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.


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. 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 Macbook Pro.

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.

Making a YouTube Video

I made a YouTube video, with the goal of understanding what it takes to create something with reasonable production quality, completely on my own. This is a short summary of my process and learnings for others who may want to try something similar.

My subgoal was to generate empathy with YouTube content creators and the best way I know how to do this is to actually go through it. I capped the time investment at one full day, including setting up and learning all the hardware and software.

Before you start

  1. Get a good quality camera and microphone. I used the Canon M50 creator kit with the Rode Mic (see below) as it came highly recommended in a number of YouTube channels and blogs. I just ended up using my Apple AirPod Pros, because it created a simpler workflow and I wanted to save time (so the audio quality was not the best). If I was to do this more frequently, I would just buy a separate USB mic like the Blue Yeti Nano.
  1. Familiarize yourself with the software. I used Final Cut Pro (90 day free trial) for editing, Camera Live to stream my camera to my computer and OBS Studio for recording my screen which are both open source.
  2. Decide what story you want to tell. This is the hardest parts of any piece of media creation, and the main thing that matters.
  3. Write up a rough script. Each take took me way too many times to get right, and so I just memorized what to say (like an actor) and it went more smoothly from that point.
  4. Write up a shot list. I did mine in this spreadsheet, although I would improve it in the future to be something that I could easily share with an editor. Naming the shots lets you more easily edit the footage in post production.
  5. Run through your entire workflow with a short clip. For example I did not realize that OBS was compressing my files into MKV (and at a low quality), which did not play nice with Final Cut Pro and it would have sucked to lose all my footage and start again.

Pre Filming

Here are all the things you should do before filming, so that the filming process goes as smoothly as possible.

  • Story: I decided to do an instructional video for using a DLSR Camera for Zoom and other video calls. I had been looking for an option like this and found many of the videos incomplete.
  • Script: I wrote a script in a Google Doc for what I planned to say. This was really helpful to read from when filming so I made sure to say everything I wanted to and did not lose my place.
  • Shot List: I wrote up the following shot list in Google Sheets and in the future, I’ll add in some editing notes in post. This would allow someone who is editing my video to add any captions, effects or transitions much more easily.
  • Audio set up: I tested a few different mics, including the Rode Mic that came with my creator kit, the MacBook Pro Mic, and the AirPod Pro mics. The Rode Mic definitely sounded the best, but was not a USB mic and made my workflow a bit harder as I could not record the audio and video directly using OBS on my Mac. I decided to go with the AirPod Pros, but would buy a USB mic in the future. I tested the levels to make sure that the audio was good to go.
  • Video set up: I tested the video, the encoding (RAW is best but harder to work with) and the lighting. I only used light from a large window and it worked pretty well.
  • Scene: I used the living room of my house and made an effort to clean up the background of clutter. This kind of thing does make a difference to the overall feeling of quality to your video.
  • Full workflow: Make sure you run through the entire workflow with a short clip so you don’t have to re-do everything because of a mistake. I was having an issue where short clips had no audio due to some encoding issue and it was a real pain to fix in post.

Filming

Here are a few things that I learned during filming, and things I’d suggest watching out for when you are making your own video.

  • Long takes: I really struggled to get long takes completed. I would use filler words, or look away and it was frustrating. In the end I shot much shorter takes or just tolerated some worse takes as I ran out of time.
  • Hand waving: I used my hands too much and it made me look a bit manic. I would try a shot that included my torso in the future so this looked more natural (vs. hands popping up on the screen) or just chilling out the hands a bit.
  • Looking into the lens: I was not looking at the camera lens, but at the little preview screen of myself instead. In the future, I’ll stop using that preview screen and make an effort to look at the lens. This makes the viewer feel like you are making eye contact with them, and is more engaging.
  • Smiling: I needed to smile more, as it would make me seem more friendly and likable on video.

Editing

I edited the video myself to learn the tools and see what I could do in a few hours. I also tried spending $25 on Fiverr and $50 on UpWork to hire a freelancer to do the video editing for me and to make sure that I understood their platforms. The self edited version is clearly the worst one of the three below.

Self Edit

I used Final Cut Pro, which was pretty intuitive and added some captions, and intro screen, short music clip, some transitions and corrected audio levels. It was fun to learn how to use the software!

Spending $25 on Fiverr

I hired an editor for $25 total on Fiverr. This was much better than my effort. The pro added soft background music throughout, zoomed in and zoomed out shots, and improved color grading and audio levels significantly.

Spending $50 on UpWork

I hired another pro for $50 on UpWork. This edit was by far the best, and I would spend at this price point again in the future.

The editor did good color grading, had clean transitions, added blurred the backgrounds for my screen recordings, added soft background music, integrated some images, text on screen and added a nice intro and outro sequence that made it feel more professional.

Youtube

I set up a creator account on YouTube and watched some of the videos from the Creator Academy. I would watch more videos if I got more serious, particularly to learn how to get more traffic.

I uploaded the video, added a description and some tags and also some Amazon Affiliate links to the YouTube description to learn that part of the process. No one has bought any of my recommendations just yet and I’ve only had about 120 views after about two weeks.

Conclusion

Overall this was a fun project, and I may make some more videos in the future. It would probably take me half the time to film and prepare the audio and video files and the shot lists.

I would definitely pay someone on UpWork or Fiverr to do the editing for me in the future as they would 1) do a better job than me and 2) it seems worth the $25-50 cost for the time saving.

I would also get a better microphone.