While the COVID-19 pandemic has had a lasting impact on every aspect of modern life, its biggest impact has unquestionably been on the way we work and learn.
A study released in February 2021 by Frost and Sullivan showed a six-to-seven-fold increase in the number of remote workers compared to the number of employees working remotely prior to the pandemic. Indeed, in less than one year, video conferencing evolved from being a high-end, fixed solution largely found in executive conference rooms to a wide range of affordably-priced, mobile solutions available to anyone with access to a notebook, tablet, or smartphone. In short, the need for on-demand video conferencing exploded and shows no sign of abating.
Unsurprisingly, increased use of on-demand video conferencing is also creating more awareness about the importance of audio quality. In fact, most office workers use headphones or omni microphones for conference calls in the office, and many report that sound quality issues, such as noise interference and distortion, have a negative impact on the focus, productivity and overall effectiveness of a video conference.
Audio Quality Cannot Be Ignored
Audio is actually more important than video in creating a collaboration experience that generates better business and learning outcomes that everyone seeks.
In remote meetings, if the video quality is poor or the signal is lost, meeting leaders can supplement by emailing or file-sharing documents or images, but a loss or degradation of audio signal stops the conversation in its tracks, wasting time and requiring repetition. It is critically important to consider audio when designing and installing a conferencing solution that can work for everyone, anywhere, making microphone selection perhaps the most important consideration of all.
Let’s take a closer look at how different microphones can work effectively in various meeting scenarios.
Today, most commonly available wired conference room microphones can be divided into three types: non-beamforming desktop, non-beamforming ceiling, and beamforming.
One commonly used non-beamforming desktop microphone is the gooseneck. The base of a gooseneck microphone is placed on a tabletop, and the neck extends the microphone out toward the talker. They are often used on podiums or for large presentation spaces where the goal is to amplify a single talker.
For conferencing, however, gooseneck microphones fail to meet the needs of clean presentation and require that individual microphones are located at each seat, since they only capture audio in a single direction. Having gooseneck microphones on the table may add visual distraction for virtual conferencing, and their location basically mandates constant adjustment and touching, which is undesirable in the current environment.
In terms of cost-efficiency, gooseneck microphones quickly become cost-prohibitive in medium and large conference rooms because of the number of microphones required. What’s more, multimedia conference rooms are generally equipped with large screens and presenters need to be able to move around the room while using the large screen for their presentations. Gooseneck microphones greatly limit a speaker’s ability to move while presenting.
Non-beamforming ceiling microphones eliminate virtually all the visual and contact-based drawbacks of gooseneck and tabletop microphones. Non-beamforming ceiling microphones are installed on or in the ceiling, eliminating the need for cables to cross the table and impact the beauty of the meeting room, as well as holes in the tabletops in some high-end meeting rooms. The ceiling microphone is located above the line of sight and solves the problem of the microphone blocking faces. Because of these factors, more and more users and organizations are choosing non-beamforming ceiling microphones.
Even these ceiling microphones are not without flaws, however. They are farther away from the source of the sound, requiring specific placement and multiple units to ensure audio can be captured effectively from any part of the room. Other ceiling-based conference room technologies, such as projector fans or even air conditioning vents can introduce unwanted noise and complicate use even further.
The Benefit of Beamforming Microphones
Beamforming microphones are a newer type of audio capture solution that leverages intelligent functions to solve these issues and focus the microphone’s capture on whoever is speaking, effectively negating competing sounds and eliminating dead zones.
A beamforming microphone array combines a set of microphones placed in predetermined locations with a digital signal processing algorithm to create a pickup pattern with gain in specific directions. Using multiple microphones and advanced processing enables a beamforming microphone array to attenuate ambient noise and capture equally pristine audio from any location in a room.
The pickup pattern of a given beam in a beamforming microphone array is narrower than the pickup pattern of a traditional cardioid directional microphone. This enables a beamforming microphone array to have a superior signal to noise ratio compared to traditional non-beamforming microphones. A well-designed beamforming microphone system captures audio uniformly and with high quality for all talkers in a collaboration space whether they are stationary or moving around.
In terms of aesthetics, and because of the superiority of its sound-pickup method, beamforming microphones can be mounted on or in the ceiling and still provide excellent performance. The mounting can be done in a way that perfectly blends with the rest of the ceiling so that the microphone array will not be easily detected — ensuring that the conference rooms remain uncluttered and clean in appearance. These features make a beamforming microphone the most suitable choice for use in the current remote and hybrid conferencing environments.
Jim Mergens is the senior sales director at ClearOne.