Not all video chat users are the same. If you are a power user on video calls all day long, this blog is not for you. This is an introductory article for those who may need to attend a random video call or may be just starting a position where they will need to be on video and aren't sure how best to make that happen from an audio perspective. This blog will focus solely on audio devices to aim for the best experience possible. Read on for more.
Laptops, tablets and smartphones have built in capabilities for the transmit and receipt of audio. However the typical laptop and tablet audio experience can be lacking with poor microphones and anemic speakers. Smartphones can have exceptional audio for calling, but when video is added to the equation and the phone is pulled away from the user's mouth, the quality can be less than ideal. Of course I would be remiss if I didn't mention the primary problem created with a video call on a smartphone - trying to hold a phone at arm's length for an extended period of time can cause a shaky camera affect for the remote participants. But I digress and let's get into some audio talk.
Audio devices for calling are a different animal than those used primarily for music listening. Music-based devices need broadcast capability in the lower frequency ranges, or else no one would want to use them to listen to music. Call-based devices can get away with less of a frequency range and they also require a microphone. In the past, the build quality on music only devices was superior, but business and calling based devices are finally starting to catch up to the point where one device can serve well for calls and music. Devices for personal meetings, like Zoom, WebEx or Microsoft Teams, can be broken down into three product categories: Headsets, Earbuds and Speakerphones, with each of them having wired and wireless versions available.
Headsets have been around for a long time and USB wired versions to use for calls can be inexpensive. The low price does not necessarily mean low audio quality, however, lower end models may have poor music playback, depending on the device.
Wired or wireless?
There are as many opinions in the wired versus wireless debate as there are headsets out there. In my opinion, it really comes down to the individual's use case, device portability and simplicity of use. If you're going mobile, wired likely won't cut it. If your headset stays in one place all time, there may not be a need for wireless. Wired headsets have plug and play simplicity and are always ready for use whereas wireless versions aren't typically as user friendly. In general, wireless headsets are going to be more expensive than their wired counterpart. They also may be heavier due to having integrated batteries.
Voice quality between wired versus wireless, in my opinion, is entirely subjective to the user. Personally, I have found some wireless headsets having a slight lag in the audio-video sync, but haven't typically found one type having better sound quality than another.
Image Source: Microsoft
One such headset I use often, the Microsoft Modern USB Headset, is available at Amazon and other online retailers. It's an excellent option for a wired headset.
Pros of headsets are:
- If it is wired, it is always ready and available
- Boom microphones help others hear you clearly and may block out ambient noises
Cons of headsets are
- Potentially bulky
- May be uncomfortable for glasses wearers
- Limited by cable length if wired
I don't like the word "speakerphone" as it seems like a throw back to the old days of poor audio conference calling, however the industry uses the term and so will I. There are wired and wireless speakerphones that have some of the same pros and cons as headsets. What I have noticed though is a highly varied listening experience while comparing different speakerphones. Many "office use" speakerphones are nowhere remotely adequate for music listening as they lack low end frequencies. The good news is there are several devices that provide a high quality speakerphone experience and good music playback for a modest price. The primary concerns with speakerphones are using them in an open space or a noisy space. Privacy is always a concern, as well as not disturbing your nearby coworkers by the caller being on speaker. If you are in a loud space, the device may pick up the noise and transmit it to the person you are talking to. Or, if the device has on-board noise suppression (or the meeting service has on-board suppression), your voice quality may be negatively affected by the device/service as it tries to suppress room noises.
On the flip side, if two people are in the same room in a video call, a speakerphone is the logical choice over headsets or earbuds.
Image Source: Poly
Pros of speakerphones are
- You don't have to wear anything in or on your ears
- Designed for more than one person
- May have built-in noise suppression, which is helpful for the user on the other side of the call
- May double as a portable speaker for uses outside of meetings
Cons of speakerphones are
- Depending on the speakerphone and/or meeting service, ambient noises may bleed through
- Privacy issues
- USB versions may not have a long enough cable
- It may not be adequate for music listening
Earbuds are becoming more common in business communication. Not only do they work well with mobile devices via Bluetooth, but a few recent models have included a USB Bluetooth dongle that maintains a better connection with a PC/laptop with better audio quality. I hope this becomes a trend and not the exception to the rule. PC usage with earbuds can be problematic from my experience. The audio streams are fine enough, but I've found the microphone pickup to be lacking on devices without a dedicated Bluetooth dongle.
Pros of earbuds are
- Higher end earbuds have noise cancellation and transparency modes for the wearer
- Good for music listening
- Excellent option for mobile professionals
- A case that provides charging
Cons of earbuds are
- The microphones may be lacking depth in voice capture due to the proximity to your mouth
- May not be good enough for PC use if no Bluetooth dongle is included
- High end earbuds carry a high end price tag
- Easy to lose
In general, I recommend a USB based headset for "less than often" PC usage for a couple of reasons. First, a headset will typically stay plugged into the PC and will be ready to use quickly. Any time you deal with a battery powered device, you run the risk of it not being charged. Additionally, there may be Bluetooth related issues with the computer "forgetting" your device. Trying to troubleshoot a device directly ahead of an important meeting can lead to unneeded stress. Lastly, if you choose a portable battery powered Bluetooth speaker or earbuds, you may find that they grow legs at some point and is no longer where you last thought you put it.
About the Author
Bryan Hellard is a researcher in products and services in Unified Communications. He has over 20 years of experience in the industry across several roles, including product engineering and management, R&D, and end user consulting. He can be contacted at: Bryan@uctestlab.com.
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