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Recently we held an virtual expert panel on Remote Presales Strategies (part of our Scaling Presales webinar series) and a participant asked, “Why is Garin’s audio so much better than everyone else on the panel?” Here’s the answer.
When our team at Consensus left our office a couple of years ago and began full-time remote work, I needed to make sure my team had the best equipment to be successful.
Most importantly, they needed to:
- Be clearly heard with minimal to no distractions from the background
- Be able to understand and hear clearly
- Allow my team to work absolutely anywhere and have a great conversation
I purchased 21 different headsets (< $500 each) and we put them through a series of tests.
How We Tested
We held a number of remote conversations in a variety of environments, always using popular tools such as GoToMeeting, Zoom, WebEx, etc. We held the conversations in bull pen environments with dozens of people around in an open office layout, in a park full of kids, in a busy restaurant, and at home with kids running around and dogs barking.
In the process of testing, we not only discovered which one worked best, but we learned the differences between a lot of terms that people frequently get mixed up when it comes to headsets. I hope to save you the hassle of having to test so many headsets to get it right.
The key elements for achieving the my goals above are:
- Noise Isolation
- Noise Cancellation (in headsets and in mics…which are different things altogether).
The confusing part is that a lot of headphones say they are “noise canceling”, which is true, but there is an important distinction between a noise canceling headset and a noise canceling microphone as part of a headset (more on that later).
Let’s look at the headset speakers first then at the mics, then at the winner of our testing.
What is Noise Isolation vs Active Noise Cancellation in Headphone Speakers?
Noise isolation is how well the materials and construction of the microphone block out ambient noise.
Noise isolation is different from active noise cancellation which instead uses technology to analyze incoming sound waves and cancel out those waves by emitting opposite waves of energy towards the incoming sounds. Think of two ripples in a lake caused by two stones of the same size dropped in at the same time with the same force and the waves moving towards each other would essentially cancel each other out. That’s a simplified way of viewing it, but essentially what active noise cancellation does.
Noise Canceling Microphones
Every single one of the headsets we tested supposedly designed for working with the computers in the normal business workplace was mediocre at best. Lots of background noise was picked up through the microphone and many of the headsets weren’t good at blocking out ambient background noise in the headset speakers either.
The reason mics were picking up ambient noise is because they were not (or they were cheap ineffective) noise canceling mics. When you are looking for a great solution, make sure you get a really good noise canceling mic. This allows you to be heard well in spite of what’s going on in the background.
Get a Corded Solution
None of the wireless headsets we tested worked as well as corded solutions in our tests. So if you are optimizing for quality conversations, stick with corded headsets with boom mics.
Noise Canceling Headsets vs Noise Canceling Microphones
When most people think of noise canceling headsets, they think of a headset that will actively block out surrounding noise, which is true. Active noise cancellation is a wonderful technology and does a terrific job at blocking out background noises.
Popular headsets in this category are the Bose Comfort 35 and the Sony MDR-1000X. I’m a huge fan of the MDR-1000X and its auto-calibrating active cancellation (hear the dog barking…press the calibration button and it will optimize to reduce that specific background). Both headsets, and most headsets in this category, are good for blocking out sounds around the house if you’re trying to stay focused.
They are NOT good for having remote conversations, via your computer, through web conferencing applications such as Zoom, WebEx, GoToMeeting, etc. The reason for this is because their microphones are not great noise canceling microphones. They are designed for picking up and working with Bluetooth cell phone connections (and they are still mediocre at best at that) but are not designed to work well with a laptop/desktop Bluetooth microphone connection. They will work, but they work horribly. In our tests the microphone audio was second rate and background noises were picked up all over the place.
As for a microphone, what you really need to have a great conversation working remotely is a headset with an excellent noise canceling microphone.
That said, the Bose and Sony headsets are incredibly wonderful at blocking out surrounding sounds to stay focused because the active noise cancellation in the headset (not the microphone) is top notch. (See my other article on how to use these types of headsets and white noise apps for the holy grail combo of staying focused on remote work even with dogs barking and kids running around.)
So Which Headset is Best? Short Answer: David Clark H-USB Aviation Headset
After testing almost all of the headsets designed for business work and finding them lacking big time, I began to think, “What industries need most to block out background noise?” Aviation! They’ve got to be heard with the sound of planes taking off, propellers, and on aircraft carriers lots of other sounds of equipment and machinery.
The problem is, a lot of aviation headsets are not designed for computers. They use different plugs at the end of the cords instead of USB, for example. However, one brand, David Clark, offers their very popular aviation headset with a USB plug at the end.
My first reaction was, “They aren’t very attractive.” But then I thought, “What do I have to lose? Looking hip on my remote calls is not my highest priority.”
We tested David Clark’s H-USB 40642G-03 model (make sure to get the model that covers the ears completely) and found it the be fantastic in all of our tests. From the description:
It was excellent at noise isolation, which allows you to stay focused no matter what is going on around you, and paired with a top-notch noise canceling microphone that largely canceled out all other noises that would normally be picked up through the mic.
The headphones completely covers both ears and the flexible boom noise-canceling mic makes it easy to adjust. In terms of being able to have a great conversation in any noisy environment, it outperformed all other headsets by a huge margin.
Caveat: If your house is noisier than an aircraft carrier, you might have to look for a different solution.
Cons to the H-USB Headset
There are a few cons to this headset, but in my mind they are well worth putting up with to have the most amazing remote conversations.
- The cord that leads to the USB plug is about seven feet long. This leaves a lot of extra cord hanging around and I often have to drape it across my lap when conversing. On the other hand, I can stand up and move around a bit and still stay connected. So I guess it could be look at as a positive. I often have a bunch of the cord wrapped up and tied with a rubber band to effectively make it shorter.
- The headphones are not active noise canceling. The headphones are excellent at noise isolation and I honestly don’t miss noise cancellation (like with my Sony MDR-1000X pair) when I’m on calls)
- They aren’t wireless. It sure would be nice if there were a good wireless pair that worked well with computer web conferencing apps, but we just couldn’t find any. The best wireless ones were great at blocking out the sound in the headphones but not at blocking out the sound in the mic, meaning it picked up dogs as loudly as your own voice. (If you’ve found some, put them in the notes.)
- They don’t look very attractive. Have you ever looked at a pilot and thought, “Man, those are some good looking headphones. I think I’ll wear those when I’m out jogging.” Nope. But that’s hardly the point. Here’s a screenshot of me in our recent Remote Presales Strategies virtual panel and you can see my headphones take up a lot of screen real estate. However, participants said my sound quality was a lot better than everyone else.
I hope this helps some of you who are helping your teams (or yourself) create the best remote customer experience and team meetings possible as more and more of us are working remotely.