Sound quality really matters in unified communications

We have a unified communications product test lab at our corporate offices at Fox Group. We have invested the space, time and resources in this unique area of our consulting service for a variety of reasons.

  1. We believe that it is important to understand technology trends and impact on end users related to next generation technology solutions.
  2. We also believe that consultants should use, play with, and understand the real-world issues their clients would face.
  3. Through testing a wide variety of next generation devices (mainly end user type devices and peripherals), we track and measure the time to set-up by user type, and also identify the possible end-user challenges to enable appropriate training programs or even cheat sheets to be developed.
  4. Lastly, as technology advocates, we all still like to “play” with technology! Our test lab gives a means to try out the latest and greatest products to use and play with!

So what does that have to do with sound?

Appreciating Quality Sound Experiences

A few of us at Fox Group are, or have been, musicians in one way or another in our personal lives. As such, we really have an appreciation for good quality sound, as well as understand the impact when good clear sound quality is not delivered.

I used to do radio recordings for commercials, as well as provide back-up vocals and sang in a variety of musical groups. During this era of my life, I had the opportunity to use some of the best studio sound gear around (microphones, headsets, speakers, amplifiers, etc.).

Moving to Corporate Communications

As I moved into IT and technology areas, I was astounded with the lack of attention on sound quality, whether it was hands free room teleconference units, PC speakers or laptop and phone headsets. I was constantly looking to be able to have high quality communications technologies for my devices, whether PC, laptop or smartphone.

I have tested a fair number of products for the digital and IP telephony phone sets, whether for enterprise knowledge workers or contact center agents. Same applies to PCs and laptops. Many of the products on the market delivered acceptable sound for voice communications, but fell seriously short on being able to deliver clear, tight, full frequency sound experience for music, videos, etc. In fact, many times the voice communications was even flat and did not reflect  peoples’ natural voices.

Yes, we understand that there are many factors that can affect sound quality in the digital world including network performance, VoIP codecs, etc. We kept asking the peripherals industry… why can’t you make good headphones and speakers for PCs, laptops, etc. with focus on sound like the enterprise industry has done?!

Over the last five years, we did see some improvement in headset and speaker peripherals quality. There was still higher performance traits missing like noise masking, comfort, product life, battery life (for wireless headsets and speakers), etc.

We tested many wired and wireless headsets, as well as personal hands-free speaker units that were designed to easily connect to your PC, laptop or smartphone. We did see improvements in sound experience and started to use products from Jabra, Plantronics, Bose and Logitech regularly.

Then UC Applications Came Along

In our pre-UC world, we had our hard phones with high end headsets and our stereo apps on our computers. Along comes UC and VoIP soft applications. We now had the cool ability to click a phone number from our Outlook contact list and automatically dial a VoIP/SIP call from our computer. The challenge was at the same time we were trying to do this, we may have been listening to a YouTube education session or webinar.

What soon became apparent to us was that it was becoming more and more important to have the ability for multiple sound type applications to run through our headsets, and/or speakers and adjust automatically depending on which app had priority. This was becoming particularly important for incoming calls.

We soon discovered that we not only had to learn how to use the Windows device control panels for our wired and wireless stereo speakers, headset and hands-free speaker devices, but to also be able to find and change the various sound control functions within the different UC/audio applications. What a user self-education nightmare this has been!

Some of us have been able to adapt and been able to easily adjust from app-to-app, and device-to-device, while others haven’t.

Where Is This All Going?

In our latest round of testing products, the folks at Plantronics agreed to let us test some of their latest wired and wireless headsets and hands-free Bluetooth conference units that were optimized for Lync (now referred to as Skype for Business or SfB for short).

I prefer wired headsets to be able block out background noise, and also don’t want any wireless amplification devices near my brain. I tested the Plantronics Blackwire C725 echo and noise canceling wired unit. I also tested the P620S Bluetooth/wired hands free unit.

These products enable the SfB software to automatically adjust from one source to another automatically. So if I am listening to a YouTube video on my PC or smartphone and a SfB call comes in, the volume automatically drops from the music source, and the calling application comes in. I have my conversation and when I hang up, the music video source comes back at the same volume as before, and automatically. We’ve gotten used to having that kind of automatic control in our cars, with Bluetooth hands-free technologies, so it’s about time we got it on our computers!

I also have the ability to have a high, full frequency sound experience, and appreciate the noise canceling capabilities. The product cuts out the background noise (i.e. lawn service mowing the grass while on a web call), and also physically blocks out noise due to the headset pad designs.

My colleague Stephen Lawson tested the Plantronics new model Voyager Focus UC B825-M and an older model Savi W720. (He prefers wireless headsets). He appreciated the ability to push a button on the headset to receive a call, and also that the calls could be either from his SfB desktop or his cell phone, and all done automatically.

He also found the range quite acceptable from his desktop PC and could even come into my adjoining office without losing the call. He’s looking forward to the time when Cortana will be able to initiate calls on his PC via voice control, like she can on his Smartphone. Lastly, he commented on the exceptional battery life in that he could be mobile throughout a day without worrying if he was going to run out of battery power.

What Does This All Mean to IT Departments?

More and more corporate and contract workers are working mobile, and multi-media communications have become mainstream.

Workers communicate with each other via several different devices (Desktop, laptop, tablet, smartphone) using unified communications (UC) telephony applications.  This makes it important for IT departments to identify the audio applications, applications controls and sound quality expectations as part of their UC profile definition, so they are able to identify the most appropriate headsets and speakers.

High quality sound is important to ensure effective communications, as well as protect employees’ hearing capabilities. (Good sound matters to hearing health!)

Do not hesitate to contact Roberta Fox to discuss further. As always, I welcome your thoughts, feedback and comments. You can contact me at [email protected] or 905-473-3369 x 1001.

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