At risk of stating the obvious, in order to get the most out of your online voice-over-internet conversations, sound quality is what matters. We tend to take for granted having clear, audible and unbroken conversations on any phone these days – although if you were an early adopter of brick-sized mobile phones in the ‘90s you may remember when things were different.
To get the most out of your Skype or other voip conversations, it really makes a difference getting the right headset. Any cheap webcam is fine, because the video will be low resolution and poor quality anyway, but the audio quality is worth investing in. Of course your pc or laptop probably has a built-in speaker and microphone, but these will pick up background noise and hiss from the machine itself, any external noise, and worst of all it will pick up your voice coming back out of the speaker in the conversation, sometimes with a slight lag… that can cause a horrible feedback loop that really spoils your chat.
So it’s best to plug in a headset. You can do this two different ways, either by the audio jack or the USB port. Cheaper headsets come with two 3.5m audio jacks, little round sticks, that connect to matching holes on your pc – look for two little ports often labelled with headphones and a microphone symbol (be sure to connect them the right way round or you won’t hear a thing!). These connect to your computer’s soundcard, which then creates an analogue signal for your headset – depending on the quality of your soundcard, the sound quality varies.
Better quality headsets connect to your USB port, which is the rectangular hole with a white bar in it – you may have several available, or you may have too much plugged in already! Try to plug your headset in directly rather than via an extension or splitter, use that for your other gadgets. The USB headset does the audio conversion within the headset itself, which is optimised for voice clarity. If every person on the call is using good quality USB headsets the quality is significantly different – all the hiss and distortion drops away, and you’d honestly believe you were chatting on your landline!
Of course there are many styles of headset you can choose as well, depending on whether you want monaural (just one ear, so you can pay attention to other things around you) or binaural (stereo sound that mostly blocks out other noise). You can have ear-buds in your ear, or headphones over them, you can have the headset over the top of your head or round the back of your neck… but at the end of the day it’s worth getting the best you can afford, at least double what you shell out for your webcam, and for best results look at spending around €30. Remember you can use them to listen to music and other things, wherever you see a USB port.
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