Stihl unveiled its latest innovative headset earlier this year to much fanfare. But how does the Advance ProCom perform in the field and is it worth the expense?

I’M not a big fan of listening to music while I work. I’m not keen on listening to talk radio either. That’s way too stressful given I think most of the people who frequent radio forums are just waffling idiots with an agenda I couldn’t care less about – even if someone paid me to.

There was a debate on one of the industry safety groups a little while ago about whether chainsaw operators should be allowed to listen to music while they’re working. My answer was simple. If you’re on a chainsaw, the answer is no. The last thing an operator needs when they should be focussing 100 per cent on the task at hand is some feigning pop idol warbling in his or her ear. If you want to listen to music while you work, then get a job in a department store where you can listen to ambient music all day without the risk of distraction leading to major blood loss or being flattened by a tree you didn’t give enough respect.

Now, considering the bit of kit we’ve been testing has an FM radio function, you may think this review isn’t going to go well. In the interest of fairness – and maybe given I’m becoming less and less tolerant the closer I get to retirement – we’ll leave the radio usage to personal preference. I can say it works and it works well, but nobody will be using it on my worksites.

Forestry Journal:

The technical stuff is pretty long winded, so I’ll try to make it simple. The system we tested works as an intercom using Bluetooth connectivity. You can link each unit together on what Stihl calls a Mesh Conference system, where each unit connects to up to 15 other units. The Open Mesh uses all available units so each wearer can talk to any one of the others in the Open Mesh, with up to six conversations at once, so there’s ample opportunity for a good argument. There’s also a Group Mesh when individual units within the Open Mesh can talk together, excluding units that are in the Open Mesh but not in the Group Mesh.

Each individual unit can be linked to the user’s mobile phone, via Bluetooth, which allows them to answer their phone and take the call privately while still being part of the Mesh.

A DMR (Digital Mobile Radio) function is also available, which opens up all kinds of opportunities once paired to a DMR device. DMR gives access to a major network of users and functions, although in the UK a user ID and account is required.

The whole system works at a one-to-one range of up to 600 metres in good conditions.

We found the distance isn’t so great in a stand of trees, although it’s better than a cheap two-way and each unit produces a ‘relay station’ effect so each active unit extends the range.

Although all this sounds a little complicated, it isn’t. It can’t be, because I managed to set it up. It isn’t essential, but it is my recommendation that a quick look at the Stihl blog ( will help anyone who’s considering trying the ProCom system. You will find all the info you need and a much better explanation of the functions than I could ever give here. I’d also recommend downloading the app. It’s free and it’s available on Apple and Android and you will need it to link the ProCom system to your mobile phone.

So that’s what it offers, but what’s it like to use?

We have three units in two configurations – full chainsaw helmet and headband ear defender – which are interchangeable. The ear defenders are connected by a cable with all the comms gear being included within the separate muffs. It’s a simple job to unclip them from the brackets and swap them from one to the other. They are supplied in two styles. One fits Function and X Climb, while the other fits Advance-Vent and X-Vent helmets. The headband version is the same as the Function helmet type, although I did swap my Function ones onto my Advance helmet.

The helmets we were supplied with are Stihl branded, but manufactured by 3M, as are the ear defender mounts and the visors. The helmets are X-Climb, which are an arborist style with a chin strap and a large amount of internal padding in the shell, which makes them noticeably heavier than a standard forest helmet, even taking into account the weight of the ear defenders. Removing the ear defenders and refitting them onto my Stihl Advance forest helmet has reduced the overall weight to a point where it’s perfectly comfortable and easy to wear even in the very hot weather we’ve had this summer.

The first time we tried them out was quite brief. We had about 10 large Scots pines to fell on the edge of a clearfell we were doing and, as there was nothing but a Christmas tree plantation beyond them, we decided I’d cut them and Richard would push them in with the harvester. We unpacked the helmets, removed the chin straps and switched them on. Both units had been charged the night before and we had read through the instructions. Even so, it was a surprise when the headsets connected and we had clear communications at the first attempt.

I put the felling cuts into the first tree with the back cut about 60-per-cent completed, then talked the harvester into place. I finished the cut once I’d confirmed everything was set and then stepped away and gave the instruction to push. We did three trees, then had a moment to discuss how things were going. The main thing Richard commented on was just how much I talk to myself, and to the tree, while I’m cutting it. He said despite the noise of the saw he could hear every word and grunt I uttered. I responded by telling him I could hear him talking to the harvester and to the tree while he was doing the pushing.

It was a bit like the first time I put a dashcam into a work van. We were travelling around an hour and a half at either end of the day and after two days I reviewed the footage on the desktop in the office. I decided it would be useless in a court of law as the audio consisted of the two of us swearing at other road users and commenting very unfavourably on the standard of others’ driving ability. There was also the occasional female pedestrian who caught one or the other’s attention. I can only say I was shocked at just how ungentlemanly it made us sound and since then every dashcam I have fitted has the audio turned off as soon as it comes out of the box.

On a day in July which incredibly turned out wet, we were pencilled in to clear a corner of a brash recovery site. This was a small stand of very big grandis and Sitka that had been left when the rest of the coupe had been felled. The wind had ripped through it once it had been left exposed and the local FE forester wanted it tidied up. Apparently there’s only so much carnage you can excuse by saying it’s being left for environmental enrichment. Maybe a new breeze of common sense and good silvicultural practice is beginning to blow (only a gentle zephyr though, no gale force wind of change).

There we were, faced with a couple dozen big trees interlaced and knitted together, with a few snapped off and a couple hung up just to add to the mix, and of course I’m the only idiot who has a multiple (or catastrophic) windblow ticket. It’s been the hottest, driest spring and early summer we’ve had for years and I got to cut big windblow on the first wet day we’d had for six weeks.

I was on the saw, Richard on the forwarder and we both had the Stihl ProCom units to play with, mine fitted to my helmet and him with ProCom ear defenders because he had no intention of getting out of the cab.

I cut the first couple of trees off the rootplates and simply talked him back to where I needed him to be to keep the face opened up and clear so I could work. It makes the job a lot easier and a lot safer. We kept each other informed as to what we were going to do next and where I would be and I must admit that despite being sceptical about the value of these headsets, I’m completely sold.

It took us four hours to clear the little corner up and right on cue, just as we’d almost finished, the forester turned up. We’d just had an UKWAS audit the previous week and now we were being scrutinised on a site that had seen others walk away from it, but phase one was now done and thankfully everyone seemed happy. We made sure our visitor noticed the headsets and I think it maybe ticked a box and got us a couple more Brownie points. I certainly think that me being as wet as an otter’s pocket also brightened someone’s day. Significantly, even with wet gloves, I could still operate the controls – not that you really have to touch anything if you’re just using the system as a two-way, and the mute, which is the one button you may need to use, is so prominent it’s easy to find and operate. It might be a bit of a cliche, but this is a truly ‘hands-free’ set-up and the importance of that fact is impossible to overemphasise.

In conclusion, the headsets, in whichever configuration, are a great leap forward. They bring communications to a whole new level and only enhance safety when doing specific tasks where two or more people need to give and receive clear instructions in real time.

Forestry Journal:

Felling edge trees where mechanical assistance is needed, roadside trees with one or more banksmen and any task where chainsaw operators and machinery need to work together. Clearly, these units are aimed mainly at arborits and I don’t doubt they will be very effective in arb operations, but they have a lot to offer in timber harvesting too.

There were a few issues that showed up quite early on. The 3M helmet is too heavy and it’s too small. While accepting the fact I have an unusually large head, I found it quite uncomfortable, all of which I solved by swapping the unit onto my own forest helmet, a task which took about two minutes, including finding a couple of small zip ties. Other than that it’s cost, as always, that may well make some people think twice about going down the ProCom route – and it is considerable. I wouldn’t buy the complete unit on the 3M shell. It’s an arborist helmet and they aren’t really suitable for use in a forest environment when you may well be spending six or seven hours going at it on production felling. I’d buy the comms kit on its own and fit it to a new helmet, even if that meant buying a new helmet too. Historically I was never  a fan of Stihl helmets, but I’ve had a couple of the Advance ones and they’re a good piece of kit which you can get for £50–£70, depending on who you buy them from, which makes buying the two together about the same as, or a little less than, buying the 3M helmet version.

READ MORE: Corrigan Contractors offering mechanised arb solutions for ash dieback

The list price from Stihl for the headset version is £399, but I’ve seen them on the internet for as little as £320, with most of the usual suspects offering them at £339, but of course there’s little point buying just one. You really need at least two and if you’re going to equip banksmen and a machine operator or hand cutter felling near a road you can make that three at a cost of almost £1,200. Having said that, the quality of the sound reproduction and the subsequent clarity knocks any two-way radios I’ve ever used into a cocked hat and, as they say, quality doesn’t come cheap. Unfortunately, neither does fuel, oil, parts or anything else these days, so spending scarce funds on something which is a superb product but one we might well do without might not be at the top of many people’s lists of priorities just at the moment. That really is a shame, because although I tend to be one of many people who look at new innovations and say I can happily get along without them, this is one occasion when I can see the benefits.

Forestry Journal:

I’ve tried them out and they work, not just in a pure sense but in a practical sense. They work for me and for the operations I do. I’ve spent many, many hundreds of pounds on two-way radios that don’t work as well and aren’t as easy to use as the ProCom. There’s no buttons to press on the Mesh. You just speak like you’re having a conversation and if nobody speaks, the Mesh is silent. You don’t have to listen to machines droning on in the background, at least until someone speaks. It’s what they call Ambient Noise Cancelling and it’s the one feature that makes it worth the money to me.

If only we could have an industry-wide Ambient Noise Cancelling system. That would be something I’d definitely sign up to.