Safariland Liberator HP Electronic Hearing Protection Headset Review and Analysis
(Originally posted on 10/19/18, some revisions from original were done.)
The Safariland Liberator HP is the hearing protection only (no comms capability) version of the Liberator IV and V headsets. Released in early 2018 this headset is comparatively new to the market. As of this writing it comes in Black with Orange highlights and Flat Dark Earth Brown with blacked out highlights.
There are multiple suspension options, with Over-the-Head being the standard option. There is also a "Universal Suspension" option for both Team Wendy rails and Arc Rails.
Price is currently $299 direct from Safariland for Over-the-Head suspension, $250 from Botach for the same. Only Safariland carries the Universal Suspension options as of this writing and selecting either Universal Suspension option brings the price to $455.
NRR of 24 in "Impulse only" mode, claimed reduction value of ~30 NRR in Active Noise Cancellation and Dual Mode.
Uses two AAA batteries or one CR123A battery. Use of CR123A battery requires included adapter tray.Battery life of ~400 hours depending on mode usage.
Three modes of operation - Impulse Only, Active Noise Cancellation, and Dual Mode.
Two front facing microphones
Waterproofed, circuit boards are conformal coated and battery compartment is sealed.
5 volume levels
Battery save feature, headset will turn off after 4 hours with no button presses, warning tone will be heard 2 minutes before turn off
Low battery warning tone at ~40 hours of remaining battery life.
Will save last used volume level
Gel ear seals are standard
NFC "Near Field Communications". Allows user to modify the "audio profiles". This is unclear in meaning and this feature is still, as of this writing, unusable. (7/21/19 update - I have sold this headset and as such cannot keep up with any updates to it. This feature MAY now be usable, but I cannot confirm either way.)
The Headset: This is my Liberator HP headset in FDE Brown. On the outside this headset is essentially a modified Sordin design. The cups and overall profile are slightly thicker, though not thick enough to prevent fitting under an ACH helmet, at least in my case. The microphones and their enclosures are also identical to the Sordin design, with foam windscreens covered by rubber guards.
Left side earcup. Front (microphones) to the left. Here the controls are located, with Power on/off to the right, volume Up in the middle, volume Down on the left.
Right side earcup. Front (microphones) to the right. On this side is the battery compartment, with the compartment door visible on the left.
Close up examination - Inside the headset
Here is the battery compartment with the hinged door open. The door is held shut with a screw. The compartment is sealed from water/dust with a foam gasket on the door.
Here is a view of the control side circuit board, seen after removing the earseal and comfort foam. Notice the presence of 2 speakers. My current assumption is one speaker is used to play ambient sound (your surroundings), while the second is used to generate counter-frequency for the Active Noise Cancellation mode and Dual Mode.
Here is the same circuit board viewed under UV light. Under UV light the conformal coating on the board and its electronics is visible glowing. Conformal coating is a general term for a variety of electronics coatings used to protect electronics from environmental hazards. As you can see all critical components are protected.
Behind the circuit boards is a piece of acoustic foam, most likely there to reduce reverb inside the headset. This particular view is of the control side.
One gel earseal and the comfort/outer acoustic foam layer from one earcup are pictured below. An interesting feature of the earseals on this headset is the inclusion of an O-ring on the earseal in the location where it mates with the earcup. This was likely done to reduce acoustic leaks between the earseal and the earcup. This is the only headset I know of to have something like this O-ring on its earseals aside from the Howard Leight Impact Sport.
In order to use a CR123A battery instead of two AAA batteries the use of an included battery adapter tray, pictured below, is required.
Use as shooting muffs: I was comfortable firing a range of weapons with headset, to include a 12ga shotgun and a Ruger LCR in .327 Federal Magnum. The noise compression in Impulse mode is on par with Sordins and ComTacs in terms of speed going into and out of compression, which was quick enough to be barely noticeable. Overall they performed as expected of a headset with an NRR 24 rating.
In ANC (Active Noise Cancellation) and Dual Mode Safariland claims an increased NRR rating, but I had difficultly hearing a difference between these modes and Impulse mode. Much more testing, observation, and most importantly more clarity and openness on Safarilands part about this is necessary to make any firm determination of benefit.
Sound Quality: This is a complex issue with this headset. Sound quality in Impulse mode is sub-par, being somewhat hollow overall and giving voices a slight buzzing tone in certain circumstances. A special note here is that my particular headset went in for repair as it had some issues straight from the factory. I sent a note describing my complaints with the sound quality and they modified multiple factors, slightly improving the sound quality in Impulse mode. It is still sub-par however, with my Sordins and ComTac III's both being superior in this regard.
However, sound quality in Dual Mode is vastly different from Impulse mode and is much closer in quality to my ComTac's and Sordins, being overall much better than it is in Impulse mode. I cannot explain the disparity and Safariland did not do so either even though I mentioned it to them. If the headset sounded the same in Impulse mode as it does in Dual mode I'm not sure I'd have any complaints about the sound quality.
Durability and Environmental Resistance: As mentioned already this headset features a sealed battery compartment and conformal coating on its circuit boards. The only direct claim I saw of water survivability was in a promo release about the Liberator V, the dual comm version of this headset. In that release it was claimed the headset had 15 feet submersion survivability, but time submerged was not stated.
I'd assume the headsets environmental resistance is on par at least with that of the Sordin Supreme Pro-X and Peltor ComTac III. With the conformal coating on the circuit boards the electronics are protected from water and dust and the battery compartment is sealed.
Operation: In addition to standard On/Off and volume adjustment this headset features 3 separate modes of operation. The modes are explained in detail below.
Powering On is done by holding down the Power button for 2 seconds, after which the headset will turn on and an initial tone will be heard. Volume is adjusted in 5 levels using the volume Up or Down buttons, which must be held about one full second to change to the next level. There is a tone with each change of volume level.
To switch modes you hold down both the Volume Up and Down buttons for 1 second to switch to the next mode, with the cycle being Impulse -> ANC -> Dual.
The modes -
Impulse Mode: Functions just as any other electronic hearing protection with compression circuitry does. For example it is identical in function to Sordins and ComTacs in this area. Allows ambient (environmental) sound to be heard but will go into compression when sound levels exceed ~82 decibels, coming out of compression when harmful sound levels cease. This is the mode that the headset will be in when turned on.
ANC (Active Noise Cancellation): This mode is unique to this headset. In this mode no ambient sound is heard. The ambient speaker is turned off entirely. Potentially harmful noise is countered using counter-frequencies generated by the second speaker in each earcup, working much like Bose noise cancelling headsets, except this has been tuned for harmful impulse or constant state noise.
Dual Mode: This mode combines the Impulse and ANC modes. You can hear ambient sound in this mode, but the active noise cancellation is also active.
While this headset will remember your volume setting, it will not remember your mode setting. The headset will always turn on in Impulse mode.
A note on Dual Mode - I find the active noise cancellation in this mode to be an extreme irritant. This mode is intended to allow for ambient hearing in combination with active noise cancellation, but even turning your head somewhat quickly activates the active noise cancellation which results in multiple rapid "bumps" being heard as the headset attempts to counter the noise. This overrides or at least interferes with the ambient hearing in such a way as to make it impossible to hear ambient noise when the active noise cancellation is cutting in.
Every step taken when walking can also activate the active noise cancellation if you're taking heavy steps. Running or similar activity essentially results in total loss of ambient hearing as the active noise cancellation cuts in constantly to counter the sound. I suppose I see the utility of this mode, but I would rather use the ANC only mode when around constant noise and Impulse mode when ambient hearing is needed, such as in tactical situations. As it is Dual Mode seems somewhat superfluous as ambient hearing is lost upon encountering any sound that activates the active noise cancellation which obviously does not stop until that sound ceases.
Compatibility with Consumer Electronics: There is none. Unlike every other common electronic hearing protection headset I know of this headset features no ability to interface with radios, cellphones, or similar devices. Not even a simple 3.5mm audio In port is present, such as on Sordins or the cheap Howard Leights.
That said, this headset is not an option for those looking to use a radio, cellphone, or other such devices in conjunction with their headset. This headset can be changed into either a Liberator IV or V at any point if the end user wishes, but this comes with a fee, the cost of which I do not know and those headsets are meant for use with military and police radios, not common handhelds or the like.
(7/21/19 update - This information MAY be deprecated) A special note on the NFC "Near Field Communications": This feature was touted by Safariland as allowing the user to "modify audio profiles". What exactly this means is unclear. It was implied in a phone conversation I had with a TCI representative (Safariland owns TCI, which is now their tactical comms/hearing protection division) that this feature was for changing the ambient audio settings, though he was vague on this.
Regardless of what the feature actually does it is NOT AVAILABLE FOR USE. Yes, that's right, about 8 months after this headsets launch one its most touted features is still not usable. The manual that came with my headset did not even mention it. As of this writing Safariland has not made this clear on the product page for the headset nor have they released any further info about when or even if it will ever be ready for use. The same rep mentioned above told me the feature would be ready "within a year", so I suppose we may still see it's implementation sometime in the first quarter of 2019.
Conclusion: I believe the Liberator HP is overall a mediocre headset, especially for its price. I would not currently recommend it.
While it does provide increased NRR over other popular Mil. grade headsets such as the Sordin line and ComTac III this seems to have been achieved primarily through increase of cup depth, thus increasing internal spacial volume but also making the headsets profile moderately larger.
It lacks any interface for radio or cellphone use, limiting it to being strictly hearing protection. At its price point I consider this a serious negative mark against the headset as even the Howard Leight Impact Sport, a common budget headset, features a 3.5mm audio In port.
In addition to that there are the aforementioned issues with sound quality and the current complete lack of a touted and still advertised feature of the headset, the NFC feature. Without that feature this headset lacks one of the major points meant to make it an innovative headset.
A positive is the ability to use multiple battery types, something no other headset I'm aware of is capable of doing. As far I know this is a first for electronic hearing protection, along with the ANC feature. Another positive is its environmental survivability, though it's no better than the Sordin Supreme Pro-X or ComTac III in regards to water and dust resistance. It is built as any other Mil. grade headset would be. The last positive is this is the only Mil. grade headset made in USA, with the only somewhat comparable USA made option being the Pro Ears line of headsets.
However, I do not believe the few positives outweigh the issues with this headset. Perhaps in the future if Safariland makes an effort to address these flaws it may be worth reconsidering it. A fix for its issues and the release of the NFC feature in a working state may make the headset a worthwhile option, but until then I would not recommend its purchase.
(7/21/19 update - A note on this conclusion. As noted at the very beginning of this write up this was originally written on the 19th of October, 2018. My conclusion was based on the headsets status at that time, and since then some things may have changed. The availability of the NFC feature is the primary factor that may have changed since then, though as stated earlier I cannot confirm anything about the NFC feature at all as I no longer own a Liberator HP headset.)