Noise Cancelling Microphone Rodeo

I’ve been telecommuting for nine months now. There have been a number of changes as I’ve physically separated from the great folks in my company’s office. But the hardest change has been trading out face-to-face conversations for video conferencing. Although it’s never been easier to schedule and join video calls with our existing browsers, phones, built-in cameras and teleconferencing equipment, it’s still no match for being there. There is so much to communicate and perceive that can only be done with the full fidelity of unimpeded senses: micro expressions, vocal timbre, outside-the-camera-frame body language, posture and gestures, knowing looks and eye contact or lack of eye contact, physical presence, proximity and touch and conversation timing and cadence. Even with the best systems so much of this is just lost! In addition, artificial constructs impede natural communication with so many meetings starting with technical difficulties, bad connections, video and sound checks, issues around muting (or not muting) background noises and then there’s latency! It really does requires intentional effort to make sure that remote meeting participants can hear and be heard during a fast-paced conversations, debates and brainstorming. Ugh. Now there are ways to mitigate these problems and I’ll focus on just two. After all, this is an equipment rodeo and I need room to talk about that!

Video Conference Manners

I’ll start with this because with just a few things you can dramatically increase the quality of video conferences. Good protocol applies to whoever is conducting the meeting, whether in the conference room with others, or remote. 

For starters, not every participant can always see all of the other participants. So take a moment at the beginning of a video conference to make sure you all know everyone on the call. Acknowledge and do introductions just like you would if you were in person. Video conferences can feel impersonal if not anonymous so do what you can to keep it personal. 

Second, take a beat every so often to make sure that remote participants understand what is being said and have an opportunity to pipe in. You may not be seeing the normal nonverbal communication that would clue you into their confusion or need to interject. Generally people are a little too polite on calls and we should give even the meekest a seat at the table, virtual as it may be.

Know who’s on the call, give them time to speak and remember that it all sounds much worse on the other end of the wire.

Lastly, think about audio throughout the call. Are there multiple conversations happening? How many microphones are there? Is anyone not able to speak for lack of being heard? Technology has come a long way, but the audio fidelity in video conferences is nowhere near what it is in real life! The human ears are remarkably adept at filtering noise and recognizing sounds. With just your own head’s stereo-on-a-swivel your audio quality will always be better than those on the other end of the wire. Conference microphones are designed to pick up sound efficiently and make everyone sound close, so if you can’t imagine what a room full of people sounds like coming through a single tinny speaker, take time to join a busy meeting and experience it yourself. It will change the way you feel about over-talking, side conversations and natural pauses in the conversation.

Noise-cancelling Microphones

Even with good meeting protocol, having a bad mic can be a meeting killer. Background noise can betray your location or peel back the illusion that your home can be an effective office. Much is said about noise cancelling headphones but it can be difficult to find a noise-cancelling microphone! Don’t assume that your laptop or your webcam’s mic will do a good job. Most mics have one job: pick up sound indiscriminately—they don’t know that a lawnmower or a crying baby is unintentional sound. Thus began my search, when I realized that people could really hear noises from outside my home office. I did take some time to look at sound attenuation solutions for my office, but ultimately you really can’t/won’t change your walls or your door and sound definitely comes through those. So for me the solution had to come from the microphone.

Having some experience with audio engineering and the physics of sound, I was pretty excited about finding a mic solution that could cancel out unwanted noise. And I found some pretty good ones that did not disappoint. They all use “beam forming technology” which uses an array of microphones to identify the loudest sound and cancel out the sounds coming in on the other mics. If you want to see this in action, check out how the Amazon Echo uses this in a noise room and will light up the direction it hears you from. 

There was a point in my research when I had the epiphany that this problem has already been solved for people who take their calls on-the-go and don’t want the background noise of cars, wind or other people. You know, those people who wear bluetooth earpieces all day and you don’t know if they’re talking to you or someone on a call? I realized that to maximize noise cancellation and also get the benefit of proximity effect, I needed limit my search to microphone headsets. All of the headsets that I found with active noise cancellation were also bluetooth. I’m a tough buyer so I had a few key criteria, mostly around what it shouldn’t be, like looking like a headset from Apollo 11.

  • Excellent noise cancellation
  • Doesn’t require a lot of desk space
  • Doesn’t look like I’m doing anything “weird” to get good call quality
  • Doesn’t break the bank

So here they are, in order of my preference. If you’d like to see more, consider something from one of these lists. All of three are good. I feel like I was picking from the best available.

Plantronics Voyager 5200

My overall favorite. Although initially I didn’t like the design because it seemed bulky, my wife and daughter thought that it was the best looking and head-on, the profile is pretty small. What won me over was that in the testing this mic did the best job out cancelling out unwanted noise. The packaging was really nice, maybe too nice with its pull tab and magnetically-closing flap. The earpiece’s build is solid, but flexible and comfortable to wear for long periods. My favorite part is the ear tip that sits loosely in your ear rather than being shoved inside it. $80 on Amazon.

Sennheiser Presence

I really like Sennheiser. I have their e835 microphone and studio headphones and I can’t say enough good about this brand. So I really wanted this bluetooth headset to win. But it didn’t. The noise cancellation was good, but not as good as the Plantronics. I liked that it was small and it has this clever open/closed switch to turn it on and off. It was pretty light too and could actually just hang from being pressed inside my ear but it also came with an over-the-ear hanger as well. The packaging was simple and understated, which I also liked. $92 on Amazon.

Jabra Steel

This one was a surprise for me. I didn’t think much of it when I ordered it—it seemed too simple but the rugged design and manly-man packaging made me feel like wearing this would make my life better! I gave it a shot but overall the audio quality and noise cancellation weren’t as good as the others. If I kept this, I would only wear it when working in my shop or if I was digging a hole or something. It seemed pretty indestructible and I wouldn’t worry about carrying it in my pocket or dropping it. $60 on Amazon.

Testing Method

As I was most concerned about the mic quality, I tested each one with semi-scripted scenarios that included different kinds of background noise so I could compare them side-by-side as much as possible. I also evaluated ease-of-use, fit, price and packaging. I had some success with attempting to record all of them at once, but I ultimately gave up on that approach in favor of time. The recordings are available here for reference if you’re interested.