Image source: Flickr CC user Sergey Galyonkin
In your own room, every sonic detail of FourFiveSeconds by Kanye, Rihanna, and Paul McCartney is crystal clear and it sounds like the church organs are being played right behind you. But when you try to explain to your friend on the other end of your video call that the creepy little gremlin screech in the verse is actually McCartney’s voice sped up to a hilarious pitch, you’re greeted with a blank look.
The track is blaring on your stereo, you’ve got a top-of-the-range laptop, and you’re streaming through a shiny new webcam. But you’ve neglected to buy a good video calling microphone, so all your friend can hear is a cacophony of tinny noises.
Video calling may make possible personal connections across the world, but if you’re relying on the speakers and microphones that shipped with your laptop, you might as well be broadcasting using 1930s AM radio tech.
Your Peripherals Are Critical to Your Video Call
Just as your computer’s processing power, the strength of your internet connection, and the video conferencing provider you use all affect the quality of your call, so to do the devices you use to gather and receive visual and audio information.
Video callers often overlook the value of a good microphone and speaker setup, and instead rely on the built-in, default devices that ship with their computer or camera.
While the temptation for an all-in-one device is understandable, if quality matters to you, the best move is to seek out a specialized, standalone device, one that’s made to do a specific task.
The difference is obvious when you compare products in terms of volume, sample rate (the speed at which information is converted to a digital signal), and features like noise cancellation. Below, we compare some stats of built-in speakers and standalone headphones, speakers, and mics.
But there are many of these standalone, purpose-built accessories available, so we’ve gathered together a host of the best headsets, microphones, and speakers currently available. These devices will take your video conferencing experience to the next level.
The Best Headsets
Let’s start with the darling of the online gaming world, the headset.
A headset gives you the freedom to move your head without fear of drifting too far from the microphone, and it keeps your audio intimately close with closed, noise-cancelling headphones.
And then there’s the convenience of having two of the most important aspects of a video call covered by one standalone device.
The Top Gaming Headsets
Top-of-the-line for headsets are those designed for gaming, as gamers are some of the hardest to satisfy. Nowhere else in the video calling world do users demand crisp, clear communication with their colleagues in the middle of a war zone.
As a result, gaming headsets have the highest-quality stereo sound on the market, and are among the most comfortable–few other endeavors will have users wearing a headset for hours on end.
If money–and looks–are no object, the current king of the battlefield is the Sennheiser PC 363D. With 7.1 virtual surround sound, ergonomic cups, and a strong, lightweight design, it’s comfortable and powerful.
For a more reasonable price point (and remember, these headsets are the top of the range), there’s the Kingston HyperX Cloud (or Cloud II). More stylish than the Sennheiser and just as comfortable, it is, alas, a step down in audio quality.
The same applies to the Logitech G430, which remains one of the most popular gaming headsets, despite sacrificing a little audio quality in the name of affordability. It still has noise cancellation tech built-in, rotating ear cups, and comfortable ear pads.
Headsets for the Casual Video Caller
For the average video conference caller, even the G430 has unnecessarily high-quality audio, with more audio volume, bass, and high-end frequencies than necessary for a good video call. If you’re primarily using headset to increase the clarity and reduce the noise of a casual video call there area few solid choices to consider.
- At the higher end there’s the Jabra Biz 2400, with its extended range of headset controls, including mute, volume, answer, and open programmable controls.
- Stepping down in price, the Logitech H390 headset has plug-and-play connectivity, noise cancellation, and a microphone with a full range of motion so it can be swung away when not needed.
- The bargain-basement Plantronics Audio 478 has digital signal processing to help limit unwanted noise, and some Skype-specific functions.
The Plantronics option is not as sophisticated as the first two models, but it still represents a significant step up from the average laptop or PC speaker–some of which emit as little as 2 watts of power–and microphone, and it’ll keep out any unwanted audio distractions on your end of the video call.
If you’re looking for a headset with a noise-cancellation feature, keep in mind that noise-cancelling headphones can reduce noise through two different methods. Headphones with active noise cancellation with likely work better than those with passive noise cancellation, but they will also be more expensive.
Even good headsets, though, will lag behind a dedicated microphone. If you’re looking for crystal clear audio in order to live-broadcast online or to regularly attend conference room calls, a microphone is the way to go.
The Best Microphones
Image source: Flickr CC user Shunichi kouroki
Putting it bluntly, PCs, laptops, and the majority of webcams tend to be terrible at rendering the human voice. That’s where standalone microphones come in.
There are just too many variables that affect the proper translation of a human voice over a digital connection to leave the task to a built-in computer microphone, which can be so small you’ll often struggle to even find it on your laptop, or a basic webcam.
With all those factors affecting the final sound you transmit, there’s just too much that can go wrong unless you employ a flexible, directional, poseable standalone microphone.
As Endorsed by Youtubers Everywhere
If you want to go straight ahead to a broadcast-quality microphone like the ones your favorite YouTubers or podcasters use, there’s a clear leader of the pack: the Blue Yeti.
It’s hardly cheap, but it comes with an unrivalled suite of features. It has four different directional settings–including bi-directional in case you have an in-house guest–a direct input headphone jack so you can monitor proceedings instantly, and a substantial 16bit/48khz resolution that is good enough to record music.
The Apogee Mic 96K is another broadcast favorite, and it actually offers more audio resolution than the Yeti (24bit/96 Khz). It lacks all those different audio capture settings, but includes a preamp and an analog/digital converter for smoother translation.
Those devices are, however, are best for those who need to publish their voice to an audience. If you just want to be heard clearly over a one-on-one or small group video conference, be it for business or personal reasons, you won’t need to venture into the Blue Yeti price range.
Personal, Practical Microphones
The cute-looking Blue Snowball was designed for recording video calls or podcasts, but comes at a price far lower than professional grade. It also captures a decibel range far greater than your PC could ever muster, which lends richness to the transmitted vocals. Its condenser tech is easy to set up, and as long as you stay in front of its cardioid microphone you’ll never have to fiddle with its settings.
The same applies to the Samson Go Mic, although the Samson has a portability advantage due to its size and compact, foldable design. It has a wide enough frequency response (a measure of the range of sounds a device can relay, both in volume and pitch) to capture any casual conversation without requiring the speaker to sit within inches of the device. Logitech’s older model USB Desktop microphones also perform well in a more intimate setting, but you’ll have to hunt them down on eBay or Amazon.
If you do need to cater for a larger conversation, there are a range of devices that can easily slip in front of meeting attendees to single out specific voices. Logitech makes high-end extension microphones that build on their video conferencing equipment to bring the conversation to everyone around the table, while LifeSize, Polycom, and Sennheiser offer similar variations on the same theme.
To really make a conference room video call work though, it is best to track down a high-quality speaker setup.
The Best Speakers
There’s little point in investing in high-end visuals for your conference room if the words coming out of the mouths of the video callers on the other end of the line are muffled and distorted.
Most webcam-type video conferencing hardware ships with a pair of speakers built into the main video camera. These generally offer little more sonic power than a domestic PC or laptop, while a standalone speaker can produce almost 25% more decibels than a quality webcam. In the chart below, we compare human speech with the maximum decibel output of a Macbook Pro, a Logitech BCC950 webcam, and a pair of Logitech Z533 speakers. While webcam and built-in laptop speakers may not usually have an impressive output, there are a range of external speaker systems available that turn any video call into an immersive stereo experience.
Speakers with Sound That Can Fill a Large Room
When it’s important to hear every nuance of the other party on your video conference, or if you’re in a large boardroom-type space, you’ll want to go with speakers which product both a lot of sound and a lot of detail in that sound.
- Logitech’s Z623 system connects with up to three devices and supplies THX-certified sound at 400 watts of power–more than enough to liven up any conference room. It’s designed with the modern multimedia workspace in mind, and is compatible with a range of devices.
- Audioengine’s A5+ two-way active speakers are as easy to set up as plugging a cable into the headphone jack or USB device of any computer. They also offer an analog to digital converter, to more efficiently package and cut up the sound of the human voice into the tiny packets of sound sent as data. The Audioengine product is not as powerful as Logitech’s offering, but features a rich range of audio frequencies.
Of course, not everyone needs a powerful speaker system.
Speakers That Look As Good As They Sound
If you’re making video calls at home or in small groups at the office, smaller speakers with an emphasis on clarity are a better investment.
If you’re as much interested in the look and style of a set of speakers as the sound, the Aperion Audio Allaire is for you. It comes with a wireless bluetooth setup, sleek white design, and satin finish, but you’ll have to decide for yourself if it’s worth the high price tag. Underneath the gloss, it has a stereo speaker system that works as effectively for movies and music as it does for video calls.
As far as aesthetics go, the Harman Kardon Soundsticks offer a space age counterpoint to the disco cool of the Aperion. This product’s transparent casing makes it look like it belongs in a science lab, but it delivers a high-quality sound with the bonus of the same wireless connectivity as the Aperion.
Sound As Function
When the focus is on practicality, though, the Logitech Z553 and Z313 and the Creative A250 offer far better bang for the buck. Each delivers gamer-quality audio for less than $100 using the standard 2.1 subwoofer arrangement. The same can be said for the even louder, and even cheaper, Cyber Acoustics CA-3602, which generates 60 watts of power at the expense of a little clarity.
Any of these speakers can comfortably replace the sound system in the average PC or laptop, or webcam, and once you do, you may not know how you went without them. Which begs the question: why are you still using those built-in speakers?
|Hyper X Cloud Stinger||Gaming||Memory Foam, rotating ear cups||$70|
|SteeleSeries Siberia 800||Gaming||Wireless||$200|
|Corsair Gaming H 2100||Gaming||Wireless||$100|
|Sennheiser PC 363D||Gaming||7.1 Surround Sound||$200|
|Kingston HyperX Cloud||Gaming||Superior comfort||$80|
|Logitech G430||Gaming||Dolby Surround sound||$100|
|Jabra Biz 2400||Professional||Active Noise cancellation||$200|
|Logitech H390||Personal||Rotating microphone||$80|
|Plantronics Audio 478||Personal||Answer/end call inline function||$50|
|Shure SM7B||Broadcast||Wide range frequency response||$400|
|AT3525||Broadcast||Pro Musician quality – older model||$130|
|Blue Yeti||Broadcast||Range of recording options, mic directions||$250|
|Apogee Mic 96K||Broadcast||Highest quality sound in class||$200|
|Blue Snowball||Personal||Dynamic decibel range||$100|
|Samson Go||Personal||Compact size and design||$80|
|Logitech USB Desktop||Personal||Active noise cancellation||$80|
|Logitech GROUP extension||Professional||Add-on to GROUP conference cam||$400|
|Logitech Z553||Multimedia||120 watt peak power||$150|
|Logitech Z623||Multimedia||THX quality sound||$200|
|Audioengine A5||Multimedia||150 watt peak power||$400|
|Aperion Audio Allaire||Personal||Bluetooth connectivity||$350|
|Harman Kardon Soundsticks||Personal||Unique design||$150|
|Logitech Z313||Personal||Enhanced bass||$80|
|Creative A250||Personal||Compact system||$30|
|Cyber Acoustics CA-3602||Personal||Unique control pod||$50|
By Original author: camknows from Maple Valley, WA, USA Cropped by WikiKiwi [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
By Sol-lol (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Paulino Perez via Flickr CC, creative commons license