So why would Skype announce support for, and In Store Solutions develop and launch, the FREETALK® Everyman headset in a seemingly crowded market? Let’s step back a bit and look at some issues related to headsets:
- Skype’s research has found that a Skype user’s “end point” configuration is one of the main contributors to churn. A major component of the end user configuration is the PC’s audio chip; they have found evidence pointing to a lack of consistent audio quality across the various PC audio chip sets.
- The recent introduction of Skype’s “superwideband” SILK audio codec, supporting a 12KHz audio bandwidth, has set new bars for incorporating HD Voice performance into a headset – both the speakers and the mic.
- Headsets have always been an issue for road warriors trying to fit them into their briefcase or PC carrying case. Speakers that are at right angles to the main headband suddenly demand a space with about 3 to 5 inches of width. Breakage and loss are often the result. (Full disclosure: I have never found a headset that was suitable for easy insertion into my multiple PC carrying cases over the years.)
- Complementary to the PC has been the widespread adoption of (smartphone) media players such as iPod, iPhone and BlackBerry; standard earbuds are not capable of adequate overall audio quality, especially for bass tones.
- Cost: try to find a good quality headset for under $30 or $40. A “no brainer” impulse purchase is certainly assisted by keeping the cost low.
- Finally, in this age of online e-commerce, why do the devices that are shipped as a result of an online purchase need plastic clamshell packaging that goes straight to landfill (and generates emergency room visits when cutting the packaging open)? The sale has been completed; there’s no need for the packaging to be a “sell piece”.
Since late 2007 In Store Solutions’ wireless stereo headset has been a top seller on the Skype store. It has been my PC headset of choice ever since I received one in December 2007.
When Skype recognized the need for a headset that provided both consistent audio quality across all PC models (desktop and laptop) while also fully supporting the audio bandwidth demands of their SILK codec, they approached In Store Solutions about producing a new basic headset that addressed Skype’s audio quality concerns. But with In Store Solutions’ previous retail distribution and audio hardware experience they designed a product that also addressed the other issues outlined above.
The result of this partnership was the recently launched FREETALK Everyman Headset. It’s a USB headset incorporating an audio chip in the USB dongle. But on the headset side the USB dongle has a 3.5 mm speaker jack into which is plugged the removable speaker wire coming from the headset.
The physical headset itself comprises a unidirectional microphone to reduce background noise along with neodymium speakers supporting 20 Hz to 20 KHz stereo audio. Weighing in at 124g/4.3 oz, the headband and microphone are adjustable. (Hint: headset microphones work best when the microphone is positioned near a corner of your mouth.)
Compatible with both Windows 2000® / XP® / Vista™ and Mac OS 10.22 or later, the only other requirement is a USB port on the PC.
- HD Voice support within the audio chip via its support for the SILK codec used in Skype for Windows 4.1 and Skype for Mac 2.8 (or later) and an overall 20Hz to 20KHz audio bandwidth.
- Plug & Play such that Skype immediately recognizes and acknowledges the headset as the default audio device for Skype (no need to go to Skype audio settings; no driver installation required)
- A flat fold-down design that compresses the entire headset to a thickness less than 3 cm or 1.25 inches; it readily fits into your PC carrying case.
- A removable speaker plug such that, when not using the headset with your PC, you can plug the speaker plug into any media player with a 3.5 mm audio jack, such as the iPod, iPhone (3G and 3G S) and BlackBerry.
- Eco-friendly “brown box” recycled cardboard packaging that not only eliminates sending plastic clamshells to landfill but also helps to reduce shipping costs.
And, to encourage “no-brainer” adoption, it’s available at the Skype Store at US$22.88/£19.88/€19.88 – including delivery (and VAT in Europe).
But the most important feature of any headset is the user experience. Several bloggers and columnists are currently reviewing the FREETALK Everyman; links to their posts will be incorporated into a forthcoming post summarizing the feedback as they become available. But two initial posts for more information and feedback:
- Skype’s Andrew Brennan: Skype Gear Road Test: The FREETALK Everyman Headset
- TMC’s Tom Keating: FREETALK Everyman Skype Headset Review where he concludes:
I made some test Skype calls and the audio quality was excellent. I also connected my iPhone using the 3.5mm jack and was able to play music using the iPod application on the iPhone. Slightly better bass response than my iPhone ear buds due to the larger speakers. All in all, a pretty good Skype headset.
Earlier today, Alec Saunders interviewed me on SquawkBox; with about twenty participants including both ISS’s Product Manager and Skype’s Hardware Product Manager contributing to the discussion. I’ll be adding a post covering this interview and incorporating a player for the recording shortly. (Update Aug. 25: you can now access the conference call recording on Saunderslog at SquawkBox August 13 – FREETALK Everyman.)
Hints (based on some initial user feedback): when you receive your FREETALK Everyman headset, ensure you plug the speaker plug into the speaker jack on the USB dongle for listening to your Skype calls or any multimedia playback from the PC. And to keep the cost down the volume control is carried out via the volume control slider in the Skype clients.
Bottom Line: Addressing the audio quality issue is only one aspect of the Skype user’s end point configuration that can affect the overall Skype call quality. The PC processor, active software programs, operating system (Windows or Mac) and user’s Internet connection can also contribute to the finalSkype call experience. However, the FREETALK Everyman headset optimizes the audio configuration of the PC and its associated audio hardware such that it consistently meet the standards required to support Skype’s SILK codec and its contribution to the overall calling experience.
Earlier posts related to Skype’s approach to call quality issues:
- At his talk to VON Canada in April 2006, Skype Goal: “Better than a phone”, Stefan Oberg outlined many user issues that Skype still needed to address at that time. During that talk Stefan mentioned Skype’s frustration with the fact “terrible user experience” when the user could not readily locate the audio jacks on the rear of (older) PC’s.
- In April 2007 Skype 3.2 was launched incorporating echo cancellation – which allowed users to use their basic PC mic and speaker for Skype calls without having to deal with echo feedback from the speakers back into the microphone.
Full disclosure: In Store Solutions has become a client of Denali InterConneXions, publisher of Voice On The Web, building on the author’s previous business development experience with establishing partnerships that can assist with the promotion of a primary vendor’s offerings. A more complete statement will follow shortly.
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