Whether it is for video conference calls or creating a productive environment in the home office, working from home in the midst of a global pandemic has exponentially increased reliance on audio solutions. In this article I will review the audio solutions that worked for me while working from home. I previously have reviewed a Bluetooth speaker and iconic headphones. But as 2020 progressed, with stay-at-home orders and rising COVID-19 cases in California, my wife and I decided to spent time in our one-bedroom condo on Maui. Working in a smaller space changed our technology requirements.
For listening to music, I prefer audiophile headphones like those from Sennheiser. My wife and I are sharing the same workspace which can present a problem using speakers when one or both of us are on webcasts and video conferences. An essential piece of audio equipment became headphones and headsets – both for listening to music and for video conferencing. For video conferencing and podcasts, I preferred headsets with boom microphones for better voice quality, which meant that audiophile headphones and noise canceling headphones were not a good option. The result is that no one set of headphones/headset was best for all uses.
There are two main headphone/headset connection options: wired and wireless. For the best audio quality while listening to music, I prefer wired headphones. Wired connections can be either analog or digital USB. For analog wired headphones, I had previously reviewed the Sennheiser HD 25 headphones and more recently the company loaned me the new HD 560S over-the-ear headphones. The HD 560S have a wide and flat audio profile which I prefer for listening to a wide variety of musical genres. At $199, it’s an entry level to Sennheiser’s audiophile headphone lineup.
The open backs of the HD 560S do allow more background sound to be heard, making it less effective to listening when there’s more undesirable background sounds. The open backs also allow audio to be heard outside the headphones making it less desirable for podcast recordings. The HD-25 is a closed, over the ear headphones design, but the small size makes it less desirable for music that prefers a larger soundstage.
I also had a chance to evaluate an audio processor, an inline amplifier for wired headphones – the Helm Audio DB12 AAAMP. In addition to the higher volume from the amplifier, the THX certified audio processor made the Sennheiser headphones sound far more theatric and delivered a fuller sound. The processor was so good, I wish all my audio could utilize the THX Achromatic Audio Amplifier (AAA) technology. THX calls AAA the world’s most linear amplifier technology, with exceptionally low distortion and noise.
The THX sound processing made everything sound fuller. The amplifier offers +12dB of gain and additional bass in an extremely small and light form factor. The unit uses a rechargeable battery with over six hours of battery life – enough for a reasonably long airline flight. While the $199 price point may be considered a lot for a small headphone amp, the experience is transformative.
Wireless Headphones /Headset
After trying a few wired and wireless alternatives, I settled on the SteelSeries Arctis 3 Bluetooth headset for just under $100. With the Bluetooth in my laptop, I did not need an extra dongle. The Arctis 3 Bluetooth also supports wired operation, with an included 3.5mm analog wire plug-in connection. The sound quality has been fine for business, although not up to the quality of the Sennheiser. The microphone is good enough for video conferences and podcast, but still a compromise compared with my Yeti Blue microphone.
Having wireless headset is liberating for ubiquitous and never-ending video calls. I can roam the living space and still hear and talk on the call. The microphone also retracts into the headset for just listening. The headset is light and the “ski googles” headband and ear pads are extremely comfortable for hours of use.
While physically comfortable, the ergonomics of the Arctis 3 Bluetooth headset controls could use some improvement. The power light is under the power switch button, so you must hold your finger only partly on the switch to see when the light comes on. The microphone mute button is near the volume control and there is no indicator that you are muted. In the early days using the headset, I was fiddling with the video conferencing controls when no one could hear me before realizing the mute switch had been hit by accident. Overall, the SteelSeries Arctis 3 Bluetooth has been a good balance of performance, comfort, and price.
Bringing All My Music With Me
As an old school guy, I still wanted access to my extensive CD collection while traveling and working remote. I had used the iTunes ecosystem in the past, but Apple is more interested in pushing its iPhone for music and Apple Music subscriptions. I chose to convert my CDs to digital FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) files that is a very high-quality compressed audio format. I chose the Sony A50 Walkman A Series, specifically the NW-A55 Hi-Res MP3 Player, for a portable player. In addition to FLAC audio, the player can play MP3, Apple Lossless, AAC, APE, WAV, and WMA audio files (up to 32-bit/384kHz). The unit is compact with a 3-1/16″ color touchscreen display (800 x 480 pixels).
I typically use the wired connection but also used the Bluetooth-compatible LDAC Hi-Fidelity wireless codec with Audeze Mobius headset I was testing. The audio quality of the LDAC Bluetooth codec was on par with the wired connections. The LDAP codec is not as well supported on players and headphones as the Qualcomm AptX codec.
The Sony unit also has numerous programmable audio settings including equalizer presets and custom levels, a “Vinyl Processor” to simulate the warmth and character of vinyl back, and the DSEE HX processor which can enhance highly compressed audio to HD-like quality. At $219 for the unit with 16GB of internal storage (expandable with microSD cards), it is an excellent deal. With the microSD card, it can hold my entire collection of FLAC converted CDs.
There are many audio alternatives for working from home. These are the ones that worked for me, but they are not perfect. I’d like to see a company like Sennheiser produce a wireless headset with a dedicated boom microphone along with its audiophile audio quality. That would be the ultimate best of all worlds. The Audeze Mobius could have fulfilled that role, but I found the PC software buggy and only got the full benefit of all its features (including positional audio) when connected by USB, although basic functionality was available through Bluetooth.
I will continue to look for more audio options at CES 2021 next week.
Breaking: the Helm Audio DB12 AAAMP is on sale for 25% off for a limited time. Use the code: NY25%
The author and members of the Tirias Research staff do not hold equity positions in any of the companies mentioned. Tirias Research tracks and consults for companies throughout the electronics ecosystem from semiconductors to systems and sensors to the cloud. Helm Audio and Sennheiser loaned me the audio products to try out. TIRIAS Research was not paid for this review.