I own more microphones, headsets, and earpieces than is healthy for any normal human being. Every so often I get a question about what I use for my webinars and webcasts. The answer is trickier than I would like, as I use different equipment in different circumstances, and the lineup changes over time. Here's a rundown on the current state of my audio equipment preferences. None of this hardware may necessarily be right for your needs and your setup. But from now on I'll be able to direct people to this blog post instead of writing it out every time I'm asked!
At the outset, I should mention my preference for wired devices. Wireless introduces more possibilities for things to go wrong. Interference, loss of power, dropouts, buffering… you just never know what might happen. I always use a hardwired device if I can. The same goes for my internet connection. Webinar or webcast presenters are just asking for trouble if they rely on wi-fi internet to carry their audio and video signals.
My daily all-around workhorse is the Sennheiser HME 280i headset. It's expensive, big, heavy, and ugly. It's also surprisingly comfortable. The big circumaural (around the ear) foam earcups isolate outside noises and are soft enough to put no pressure on my eyeglass frames. The wide headband is adjustable and fits my head perfectly. The microphone stays right where I position it. The listening quality is fantastic… Sennheiser is known for high end audio earphones and I can hear details on a webinar that most people never notice. The microphone is very good as well.
The HME 280i designation is a variant of their HMD 280 PRO basic unit. The HMD has an unterminated cable that professionals can wire to their choice of connector, but the HME comes with a cable that is terminated in Sennheiser's proprietary EasyDisconnect system. By choosing one of the (overpriced) Sennheiser CCEL connection ends, I can plug the headset into my desk phone or my computer as needed.
I use the Sennheiser any time the other party can't see me. It's my product of choice for telephone calls or audio-only webinars. But it's simply overwhelming when I appear on camera.
For voiceover and prerecorded narration, I usually go with my Audio-Technica AT2020USB desk microphone. It connects straight into a USB slot on the computer and is one of the two most used consumer desk microphones on the market. Choosing the AT or the equivalent Blue Yeti is a toss-up, with defenders in both camps. I put my mike in an AT8458 shock mount to reduce any vibration coming up through the desk and mike stand. Make sure to slap a simple pop filter in front of it… There's not much quality difference from one to the next, and they're cheap.
I keep auditioning low-profile gear for use when appearing on camera. I tried a couple of USB-connected lavaliere mikes and I wasn't satisfied with the sound quality. I don't like to use a desk microphone, as it's hard to reach around it to do keyboard inputs if necessary, and it tends to pick up nearby keyboard noises.
I eventually bought an upgraded input chain that gave me more flexibility and control over the sound coming in and the types of devices I could use. This is where it starts getting very complex, nerdy, and unjustifiable for the average user.
I installed an ASUS Xonar Essence STX sound card in my desktop computer. That gave me higher quality connections and digital processing, along with a 1/4" input jack.
The next item in the chain is a Behringer MiniMIC MIC800 microphone preamp that allows me to connect XLR-style microphones that require 48V phantom power. It's no longer marketed, and I'd probably go with a Behringer Tube Ultragain MIC100 these days to get equivalent functionality.
For a while I was hooking up an AT875R shotgun microphone and pointing it at my mouth, just out of camera frame. It gave acceptable, but not great, sound. It was hard to get a good input volume while keeping clarity.
I recently tried a new tack, and it's been working well so far. I bought a JK MIC-J 071S earhook microphone. It is very thin, lightweight, and unobtrusive against my skin color. The microphone at the end of the boom is extremely tiny, and it makes very little impression on camera. I have found the input gain and sound quality to be very good.
The problem is that these types of thin earhook microphones are designed for use with wireless belt packs that deliver 1-10V bias power. If you try to feed a phantom power supply to them, you fry the mike. It took some searching, but I finally found the magic interface gadget…
The Rode VXLR+ transforming adapter. It acts as a bridge between the two types of connectors and steps down the phantom power supply to the small voltage the microphone needs.
So that gave me a microphone that moved with me and didn't distract my audience while on camera. The next challenge was to find an unobtrusive way to hear other people on the webcast. I'm not a fan of just leaving my desk speakers on, as the microphone can pick up the sound and create an echo or feedback loop. I wanted an earpiece that didn't stand out. This was where I relaxed my anti-wireless stubbornness.
I decided I wanted earbuds that used APTX Low Latency technology. This gives the least possible lag time in transmission so that you have a better chance of keeping a video image synchronized with the sound being broadcast to your earpiece. It's still rare in consumer products. The APTX website lists all certified equipment.
I ended up with Optoma NuForce BE Free8 wireless earbuds out of necessity rather than choice. They are the only APTX LL wireless earbuds available. They do the job, but I would search for another option if I could find one. I find the sound quality merely acceptable, they aren't comfortable in my ear, and they have an annoying way of losing their pairing to my Bluetooth transmitter (which also needs to be certified for APTX LL, but there are plenty of options for that).
Whenever I use my wireless earbuds, I make sure to keep my good old wired earbuds nearby to plug in as a backup in case the wireless option stops working.
I can't believe you're still reading this, but as a little bonus, I'll do a rundown of a few other audio products in my collection with quick impressions:
- ProofPronto.com USB shotgun microphone - This has the advantage of running off battery power instead of needing XLR phantom power, but it never had enough input gain to be usable. Not recommended.
- Mpow 071 USB headset - Cheap and convenient, and the sound quality isn't bad. But it's flimsy and both the cable and the microphone boom make noise if you move them the slightest amount. Logitech is a better choice in the same price range.
- M-Audio Compact Desktop Speakers - I love these little suckers! I have the older AV30, but I'm sure the current AV32 is just as good. For the money, (less than $90?!), I don't see how you can do better. They fit easily on your desk, have good quality for the size and cost, and have front panel jacks for audio in and headphone out. Highly recommended budget speakers.