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!

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