If you're on the phone a lot, you might think about getting a speakerphone -- or a headset.
How often do you go home from work with deals in hand, funding secured, clients satisfied -- and a crick in your neck from being on the phone all day? Or how often do you find yourself juggling papers, calculator, coffee cup, and a telephone while trying to run that spreadsheet on your computer just one more time?
If I had my way, I wouldn't discuss speakerphones in this column; I'd tell you only about headsets. I've been using a headset for years and find it superior in nearly every way to a speakerphone for hands-free calling. But only a few of my friends will even try a headset.
The problem must be one of perception: a speakerphone evokes an image of the executive office, of a captain of industry barking orders and closing deals without lifting a finger. Headsets recall a lowly receptionist chained to a desk, scribbling on a pad of pink slips. These perceptions have endured, even though speakerphones don't work very well and headsets do. Still, attitudes change; look at how the computer suddenly made typing seem appropriate for everyone -- even people with ambition.
But now, on with the discussion.
* Speakerphones. With a speakerphone, your voice is picked up by a built-in microphone, so there are no handsets or headsets to fuss with; you hear the other party through a speaker. You can talk and walk around the room. Speakerphones are particularly handy for letting several people in the same room join a call. They are also good for monitoring a call when you've been put on hold; once connected, you could switch to a handset or headset.
Speakerphones have some acoustic drawbacks, however. You need a private, reasonably quiet room so noises do not disrupt calls. And because the microphone and speaker are never active at the same time (otherwise, there would be feedback from the speaker into the microphone), neither party can interrupt the other in mid-sentence; you really have to take turns talking. But these limitations are minor compared with the hollow, echoing sound of voices picked up by a speakerphone. It's as if your party was always walking away from you.
The acoustic problems of speakerphones are inherent in their design. The only way to pick up a voice clearly is to have a microphone within a foot of the speaker's mouth, which rarely happens in ordinary speakerphone calls. Today's technology cannot correct the problem. The technological fix that is possible requires such a powerful computer that it may not be practical in this century. A simple fix would be to modify a speakerphone to accept a plug-in accessory microphone, which you could put somewhere close to you. But no current speakerphone is designed to accept a plug-in mike.
The only speakerphone with a removable, portable microphone is the Plantronics PhoneBeam. The microphone unit is about the size of a television remote control; you can hold it in your hand, clip it into your pocket, or put it in a stand on your desk. Like television remote controls, the microphone has no wires; it is linked to the base unit by an infrared beam. This flexibility makes the PhoneBeam the best speakerphone available; people you are talking with usually do not realize that you are on a speakerphone.
But at $375, the PhoneBeam is expensive, and it can't even dial a call; you still need an ordinary phone next to it. And the battery requires recharging for 12 hours after only 3 hours of use.
The more conventional speakerphones from major manufacturers generally work adequately, although not nearly as well as the PhoneBeam. You should avoid the cheap (less than $40) models that are flooding discount outlets. If your company has a PBX (private branch exchange) or key system, you may be restricted to speakerphones specifically designed for that system unless your extension is configured for ordinary telephones.
* Headsets. With a headset, both you and the person you are talking with enjoy the same sound quality as with a handset, and your hands are free. During boring conversations you can clean up your desk.
Most headsets can be installed on the phone you already have; you usually just flip a switch to go from handset to headset. Comfort and sound quality are the two overriding criteria for choosing among models. The headset must also be compatible with your telephone; if you buy one before trying it, be sure you can return it if it doesn't work. Depending on your phone, the headset may need a separate power supply; if so, look for models that use AC power instead of batteries, which have to be changed every few months.
You can choose from three basic headset designs: over the head, around the ear, and in the ear. Over-the-head designs stay on your head the best, but they can get caught in your hair. The best model I have tried is the Plantronics Supra Binaural StarMate ($136 to $190 depending on your telephone type). It has earphones for both ears and excellent sound quality. Less expensive headsets -- from Plantronics, Radio Shack, and Panasonic -- sell for $50 to $80. They work reasonably well but tend to press too tightly on your head. They have only one earphone -- and thus don't work as well in noisy offices -- and the sound quality is a little harsh; for extended use they are tiresome. Cheaper headsets aren't suitable for business use.
Around-the-ear designs fit neatly around one ear, with a small extension tube for the microphone. The best-known model is the Plantronics StarSet II, which goes for $133 to $160. It performs well, and its low profile stays out of your hair, but it falls off if you move around too much.
The smallest headset of all is the tiny one-piece Teleset from Compass Universal, which fits inside the ear. Both speaker and microphone are built into a single housing; the unit looks like an earphone for a portable radio. Unfortunately, on the sample I tried, neither I nor the party called could hear without straining.
Where to go for further information
If you're interested in more details, here are the companies to contact:
Plantronics Inc., 345 Encinal Street, Santa Cruz CA 95060; (800) 538-0748; in California, (800) 662-3902
Panasonic Co., One Panasonic Way, Secaucus NJ 07094; (201) 348-7000
Compass Universal, 7720-B El Camino Real, Suite 443, Rancho La Costa CA 92009; (619) 450-9696