ArticleJeff Robbins

Why Speakerphones Suck

ArticleJeff Robbins
Why Speakerphones Suck

I’ll keep this week’s Yonder Tip short and sweet: Speakerphones suck. Don’t use them.

As many of you know, I spent most of the 90’s working as an musician. I’ve spent time in some of the top recording studios in the U.S. My ears were an important part of my career. At Lullabot, people were often impressed when I could describe the room they were talking to me from simply based on the acoustic characteristics of their voice over the phone.

While most people are not as attuned to audio details, audio clarity and quality is important to everyone. Simply put: communication is the key to a successful remote team. If we can’t understand one another, we can’t communicate efficiently.

The human brain does an amazing job of piecing together garbled information to find patterns and match with things we know. This is the key to how a CAPTCHA can tell the difference between a human and a machine. And anyone who has struggled with a CAPTCHA knows can be very fatiguing to try to decipher these puzzles. It requires high-level thinking. This same thing happens with bad audio. Technically, we can understand what the people on the conference call are saying. But it takes a lot of effort and energy to keep up. It makes communication more difficult.

Speakerphones simply aren’t as efficient as close microphones. They pick up too much of the room reverberation, background noise, and general nasties. Putting a microphone next to your mouth eliminates most, if not all, of the sound problems that a room might have. It removes the acoustic fog that so often makes it difficult for people to understand each other. Use a headset microphone. Just about any headset microphone. We’ve been having guests use a $24 Plantronics headset microphone for Yonder Podcast interviews and it sounds great! 

“But our company spent $400 on a really good quality speakerphone,” you say?

“Nope!” I say. They all suck. The acoustics in your conference room suck. It sucks that 6 of you are sitting in a room together and the 3 people on phone cannot see any of you. It sucks that the speakerphone applies a “gate” the audio and it cuts off the beginning and end of everyone’s speech. Communication needs a level playing field. When you use a speakerphone, it’s not level. It’s not fair. It sucks. Stop doing it!

That being said, I’ve got one slight exception. And it is this: If you are on a VIDEO call, you gain a little bit of acoustic leeway. Have you ever listened to a TV show over the radio? Perhaps MSNBC on Sirius XM? It doesn’t sound as good as NPR. The microphones are further away. The acoustics are worse. However, video adds another clue to help the brain decipher what people are saying. This type of audio is perfectly acceptable when you’re watching television. We watch people’s mouths move and it helps us to understand them better. So, if you’re on a videoconference, you can get away with worse audio. It will still sound much better if you’re wearing a microphone headset. But if you don’t have one with you, it’s less problematic if you need to use your laptop’s built-in microphone.

–Jeff Robbins


Yonder Tips are weekly ideas, tricks, and time savers for anyone thinking about distributed teams and remote work. Subscribe to the Yonder Newsletter to receive them in your inbox each week.