Review: The Ipevo X1N6 Internet Conference Phone

IPEVO-x1n6_ga_c03My quest for a portable USB conference phone started just after Astricon this year. I’ve previously described the logic behind the search. When I found that Ipevo had a related product offering in this area I admit that I was hopeful.

Several of my UK-based associates have used Ipevo USB handsets in conjunction with Skype, some for several years. In fact, these have become a standard item in our packing for trade shows. Our booth has a Polycom Soundpoint IP430 and an Ipevo USB handset. The Polycom phone integrates with our US hosted IP-PBX (OnSIP) to provide calling to anyone and provides a handy, high-quality speakerphone. Alternatively, the Ipevo handsets supports free calling to those back at the home office that use Skype, including co-workers, friends & family.

Thus my prior experience with Ipevo products has been pretty good. I have found that they make affordable, simple audio interface devices for use with Skype or generic soft phones. In offering the X1N6 Internet Conference Station it appears that Ipevo is trying to take their game up to a new level.

I was also pleasantly surprised to find that Fry’s Electronics turned up as about the best source for the device. It was offered for $139.00 and shown as available at one of the three Houston area stores. Given that Fry’s has a very lenient return policy I decided to order the X1N6 online and arrange for in-store pickup. I would have 30 days to try the unit and still be able to return it if it should prove less than satisfactory.

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The X1N6 is nicely packaged, resting in a formed paper cradle inside a simple box. It comes with limited printed documentation reflecting it’s utter simplicity. It was also accompanied by a USB-to-mini-USB cable for use connecting it to the host computer. There’s no power supply as the device is powered directly from the USB bus.

The X1N6 has only a few physical controls on the unit, the most obvious being a greenish volume control on one of the four “legs.” There’s also a simple on/off switch and a mute button along the side of one of the legs. The mini-usb connector is located underneath the unit, where there are reasonable provisions for passing the cable to/from the PC.

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Finally, there’s traditional analog audio I/O for microphone and headset. With a PC type headset plugged into the X1N6 the device is really just acting as a USB audio interface for the headset.

When plugged into a host PC the X1N6 has a LED ring on the top that lights up in green when the device is active, changing to red when it’s muted.

x1n6_int_key

The speaker is in the center of this ring, the microphones at the end of each of each leg, not unlike the Polycom SoundStation conference phones. This similarity gave me some hope that this device would be an effective solution for use with a group of 4-6 people around a small table.

On initial connection to my Windows XP Pro desktop the device was recognized and Skype asked if it should be used as the default audio device. It was also available to Eyebeam & PhonerLite, the other two soft phones that I use. Within the Windows Multimedia settings the device showed up as available for generic audio and voice applications.

Using the X1N6 just to listen to a podcasts I found that it sounded good. Moving on to making a test call I met with something of a surprise. I tweeted out an invite for someone to make a test call via SIP URI so that we might have a wideband call. @jdbalogh from Penn State University responded.

On this initial call the device worked, and I heard the other party just fine, but he reported that he was hearing a massive amount of noise. Since the device seemed to be generally working I thought that perhaps I had something about my windows XP desktop misconfigured.

From this initial call I moved on to making test calls between devices on my network, so that I could hear both ends of the call. The noise reported by @jdbalogh was readily apparent. I tried various tweaks to the Windows audio settings but nothing seemed to help.

Within the Eyebeam soft phone engaging the noise reduction and auto gain control settings helped somewhat. All that did was gate out the noise during quiet passages between words. The noise was still clearly evident underlying the active part of the conversation.

Ipevo-X1N6-Burbank-Hotel-Quiet-500

Audio capture directly into the editor from the X1N6, click above to see a full sized image.

To try and better understand the presence of this noise I used the X1N6 as an audio capture device directly recording into my audio editing program (Syntrillium’s Cool Edit Pro, now Adobe Audition.) The captured audio showed that the noise floor using the X1N6 measured -19 db and with a significant DC offset. The screen shot of the waveform editor shows this clearly. Note the audio level meter along the bottom of the screen shot.

Hunting around I found that Cool Edit Pro had a capture setting that would eliminate the DC offset. This resulted in a somewhat improved audio capture with the noise floor at -35 db.

In contrast a similar recording made using the Clear One Chat 50 showed the noise floor at -57 db. (see below)

Clear-One-Chat-50-Noise-Floor-500

Audio capture directly into the editor from the Chat 50, click above to see a full sized image.

To see the measured noise floor of the Chat 50 you’re going to need to click on the image above to see the full sized version. The waveform is simply not visible at the same vertical resolution as the the display showing the X1N6 noise. You can see that the audio level meters along the bottom indicate -57 db.

That’s a dramatic difference.

I performed one last experiment, which was to record the X1N6 output into Cool Edit Pro starting with the mute function engaged, toggling the mute off, then returning to muted. Here’s the resulting waveform.

IPEVO X1-N6-MUTED-ON-MUTED-500

Audio capture directly into the editor from the X1N6, toggling the mute function,

click above to see a full sized image.

A signal to noise ratio of 35 db is not even as good as analog FM radio, more typical of a bad AM radio signal. The impact of this noise on usability may not be obvious. To make that point I also recorded a brief voice sample. In making this recording I was sitting near the conference phone, as if I was having a meeting with 2-3 other people at a small table. You can hear the noise throughout the clip, but it’s most audible near the end.

Ipevo-X1N6-Voice-Sample-500

Audio capture directly into the editor from the X1N6, voice sample,

click image above to see a full sized image.

Of course, you needn’t take my word for this. Here are MP3 versions of the sample recordings that correspond to the various waveform displays.

All of this is very disheartening as it appears that the Ipevo X1N6 is so inherently noisy as to be completely unusable. On the basis of this finding I will be returning the device to the reseller for a refund.

I wonder if perhaps this one device is simply defective? Or is this generally indicative of the X1N6 ? It’s not possible to know without getting another device for evaluation. I don’t think that I’ll make that effort. Even so, it’d be good to hear from someone else who has used this device perhaps with better results.

  • ericj

    We have had a problem where the background noise grew louder from the first few seconds of the phone call to the point where the person we were calling could not comprehend our conversation. This happens repeatedly, and consistently after a minute or two, as if some AGC is overreacting.
    I notice you are in conversation with Ipevo. I would be interested what you hear back.
    Thanks

    • They somehow read my commentary and responded via Twitter. Their initial response suggests that perhaps the device was being underpowered from a laptop USB port. However, I tried the unit on three systems, including a desktop. I’ve also used my comparator device, the Chat50, on the same platforms without any problems. I told them that I’m willing to try the device again if they wanted to provide a known working sample.

      • Hi, Michael:

        This is Pauline from IPEVO. Thank you for your review. I guess the one you have might be a defective item. Do you mind to send it back to us for testing? If it is ok for you, we’ll send you a shipping label and please ship the device back to us.
        Please feel free to let me know if you have any other questions.
        Thank you.
        Best regards,
        Pauline Peng @IPEVO

        • Pauline,

          Thank you for the offer, but that is not possible. I returned the unit to the reseller for a refund. I had a defined 30 day window and had no idea if you would respond so I had no choice in that matter.

          If you ever make available samples for evaluation then I’d be willing to try one again. Presuming that my experience with another unit is better I’d be willing to write that up so that this site presents a fair and balanced view of the product as well as the company.

          I have yet to find a solution to the situation I’m facing so there’s a chance that I may purchase another unit, but I’m a little wary given the experience with the first X1N6.

          Michael

  • pauline

    Hello Michael:

    We are out of stock right now. can you send me your shipping address?
    my email is paulinepeng@ipevo.com
    Thank you for your review again.

    Pauline

    • I’ve send you my contact details via email.

  • Ipevo has suggested that they will eventually send me a new unit for evaluation. They are temporarily out of stock, and don’t expect a new shipment for 90 days. I’ll be happy to give it a try is one should eventually arrive.

  • dave

    Mike,
    I have also been evaluating an X1-N6. While the receive audio quality is very good, I’ve found the transmit quality to be almost unusable. The signal-to-noise ratio is quite poor, with audible hiss quite evident. The transmit signal level is low and ‘muffled’. Like you, I made local recordings (using QuickTime) so that I could assess the sound quality being transmitted from the unit.

    In your review, you stated that “the microphones (are) at the end of each of each leg”. Untrue. It’s a fallacy that this is a multi-microphone design. Upon close inspection, I found that my unit has but a single microphone, located in the leg furthest from the mini-USB connector. Thus, if you position the unit on your desk or conference table with the labels facing you (and the volume control to the right), the microphone is on the leg farthest from your mouth.

    Regardless, rotating the unit so that the mike is closest to me makes little difference in the sound quality captured by the device. People I’ve called over Skype report that they can barely hear what I’m saying. They also report the background noise level pumping up and down.

    In contrast, the receive quality is quite decent. Perhaps Ipveo’s first production run has suffered some sort of systemic defect that results in impaired TX performance.

    • Interesting. It appeared to me that there were openings at the end of each leg that would have been for the mics, but the mics were not visible.

      I wasn’t able to disassemble the one I had or I would have examined it’s innards in detail. I needed to be able to return it to the reseller.

      Ipevo has suggested that the unit has a problem when not provided with sufficient current from the USB port, as is the case with many laptops. Had I known that at the time I would have tested it with a dual plug USB cable, like those used to power small portable HDs.

      They have promised a sample unit when they have another production run available. It will be interesting to see if that unit is any better. I still see an opportunity for a small conference device in the $200-250 range.

  • dave

    Mike,
    Thanks for the tip re limited USB current. I will re-run some tests using a powered USB hub that I have in the lab and see if makes any difference. However, my tests were made using a recent vintage MacBook Pro, whose USB ports have enough juice to power a big (500 GB) external hard drive.

    You’re quite right re the apparent openings at the end of each leg behind the perforated grille, hinting that something is behind them. There are also semi-circular depressions molded in the bottom case at the end of three of the legs. Very ‘clever’ industrial design, some would say.

  • joe

    Mike,

    I bought this device recently and it arrived today. I have to say that further to testing I found exactly the same problems. I am quite disappointed as it looked to be exactly what we needed. But I think the comment on there only being one mic in the unit sums it up. A unit with four wings and only one mic suggests it has been built with form in mind but not function.

    For the record I tested it with a powered USB cable as per the suggestion and it was no better. It was actually worse than my (admittedly decent) thinkpad laptop mics even from 360 degree testing.

    I’d really appreciate any suggestions you have since discovered for a good alternative.

    Kind regards

    • Yeah, sorry your experience with it tracks my own. While it’s more expensive ($300-ish), I eventually bought a Clear One Chat 160, which has been very good. See the review here: http://www.mgraves.org/2011/01/review-clearone-chat-160-usb-conference-phone/

      • Joe

        Yep, bought one too. I agree it’s much better.

        Now I’m about to see if you recommend a headset in your reviews.

        Finally, thanks for contributing your reviews to the net, they’ve proved really helpful for us. Much appreciated.