One heterodox recommendation I have for audio and video calls when you’re working in a distributed fashion is not to mute, if you can help it. When you’re speaking to a muted room, it’s eerie and unnatural — you feel alone even if you can see other people’s faces. You lose all of those spontaneous reactions that keep a conversation flowing. If you ask someone a question, or they want to jump in, they have to wait to unmute. I also don’t love the “unmute to raise your hand” behavior, as it lends itself to meetings where people are just waiting their turn to speak instead of truly listening. I’m always hesitant to disagree with Seth Godin, but that’s been my experience.
So what should you do? Use the latest and greatest hardware and software to have the best of both worlds, a fantastic auditory experience for you and your interlocutors and little to no background noise.
To summarize, I recommend a wired, USB headset with a mic that stays a constant distant from your mouth and has a noise-canceling microphone. Save mute for coughs and sips of drinks.
The rest of this post I’m going to try out eleven different microphones and headsets, ranging from $35 to $1,000+, and record a short file on each, and intersperse some software tips for people on MacOS. You may want to listen to these samples with good headphones on to really hear the differences. I apologize some are louder than others, I didn’t edit to even out the levels, which Zoom or Skype would do automatically.
My previous top recommendation was the trusty Sennheiser SC 30, in my previous bag posts. It’s cheap and effective, but the cord was too long and it was USB-A. If you read no further, get this one and revolutionize how you sound on Zoom calls. Here’s how it sounds:
Sennheiser has upgraded to a USB-C version, with a much shorter cord, the SC 130. It feels and looks much better, you don’t need a USB-C dongle, and the sound quality of the earphones is quite bearable. The cost is about twice as much (~$70).
You can plug the USB-C into your iPad or Android phone as well and it works great, though the headphones can be a bit quiet on Android. Either of the above will spoil you for making calls, and you won’t want to go back to the old low-fi way of doing things.
In order to have a bit more flexibility I tried out the much more expensive ($134) Sennheiser MB Pro 1. I liked the freedom of wireless Bluetooth, but you can hear that the sound is much worse. Connecting over Bluetooth lowers the quality a ton, and also occasionally means you need to disconnect, reconnect, etc.
All three of the Sennheisers above come in two-ear versions, which I prefer if I’m in a noisy environment, but at home I find the one-ear a bit more comfortable. I got excited about this $70 TaoTronics “Trucker Bluetooth” headset because it had Bluetooth 5.0 so I foolishly assumed it would have better quality, but it sounds really terrible:
But does wireless have to mean terrible quality? The Apple Airpods Pro ($249) are actually pretty decent, and you can easily switch them between your phone and your computer in the audio menu. If you haven’t tried the Pro version, the noise canceling is actually pretty amazing for something so small and light — I jog with them.
And one of the best sounding mics in this entire roundup was the wireless $119 Antlion Audio ModMic Wireless, which sound amazing, but you have to provide your own headphones to attach it to, and the entire thing ends up being fairly bulky and has its own wireless adapter. On the plus side, you can bring your own super-fancy headphones and get amazing audio quality. With certain headphones it did cause a buzz in the ear of the headphone I attached it to.
But hot dang that sounds good. If they made an over-the-ear USB-C version with an earbud, and had the mic be a little smaller, it would be work-from-home nirvana.
I ventured into the gaming headset territory for this SteelSeries Arctis Pro Wireless Gaming Headset, which at first felt totally ridiculous with its own connector box, a million cables, etc, but goshdarnit grew on me. It has this really cool boom mic that extends out, and I think it’s the most comfortable headset I’ve worn for an extended amount of time. I tried it out via its proprietary 2.4ghz wireless connection + USB, and Bluetooth, and unfortunately the results weren’t great, including the Bluetooth being a little garbled. I hope Steelseries does another iteration because they’re so close, it just needs to be USB-C on the headphones, the cables, the everything, and super high quality recording.
One final entrant — how about just your laptop? Normally I would say this sounds terrible and judge people who didn’t use a headset, but John Gruber’s review of the new Macbook 16 had some really impressive audio files that intrigued me, so here it is, the Macbook Pro 16″, which starts at about $2,400. It’s a little boomy, but not bad.
Next up is the Shure SM7B Cardioid Dynamic, which is what I usually use to record the Distributed podcast, and costs about $400. This is milky and smooth. (I accidentally called it a Sennheiser in the recording.)
A favorite of voiceover artists everywhere is the Sennheiser MKH416 Super-Cardioid Shotgun Tube Condenser ($1,000), which I like the sound of and I also use for if I’m doing a fancy video setup and want super-good sound that’s not in the frame of the camera.
It’s a great sound, but the part of the house where I recorded all of these is pretty noisy with an AC unit on the other side of the wall, and there’s a ton of background noise in this.
Software eats the audio world
Just like photography has been completely transformed by software enhancing images to the point where the top-of-the-line Apple or Samsung smartphone camera is better than all but the very top pro SLR cameras, I think the same thing is going to happen for audio.
None of these clips are processed, which is why some of the volume levels are different, but I thought it would be fun to demo a tool I’ve been recommending to a lot of people.
There’s a $40/year program called Krisp.ai, which I first learned about in 2018 from this awesome post on the Nvidia developer blog, Real-Time Noise Suppression Using Deep Learning. What it does is create a virtual microphone, like a filter that exists between one of your physical inputs and what the software on your computer “hears.” For fun I re-recorded the MKH416 in the exact same place, but filtered through Krisp.ai:
Now the audio quality is not as good, it sounds a bit clipped, but throughout there is no more distracting background hums or noise. Krisp can be a little awkward to use but they’ve made it a lot more user friendly. You could mix Krisp with almost any option here and it would make it sound much better, in fact when I’m in a pinch my favorite go-to is Airpods Pro + Krisp.
With everything, a pro tip on MacOS is to hold Option when you click on the sound icon in your upper right taskbar, and it will let you select both input and output devices. Sound Preferences, linked at the bottom of that menu, are your friend. If a mic is too soft you can boost the input volume in the preferences. To choose a camera or mic in Zoom, click the arrow next to the mute button in the bottom left. In Zoom audio settings, under Advanced, they are starting to expose a number of new options for real-time audio processing.
The future sounds good.