Better Audio for Distributed Work

tl;dr: A wired USB headsets with a mic that is a consistent distance from your mouth is the best option for most people. This is one we recommend at Automattic.


Many of us have transitioned to working from home, and spend a lot more time talking to people over video and voice – we usually have no idea what we sound like to the people on the other end.

This post will give you some practical advice for sounding much clearer, including the specific products that I recommend. I will list recorded clips of each audio device without any additional processing so you can hear what each one sounds like in its original format.

If you prefer watching a video, check out the YouTube video instead.

Summary

There is a lot of research to show that better video and audio quality can reduce cognitive load and increase our attention span. Ultimately, it gets us closer to being in person and I think it’s well worth the investment to buy a good headset and microphone.

General Advice:

  • Make sure that your microphone is a consistent distance away from your mouth. This makes you sound more clear and consistent.  I think that headsets with an adjustable boom mic are the best (like the Jabra Evolve 65). If you don’t move around a lot you can sound really good on a USB mic like the Samson G-Track Pro.
  • A wired connection is more reliable than a Bluetooth connection, and generally sounds better. I sometimes have Bluetooth connection delays when starting Zoom calls but I like the flexibility of being able to walk around the room on audio calls, so the tradeoff is worth it for me.
  • If you are in a noisy place, or don’t have a headset where the mic is a consistent distance from your mouth (these typically block noise really well) then try software solutions like Krisp AI.

Top 3 Microphones

  1. Jabra Evolve 65: I don’t have strong opinions on this particular headset/mic itself, but a headset mic which is a fixed distance from your mouth is the best option for most people. The sound from the Jabra Evolve 65 mic is clear and consistent, and it blocks out most of the external noise. This is not wired, but sounds decent, and allows me to move around my room.
  2. Samson G Track Pro: This wired USB microphone has the best sound but it’s a little more fussy. You need a quiet room with decent acoustics in your space (soft things, no echo) and you need to tolerate that it’s absolutely massive, heavy and has an industrial look to it.
  3. Apple Airpod Pros: They actually sounded decent and were a big upgrade from the first version of the Airpods (which sounded awful). They are compact, so if you are traveling, or on the go, they are not a bad option especially as they also have built in noise cancellation.

Detailed Comparison

For each of the devices (photos above for scale), I recorded a short clip saying exactly the same thing and did not do any post processing. Here are some photos of each one (my wife added the teddy bear to the shot), the audio clip and a short summary of how I think it sounds.

I’ve ordered these from the best to the worst sounding, in my opinion.

Samson G Track Pro – $130

This microphone sounds leaps and bounds above the rest, but it’s big and needs to be a consistent distance away from your face so you can’t really move around while you are speaking, or it’s really distracting to the other person. The audio quality is fantastic, and makes you sound really clear. I recorded my YouTube video with this microphone.

Jabra Evolve 65 – $160

These sound clear, consistent and generally really good (especially the noise cancelling). The sound is a bit less ‘natural’ to me but all in all I was very impressed. These are my main pair of headphones for Zoom calls, and I’ve used them for around a year. The bluetooth pairing can be really annoying at the start of calls but a recent firmware update has made this much better.

I paid $160 for these last summer (June 2019), but they look to have gone up in price, possibly due a surge in demand as folks transition to working from home.

AirPod Pros – $230

These were surprisingly good despite not being that close to my mouth, but no where close to as good as the Jabras. The noise cancellation is adequate, and not a bad option on the go. They are a massive upgrade in sound quality from the first generation AirPods.

MacBook Pro 13 inch – $1700 (base model)

This does not sound great. It’s echo-ey and boomy and picks up a lot of background noise (although I was in a quiet place). I’d only use this if absolutely necessary.

Bose QC 35 II  – $350

Bluetooth Mic

This sounds pretty bad, and I would not recommend it. The audio is ‘grainy’ and it’s distractingly bad to hear. Please don’t use them.

Wired Mic

The wired microphone is a big upgrade to the bluetooth mic, and would rank above the Airpod Pros.

Apple AirPods First Generation – $130

These also sounded pretty bad, and I had no idea! I have been using them for calls for two years and am pretty sad about it now. I’m happy I’ve replaced them with the AirPod Pros (only last week, due to battery issues).

Beats Studio 3 – $220

In my opinion, this is the worst sounding headset. The audio is echoey, grainy, and overall absolutely terrible. Throw them to the curb or only ever use them for listening (which I don’t love either as they hurt my, large, ears).


When listening to the results, I was quite surprised at how much the audio quality can vary. The more expensive Bose and Beats headsets have really good sounding headphones, but really really bad microphones despite their high costs. I much prefer the Bose QC 35 to the Beats Studio3 for listening, for what it’s worth.

I think it’s worth investing in better audio, and with a wired USB headset with a boom mic it can be relatively affordable. You’ll get your message across more clearly and your friends and colleagues will enjoy your interactions more, without even realizing it.

2 thoughts on “Better Audio for Distributed Work

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s