Between iChat, Skype, podcasting, and games, there’s more demand than ever for computer headsets—a combination of headphones and a microphone. At the same time, as we’ve heard many times over the past couple years, more and more people are using laptops as their primary computer (or at least as a frequently-used secondary one). Given that I don’t know anyone who enjoys lugging around a bulky headset, I’ve been surprised by the dearth of truly mobile headsets.
Plantronics’ .Audio 480 Virtual Phone Booth (USB version, $110; analog version, $90), a.k.a. the VPB , is the kind of product I was thinking of. It combines a set of canalbud-design headphones with a thin boom microphone and—in the USB version I tested—a USB audio adapter. Also included are three pairs of silicone eartips (each pair a different size), a pair of foam eartips, three “eartabs” (described below), and a handy faux-leather carrying case. With everything stuffed inside, the case is just 5.7″ by 1.9″ by 1″—small enough to comfortably fit in even the smallest laptop bag. (Note that the VPB is clearly designed for laptops: Its 3-foot cable is too short for use with most desktop Macs.)
To use the VPB, you just plug its microphone and headphone plugs into the included USB adapter; plug the adapter into a USB port on your Mac; and then choose the headset as your input and output audio sources in the Sound pane of System Preferences. (If you plan on switching audio sources frequently, I highly recommend Sound Menu, which lets you quickly switch via a convenient menu-bar menu.) A volume slider and mute button are provided on a slim pod about a foot down the cables from the earpieces; a plastic clip lets you fasten the cable to your shirt.
Canalbuds have both advantages and disadvantages in this context. On the positive side, they allow the overall size of the VPB to be very compact. And with a good seal they block out quite a bit of external sound, letting you hear your music and conversations more clearly when there’s background noise (which there’s likely to be if you’re out with your laptop). Assuming the included eartips fit your ears well—I had the best luck with the foam tips, although some people will find the silicone tips to be more comfortable—the VPB’s earbuds block an impressive amount of noise.
(One thing to note: The added weight of the microphone and boom on the left side is enough to pull at the left earpiece and make it difficult to get a good seal. To address this, the left earpiece features a rubber “eartab” that tucks under the fold of your outer ear to balance the weight of the microphone; three eartab sizes are included. After a couple times using the VPB, I got used to the feel of this tab. However, unless I used the foam tips, I never got a full seal on the left side; your mileage may vary.)
On the other hand, some people find in-ear-canal headphones to be uncomfortable and, as I mentioned in our in-ear-canal headphone primer, canalphones and canalbuds suffer to varying degrees from microphonics and the occlusion effect. The first term refers to the fact that the sounds of bumps and scrapes to the headphone cables are transferred up the cables directly to your ears. The second term describes the experience of your voice and other bodily noises—breathing, coughing, eating, etc.—sounding louder or unnatural because bone-conducted sound is accentuated when your ears are blocked. This latter phenomenon is especially an issue with the VPB, since the whole point is to talk while wearing it. In fact, this was my biggest complaint while testing the VPB: during Skype and iChat conversations, my own voice sounded boomy and hollow to me. This definitely takes some getting used to.
How does the VPB sound to other people in your conversations? My colleague Christopher Breen was kind enough to let me bend his ear in Skype and iChat. According to Chris, after I adjusted the microphone’s boom correctly, the VPB offered decent, clear sound, without any popping or strident hissing, although he noted that he could tell I was using a headset mic. By that, he meant that the audio from the VPB’s microphone was a bit tinny with little low end. He also heard a faint hiss in the background, but it didn’t affect his ability to hear or understand me. (The VPB’s microphone includes noise-canceling circuitry, so he didn’t hear the hum and buzz of all the hardware in my office.) Chris recorded one of our Skype conversations so I could hear myself from his end; after listening to that recording, my impressions were similar to his.
As headphones, the VPB’s ’buds are similar to Sony’s popular EX series, although with more detail and less bass. Provided you get a good seal, voices in audio chats are clear and easy to hear. Music and movies sound good, although compared to a quality set of dedicated headphones, bass response is a bit weak and there’s a bit more treble than I would have liked. But, as with other in-ear-canal headphones, the fact that you can hear audio clearly even when there’s a lot of noise around you is a major plus. And I found the inline volume control to be handy during music and movies.
If you do most of your audio-chatting at home, or you need the best sound quality and comfort, a full-size headset—or, even better, a quality microphone and separate headphones—is the way to go. However, if your main computer is a laptop and you frequently use Skype or iChat on the road, the .Audio 480 Virtual Phone Booth is worth considering, both for its tiny, packable size and its noise isolation. Just be aware of the tradeoffs that come with miniaturization.