Best Headsets for Effective Remote Working

July 24, 2020 |

Advice from an audio guy and long-time work from home advocate

How are your (work from home) co-workers these days? Is there whining in the background? Are they fighting with each other occasionally / constantly? Are they running around loudly wearing only a diaper and a cowboy hat?

Although your work environment may have changed recently if you started working from home (especially with kids), there are a few things that haven’t likely changed dramatically compared with the open floor plan many offices have today – noise, distractions, and interruptions.

I’m a full-time techie at work and play, and I’m also a big advocate of “the right tool for the job”, so I want to share my experience and advice on your work from home tools focusing today on headsets.

The main problem I’m considering is that noise is always around us – it affects what we hear and when we’re on calls, it affects what others hear (or don’t) when we speak.

The best headsets will help us hear others more clearly AND help them hear us more clearly.

Common Factors

The newest and most helpful technology we use is referred to as ANC, or active noise cancellation. The challenge is that the industry uses this term when talking about the earphones, but we don’t have a term that’s used exclusively on the microphone, so you’ll just hear about the “call quality” or perhaps “voice isolation”. This is super subjective and you’ll find that few products are focusing on solving for noisy environments. Historically, consumer-focused solutions wanting to boost your voice and quiet the ambient noise would either need to get a boom mic in front of your face, or use bone conduction (aka “Jawbone”) sensing.

The good news is that both input and output have been getting better in recent years – but since communication is a two-way street, I’m only going to recommend a few products that are excellent in both categories.

Another factor for all these wireless technologies is how they charge. The latest USB-C ports are now widely prevalent, but there are a few manufacturers that have not made the conversion and hang on to the “legacy” micro-USB port.  The newer USB-C port usually provides more power which is helpful, and being able to plug a cord in without scrutinizing the connection or getting it upside-down 50% of the time is beautiful. I’m REALLY looking forward to the day when I replace the last of my micro-USB, mini-USB, and lightning devices to have a single charging connector.

A last feature that I’ll call out is known as “sidetone” and it’s the level that your own voice is heard when making a call.  If you’ve spoken with someone who can’t hear their own voice, you know they often talk louder to compensate. Being able to control the side tone is very helpful so you don’t unconsciously raise your own voice, especially when dealing with the latest in noise canceling technology which can mean your voice sounds much quieter to your own ears. In this case, all three of the “over both ears” headphones I’ve called out below support sidetone.

Type 1 – over both ears

This is a category I know well because it’s what I use all the time. There are really two main contenders in this category.  Both of these models can pair with two devices (e.g. phone and computer at the same time).  Typically whichever sends sound most recently is what you will hear – but calls take priority over music.

Bose nc700

If there’s one company that has been known for setting the standard in noise canceling headphones, Bose is that one. Their QC (quiet comfort) line of headphones has been in use for several years, but I would not personally recommend any of those for office use because the earlier products picked up all the ambient noise when you would speak.  The NC700 headset, on the other hand, has 8 mics and they are able to sort out your voice from the ambient noise and provide excellent call quality for that reason. Additionally, they provide some of the best-in-class earphone quality for your listening pleasure, whether that be conference calls, Mozart or Beastie Boys. These also charge via USB-C.

Plantronics 8200 UC

This headset is what I use.  The earphone noise canceling is good, but not best in class. The call quality is top notch. Plantronics used a different approach for voice isolation which you can see in use on the sidelines at most pro football games – a parabolic dish to pick up only the sound wanted. Of course, the headphone “dish” is not that large, but equally effective. I’ve been in a convertible with the top down while talking with no issues. I’ve played music at “club level” in my office and the person on the other end has heard only my voice.  I will add one other key (from my perspective) feature specific to these headphone – they are a “UC” or unified communication headset, meaning they come with a USB dongle to connect with your PC to headset without requiring you to pair the Bluetooth connection. It can be really nice to not have to worry about your computer Bluetooth compatibility or reliability, which, while Bluetooth has gotten better, is never 100%. When I’m dealing with VOIP communication for work, I appreciate this feature.  The dongle shows blue when connected and red when muted. The ONLY downside about these headphones, from my perspective is they charge with a micro-USB connector.  BUT, at least I can charge and use them at the same time if needed.

Sony wh1000xm4

There is a new contender which is expected very soon, but not released as of June 23rd, 2020.  This unreleased model is purported to be much better for call quality than its predecessor (the wh1000xm3), and purported to pair with two devices like the others I recommended above. So – cautiously – this product may also meet (my) requirements for an office headset. Also, like their predecessors, these will charge via USB-C.

Type 2 – over one ear

These types of headsets are lightweight and many of them have a boom to help with microphone voice isolation, providing excellent call quality.  This is not a category I focus on because I prefer to listen to music with the headphones, so I need a stereo solution. Covering the second ear definitely helps me hear calls much better as well. Those feelings seem to be the consensus; based on what I’m reading this particular market segment is shrinking while the stereo headset market is growing. That said, this article on wireless Bluetooth headsets is a good place to start, and there are many other articles like it.

Type 3 – “true wireless” (no connecting wire) earbuds and earphones for both ears

There are a lot of earphones and earbuds nowadays. Earphones seal the canal, which helps noise “isolation”. You can think of the airpod pros when you think about earphones.  Earbuds sit just outside the ear canal, which can help if you still want to hear what’s going on around you. The regular airpods are a typical example of earbuds. Again, not a category I focus on personally, but here’s a review which includes a couple of examples of true wireless earphones which have better than average call quality.  Apple’s products in this category charge via their proprietary Lightning connector, others vary widely with the cheapest models sticking with the legacy micro-USB connection and newer or pricier models supporting the USB-C standard.

There are many topics we can dig into related to work technology and I’m happy to dig into them with you. Feel free to reach out for pointers and advice.

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