Remote 102: Headsets

If you saw my last post, you’ve got your computer wired up. Time to get yourself wired up too. The next piece of hardware you need to be a successful remote worker is a headset with an adjustable microphone boom.

Everyone has different preferences — weight, fit, padding, shape — so I’m not going to recommend any specific brand or model, only suggest that you invest in a good-quality product. You don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars, but I wouldn’t bother with anything under US$ 60. Try to find one with some built-in noise-cancellation. Comfort is a factor too, since you may be wearing this for hours at a time. I had to try several different sets before settling on one I liked.

The following are not adequate substitutes:

  • Airpod-style earbuds: the microphone is too far away to pick up speech clearly without background noise, and the batteries die at inconvenient times
  • Headphones with a microphone hanging from the cable: the microphone is poorly-positioned for good voice pickup and often creates noise when it brushes against clothing
  • Bluetooth anything: Bluetooth itself is unreliable, and the audio quality on most Bluetooth microphones is poor

Microphones built in to monitors or webcams are the worst. They pick up all the noise in the room: typing, tapping pencils, squeaky chairs, your cat.

Finally, laptop built-ins are the worst of all, because the speakers and microphone are, by necessity, near one another. The sound from the speakers gets picked up by the microphone, creating a distracting echo. If you don’t have access to a headset, at least put on headphones to spare your interlocutors the sound of their own voice on a half-second delay.

[Added] Dedicated “conference call” units combining a microphone and speaker may be slightly better at avoiding speaker-to-mic echo, but the sound quality they deliver is just as bad as built-ins. Anything designed to pick up multiple voices in a room will, by design, pick up all the sound in the room. That includes ventilation, voices echoing off hard surfaces, and vibrations in the table itself. You don’t realize how loud these things are until you’re on the other end of a conference call in a noisy room. You might as well hold your meeting during a thunderstorm.

How to Use a Headset

Now you have a decent headset with an adjustable microphone. How do you adjust it?

A common mistake is to position the microphone directly in front of your mouth. That creates unpleasant “breathing noise” and distorts the sound of your voice.

The ideal position for a microphone is close to your mouth, but not so close that it is affected by the stream of air coming out when you speak. To feel what I mean, hold a finger in front of your mouth while you speak the sentence, “Podcast performance provides poor perennial profits.” Feel that? If your microphone is in that stream, every p sound is like the thump of a helicopter’s rotors to your listeners.

The most common recommendation I’ve seen is this: Place the microphone head about 1 inch (2.5 cm) from the corner of your mouth, slightly below your bottom lip.

I tried to draw this, but given my (lack of) drawing skills the results were more disturbing than helpful.

Once you have your microphone in place, don’t touch it! Make sure it is not in contact with your skin or facial hair. Keep it clear of your clothing, hair, and jewelry as you move around. The tiniest brush against a zipper or collar sounds like an avalanche for the listener.

If you read this and the previous article (and acted on them) then congratulations! You’re already ahead of most other organizations trying to “do remote.” I hope to continue this series with more recommendations based on my 15 years of experience as a part- or full-time remote employee, so stay tuned.

[Added March 11] The one exception to my headsets-only rule is if you’re willing to shell out several hundred dollars for a studio-grade microphone with a pop filter. Even then, you should be wearing headphones to prevent echo from other participants.