Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Evaluating headsets for VRI/RSI: Specs, Demo, Reviews

Like many interpreters, my first concern when I started thinking about remote interpreting was my headset. I wanted something that would have crystal clear sound, both for me and for participants in interpreted meetings I might be a part of. I was also concerned about protecting my hearing long-term. Interpreters can suffer workplace injuries that damage their hearing due to sound coming through a headset at high volume, so I wanted a headset that had protection built in, if possible. Finally, I also live in a noisy, rambunctious household (like many of you, I imagine!) so I also needed noise cancelling in the mic to filter out most background noise from other rooms.

Specifications to look for: 

  • Light, comfortable, binaural (double-sided) headset
  • Noise cancelling microphone to filter out background sound
  • Acoustic shock protection
  • Integrated microphone with rotating boom that permits the interpreter to choose the side of their head for the mic
  • Hardware connection compatible with the interpreter's computer: i.e., USB (or USB+adapter), USB-C, 3.5 mm jack. Note that one experienced RSI colleague informed me that for some RSI platforms, a digital (i.e., USB) connection is preferred over analog (3.5mm jack) connections. When in doubt, check with platform techs.
Specifications to (maybe) avoid
  • Headsets with noise cancelling in the headphone portion, because if you have noise isolation in your headphones, you will have more difficulty hearing your own voice and therefore self-monitoring as you interpret.
  • Headsets that "cup" the ears fully. I do have two gamer headsets that cup and I like them, and I demo them in my videos below, BUT in order to use them for interpreting or teaching, I need to remove one side so that I can hear my own voice. This is an important consideration. You can get great sound out of them, both in and out, but for them to work for you as an interpreter, you must be comfortable with keeping one side off in order to work effectively.

Five headset video review: PC and Mac

PC video:

Mac vido:

In the above videos, I demo the following five headsets at the low- and mid-range price points, recording my sound using Zoom on both PC and Mac. There were some subtle and not-so-subtle differences between their performance on PC vs. Mac, so do keep this in mind.

Acoustic shock protection comes at a bit of a premium, which is why I only present one option, the SC60, that has it. However, Sennheiser, Plantronics, and Jabra, among others, have a large selection of headsets that have this feature.

  • Sennheiser SC60 (~$60.00) USB connection
    • What I love: It's light, comfortable, has strong sound coming out of the headphones, has acoustic shock protection, lets you choose which side of your head to have the microphone on, and has good noise cancelling and clear audio output. I get lots of compliments on my sound on this one!
    • What I don't: It's a slight worry, but the volume output from the microphone to call listeners is a little low compared to what other headsets produce. I've noticed it on calls and recordings: people hear me at a lower volume than other participants, particularly when I use my Mac. Not a dealbreaker, though; it's a slight difference only.
  • Sennheiser GSP 300 (~$70-80) 3.5 mm jack connection
    • What I love: Robust design, full sound in headphones, and very good sound out of the mic on my Mac (but not on my PC).
    • What I don't: No acoustic shock protection, the "cupping" design means I need to keep one side off at all times to speak, microphone is fixed on the left (I like that but others might like choice), AND on my PC, this headset produces poor sound.
  • Sennheiser GSP 350 (Update: I previously said this wasn't compatible with Mac, but actually it is - just surround sound doesn't work on Mac.) (~$70-80) USB connection
    • What I love: Robust design, full sound in headphones, and very good sound out of the mic.
    • What I don't: No acoustic shock protection, the "cupping" design means I need to keep one side off at all times to speak, microphone is fixed on the left.
  • Sennheiser USB PC-8 (~$40) USB connection
    • What I love: It's light, comfortable, good sound through headphones, good noise cancelling (though not as good as the SC60).
    • What I don't: No acoustic shock protection; smallish ear pieces, mic is fixed on the left, sound is strong in volume but very, very subtly not as clear as the SC60. This is still a great headset at a lower pricepoint, though.
  • Logitech H540
    • What I love: It has a robust and sturdy design and a mic boom farther back from the speaker's mouth, which would limit air puff sounds from speaking.
    • What I don't: No acoustic shock protection, mic fixed on the right, lower sound output quality compared to other options, not so full sound input quality on the headphones, the odd way I can hear my own voice a bit when I use them (not as an echo, thank goodness, but real-time, like an audio monitor function. It may be an intentional feature to enhance self-monitoring and not a bug. I've noticed this ever so slightly in the SC60 and PC8 headsets as well, but it's not intrusive on those the way it is with the Logitechs).
Anyway, have a look for yourself! This is by no means a ringing endorsement of any one headset or an exhaustive list of options: it's just five that I happened to buy, three of which have been pretty popular choices among interpreters lately. Best of luck to you...and do let me know what headset you choose and why!

Thursday, April 9, 2020

The Basics: Remote Interpreting in the Times of COVID-19 (Video)

This week, spearheaded by the amazing Katty Kauffman, several of us got together (virtually, of course!) and created this video to help spread the know-how needed to deliver quality remote interpretation in times of crisis. It's been very well received so far, and we have more in the works!

Please enjoy and feel free to share with anyone who could benefit. Our goal is to get everyone ready and working doing what they love, to the highest possible standards, so that as little as possible is lost in communication due to the need to live virtually.

Stay well!

Friday, April 3, 2020

Transitioning to Remote Interpreting for Times of Crisis: Where do we start, and where will we end up? (Part 1: Equipment)

Updated (May 2020) Downloadable PDFEquipment recommendations for Video Remote Interpreting/Remote Simultaneous Interpreting (VRI/RSI) 

Hello friends,

I want this series to read like a letter, colleague to colleague, interpreter to client, to tell you in real time the story of my journey as an on-site professional freelance interpreter suddenly home bound, but still passionate about reaching out and connecting people and working hard to figure out how to keep doing that. Over the past few weeks, I've been lucky to be able to connect like never before with interpreter friends and colleagues to put our heads together about how to crack this problem for ourselves and help bring the entire interpreting profession along with us.

I've seen incredible solidarity and generosity on the part of interpreters and other language services professionals around the world donating their time to teach what they shine at and share best practices for free.  More than ever, we need that mutual support to maintain language access for non-English speaking members of our communities, and to assist fellow interpreters who have suddenly found themselves out of work in finding their way back into employment under strong working conditions that promote the kind of quality and excellence they've always offered to the people they support.

I started my journey to remote with a lot of research on tech for interpreting. Luckily, with a little know-how and actually not too much up-front investment, you can do this, and do it brilliantly.  In the PDF at the top of this post is a list of VRI/RSI equipment and connectivity recommendations to get you started building your interpreter home studio. Below is the text of that document. Please feel free to share widely and if you have any feedback to make it better, let me know! Doing my part in all this, I'll be continuing to create more content over the next several days and weeks that I hope will help you, like me, transition to a whole new way of working. Stay safe, we got this!

Equipment recommendations for Video Remote Interpreting/Remote Simultaneous Interpreting (VRI/RSI) (last updated May 2020)
By Tamber Hilton, Federally Certified Court Interpreter (FCCI/AOUSC)[1]


Hard-wired ethernet connection from computer to router is the best practice standard for VRI/RSI. WiFi, even if very fast, is frequently somewhat unstable and momentary lags in connectivity can seriously affect upload/download quality and by extension the audio quality, which will have a significant impact on the quality and smoothness of interpretation. Relying on cellular data is also strongly not recommended. Ethernet is the (relatively!) worry-free option. The connection should have a minimum of 1.5 MBPS upload/download capability, although a minimum of 5 MBPS upload/download speed with a maximum of 50 ms of ping, also referred to as latency, would probably be safer.

Test your speed and ping: https://www.speedtest.net/

Below is an example of the output from a connection test of XFINITY’s Gigabit package using an ethernet cable with a USB-C adapter to a MacBook Pro, from speedtest.net:

Connectivity equipment required:
-Ethernet cable connecting router to computer (recommended Cat-6, which will support up to 1000 MBPS).
-USB and USB-C adapters are available for laptops that do not have ethernet ports. The adapter should also be compatible with up to 1000 MBPS/gigabit connectivity. Using an adapter may slow down a connection as opposed to WiFi or a direct ethernet connection to the computer equipment, but strong connection stability should be the top priority.

Computer equipment:

The ideal option for an interpretation home studio is a modern desktop with an ethernet port and plenty of USB and other ports for the various peripherals that interpreters may use, and a second monitor to access documents and glossaries/dictionaries. However, most up-to-date laptops and desktops running a PC or Mac operating system will work very well. Phones and tablets are not recommended for interpreters or presenters/meeting hosts, though for meeting participants/service users they should be fine.

Minimum recommended:

Dual Core 2Ghz or Higher (Intel i3/i5/i7 or AMD equivalent) and 4 GB RAM (Source: Zoom technical requirements; VoiceBoxer suggests the roughly the same but with 1.6-GHz dual-core Intel Core i5.

Higher end:

8GB RAM, Intel i7 Core Processor, dedicated sound card and graphics card (Source: Kudo technical requirements)


-The integrated webcam for most laptops and desktops should be adequate, but a separate HD webcam is preferable.

Headset: Recommended specifications for integrated mic/headset equipment

-Light, comfortable, binaural (double-sided) headset
-Noise cancelling microphone to filter out background sound
-Wide band audio reception/transmission
-Acoustic shock protection
-In-line mute and volume controls
-Integrated microphone with rotating boom that permits the interpreter to choose the side of their head for the mic
-No active noise cancelling in the headset portion
-Hardware connection compatible with interpreter’s computer: i.e., USB (or USB+adapter), USB-C, 3.5mm jack

Acoustic shock protection: If interpreters cannot access headphones that have acoustic shock protection, which brings the headset price point up significantly, they must be aware that acoustic shock is a serious workplace injury issue for interpreters. Acoustic shock appears to be a complex phenomenon that is not linked exclusively to sounds above a specific decibel threshold. However, using devices that limit incoming sound volume below certain levels is prudent to avoid sudden sound exposure at levels likely to cause pain or hearing loss. Interpreters should also inform themselves about hearing loss issues in general as a workplace injury issue that may affect them, and perhaps consult with an expert on how best to protect themselves. As a starting point, U.S. OSHA guidance indicates that “the threshold of discomfort [for sound] is between 85 and 95 dB SPL and the threshold for pain is between 120 and 140 dB SPL”(decibel sound pressure level). See here for a chart illustrating what decibel levels mean in practical comparative terms.

Sennheiser, Plantronics, and Jabra are industry leaders for business/call center headsets that have features that interpreters need, and all offer models with acoustic shock protection. Sennheiser calls theirs ActiveGard (limits sound peaks to 118 decibels). Jabra markets their hearing protection technology as PeakStop (limits sudden spikes to a maximum of 118 decibels) and Safetone (integrates PeakStop and Intellitone technologies, limiting sound spikes to a maximum of 118 decibels, or 105 decibels in Safetone 2.0 models, and keeping average sound exposure levels below 85dB over a given period). Plantronics has options it calls Sound Guard (limits sound spikes to a maximum of 118 decibels), or SoundGuard Digital (limits peaks to 102 dB and keeps the user’s average daily decibel level from exceeding 80-85 dB).

Here are a few USB/USB-C options incorporating most or all of the functionality described above:

Sennheiser USB PC-8 ($34.90) (no acoustic shock protection, but strong sound and noise cancelling on a budget)
Sennheiser SC60 USB ($60.00) (noise cancelling microphone, ActiveGard 118 decibel peak limiter)
Sennheiser SC660 USB - $187.00 (ultra noise cancelling microphone, ActiveGard 118 decibel peak limiter)
Jabra Biz 1500 Duo ($63.00) (noise cancelling microphone, PeakStop 118 decibel peak limiter)
Jabra Engage 50 ($221.00) (Safetone 2.0, intelligent volume control, intelligent noise cancellation in microphone)

[1] Special thanks to Katty Kauffman (FCCI/AIIC/TAALS) for her invaluable feedback and advice in the drafting of this document.