Since I seem to be on a hardware review kick lately, I thought I should add initial impressions of a new headset I am trying out.
The equipment in question is a two-piece set (separate purchases) of the headset itself and a switching amplifier/connector box. The key benefit to this upgrade is that I can use the same headset for PC and telephone communications, with no replugging needed.
The heart of the package is the GN8050-TCA headset amplifier. Depending on where you search, you will see the manufacturer listed as Jabra or GN Netcom. As far as I can make out, Jabra is the headset division of GN Netcom.
The amplifier follows the now-ubiquitous design aesthetic of black and gray plastic… Very cheap looking. The main controls on the front of the case are a mute/talk rocker switch, a phone/PC rocker switch, a sliding controller for your telephone receiving volume, and a tiny scroll wheel for your PC receiving volume. Behind those controls is a lid you can raise to access two more controls: A three-position selector that controls power-saving behavior and a potentiometer rotary post that controls your transmit volume.
As if those controls weren’t enough, there is also a nine-position selector on the side of the unit that controls its interface with different telephones. You just flick it around at random until you find the best audio quality for your phone.
The GN8050 comes with two AA batteries, but I bought an AC wall adapter as another accessory. Never trust your webinar to the uncertainty of remaining battery power! A plastic riser bar juts up from the rear of the unit to hold your headset.
You plug your phone line and phone headset into the amplifier and then run another wire into the mini-plug connectors on your PC for MIC and HEADPHONE/SPEAKERS. There is no USB connection. I chose to use a Turtle Beach Audio Advantage Amigo USB soundcard rather than the direct inputs on my PC. Those plug connectors almost always have terrible sound quality.
The amplifier has a quick-connect cable that goes to your choice of Jabra headsets in their 2100 line.
I chose the GN Netcom 2115 as my preferred headset. Which model you choose is a matter of personal preference. I like two earpieces (binaural design) and I went with the Sound Tube version over the noise-cancelling boom mike. Noise cancelling can be quite useful in noisy environments such as cubicles, but my office is quiet and I prefer to keep additional sound filtering circuitry out of the loop.
The microphone swivels all the way from front to back, so you can wear it on whichever side of your head is best for you. The phones are mono rather than stereo, so it doesn’t matter which ear gets which earpiece. By the way, this makes the headset impractical for use with games where you need spatial audio cues, but is fine for voice communications on webinars.
You will notice that the entire setup uses hardwired connections rather than wireless. Wireless is much more convenient and keeps your desk uncluttered. But I don’t trust it for webinars. I want sound isolation with less chance of radio interference and dropouts. So this solution meets my tastes.
Because the amplifier connects through the headphone/speaker plug on your PC, you may need to buy a cheap Y-connector cable if you want to rout your audio output into the headset and a pair of speakers simultaneously. That’s what I did.
On to my impressions.
- Sound quality has been very clean and clear in the first few days of use. I will want a lot more practical field-testing with different people before I’m ready to commit, but so far I have not noticed any fuzz, popping, or muffling on receive or transmit.
- The mute switch is silent, introducing no audible click when engaging or disengaging. But there is a tiny sub-second lag when you change the mute setting. It ramps the volume up or down over maybe 0.25-0.5 seconds, probably to avoid an abrupt change in the sound on the call. This is different than the instantaneous mute I am used to, but I don’t think it will be significant or noticeable in practical use.
- The headset is lightweight and comfortable. The spring-loaded headband is not too tight on my oversized noggin and does not press against the earpieces of my eyeglasses. However, I am not happy with the feel of the earpiece cushions. They are a padded “leatherette” material (huh?) that slides easily on the ear. The cushion rings feel small, sitting against the outer ear surface rather than encircling it. The slightest motion (even yawning) can shift the position of the earpieces and move them away from your sweet spot in listening position. Once the earpieces move, the mike moves, so you lose your perfect mouth position as well.
- The sound tube for the microphone is inflexible and cannot be positioned as variably as I would like. You can’t change the overall length and you can’t bend the tube. You can lever it out away from your face (useful to take a sip of coffee), but you can’t lever it closer than a certain distance because of a hard stop on the earpiece connector.
- There is no lapel clip provided for the headset cable. I view that as a necessity to keep the wire from rubbing on your shirt or getting looped on something it shouldn’t. I pulled a clip off my old Plantronics headset and used that.
- I am not happy with the mute selector switch design. You cannot quickly glance down at the amplifier and tell whether you are muted or not. The rocker detent is very subtly off the horizontal, and while you can feel it, you can’t see the current position. My old Plantronics amp had a colored indicator that was unambiguous and instantly communicated your status.
This kind of audio gear is resold by many different vendors for an astonishing variety of prices. I recommend doing some searching online to find a good price from a reputable vendor.
Overall, I would sum up as follows:
Nice design idea. As far as I know, this is the first unit designed for dual phone/PC use. Sound quality seems good on first impressions. The headset is comfortable, but does not hold position securely enough. I wish the GN 2115 had more flexibility in microphone placement. Lack of a visual indicator on the mute switch is a design flaw. Lack of a lapel clip and an included wall adapter is a disappointing example of penny-pinching decisions from the vendor.
Compared directly to my previous Plantronics setup, the GN/Jabra solution wins on convenience, maybe ties on audio, and loses on feature design.
ADDENDUM: I'm coming back to this article with some additional findings.
It was disconcerting and scary in my first webinar with these to find that even though my selector switch was set to telephone use, I was hearing sounds from my computer coming through my headphones! I quickly ripped the plug out of the computer. I later talked to a very nice and responsive gentleman from Jabra (great customer service... He called me after I submitted an inquiry on their website form). He told me that the computer sound continues to be fed into my headphones, but is not transmitted out to the telephone audience. All I have to do is turn the computer volume wheel on the amplifier down to zero and I don't hear that anymore. Now it's only slightly inconvenient to have to change the volume settings every time I switch between phone and PC. What a strange design feature!
I also found out that there are alternative earpieces that can be snapped on and off the headset. The Jabra site is useless at telling you this, telling you which pieces go with what, or telling you the dimensions. I ended up ordering two different replacement earpads from ZipSprocket.com. Part number 0400-139 are small foam pads that sit directly on the ear. They are even smaller in diameter than the leatherette pieces I complained about above, but I found them to be more comfortable. They sit more securely in place and they make less noise if they slide on the ear slightly.
Part number 0440-149 are larger diameter leatherette padded ear rings. They are the same design as the originals, but a centimeter wider in diameter. That doesn't sound like much, but they are infinitely more comfortable and more secure on my big ol' ears. Either replacement part is recommended over the default earpads.