capsule review

Headset hunt

A headset—a combination of headphones and a microphone—was once a tool unique to receptionists, tele-marketers, and online gamers, all of whom spent long hours conversing with (or, in the case of gamers, sometimes shouting at) people remotely, and all of whom needed their hands free to do other things.

But with the increasing popularity of “ voice over IP ” (VOIP) and Internet telephony, a headset is now also a convenient and comfortable way to talk to family, friends, and business associates. I’ve been doing the VOIP thing for MacNotables, a podcast featuring a number of Macworld editors and Mac-industry personalities; we use the Eddy-award-winning Skype to host our conversations. Cyrus Farivar also uses Skype to conduct remote interviews for the Macworld podcast.

I’ve tried a number of headsets over the past couple years, none of which worked very well. Either they sounded bad on my end, or they sounded bad to people on the other end, or they were too uncomfortable to actually wear. But I’ve recently been using Altec Lansing’s $40 AHS302usb headset (   )—which I’ve seen online for as little as $23—and have found it to work quite well. The soft “leatherette” earpads are comfortable and block out a bit of office noise, the adjustable boom lets you position the noise-canceling microphone for clear voice pickup, and the 7.5-foot cable reaches behind even the biggest desk.

Altec Lansing AHS302usb

But what I really like about the AHS302usb are its USB connection and inline controls. Although technically just Altec Lansing’s $25 analog AHS302i with an included USB adapter, that adapter makes the AHS302usb easier to connect and use: The first time you plug it into an available USB port, you choose the AHS302usb as the input and output device in the Sound pane of System Preferences; after that, Mac OS X automatically switches over to the AHS302usb whenever you plug it in. (For convenient input/output switching, I use the excellent SoundSource 1.0.5 [   ]—since I have more USB ports than audio input and output jacks, this means I don’t have to swap cables.) You can also remove the AHS302usb’s USB adapter and use the unit as an analog headset if you run out of USB ports.

SoundSource

The AHS302usb’s inline controller is my other favorite feature. It can be clipped to your shirt and provides a rotary volume control along with a mute/low/high gain for the unit’s microphone. The latter is much more accessible—and, in my experience, more effective—than the input level setting in the Sound preference pane.

Although the headset’s audio quality is great for voice, it’s also decent for music and games. You won’t get the same audio quality as you’ll find with many of the better headphones I’ve reviewed over on Playlist, but it’s good enough to listen to iTunes between Skype calls.

The only issue I’ve had with the AHS302usb is that the behind-the-head “streetstyle” headband can be a bit difficult to fit comfortably. Although I see many people wearing this style with the headband down around their necks, I find that positioning the headband directly behind your ears, horizontally, provides the best comfort.

Perhaps the biggest compliment I can give the AHS302usb is that during Skype conferences I can hear everyone else clearly and, more importantly, they say the same thing about me. You would think this would go without saying for a product designed specifically for such use, but having tried a number of other headsets, I can tell you it doesn’t—especially when it comes to headsets with a street price of under $25.

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