How to buy radio headsets

By Tim Dees

For many years, cops got the information from their portable radios through the built-in speaker or a shoulder mic. That worked, but clarity was impaired in high-noise environments, and the bad guy could hear about the eight outstanding warrants he had at the same time the officer was told. Headsets pipe the information right into the officer’s ear, eliminating those problems. They also keep the officer’s hands free and often make his own transmissions easier to understand.
Radio headsets are expensive, and there’s a lot of individual preference involved. Because of this, many departments allow the officer to choose and purchase his own, often from a list of approved models. Here are some of the major categories:

• Sound tube headsets may or may not have a microphone incorporated with them. A cable leads from the portable radio, under the officer’s shirt, and up to his collar, where a curly cord “pigtail” sound tube emerges, anchored by a small clip on the fabric of the shirt collar. This is literally a plastic tube engineered to transmit sound into the ear. Configured properly, the tube is almost invisible and favored by television news broadcasters. The sound tube earpiece is often bundled by a mic and transmit switch on separate cables. The mic and switch can lead to the officer’s shirt cuff, or be secured under the shirt in the chest area.

Because these fit into the ear, proper sizing of the silicone earpiece is critical. A badly fitted earpiece will irritate and inflame the ear canal. Most vendors offer multiple earpieces of various sizes and designs, but the best solution is a custom-molded earpiece. An audiologist can make these for $75 to $125.

Users of headsets like these will get a more secure and comfortable configuration if they have a buttonhole-like opening sewn into their uniform shirts at the point where the cable comes out of the radio. This allows the cable to go under the shirt without having to cram it under the belt and back up into the shirt.

• Boom mic headsets fit to the user’s head by a flexible plastic headband, secured with or without elastic bands around the forehead, throat or jaw. The microphone is contained in a boom that brings the mic close to the speaker’s mouth, or lays flat against the throat. The earpiece may be a flat speaker pressed against the ear, an earplug, or a bone conduction transmitter that leaves both ears uncovered. The latter works well enough and can also serve as a microphone, but some users complain that everyone sounds the same through these, and it’s difficult to identify people by the sound of their voice. These are obtrusive, best suited for tactical applications where appearance is not so big a concern. A helmet mostly conceals these, and can even be incorporated into the helmet, as with those designed for motor officers.

• Wireless headsets use either Bluetooth® or Near Field Magnetic Induction (NFMI) technology to communicate with the portable radio. Bluetooth® is a short-range radio system familiar to cell phone users. A Bluetooth® device is “paired” with a cell phone, MP3 player, or other sound transmitter, and the user can interact with the device from up to 300 feet away. This range is often overly optimistic, and the headset and radio commonly lose their connection if more than eight feet apart. They can be sensitive even to which sides of the body the devices are on, so that a right-ear-left-hip combination will make for a static-filled experience.

NFMI, as its name suggests, uses the magnetic field generated by all devices that transmit energy. As long as the headset is within the “aura” around the person wearing the radio, the headset will work without interference. Another officer using the same equipment, three feet away, will not notice any crosstalk or other interference.

Wireless headsets require their own self-contained power source, and their “talk time” is dependent on how long that power lasts. The batteries in them are often not serviceable by the user, so when they die, either the headset has to be sent back to the manufacturer or discarded.

With all these solutions, of paramount importance is insuring that the headset has an interface that works with your portable radios. When making inquiries, have the precise make and model of the radios you use available for the vendor.


Tim Dees is a retired police officer and the former editor of and He can be reached at

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