A couple of weeks ago I was told that our corporate HQ in Cambridge UK was starting to think about adding new conference room. Since I oversee the hosted IP-PBX that we use in the US they sought my suggestion for a suitable new conference phone. The requirements for the new device are a little odd, making device selection something of a challenge.
HQ has an older Alcatel OmniPCX digital PBX so all their phones are proprietary digital units. The existing Polycom SoundStation2 conference phone is an analog unit that connects to the PBX using a proprietary Alcatel interface box. There’s no word on replacing the PBX (ugh!) so the new conference phone likely needs to have an analog interface.
In contrast, our US operation makes use of OnSIP and Polycom SoundPoint phones scattered across various locations. In our Burbank office there is a conference room with a shiny new SoundStation IP6000. In general, we have come to appreciate the cost savings of calling via IP, as well as the call quality delivered by HDVoice (G.722.) This suggests that the new conference phone also needs to be IP-capable, and preferably wideband capable.
It turns out that most conference phones are IP-connected or analog-connected…but not both.
Somehow the idea of buying another IP6000, plugging it into an ATA with an FXO interface, then connecting that to an analog line from the Alcatel interface seemed a little byzantine.
So I put the question to the great wise group on a recent VUC call. Michael White from E4Strategies chimed in with a suggestion. He said that we should look at the Konftel 300 speakerphone. He further offered to send me an evaluation unit to try for a few days. Since I was just about to make a trip to the UK, I took him up on the offer.
The Konftel 300 is very versatile device. It provides an analog connection as the primary means of line access, but also has a USB port allowing it to be used as the audio device for PC. The idea was that we could use it in conjunction with a soft phone for IP-based calling. It’s totally indifferent to which soft phone you use. It even works with Skype.
It has a couple other nice features; like the ability to connect to a cell phone to place a call, and the ability to record calls to an SD memory card. It seems to be a really well considered device. No wonder snom has started to resell as similar model as the snom MeetingPoint.
Sadly, when I arrived at the UK office I found that SIP connectivity was not possible through the corporate firewall. Because of this the only experiments I was able to try at the office were conducted using Skype or the analog line.
Examining the Konftel and Polycom units side-by-side I find that their designs are significantly divergent. The traditional Polycom conference phone has a centrally mounted speaker, ringed by a trio of microphones, giving it that now classic “spiderphone” shape. In contrast the Konftel 300 has three speakers around it’s base, with a centrally mounted microphone.
My initial impression is that the Konftel 300 sounds markedly better than the old SoundStation2, but that’s not really a fair comparison. Those were just the two devices that I had in front of me at the moment. Both did an admirable job when connected to the analog line.
Since my time with the devices was over a weekend I had a quiet working environment. It would be interesting to see how they both handled a noisy conference room full of people. Our existing conference space is quite small, so there was no need for extension microphones or speakers, although these are available for the Konftel unit.
Switching to using the USB connection to attach my laptop I fired up Skype and made a few test calls. Here the Konftel phone showed that it was truly wideband capable. The call quality was crisp and clear. I heard no echo at all.
Acting as an audio device for the attached PC the Konftel 300 doesn’t support any specific codecs per se. The audio streams are encoded by the soft phone client on the PC, in my case Skype, Eyebeam 1.5, Gizmo5 and PhonerLite. That also means that there may be soft phone settings for AGC, echo cancellation, etc that can be defeated since the Konftel hardware is addressing those issues.
Konftel also offers a model 300IP that is more self-contained, connecting directly to the IP network and supporting G.722 based wideband calling.
In the end I’m not sure that a conference phone + soft phone solution can be considered acceptable. It adds a requirement for a PC permanently in the conference room. That complicates the basic functioning of the room.
By the time the new conference space is completed we may be ready to replace the old Alcatel PBX. That opens us to the possibility of installing a proper IP-PBX, eliminating the requirement for the analog interface on the conference phone.
Conference phones are not something that I deal with a lot. My understanding was that Polycom is the clear leader in the space, and we are extremely happy with our IP6000. In fact, I really like Polycom hardware in general.
However, my time spent with the Konftel 300 suggests that others may have truly competitive products, and there is certainly room for advancement beyond the current state-of-the-art. While we have not yet decided what we’re going to purchase, our eyes have been opened to considering lesser known but worthy alternatives.