Review: ClearOne Chat 160 USB Conference Phone

In my travels there have been times when I’ve engaged in some very long phone calls. It may be that I’m speaking to my wife while killing time in some far off hotel, or perhaps consulting with an associate on a tech support matter. In such circumstances I’ve come to believe that a USB attached speakerphone and a soft phone can be a very convenient combination.

USB attached audio devices are handy when you have a computer readily available. Being USB attached they save you the trouble of finding a way to provide network connectivity for a traditional IP conference phone.

However, most of the USB attached speakerphones that I’ve tried are intended for use by an individual. Like the speakerphone feature of a desktop phone they have directional sound pick-up, being more sensitive to sounds from the front. For personal use this is usually a good way to reduce background noise.

There is also considerable difference between the speakerphone feature of a desk phone and a proper conference phone. Just as a desk phone is not appropriate for use on a conference room table, a personal USB speakerphone is less than ideal for use when you have several people who need to be engaged in a call.

In the post-roll of Astricon 2009 Randy and I were trying to engage a room full of conference attendees, joining them to a conference bridge so that we could conduct a VUC session. We used the tools that we had available at the time, which included a Clear One Chat 50 USB personal speakerphone.

While it would be easy to say that the Chat 50 sucked, that would not be fair to the device. It was simply not the right device for the task at hand.

What we needed was something that was omni-directional in audio pickup and could generate louder output to be heard in a room full of people talking.  It would also be handy if it had greater microphone sensitivity, giving it more reach into the room.

Since that day I have been seeking to try something more appropriate for that kind of a situation. When it became apparent that Tim Panton was going to be able to arrange for a group of Asterisk developers to join a VUC call from Astricon 2010 I decided to take the plunge and purchase the larger Clear One Chat 160. Drop shipped to the host hotel, Tim could use it to join the call when the group was assembled.

The Clear One Chat 160 is a Skype Certified audio device. This gave Tim some comfort as he would be using Skype on an older MacBook at Astricon. Whether connected to Windows or a Mac the Chat 160 is recognized as an USB audio device and does not require a driver be loaded.

It’s conveniently powered from the USB bus. No external power supply is required. No batteries to change.

While the Chat 50 is a small device, it looks kind of “chunky.” Measuring 4 x 4 x 1.5″ inches the Chat 50 is small enough to be portable but  it’s not really an ideal form factor for life in your laptop bag. The Polycom C100S is an example of a similar device that’s a more ideal size & shape for life with a road warrior.

Measuring 7.5 inches square the Chat 160 is much larger. However, the fact that it remains only 1.25 inches tall makes it relatively transportable. It slides nicely into one of the document areas of my HP laptop bag.

The Chat 160 has one centrally mounted loudspeaker, ringed by an array of three microphones. Each of the microphones feature a cardiod pickup pattern but as they form a ring the device as a whole is omni-directional.

The case of the Chat 160 is comprised of an upper and lower half, joined by way of some shock absorbing rubber. This construction, while difficult to see in a photo, helps isolate the microphones from vibration or impacts to the tabletop.

The Chat 160 has three simple controls; volume up/down and microphone mute. All three are rubbery buttons that seem very durable.

When the  Chat 160 is plugged into a USB port an array of three LEDs, one at each mic position, light up in blue. When the mic mute function is engaged the LEDs change to red.

Another series of LEDs arranged in an arc indicate the current volume setting. Tapping the volume up/down buttons repeatedly varies the output level.

Having considered it’s various physical attributes now comes the question of how well it works? My first time hearing it was when Tim used it at Astricon 2010. As I recall Tim was connected to ZipDX via Skype, so not in wideband. Even so, as a listener I thought it sounded pretty decent.

  • Wasn’t the one at Astricon 2009 a Chat 50?

    • Yer probably right. This difference is slight, but I’ll make the change.

  • gdupont

    thank you for that review, very useful.

  • Francis

    Hi, and thank you for the review!
    I am looking for such a device, but portability is not mandatory. We have tried a Polycom 2W which was very convenient with a lot of options, but the people could hardly hear us if we were are more than 50 cm of the device (we didn’t use it through soft VoIP, but with cellphone lines, if that makes a difference).
    So I am considering the Ipevo or the ClearOne 160 USB. Typically it would be for conference of 2 to 5 people in a small room (3 x 3meters), for gotomeeting or skype.
    Are there other options to consider? Thanks a lot in advance!
    Francis

    • I have tried the Ipevo device twice, and found it wanting on both occasions. (http://www.mgraves.org/2009/12/review-ipevo-x1n6-internet-conference-phone/) I caution you to be wary of that device.

      The Chat 160 is in contrast a vastly superior device, every bit up to the task you describe. However, it is a USB connected device so only appropriate for use with a computer and soft phone. They may make a version with an analog jack suitable for use with a cell phone. If so that would be ideal.

      Further, the new Polycom Soundstation Duo (http://www.mgraves.org/2011/10/new-polycom-soundstation-duo-conference-phone/) is a very good match for your application. It has multiple interfaces, including an analog jack making it useful with a PC or cell phone. It may be a little more expensive than the Chat 160, but the versatility of IP, PSTN and analog audio interfaces is worth the extra cost, IMHO.

      • Francis

        Thanks a lot for your insightful and quick answer!

        I checked the price of the Polycom duo conference phone is a bit too much expensive for us unfortunately. The 2W would have been great if the microphones were better 🙂
        I will give the Chat 160 a try.
        Again, thank you for your help!
        Have a great day,
        Francis

  • Podz

    Thanks for the review!
    I have a question: how is audio quality compared to usb microphones such as the Blue Yeti, Samson Meteor Mic, Audio Technica at2020, ecc..?

    • mjgraves

      As it happens I own a Blue Yeti as well. The Chat 160 and the Yeti target very different applications. The Chat 160 is much better at handling a small group for a meeting. The Yeti is better as a mic for one person. It’s monitoring solution doesn’t suit anything other than headphones.

      From a pure audio perspective the Yeti makes a better recording. It’s not bandwidth limited. Any device the targets telephony applications is likely to be deliberately rolled off above 7 KHz. This is accordance to TIA regulations for “wideband telephony.”

      • Podz

        Thanks for the answer.
        I’ve just found out that Skype’s SILK codec covers a range from 20hz to 12khz, and since I would use it only individually, I think I’ll go for the Samson Meteor + headphones for better audio quality (even though a speakerphone is a very handy solution) 😉