How to Choose the Right Conference Phone

Ryan Murphy
May 6, 2015

Are you choosing the right conferencing phone?

Audio conference calls can be pretty terrible when they’re not done right.

People get cut off. You can’t tell who’s speaking on the other end. Voices are blurry, too quiet or too loud.

Most just make do with the audio conferencing they are using.

But they shouldn’t.

While the mind will compensate for blurred speech or missing words, it comes at a cost. If you’re straining to pick up on words and sentences, you’ll miss the forest for the trees. You can’t put together and discuss the big picture if you’re concentrating on picking up on the little stuff.

Not only that, but as the brain fatigues trying to piece together conversation, conference participants will have their attention wander and productivity will tank.

What you need is pure, simple conversation — uninterrupted intelligibility — as if your collaborators were in the room with you.

It can be done.

There are two main considerations that we’ll examine below to make sure that you’re selecting the best system to suit your conferencing needs. The first is a number of technological factors to ask your equipment provider about to make sure all audio elements are balanced.

The second will be what specific conference phones should be used in specific spaces: not all offices or halls are created acoustically equal, after all.

Modern Conference Phone: Balancing the BRAIN

The most important thing in telephonic communications is “intelligibility.” Fully audio intelligibility is achieved if conferencing equipment is able to balance the BRAIN:

  • Bandwidth – the range of sound frequency over which the human voice travels
  • Reverberation – the echo, basically.
  • Amplitude – how LOUD it is
  • Interactivity – multiple voices, at one end or both ends, talking at the same time
  • Noise – collateral sound!

Conference phones have come a long way in the last 15 years. In order to balance the BRAIN, modern premium conference phones count on recent technological advancements. Here are some factors to discuss with your solution provider to make sure you’re getting the best equipment:

Directional microphones make sure the conference phone is picking up on the voice of the person in front of. Cheaper phones may use “omni-directional” microphones that will pick up all sounds around it – leading to predictable problems (feedback, buzz).
Duplex sound allows people to speak to (or shout at, if need be) one another at the same time without being cut off. This is obviously conducive to more natural conversation.
Unwanted pickup suppression cuts out the sound being picked up by microphones that are currently not being spoken into. This requires some advanced algorithms to constantly adapt to fluid conversations.
Wide-band audio ensures that the speakers are emitting all of the tones that make distinct voices recognizable. High-definition sound. So you’ll know who’s talking.
The ability to accessorize give your more options for customization, which will let you create the best possible solution for any space. This may include adding additional microphones to stretch over a long conference table, or spread throughout a big room.
(Another quick note on accessorizing – the ability to plug in another mic might not be worth it if the main hub is not able to incorporate it into the balance. Extra mics need to be directional and their pickup balanced against the system as a whole.)

So that’s one part if the issue considered. Let’s look at the other half of the equation.

Optimizing for Space

The highest quality equipment is not going to perform optimally if it’s installed in a space it’s not designed for. Every environment has its own acoustical challenges and there are specific solutions designed to optimize for every one of them.

Before we get into that, keep this one simple point in mind: the people that you expect to be the main contributors to the conversation should always be in front of and close to the microphone. The further you put a person away from a mic, the better the chance of picking up other distracting noises. No matter what.

We’ll take a look at the following spaces – the small/home office, the standard conference room, the big boardroom, and the offsite space (like a hall or amphitheater).

The Small Office

The small office is pretty self-explanatory. At most we’re squeezing four people around a table. As you might expect, this is the easiest space to accommodate. You won’t find a lot of echo in here: low ceilings, chairs, humans – the general lack of empty space means you’re not getting a lot of reverb.

As everyone huddles together, chances are you’re going to be right up near the microphones. This is optimal because there aren’t a bunch of things between you and phone causing disruptive noise. You probably won’t be far from the speaker, either.

A conference phone will do. One with a mic range of 5-7 feet.

But it still needs to be a good conference phone. One that incorporates the modern technologies that we discussed above: the hardware and ability to cancel echo and other noises in the room.

With directional microphones, you can crank the volume of the loud speaker without picking it up on your own mic. With an omni-directional mic, you could get feedback and/or fully block the voices of your collaborators at the other end. You may as well be communicating via HAM radio.

When testing the equipment, make sure you give that loud speaker a listen. Have several people test it – have them speak simultaneously and cut each other off.

The speaker needs to reproduce the people’s voices clearly. You don’t just want to hear what someone is saying – you need to be able to tell who’s saying it.

The Conference Room

The big table. Up to 12 people coughing and shuffling around it. Noisy.

A well-designed conference room should have sound dampeners – carpets, furniture, high acoustic ceilings. The smaller versions of this space can get away with a conference phone with a mic range of 10-12 feet and a powerful speaker.

Bigger than that and you need to look at one that has the option to attach extension microphones. You don’t want anyone feeling the need to shout, and you run the risk of picking up unwanted sound between the mic and distant speech.

If you’re hitting room sizes of 20 x 30 feet, things get a touch more complicated. Time for something more powerful. While you absolutely need the extension mics, you also need a station that can perform echo cancellation and gain management for each microphone. Conventional conferencing phones can’t balance all of the sounds and echoes that pop up in a room that big.

You need a system that coordinates. You also need to consider the people dynamics in a room this size.

Is everyone fixed in place around the table? The extension mics should cover you.

Are there people walking around? Sitting back against the wall?

Now it might be time to consider an installed audio solution.

The Boardroom

This room is big. It’s for prestigious, executive meetings. It’s probably gorgeous. But it’s likely not designed with acoustics in mind. It probably echoes in a big way.

It’s too big for the traditional table-top solution. And given the design and feel, you’ll probably prefer that any conferencing equipment is out of sight.

While this is a more challenging space to accommodate, a customized solution allows you to fine-tune for the unique layout and acoustics.

You can hide microphones anywhere and have them linked to a central control which will adjust sound levels to make sure all areas of the room are getting equal treatment – while nullifying the garbage noises. And there will be a lot of bogus sound in this room.

Sound quality is still of paramount importance – and needs to be distributed around the room in a way that does not contribute to any echo.

The Giant Space

Picture a hotel conference room for this one. There are going to be several long tables in parallel facing the front, or organized in a “U” for more some more collaborative face time. These spaces are usually designed for acoustics and tend to get uniformly full of people and furniture.

A centralized but powerful conference phone can often cut it in this situation – one with a mic range of around 20 feet and extension microphones as necessary. If there is one primary presenter, it might be a good idea to outfit them with a lapel mic.

A more powerful system option should also have a loud, high-quality built-in speaker. If it’s in a good spot, everyone in attendance will be able to hear it clearly.

Wrap Up

There is a lot to consider when choosing the best audio conferencing solutions for your business (or deciding whether you’d be better served with a video conferencing system – but that’s a topic for another day).

This guide might not provide you with all of the answers up front, but it should arm you with a better understanding of the factors worth pondering. At very least you’ll have some informed questions when discussing things with your conferencing solution provider.

What you should take away is the following: there is a new generation of conference phone that runs circles around those from five or ten years ago. They can manage gain, block reverb, drown out noise and generally allow for uninterrupted, fully intelligible conversation.

But different systems are designed for different spaces – you can’t just buy a “quality system” and expect it to perform optimally no matter where you put it. Luckily, there’s a solution out there designed to work in every space in which people hold conference calls.

Just make sure that your solution provider knows what they’re talking about.

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