You’ve caught me in an especially curmudgeonly state of mind. But you’re just going to have to deal with it. Consider yourself warned!
A couple of weeks ago a plain brown box arrived in the mail. It contained a sample of Skype’s new FREETALK® Everyman Superwideband headset. At the time this product was announced I couldn’t help by wonder why a new headset could be such a big deal? I mean, really now, I have a box full of headsets collected over the years. How could a low-end headset, no matter how special, merit such fanfare?
Let’s establish some baseline for my experience with headphones. For a time while in school I was foolish enough to think that I might be a professional musician. When I finally had a reality check it became clear that I was better at the technology of music than it’s performance, so I veered of into the realm of recording studios for a few years.
In the studio there’s a definite need to high quality headsets, or “cans” as we called them back then. My preferences ran to high-end AKG and Sennheiser models, but there were also good offerings from beyer dynamic, Denon, Koss, Sony, Stax & Yamaha. Of course, all of these were for critical listening during the recording process. None of the had the kind of built-in microphone necessary for telephony.
More recently, and with more of a focus on IP telephony, I’ve been using products from Etymotic, Panasonic & Plantronics. Of these, most are analog devices that may be used with a PC when connected to the computer’s audio card.
Alternatively, I’m seeing more and more audio interfaces and headsets that are USB attached devices. This simple fact acknowledges that variability in the quality of the audio capabilities of on-board audio chipsets in computers. Some are good, most are not-so-good. The fact is that in many cases it’s a twenty-cent chip that handles the audio, and it’s surrounded by an environment that’s extremely hostile to analog signals. On-board PC audio may not cut it for demanding applications.
So when Skype introduced v4.0 of their soft phone client for Windows, and more specifically the SILK codec, they faced something of a problem. How to deliver on the potential call quality with such variability in the audio subsystem that’s providing your core I/O? Their solution is to bypass that I/O path altogether by offering an affordable USB headset designed to make the best of the SILK codec. The FREETALK® Everyman headset.
Here’s the thing…to gain widespread acceptance it has to be good but it also needs to be cheap….I mean, really and truly cheap! The FREETALK® Everyman costs just $22.88 landed at your door.
So when the box arrived and it was a plain brown cardboard box I thought to myself, “Wow, that’s definitely cheap!” Some would say “environmentally-friendly” since it’s partially made from recycled goods and also recyclable. It’s certainly not over-packaged, which is a major problem with so many products.
Upon opening the box I found what appeared to be…as expected…a cheap headset. That is, it felt light, plasticky and not especially fancy. It looked like the device that I had been warned about, and I remained prepared to hate it from the start!
Lacking for enthusiasm, rather than try it out immediately I tossed it into my suitcase for a coming trip to San Francisco. I’d use it with Skype, or another soft phone when calling home that week.
The design of the device allowed it to pack into the suitcase handily. The earpieces, a simple supra-aural design, rotate inward and the headband folds making the whole affair quite portable.
A couple days later, having arrived in SFO, I unpacked my bag and found the Everyman headset had survived the journey in my checked baggage. So while there is no doubt that “United Breaks Guitars” it appears that Continental didn’t break the Skype FREETALK® Everyman headset…at least not at their first opportunity. Time will tell for certain. One trip is certainly not an absolute measure of durability.
Plugging the Everyman headset into my PC it was automatically recognized for what it was. All the various soft phones that I have at my disposal, including Skype recognized the device and selected it for use by default.
It’s true that including the USB audio adapter in the headset improves the user experience a lot. The analog signal processing is handled outside the PC where it’s subject to less interference from the PCs internal processes. Let’s be clear about this, a USB audio adapter is about a $4 item, and certainly not a major innovation. They’ve been around for years.
Kicking back in my hotel room that evening I donned the headset to listen to a couple of podcasts. My initial reaction to wearing it was… it was fairly comfortable. Perhaps a bit bulky compared to my usual gear, but not bad at all. The microphone, mounted to a flexible metal tube, swung easily out of the way for the purpose of pure listening. The headset sounded like it had decent, large diaphram drivers. That is, it sounded very full, not obviously lacking in frequency response.
A little later on I made some phone calls using the FREETALK® Everyman headset with Eyebeam v1.5 running G.722 through OnSIP. Calling home via SIP URI I know that the call gets answered on a Gigaset A580IP cordless phone in wideband. Since we’ve been using this hardware for many months I have some idea of how it should sound. Using the FREETALK® Everyman headset my calls sounded about normal. That is, excellent…vastly superior to a PSTN call.
I would have made some Skype calls to see if I could tell the difference between G.722 and SILK, but in all honesty most of my close friends and associates use SIP over Skype. I’ve just this past weekend setup my parents with a Skype account, webcam and a Polycom C100S speakerphone. Perhaps I’ll give it a try when speaking to them shortly.
The USB interface is a little odd in that the microphone is permanently wired, but the earpiece connection is via a 3.5 mm jack. This allows you to plug the headset into a music or DVD player for sake of entertainment. It’s a nice touch, although I still prefer my Etymotic noise reducing earphones for such activities.
If I had one wish for the FREETALK® Everyman headset it would be for a little longer and more flexible wire leading to the USB audio interface.
A few days later I was looking around my office trying to find something priced comparably to the Freetalk Everyman headset. About the only thing that was even close was an old T-100 headset that I once used with a vintage desk phone. That headset cost $18 on E-bay, but from a performance perspective the FREETALK® Everyman beats it in every way possible.
No doubt you can tell that my opinion of the FREETALK® Everyman headset has softened over time. I was predisposed to dislike it for being merely cheap. However, there’s more to it than that. It does what they set out to do. It sounds good and it’s convenient. It’s not my favorite headset by a long stretch, but at just $22.88 it’s the most affordable good-sounding headset that I’m aware of. It raises the bar in the low-end of the marketplace, and maybe that’s a good thing for everyone.