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.

What happens when you make a call?

Conference calls - A man using a smartphone to make a phone call using his voice.

Phone calls require voices to be converted into electrical signals.

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. They’re then 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 between networks (CDMA vs. GSM), how close you are to a compatible cell tower, and what physical barriers are 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

Conference calls - Google Pixel 3a Purple-ish Holding Phone

If your phone supports HD Voice you may experience better call quality, but that requires all participants to have HD Voice-compatible phones.

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

Conference calls - OnePlus Bullets Wireless 2: Full image of the earbuds and neckband with the cable curling up and around on a black table.

The OnePlus Bullets Wireless 2 have an excellent integrated mic.

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

Zoom smartphone app on a Samsung Galaxy S10e.

Zoom lets multiple users call in, and it supports video calls.

Using internet applications, 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 and requires users to have access to the internet. This is much more accessible than ensuring every team member has an HD Voice-enabled phone on a supported provider.

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

Product photo of Beyerdynamic Phonum for conference calls.

The Phonum is a reasonably priced solution to improve audio quality during conference calls.

In a similar vein, offices will also benefit from dedicated communication hubs and microphones. Understandably, affording the Beyerdynamic Phonum or Shure MXA 310 may be difficult to justify for smaller companies. If, however, employees frequently telecommute or you make conference calls to other offices, the investment is well worth it.

Think of it like this: by spending money on a good telephony hub, you’re minimizing 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

Conference calls - The Plantronics Voyager 6200 UC can be had for just over $200. The silicone ear tips grip the contours of the ear without irritation. Pictured: The headset and its accessories laid out on a Microsoft Surface Book.

When it comes to conference calls, the noise cancelling Plantronics Voyager 6200 UC earbuds are a great option.

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?

Samsung Galaxy S10 5G 5G logo

Verizon has begun rolling out 5G and Samsung released a 5G version of its Galaxy S10.

Absolutely. 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, distortion will be actively neutralized by the error concealment mechanism. This is all to say that 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.

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