Thursday, August 8, 2013

Peltor PowerCom Plus Review: Wireless communication for PPG


PELTOR POWERCOM PLUS REVIEW

Most PPG pilots are familiar with helmets that come with the ubiquitous NAC 2000C Intercom system combining Peltor communication headphones with built in PTT button on one ear cup, and a gooseneck microphone on the other. These headphones work in conjunction with 2-way radios that we wear on our clothes, or harnesses, and are connected to the headphones by a cable. 

I've just test flown a set of headphones from Peltor, that actually have 2-way radios built in, which eliminates the need for an external radio, radio harness, connective cabling, and more importantly also eliminates any time spent hooking into the system.  It really makes a difference to be able to just put my helmet on, push a button, and be commed up.  Nice.

And because the internal radio electronics are so light, the phones weigh barely more than my NAC headphones, 366gr as opposed to 331gr. That's only 35gr more, or just a little over an ounce!  However, by eliminating my radio (A Garmin Rino 130) I lost 8oz (229gr) and another 3.5oz (100gr or so), getting rid of the spiral cable, and a further 6.9oz (197gr)  getting rid of my radio harness. In my case alone, my PowerCom Plus' meant a reduction of 1.3 lbs (591gr) off my flight weight.  Very nice.

The headphones provide hearing protection and noise reduction up to NRR 25dB, and the two-way radio has 22 channels and 38 private sub-channels at 460 MHz with a two-mile range. 

There is no visual display on these headphones to indicate power levels or channels, but instead, they use "Ghost Voice" a proprietary name for the verbal messages the user hears when he/she activates the power button and scrolls through the functions. At first, I thought that the lack of display was a handicap, but the three-button operation is both easy, and intuitive, and it means you can easily change frequencies, or power levels, without taking off the headset.  And that means even while flying. 

SPECIAL FEATURES
SURROUND MODE: The PowerCom Plus models have exterior microphones on the ear cups. These allow you to choose to listen to ambient noise around you, such as conversations, announcements, perhaps even warnings, all while safely suppressing potentially dangerous levels of external noise like motors. Even a sudden dangerous sound like a gunshot is instantly supressed to no more than 82 db.  There are five sensitivity levels and an OFF level.

The dual mics are stereo and omni-directional so you can even tell what direction ambient sound is coming from.


VOX MODE: VOX is Latin for voice.  On two-way radios it means Voice Activated Transmission. 
This feature is great for flying in turbulence, as you don’t need your hands to operate the PTT.  And a student pilot will have one less thing to think about.  There are five levels and an OFF level, and you can access VOX mode, and turn it off again anytime you want, by a quick double tap of the PTT switch.

In VOX you are still operating in Simplex mode, (in contrast to a telephone conversation which operates in Duplex mode) so only one transmission at a time is possible, and the aviation radio communication convention of saying, "Over" remains useful. 


If you choose not to use VOX, the PowerComs are adaptable to a Remote PTT switch on a patch cable, that can be clipped to your finger.  (Part #TK56) $64.57 from Amazon, or you can use the built in PTT button on the right ear cup.


I spoke to a PowerCom specialist at Peltor who recommends adding a foam windscreen for paragliding operations, particularly in VOX mode, so that wind won't activate and key the mike.  (Part #M995)

You can order a Peltor Boom Microphone Windscreen from $11.99 (plus shipping) from Optics planet. http://www.opticsplanet.com/peltor-comm-spare-parts-boom-microphone-windscreen-m995.html however, you can substitute a great many other manufacturer’s windscreens for a whole lot less.  

Foam mic windscreens for telephone headsets can also be used.  This $3.99 (incl. shipping)  eBay guy fit perfectly. Mic Foam Headset Lapel Windscreen Gooseneck Conference Table Pro Bulk 10mm#0647 It has a a 1.78” (44mm) length, and 10mm inside diameter, which stretches just enough to fit snugly over the boom mic, and enough room to add a mini - 4.5" (2.5mm) zip tie if you want.  

An eBay search of headset windscreens, came up with a variety of other options, including bulk packages.  Not quite a dime a dozen, but as low as about ten bucks for five. I ordered these guys to try them out. EZ32 32MM Large Headset Lapel Microphone Mic Windscreen 
Foam windscreens don’t last forever, so it’s nice to have spares.  

I'm also thinking about wind tape.  I heard of this lately, HYM1000 Single use protective microphone tape, (moisture and wind proof) that may help cut wind further, even if its mostly designed for hygiene

protection of shared radios.

THE AUXILIARY PORT:  can accommodate a variety of patch cables for cell phones, alternate two-way radios, and other electronics like iPod or MP3 players.  I asked the Peltor rep about sound quality for music when using the optional 3.5mm patch for an iPod.  (Part #FL6BT) The response was,  "While the headphones are true stereo, they are not designed for music.  "They provide reasonable sound quality. But they are by no means equivalent to dedicated music phones."


Fair enough.  But that made the purchase of the Peltor patch cable (at approximately $80.00 plus shipping) less attractive, and part of the appeal of the PowerCom was to get away from wiring altogether, so I opted for the music mod that I did for my NACs.  I ordered another  set of  ($4.95 including shipping) motorcycle helmet speakers off eBay, from the same dealer I dealt with before.


Within two weeks the new speakers had arrived and I fit them inside the ear cups behind the soft foam separation.  Unlike the NACs, these new earcups were pretty crowded with electronics already, but there was still lots of room for the new speakers.  (This time I used a small file to make a very discreet cut in both the ear cups and the plastic base of the ear pads to allow the speaker wire into the phones.)


These auxiliary speakers terminate with a 3.5mm plug already, and this are now permanently fixed to my helmet ready to be plugged into either my Yaesu scanner or my iPod.  Whenever I Velcro my iPod to my helmet, the cabling remains essentially wireless, at least without cables running off the helmet to points on my body.


Others may prefer just to wear standard iPod earbuds with the wiring running under the headphone pads.  This will work well on the PowerComs, which unlike the NACs, have soft foam instead of a hard plastic plate, and thus there won't put pressure on your ears like the NACs cause.


Running the wires under the earpads isn't especially uncomfortable, but  my Peltor rep had a suggestion for this too: Peltor Gel Filled Ear Pads, (Part #HY80) are a desirable and luxurious upgrade, whether you plan to run wires under them or not.  And they work on NAC headphones as well. These gel pads are very comfortable, and conform to every head perfectly.  They feel cooler in hot weather, and actually improve the sound seal for better attenuation. The standard foam seals that come with the headphones will degrade over time, eventually resulting in poorer acoustic performance and discomfort.  Gel seals are available from Amazon or direct from Optics Planet for 65.99. I've seen them as low as $45.74.



COST:  PowerComs are crazy expensive straight from the bigbox distributers.  Amazon has them for $592.00 at the moment.  There are eBay based dealers as well, but if you e-stalk them a little, you'll see that they regularly go for less than half that price. Just have a look at the number of "completed auctions" (in advanced search) that will have sold over the last few months.  I actually picked mine up brand new on an auction, for under $100.00, and over the last year I've seen several go for around that price.   And there are usually plenty of used units around as well.

Compare those prices with new NAC headphones and cabling from any reputable Paraglider Supplier.  NAC (standard) comms are $140.00 (US Wingnuts.) And then you have to factor in the price of a decent radio.  My Garmin 130, costs around $300.00, but that is more radio than most pilots probably need, it being more about the other features like a built in altimeter, and mapping programs, and stuff.  However, even the simplest Cobra radio is going to set you back $50 to $100 bucks.  And then consider the weight penalty, and the inconvenience of cables.

So if a NAC setup is ultimately going to cost a minimum of $200.00, you might want to check out the PowerCom option and its Santa-Sack full of options.


And if you're searching for a helmet, I'm still very happy with my $89.00 OpsCore knockoff from eBay.  Whatever your helmet, you will need some kind of hardhat style connection points for any style of Peltor headphones. That is, if your helmet/phones don’t have them already.  Basic hardhat connectors can be had for as little as $10.00 for the style that will adapt to most regular flight helmets, or skater/ski style helmets.  All Peltor headphones, (headband, neckband, or hardhat) all have the same snap-in connectors for interchangeability.



OTHER FEATURES:



SQUELCH MODE: Five levels, and an off level.  Squelch helps filter unwanted radio frequency noise, that's that background static, or the hiss that you sometimes hear as background noise in your headset.  Squelch mode is a no-brainer operation - If you hear static, try another level.  When set properly, the speakers are quiet between transmission.
TWO POWER LEVELS:  Low power will mean lower energy drain on the batteries, but upping the power level for extended range may be selected as required.

REVIEW:  

Two thumbs up.  I really think these phones are cool.  I'm happy with the weight savings, but even happier losing the hassle factor of clipping on, and into a radio/harness.  I like the boom microphone they provide, compared to my NACs flexible-wire gooseneck.  It is quite a bit smaller and can be retracted to become smaller still, and it becomes very low-profile when folded up and out of the way.  I've had a few blown launches when the larger, stiff, goose neck on the NACs caught the brake line.  Remains to be seen how this mic will fare in a similar event, but we'll see.



The VOX feature has a fraction of a second delay between speaking and transmitting which takes a little getting used to.  The first word spoken triggers the mic, but is not heard by the other party. So I got in the habit of beginning each transmission with a random word, (I chose the word, “Transmit."  So a typical message message might be, “Transmit, This is Paramotor One. I’m coming in to land. Over.”  The listener hears: "K-K-K-(satic)-mit, This is Paramotor One..."

As sender, you know how the message is going through, because you can hear your own voice transmissions in the ear cups, somewhat like the NAC feature called Side Tone.

Surround is very useful on the ground for carrying on pre-flight conversations, but listeners reported cleaner sound when it was turned off for on air transmissions.  It took some time to get used to the feature, as at first kept pulling my phones off my ears whenever someone walked up to me, the way I had to do with my noise cancelling NACs.  Eventually, I got used to it, and found that it's a very nice feature.

On one flight, I was picking up some electronic hiss, in the air.  I never experienced it with my NACs but it just might have been distant other traffic on that channel.  Squelch took care of it on the ground. But I need a few more tests to know what is really going on. 

At volume level four, (out of five) I could barely hear my ground party when flying.  This wasn't a problem on my next few flights, and I suspect operator error from below, in that she might not have been holding her Rino radio close enough to her mouth, and was also sitting in a car which might have been causing interference.  Static can be  caused by RF but also old batteries,  Tilting a handheld radio can reduce range as well.

It was easy to switch channels, and increase volume to five with Ghost Voice while flying.

The buttons were hard to manage while wearing winter gloves and I had to remove my right hand glove to change modes. I wonder if this could have been lack of familiarization with the button location, because on the next flights wearing lightweight gloves, I had no problems.

PTT is on the right hand.  This suited me because I have a left-hand throttle.  But this mght take right-throttle people some time time to get used to.  However, the VOX feature largely eliminates the need for PTT, and using a remote wired finger PTT is also a possibility.   Or just switch out your throttle for left hand usage and start enjoying the use of your right hand for camera adjusting, and etc.  Heh.

Once I got my buttons sorted out on the ground, these headphones really are as convenient as I'd hoped they'd be.  One button to turn on, and I was commed up. 

NOTES:


VOX: Voice activated transmission.  Emergency Double-click on PTT to engage/disengage.  Five levels decreasing in sensitivity from level one.  OFF - Hold Level One for one second.
OFF:  The headphones will automatically turn off after two hours, if no buttons are pressed, or you can press and hold the middle control button.  For some reason, the manual neglects to mention this.




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