Freestanding Mics: Farewell to Headsets Forever?

If you like talking to your computer, you know that wearing a headset can be a real drag. Four new freestanding microphones come to the rescue: Andrea Electronics' DA-400 Desktop Array, GN Netcom's Microphone Array, Labtec's LVA-7280 ClearVoice Digital Microphone, and Telex's Super-Directional USB Digital Microphone M-560. I looked at a beta of the GN Netcom product; all others were shipping units.

These so-called far-field microphones are suitable for speech recognition programs, Internet phone calls, and chat-room prattle. The good news: You can speak into them as freely as you would into a speakerphone. The bad news: These microphones pick up more background noise than headset models, where the boom is in a fixed position near your mouth. The Andrea, GN Netcom and Labtec mics all plug into the PC sound card; Telex's device, as you'd guess from its name, plugs into a USB port.

I tested the products in an open cubicle environment (with some extraneous noise) using Dragon Systems' NaturallySpeaking 4. I dictated a business letter, e-mails and a legal document. Overall, I was fairly impressed with performance.

No microphone dramatically upstages the rest, but different models have pros and cons. For comparison, I also tested a standard headset (most headsets are about US$20), which delivered superior -- but not dramatically superior -- accuracy.

Andrea's $150 DA-400 Desktop Array is the smallest and priciest of the bunch -- roughly the size of a bulky stapler -- with a handy power switch. It mostly ignored background noise from the side. Andrea reps claim that the unit works best on top of your monitor and at a speaking distance of 18 inches or less, but it processed dictation from me at distances up to 4 feet.

GN Netcom's 17-inch Microphone Array roosts on top of your monitor like a miniature aircraft wing. I tested a prototype (a shipping unit should be available by late March). This newcomer performed well within its designated maximum range of 36 inches, but it didn't tune out all background noise.

Labtec's $130 LVA-7280 ClearVoice Digital Microphone, about the size of a rolling pin, has a mute button and a nifty green/red light indicator that lets you know whether it's active. It will work perched on your desk or atop your monitor. It picked up some extraneous noise directly behind the microphone but not sounds to the side. Like Andrea, Labtec optimized its unit to work at 18 inches; and as with the Desktop Array, I found that the ClearVoice still worked a few feet away. At press time, Labtec was finalizing bundled software, which will likely include trial versions of popular speech apps.

You might feel under the gun while talking into Telex's $70 Super-Directional USB Digital Microphone M-560: It points toward you like a rifle. The plug-and-play device worked -- but only after I rebooted my Windows 98 PC a couple of times. The M-560 functions best if you talk at a distance of less than 2 feet. This microphone cut out noise from the side, but its accuracy overall was the least impressive of this group.

You will pay extra to dictate ears-free. A nonheadset mic will work well, assuming you have your own office with a door. And the more you use your voice with these devices, the better your results.

DA-400 Desktop Array

PRO: Ignores peripheral noise.

CON: Expensive.

VALUE: A high-priced alternative to a headset.

Street price: $150

Andrea Electronics



LVA-7280 ClearVoice Digital Microphone

PRO: Nice LED indicating whether mic is active.

CON: Slowest at processing voice signals; not inexpensive.

VALUE: Reasonable accuracy and good trial software enhance its appeal as a headset alternative.

Street price: $130




Microphone Array

PRO: Hands-free mic allows considerable speaking distance for input.

CON: Rather unappealing-looking, picks up some background noise.

VALUE: Good if you like to roam a bit as you talk.

Estimated street price: Less than $100

GN Netcom



Super-Directional USB Digital Microphone M-560PRO: Least expensive in this group.

CON: Lacks power switch, works only with Windows 98.

VALUE: USB device offers great alternative to headset, if your PC's sound system is not up to snuff.

Street price: $70

Telex Communications



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