced this summer and the review samples I used had the modification. Lightspeed will upgrade existing sets for $45 for early adopters who want the new access port.
Lightspeed describes the new battery flap on its website as, “A durable and attractive rubber cover protects the jack.” Personally I’ve found that the flap closes poorly, sort of hanging open most of the time, which would be hard to justify as “attractive,” but it’s certainly durable. And convenient. I generally charged the headset by using the rubber flap.
Once plugged in for charging, both devices display an orange charging lamp that turns green when the batteries are full. The batteries are lithium ion batteries, so there’s no worry about the batteries developing a “memory” from repeated charging. The two devices use identical batteries, so they are interchangeable (or one spare can power either half of the system). The company says a two-hour charge gives you 12 hours use.
Continuing the rapid evolution of the Tango, which was first released in November 2015, Lightspeed has recently come out with a new version of the LEMO dongle that is powered off the ship’s panel, which now allows it to charge a spare battery for the headset while in flight.
But what happens if the batteries were to fail in flight? Well, Lightspeed spent a lot of time thinking about that and it has a Plan A, Plan B, Plan C, Plan D….
We all know that crap happens, and the Tango was engineered with this in mind. Both the headset and the panel interface dongle “know” when they are in use by monitoring noise levels, so if you forget to turn them off at a fuel or bathroom stop, both devices will shut down to preserve battery life. The batteries themselves are fast chargers — a 30 minute charge at a fuel stop can get you back up to 75% battery.
Lightspeed advises pilots to carry a spare battery, but it’s also possible to charge the batteries while the system is in use from either a cockpit power source or “juice box.” I did carry a spare battery on my first few flights, but I’ve yet to experience a low battery myself.
I’m told the headset will warn you (by beeping at you) when you have only three hours of juice left. As it gets lower it’s supposed to get more frantic in its warnings.
And if all else fails, the final, last-ditch backup system is a thin audio cable stored in a secret compartment in the dongle. It’s possible to tether your wireless headset to the interface dongle, and presto, instant traditional passive headset.
I decided to test this feature. In flight, I pulled the battery out of my headset, unwound the emergency cable, and plugged it in. Sure enough, it worked.
In emergency mode there’s no active noise reduction, and the Tango is one crappy passive headset. It was LOUD in the airplane. But the intercom and radio still functioned, and it’s nice to know that if everything really went wrong you could still communicate.
I’ve been using two Tangos in our plane, as it’s a two-seat aircraft, but it’s possible to have up to six Tangos dancing a tango with each other. Inside both the headset and the dongle are small channel select dials. Each headset simply needs to match its dongle for six-way communication.
To keep track of which headset goes with which dongle, Lightspeed provides six color “chips” that are snapped into both the headset and its paired dongle for quick identification.
The colors? Black, blue, green, orange, red, and yellow.
Speaking of family…
My copilot Tango was test flown by my buddy Lisa, my wife Deb, my student pilot son Rio, and my mom. All reported preferring the Tango over the Sigtronics we had been using.
Of note, you couldn’t find a group of people with a greater variety of head sizes. Lisa, in particular, has a very small head. Our old headsets often simply slipped off her head during flight. She much preferred the Tango, as it stayed in place on her head.
She found the audio quality super and the noise reduction far superior. Having gotten herself hopelessly tangled in headset cords numerous times, she was a big fan of the near wireless nature of the system.
She also liked the fact that the headsets were earring friendly.
Rio didn’t care for the audio quality quite as much as other ANR headsets he’s flown with during his training, especially the intercom feedback of his own voice, which sounded flat and tinny to him. I find this true, too, but all other incoming sound is excellent: Your partner in the plane, the radio transmissions, and phone and music. Rio was especially fond of the mike boom, which he found much easier to adjust than our old metal ball and joint model.
After a little over six weeks of using the Tango exclusively in three air races, one fly-in, and 32 hours of cross country, I switched in mid-flight back to my old headset.
I expected a big difference, but to my surprise — at first — there wasn’t really that much of a change. Sure, the engine was a little throatier, but not oppressively loud. But after 30 minutes of wearing my traditional passive system that I’ve worn for more than 300 hours with no complaint, I had a headache.
I switched back to the Tango again. The dull throaty roar of my engine diminished to an odd whack-whack-whack that was disconcertedly impotent, but my headache went away.
Like all devices, the Tango has both negative and positive aspects. On the bad side of the ledger is the somewhat tinny quality to your own voice on the intercom, which even Lightspeed admits is a compromise to make the wireless feature a reality, and is of lower quality than its corded sets.
I was also mildly annoyed that I couldn’t stream music to two headsets via the Bluetooth. I can still plug my phone into the audio panel of the plane, but here we go with wires again, and then my music is in mono.
It pisses me off that the carry handle on an otherwise brilliantly designed and easy-to-use carrying case is too small and I find my fingers chafe against the case when carrying it.
And speaking of size, I find the “dongle” rather large and heavy. I wish it could have been downsized. And of course, I also wish the headphones were sleeker. I have a big (not swelled) head, and the Tango makes it feel larger.
My only other bitch would be the crummy, poorly-written user’s manual. It’s really bad.
On the plus side, never in the history of aviation has there been a simpler headset to put away at the end of a flight. No wrapping of wires. Simply fold the mike boom flat and slide the headset into its case.
Really, one of my favorite things about the Tango is taking it in and out of its case. Ironically, from a linguistic perspective, the Tango is the only headset you don’t have to do a dance with before and after use. That in itself is almost reason enough to switch.
But there’s more. It’s a comfortable headset you can wear for hours and hours. And I like the easy volume control.
I appreciated the fact that the Tango is easy to use with mono or stereo ships, changing with a simple slide switch inside the dongle. When used with mono systems, Bluetooth music streams into the headsets in stereo, a nice touch for music-loving pilots with older audio systems in their planes.
And novel to me, but not unique to modern aviation headsets, I loved being able to use my cell phone in flight.
But of course the killer feature is the freedom from excessive cables, which is beyond wonderful, both in flight and during entry or egress from the plane.
Do the pluses outweight the minuses?
Frankly, I’m sorry to see them go, but I need to ship the review units back to Lightspeed. And as soon as I get back from the post office I’m going online to buy a pair of my own.
I liked them that much.