Today we’re talking about the greatest nuisance tormenting white collar workers everywhere: conference calls.
Whether you work remotely or spend your days boxed in by cubicle walls, you’ve probably endured your fair share of conference calls. If you’re like me, the thought of them elicits an involuntary groan. Let’s figure out why there are so many technical issues surrounding conference calls and how to remedy them.
Editor’s notes: This post was updated on March 17, 2020 to include more information on web-based conferencing apps.
What happens when you make a call?
Our smartphones let us communicate with nearly anyone in the world; it’s incredible. At its core, the cell phone is a two-way radio whereby the primary device serves as the transmitter and the secondary is the receiver.
When you call your brother, your voice is converted into electrical signals. These are processed by your phone’s antenna and transmitted via radio waves to the nearest cell tower, and bounced from tower to tower until reaching your brother’s phone. At that point, the electrical signals are converted back into audible sounds.
Two-way call quality depends on signal strength. Connectivity varies depending on your network (CDMA vs. GSM), how close you are to a compatible cell tower, and the physical barriers between you and said tower. When a conference call is made, these same variables are multiplied by the number of callers, thus increasing the likelihood of poor call quality.
Limited bandwidth means dynamic range compression favors efficiency over audio quality
Unfortunately, there’s only so much bandwidth available when making two-way calls, let alone conference calls. Much like how Bluetooth codecs processes audio by compressing data, the same happens to voices as they’re relayed across networks. Dynamic range compression reduces the volume of loud sounds while amplifying quieter ones. Stripping the fat, so to speak, means less information is conveyed. This yields more efficient processing at the expense of sound quality.
The adaptive multi-rate (AMR) audio codec is used for standard quality calls and narrows the frequency band from 200-3400Hz. This cutoff at the low-end of the frequency spectrum can make someone with a low voice sound strange or muffled. AMR transmission rates vary between 4.75-12.2kbps depending on call conditions. This codec is great: it can maintain a call in poor conditions. However, callers may notice a lag between when they speak and when the other person receives what was said. You know when you start saying a sentence only to have your co-worker accidentally interrupt you? It’s because the limited bandwidth and AMR codec slowed down the process for the sake of stability.
Variable bitrate maintains a stable connection but sacrifices audio quality.
A higher quality calling option is HD Voice which uses the adaptive multi-rate wideband (AMR-WB) speech audio coding standard. This doubles the frequency range compared to AMR. The added flexibility from 50-7000Hz makes unusually high and low vocal registers sound more natural. Unlike AMR, its transmission rate is static at 23.85kbps. When calling over HD Voice, you benefit from greater clarity and less latency, but both callers must have HD Voice-capable phones. It’s also more data intensive, which can pose problems when multiple callers come into play.
Microphone quality and environment make a difference
Service provider aside, much of how our conference calls sound comes down to what kind of microphones are being used. More often than not, each person calls in from their respective handset. This leaves a smartphone’s microphone to do a lot of heavy lifting. iPhones use an array of microphones to promote clear voice quality, while the Samsung Galaxy S10 line uses a high acoustic overload point (AOP) mic technology to minimize distortion in noisy environments.
While flagships tend to have solid integrated microphones, that’s not the case for all phones. When you’re dealing with a group of people, chances are one or two of them is rocking a budget smartphone, which may be incapable of combating background noise. This could bleed into the conference call, creating unwanted underscoring every time a person speaks.
Related: Best podcasting microphones
How to improve conference calls
Ok, so we have a better understanding on why conference calls sound so bad, but how do we fix them? Although there’s nothing we can do to ensure exceptional conference call quality, there are a few steps to improve the communal experience.
Apps support greater bandwidth
Using web-based video chat services, rather than having everyone call in from their phones, exponentially increases the amount of available bandwidth. This means more data can be transmitted at a given moment, which is key for multi-way calls.
Our company favors Zoom, which provides unlimited Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) support. The main benefits of VoIP: it’s cheap and efficient. It allows for voice and data to be communicated over a single network. It’s better if everyone is calling in from their internet provider, but you can call in from your phone instead. This is much more accessible than ensuring every team member has an HD Voice-enabled phone on a supported provider.
Outside of that, there are all sorts of great services to choose from, depending on your need. Discord was originally designed for PC gamers, but the program allows for the creation of servers that support multiple call channels that people can drop in and out of at will—perfect for coordinating with multiple teams. If your company has a G Suite subscription, they can also use the version of Google Hangouts it includes, which features most of the same features are Zoom, like recording, livestreaming, and calls with up to 250 people. There are all sorts of other apps out there to meet the needs of smaller groups too—especially if video is something you’re set on.
VoIP technology isn't subjected to the same bandwidth constraints as cellular service providers and are a cheap, efficient solution used by businesses.
That said, VoIP apps aren’t subjected to the same Quality of Service guarantees as telephone networks. VoIP transfers are subject to data loss, just like any other means of communication, and may lag on occasion. VoIP apps are still an effective alternative for companies in need of an affordable, oftentimes free, solution to conference call frustration.
Offices should invest in a telecommunication hub
In a similar vein, offices will also benefit from dedicated communication hubs and microphones. Understandably, getting the Beyerdynamic Phonum or Shure MXA 310 may be difficult to justify for smaller companies, but if conference calls between offices are common, they’re probably worth it.
Think of it like this: spending money on a good telephony hub minimizes time wasted. Depending on the participants’ pay rates, how many people are involved, and how much time is spent repeating and answering, “What?” or getting everyone in on a call individually, you could end up saving quite a bit of money over the long run while increasing productivity.
Get headphones with a good microphone
Another, more feasible option is to get a pair of headphones with a good dedicated microphone. The OnePlus Bullets Wireless 2 has an excellent in-line mic and retails for $99. This is a great option if you’re an individual looking to upgrade your headset as it also serves as an excellent pair of everyday earbuds.
If, however, you’re responsible for dolling headsets out to the entire office, the Plantronics Voyager 6200 UC is a brilliant pick. It has a slew of office-friendly features is officially certified for Skype Business. While this doesn’t solve the problem of connection strength, it chips away at one of the main issues surrounding conference calls.
Related: Best wireless earbuds
Will call quality improve as 5G becomes more prevalent?
As 5G becomes the norm, the enhanced voice services (EVS) codec will be widely supported. We’ve already seen it on 4G networks with the iPhone, from the 8 to the XR. It offers up to 20kHz audio bandwidth, which is the highest frequency auditorily healthy humans can hear. What’s more, it works with both AMR and AMR-WB while using a variable bitrate for stable connectivity. Once universally supported, the error concealment mechanism will actively neutralize distortion, too. This is all to say calls will be clearer and more reliable as technology develops.
Until then, being proactive about using VoIP apps and investing in better quality headsets is the easiest way to mitigate conference call frustrations.