Oh, Say Can You Hear

15 Apr 2015

Based on the number of ads I see for headphones, earbuds, and headsets it seems pretty clear that there is huge demand for them. In my childhood home there was one set of headphones, and I don't recall them getting much use. Today, desktop conferencing, softphones, portable music, and cellular devices are creating a huge market for headphones and headsets.

Forget the occasional use of yesteryear. Headsets are now part of the daily routine. It surprised me when I realized how often I wear a headset or headphones. Not only do I wear them often, but I wear many different models - daily.

For softphone users, headsets are the new endpoint - and there's a wide range in features, price, and quality. Wired are fine for desk-bound jobs, but I prefer wireless models because I'm hip and mobile. I do prefer wired for planes - is one sitting for hours on a plane a mobile user?

Headsets can be cheap, but don't fall for that. They are too important to compromise. Like shoes and jewelry, headsets become a part of us. It isn't unusual for a UC implementation to realize the headset budget wasn't enough.

Replacing hard phones with softphones + headsets may or may not save an organization money - that shouldn't be the driver. Some high-end headsets cost more than phones. Headsets don't last as long as phones. Nor, are they as easily repurposed or transferred. Employees get squeamish about used headsets.


  • Headset/Headphones: I prefer the term headphones. I think headset implies a voice microphone and headphone implies audio or speakers only. Those distinctions are obsolete. Modern microphones are small, cheap, and sensitive. They no longer need to be in front of the mouth, so can be placed invisibly on headphones. Since most devices now support speech or voice, it's just silly to get headphones without a microphone. Now that we've cleared this up, I am only using "headphone" below.
  • Voice-First or Music-First: Adding a microphone is not enough to make headphones ideal for telephony. The boom has value as do other variables that the vendors tweak. Headphones are generally optimized for either voice/telephony or music/listening applications.
  • Wireless: There are two major technologies used for wireless headphones: Bluetooth offers greater compatibility with devices such as laptops, mobile devices, and even some desktops. DECT typically requires a separate base unit, but provides superior range and battery life. It gets a little confusing as dome DECT base radios can connect to devices via Bluetooth.

My Headsets

My desk headset is a Plantronics Savi. It connects up to three devices: USB to computer, Bluetooth to mobile, and RJ9 to desktop phone. Mine is connected to PC and two desktop phones (one via bluetooth). It is a DECT headset, so I can walk anywhere in my home (extended office). The bane of all wireless devices is battery life, so its best feature is a built-in charger and spare battery. Though I only need it if I forget to charge them overnight. This is a voice-first device with one ear.

Savi W710

Plantronics Savi

A challenge with wireless headsets is electronic hook switch (EHS). When at the desk, it's easy to answer and hang-up the phone. Wireless headsets will signal in-ear if the phone is ringing, but answering when away from the desk requires EHS. Most phones that support EHS require a separate cable from the headset base to the phone. Two of the three phones on my desk do not have EHS, and it's very frustrating.

In the afternoons I walk the dogs while listening to audio with the Plantronics BackBeat Go 2. These are music-first (podcast-first) stereo earbuds that connect via bluetooth. It isn't unusual to receive a call, so it's nice to be able to answer without having to touch the phone.

My car doesn't have an audio input (so embarrassing). I tried various versions of FM modulators, but radio interference is frustrating. I bought the Jabra Freeway, which is a visor-mounted bluetooth speakerphone. It works very well. It is a voice-first device, so ideal for in-car calls. I mostly use it for audio playback, so a dedicated play/pause button would be a nice improvement. What makes it particularly clever is motion activation. There is no need to turn it on or off.

I don't make a lot of calls on my mobile outside of the car. I keep a Plantronics Voyager Legend UC in my computer bag on standby. The nice thing about this Legend is its case. The supplied hard case both protects the headset and keeps it charged with its own separate battery.

For air travel, I just give an honorable mention to my Etymotic earbuds. These are wired, audio-only headsets. Very small and light, but with thick foam eartips that provide impressive noise filtering. The bigger active noise filtering types are tempting, but I prefer small, light and batteryless.

My favorite headphones to wear are the Plantronics BackBeat Pro. These are full sized, music-first headphones that are dedicated for use in my favorite comfy chair. The microphones on these accommodate telephony, but are really for active noise cancellation. The mics also enable a unique feature that brings in background noise - ideal if expecting a knock at the door. I reviewed these here.

Final Thoughts

Life is too short for bad headphones. We used to talk about the last mile, but now the greater risk is the last few meters. We have come so far in telephony with wideband audio that it's negligent to destroy it all with crappy headphones.

I've shared some of my favorite devices, but I also acknowledge there are many other quality devices out there. The main point is not to trivialize the importance of headphones. They are increasingly the only thing physical in a UC experience. Headphones can make or break a UC deployment.



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