A Question About Chromebox-For-Meetings and USB Conference Phones

Not long a reader posed this question about USB speakerphone devices;

“Hi Michael – I read your blog article about chromebox for meetings. I’m in the UK and I think there will be good takeup when its launched here but I’m concerned about sound quality mic and speakers in untreated rooms. Have you found any USB table top devices  matrix mics with high quality speaker that could be integrated at proportionate cost? – Thanks, John”

It’s an interesting question. As I was answering him via IM it occurred to me that the answer might be worth sharing.

There are a lot of USB attached speakerphones available. I’ve tried quite a number over the years. Some are good. Some are cheap. As you can imagine, rarely are the good ones cheap. The major difference to be considered is whether the device undre consideration is intended for use by an individual or a small group.

In assembling Chromebox-For-Meetings Google has selected the Jabra Speak 410 UC Speakerphone to provide audio I/O. This device has also been available as the Logitech BPS420 USB Speakerphone through their partnership with Jabra. It happens that I’ve had one for quite some time. It has been the default audio device on my desktop PC. It’s available online for around $90.

Prior to the SPEAK 410 I used a ClearOne Chat 50. The two devices are an interesting contrast. Both are completely adequate when the requirement is to service a single person making use of Skype, Jabber, Hangouts, etc at a desk.

Chromebox-For-Meetings is more likely to be used by a small group. That means that the audio device should go louder and provide omnidirectional audio pickup. The SPEAK 410 is a better choice for this situation. At its price point it may well be the best choice they could have made.

Logitech P710e speakerphone corner 600px

One potential alternative to consider is the new Logitech Mobile Speakerphone P710e. It offers the convenience of Bluetooth connectivity, which could allow for easier placement within the target group. The price for such convenience is that it requires power. It needs to be charged occasionally.

If you really want to do better than the SPEAK 410, but stick with a USB attached audio device, I suggest looking at the ClearOne Chat 160 Group Speakerphone. I bought one back in 2010 (review here) to help capture a VUC session at Astricon. The Chat 160 is larger and can go louder than the others. It also has an active array of three directional microphones, more akin to a traditional conference phone. The Chat 160 can be found online for around $300.

If you really want to improve the audio experience, or face an especially challenging environment, I’d suggest you look at the Polycom SoundStation Duo. This is a proper conference phone, with the audio performance that you’d expect from Polycom.

polycom_soundstation_duo

The SoundStation Duo is especially flexible in its interface options. It has network connectivity to act as a SIP end-point. It has an analog line jack to accommodate direct access to the PSTN. Finally, it has 2.5mm analog audio connection allowing it to plug into a PC, cell phone or even DECT cordless phone.

Presuming that the Chromebox has traditional analog audio I/O, and the ability to select that as its default, the SoundStation Duo could be a superior way to handle it’s audio requirements. This combination of performance and flexibility is not without its price. The Polycom SoundStation Duo costs around $490.

There are some practical concerns to be considered. Where the Chat 160 is just a USB attached device, the SoundStation Duo require a rather hefty tether that provides ethernet, analog POTS connectivity and power. Even with that tether the analog audio connection is via a jack on the side of the device itself, necessitating another wire to connect to the Chromebox.

All of this begs the question of how much might one spend to augment the I/O of what is intended to be a low-cost, no muss, no fuss, end-point like Chromebox-for-Meetings? That you must answer for yourself. It depends upon what you decide is an acceptable user experience, and whether you desire, or even require, a superior use experience.

I expect that many people will find the default audio device and webcam to be acceptable in most use-cases. However, there will be unusual situations and more demanding users. Those cases may benefit from improved I/O.

The platform and the service may be commodities, but the I/O remains a critical aspect of the user experience. The presence of video, even HD video, is absolutely pointless if the audio is flawed or unreliable.

I’ll close with a curious thought. Let’s say that you are trying to help someone improve their experience using Chromebox-for-Meetings. You have a budget of $250 specifically to improve the audio experience. Do you choose a different device for hardware I/O? Or do you purchase some acoustic foam tiles, or perhaps curtains for their little meeting space?

Like medicine, selecting an optimal strategy requires considering the state of the patient. Deciding upon the right solution requires taking a comprehensive look at the situation. A modest amount of acoustic foam could be a better solution than a more costly new I/O device.

  • Unfortunately, the only person who needs to hear what he sounds like on a conference call can’t hear himself, yet everybody else on the call must suffer along. As a result, too many people use speakerphones yet sound awful on them. And since the overwhelming majority of conference calls cater to business purposes where people are reluctant to point out the crappy audio, the problem goes unreported, resulting in no awareness that improvement is needed.

    You are quite correct to point out that acoustic design of the room is of prime importance as it affects the quality of whatever hardware you employ. This is a similar notion to providing clean a.c. mains power from a u.p.s. so that whatever computerized device you operate doesn’t suffer from power glitches. Basics matter.

    Knowing how the least expensive product usually wins, I vote for improving room acoustics to get the biggest bang for the buck from whatever device you choose.

    tl;dr = Please, God! Not another conference call!!!

    • mjgraves

      Most VC systems allow the camera to be show to the person so they can see how they look. There should be a feature that allows you to record a short audio clip to be played back and give you sense of how you sound.