USB Speakerphones: An Observation

Over a period of years I’ve used quite a number of these portable USB attached speakerphone devices. A while ago I summarized my experienced with them, but as a couple of new models have recently emerged so I find that they have my attention yet again. These new devices, if I should be lucky enough to try them, will be the focus on some future posts. For the moment I have another observation to share based upon a recent experience.

Six USB Speakerphones

All of these portable speakerphones I find well suited to individual use. That is, they work well enough for an individual who sitting at their PC and doesn’t like to wear a headset. They’re also sufficiently portable to please a road warrior. One of the nice things about this kind of device is that they often support HDVoice when paired with a suitable soft phone.

For the longest time I traveled with a Polycom C100S in my computer bag. The combination of a folding stand and hideaway USB cable on that device are really nice features. Very well thought out. It’s physical design combines with excellent sound quality so that I can easily justify the $120 street price. As well as a solid performer the device is a good value.

The others that I’ve used more or less fit that same use case, serving an individual adequately. However, they all fail when you face a slightly larger situation, like a few people meeting around a small table. This pretty much describes the scene on the day after the close of Astricon.

Randy was in Phoenix at the conference hotel and wanting to conduct the VUC call from his room. In considering how we could conduct the call it became clear that it would be awkward without some kind of speakerphone. We anticipated having a number of people in the room.

Two speakerphones

You would have thought that given the exhibition that was part of the conference we would have been able to borrow something really good, like a Polycom IP7000 or a snom MeetingPoint. Surely one of the exhibitors would allow the use of some of the demo gear on hand? Well, maybe we should have thought ahead a little more. Since the exhibit hall closed early Thursday afternoon all the demo gear had been packed away by the time we thought to ask anyone.

chat50splash

I had to return home to Houston Thursday evening. As I collected my things I remembered that I had a ClearOne Chat 50 speakerphone in a pocket inside my suitcase. It had been useful on a recent project and simply hadn’t found its way back to my desk as yet. On my way to the airport I gave this to Randy as one possible way to facilitate the Friday morning conference call.

The next day the Chat 50 was connected to an ALIX single board computer (pictured below) running Astlinux. Darrick Hartman was using the Chat 50 as a console audio device right on the ALIX board, something that I never would have considered. Randy was using a headset to join the call from his Macbook.

alix-miniwall2c3+antredrear

The results using the Chat 50 were not great, in fact they were pretty poor. That prompted me to look up the specs on the device. It’s got a single microphone and only purports to pickup sounds from a 120 degree arc in front of the device. Further, the speaker is a little smallish to be heard over the din of a room full of VoIP geeks.

All this begs the question; what’s the best portable device to address such situations? This question has been rattling around in my head a while. I’ve been casually looking around at hardware. I think that I’ve found a hole in the marketplace, a need that’s not being adequately addressed.

A desk phone doesn’t seem like an appropriate solution. Even a superb desk phone is not going to suffice in a small conference or hotel room. It’s not going to be sensitive to people all around the room. It may also not be loud enough to be heard by everyone.

The traditional conference phones like the Polycom Soundstations, snom Meetingpoint, Phoenix Audio Quattro & Konftel devices are all well over $500, and not exactly portable. They’d work, but they’d be more than a little inconvenient to transport & setup.

konftel300_front

The Konftel 300 is one possibility since it supports USB connection to a PC running a soft phone. But it costs around $600. I think that it’s just too expensive and not very portable. I carried one on a trip to the UK back in July, so the not portable aspect is something that I am acutely aware of.

I’ve seen that ClearOne makes a series of larger models known as the Chat 150, Chat 160 & Chat 170. These are provide three mic elements supporting 360 degree audio pickup. The speaker is also larger and presumably had more oomph to be heard in a crowd. There’s a practical limit to USB powered devices as the power available via USB bus limits the amplifier power available to drive the speaker element. An external power supply might be a good idea.

clearone_chat_150The trouble is that these larger ClearOne USB speakerphones are priced in the $400 range. A quick look online shows that I get the Chat 150 for $349 from New Egg.

There are a number of personal speakerphones being offered in the $80-150 range. The top-end units for fixed installation are all in the $650-1000 range. There’s precious little in between, except possibly the Chat 150/160/170 range…and these price from $350-500.

Does anyone know of a portable conference phone that would adequately handle a small meeting room? I’d like it to be HDVoice capable, so that implies a USB interface, line level analog audio or IP connectivity (SIP.) I’m thinking that $250-300 is a sensible price.