Why can't you equip yourself optimally to present on a video conference or webcam-enabled webinar/webcast? As far as I can tell, the "correct" solution simply does not exist. Let's take a look at what's needed and how my ideal design would solve myriad problems for presenters.
I want to be very clear that this article refers ONLY to presentations where the presenter appears on camera, and ONLY to web conferences or video conferences where the presenter needs to hear others while also being heard. There are excellent solutions for recording "monologue" video presentations for YouTube and there are excellent solutions for presenting in an audio-only webinar where the audience can't see you.
Let's start with my personal biases and preferences, based on shepherding countless guest speakers through the webinar process:
- Using the built-in speakers and microphone on a laptop or tablet computer creates problems with clarity and feedback. They are low-price, low quality components placed too near each other in the casing. The microphone picks up every movement of the device and every click of the keyboard.
- Using a desktop microphone creates problems with picking up keyboard and mouse clicks, since it is usually positioned on the desk near those noisy devices. Other external microphones (lavalier, desktop, shotgun, webcam) are susceptible to volume shifts as the presenter turns his/her head.
- A headset is the optimal way to get near-field clarity and consistent volume, since it stays in place at the same distance from the mouth no matter what the presenter does.
- Wired is better than wireless. Wireless devices lose power, lose pairing, and catch interference from other signals. Bluetooth is susceptible to transmission lag that can mess up audio/video synchronization or make smooth two-way conversation difficult.
- A USB connector is better than 3.5mm audio plugs. 3.5mm audio jacks on computers are low cost components and often lose mechanical integrity over time. Many devices no longer include dedicated earphone/microphone jacks. [See geek notes 1, 2, 3, 4, and 7 to learn about formats and technical issues with connectors.]
- As a presenter, you want the audience focusing on you, not your gear. This is the big problem… Existing USB headsets look obvious and distracting on camera.
The smallest combined earpiece/microphone headset unit I have been able to find is the Plantronics Blackwire 435.
This is the right idea at the right price point, just not carried far enough to count as "optimal." The boom microphone is still too large, the black plastic of the earpieces and boom stands out against all but the darkest skin tones, and the visible portion of the earpieces has a fancy design that calls attention to itself. I'd also prefer to reduce the set to a single earpiece for the least amount of gear sticking out of our head holes.
I far prefer the low-profile look of "earhook" or "head-worn" microphones designed for wireless presentation systems. You can find several manufacturers and models online. To give you an idea of what I'm talking about, look at the JK MIC-J 071S.
The thin "whip" boom ends in a tiny microphone capsule. The ear wires disappear behind the ears when worn. The beige color is less noticeable against a range of Caucasian skin tones [See geek note 5 to learn more about the thorny issue of equipment color.]
The problem with these earhook microphones is that nobody has turned one into a headset that includes an earbud speaker. And they are designed to plug into a belt pack transmitter that provides a small amount of power to the microphone while keeping the microphone cable short. [See geek note 6 to learn about microphone power… It's VERY important!]
THE PERFECT DESIGN
My ideal, "optimal" headset for use while on a video webcast would be a thin whip boom earhook microphone, connected to the USB port of my computer, with an integrated low-profile earpiece. The whole thing should be available in two or three colors to get closer to a range of human skin tones. It needs a minimum six-foot (two-meter) cable. And it should be optimized for USB low-power operating voltage and human speech frequency range.
My current setup is a Frankenstein's collection of specialized equipment trying to achieve something similar. It's too bulky, too inconvenient, and too expensive to recommend to anyone else. Can't some manufacturer create the "Ken Molay Video Conference Model headset?" Why, the world would beat a path to your door!
GEEK NOTES - BACKGROUND AND TECHNICAL INFO
Note 1: USB stands for "Universal Serial Bus," which is hilarious when you look at the number of different standards for size, shape, and technical specs all falling under the supposed "universal" format. Desktop and laptop computers mostly offer jacks that accept full-size "Type A" cables, and this is the type of connector I want on my computer headset. Smartphones, some Apple devices, and newer equipment designs are currently moving from a variety of miniature Type A, Type B, and Type AB forms to a new Type C connector. Oy.
USB ports supply a small amount of power to connected devices through one of the wires in the cable. Although the specification is for 5V, many adaptors and external sound cards end up outputting lower voltages. This is important for reasons covered in Note 6.
Note 2: Some audio gear (both earphones and microphones) use a cylindrical plug that goes into a round jack. These may be called audio jacks, phone jacks, or headphone jacks. Big stuff like guitars and amps tend to use a big 1/4-inch plug. The usual size for headphones, microphones, and headsets is 3.5mm (sometimes inaccurately called 1/8-inch). And some devices (smartphones and some office desk phones) use a sub-miniature 2.5mm size. It's important to know which size you are dealing with to match the plug and jack. Adapters are readily available. The red and green "microphone jack" and "headphone jack" on many computers use the 3.5mm size.
Note 3: Once you have the right size jack, you still need to figure out the plug configuration type. Audio plugs may be TS, TRS, or TRRS.
You must match the plug and jack so they make the right connections in the right places. Never buy two pieces of equipment that are supposed to connect without making sure they use the same interface type. Adaptors exist to connect certain combinations.
Note 4: If you have audio gear with 3.5mm audio plugs but your computer lacks round audio jacks, you'll need to buy an external sound card that plugs into a USB port and accepts the microphone and headphone plugs. These are cheap and plentiful on Amazon. They vary in audio quality, build quality, and power delivery to connected microphones. The first two issues are easy to figure out from customer reviews. I haven't yet found such an adapter that specifies how many volts it delivers to a connected microphone. It's almost never the 5V that the USB port offers.
Note 5: To make equipment less obvious on camera, we want it to blend in as much as possible with our skin color. We'll never get a perfect match, but we can lower the contrast ratio a bit so it's not as jarring. Manufacturers have a long way to go in this area. Headsets are overwhelmingly made of black plastic. A small percentage come in a pinkish-beige color (particularly the thin whip boom earhook microphones I like). Manufacturers may refer to this as pink, beige, nude, or flesh - which shows a marked inherent bias. I realize it's impossible to make money trying to manufacture and sell a ton of different colors, but three shades would be nice… Two are essential. Neither of them should be solid black!
Note 6: Microphones need power in order to operate. Professional microphones typically use an XLR three-pin connector and expect to receive 48V. This is referred to as "phantom power." No USB port can provide that kind of power… It requires an externally powered microphone amplifier or mixer. It's too much equipment and too much money for our needs in this piece. If you see the term "phantom power," stay away… It's not the headset or microphone you want for easy connectivity on a webinar.
The little microphones in computer headsets are designed to run off anywhere from 2-10V. This small voltage is usually referred to as "bias voltage." If you hook them up to a phantom power supply, the 48 volts will fry the microphone, leaving you with a nice looking lump of plastic that doesn't work.
If your headset has an integrated USB cable, it has been designed from the factory to use standard USB power and current. All is right with the world and you can just plug it in without another thought (except for Note 7).
If your headset uses 3.5mm audio plugs, you have a tougher time ahead of you. You need to make sure that the right amount of voltage flows from the audio jack to the headset. The first problem is that you'll never know how much power is actually being delivered through that jack… Just that it will be less than 5V. The second problem is that you don't know how much power the microphone really wants. Although the manufacturer may specify an "operating voltage from 2-10V" the microphone may work much better with 5V than with 2.5V. That's one reason you tend to find different versions of those earhook whip mikes made for different belt pack systems. They have been optimized to match the power supply and the microphone's operating range - but the vendor won't tell you what the voltage is! This is a sad case of trial and error to see if your microphone delivers adequate sound with the adapter you are plugging it into. If not, you may need to try another headset or another external sound card. This is the reason I want a vendor to make an all-in-one headset that goes straight to USB… They can match the operating voltage correctly within the unit.
Note 7: Windows 10 seems to have a software issue where it drops the input volume on USB-connected microphones. Many users have reported problems with this using their preferred headsets or desk microphones, while others report no problems (probably because the headsets are designed to work with less power or provide a higher output gain). Here is an article that describes a solution involving third-party software. I haven't personally tried this, as I use a different setup. But if you run into the problem of bad microphone volume on your Windows 10 computer, this might be something to try.