A Head(set) for Business

By Gerry Blackwell | Posted August 15, 2006

If you use Skype or some other computer-based phone service for your business, you've probably realized that two headsets are not better than one. Fortunately GN Netcom's GN 9350 wireless headset was designed to solve that particular problem.

The problem is that nobody uses Skype exclusively. So now you need two devices: a regular phone and a telephone headset plugged into a USB port on your computer. The two devices work completely differently, and the sound different, too. Most people who use Skype only occasionally, which is most of us, end up having to scramble to find the headset and make sure it's plugged in whenever someone calls.

Wouldn't it be nice if you could use the same headset for both regular phone calls and Skype calls? And wouldn't it be nice if it gave you the freedom and convenience of wireless?

That's what the GN 9350 —which sells for a rather pricey $300 — offers. It's a lightweight wireless headset that lets you switch between making and taking calls on a regular phone or using an Internet phone service such as Skype. The 9350 uses the 1.9 GHz radio frequency and DECT 6.0 wireless technology. DECT (Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications) is a cordless phone standard developed in Europe. The company claims the headset can be used up to 300 feet from the base station.

Wi-Fi Friendly
The fact that the 9350 uses the 1.9 GHz frequency band is important because it means the headset won't interfere with an existing Wi-Fi wireless computer network, which uses 2.4 or 5.8 GHz. The 1.9 MHz band also provides good penetration of walls, ceilings and other obstacles found in offices. And it doesn't seem to be affected by microwave ovens. Some other cordless phones we've tried either don't work, or they break up in the vicinity of the admittedly ancient radar range in our kitchen.

In our testing, both sound and connection quality were good-to-excellent in both modes. GN Netcom uses digital signal processing and IntelliTone noise suppression technology to improve sound quality and protect hearing. It also has a noise-canceling microphone to reduce background noise, and it uses digital encryption to make conversations secure.

In computer phone mode, the 9350 features wideband audio to take advantage of the fact that Skype and other Internet phone services actually use more bandwidth to transmit voice than traditional phone systems do. This is why, with a good Skype connection, voices sound fuller and more lifelike than on a regular phone — as long as the headset has wideband capabilities.

The company claims more than adequate battery life on a single charge: six hours computer talk time and nine hours telephone talk time. Standby time is 43 hours and recharging takes three hours.

Work It
To set up the 9350, you unplug the handset from your regular phone and plug in the 9350's base station/charging cradle in its place. The telephone handset plugs into a port on the 9350 base station. You can still make and take calls using the handset, but it does mean the regular phone and the 9350 have to sit beside each other and the wires do have a tendency to get tangled.

The base station also plugs into a USB port on your computer to enable Skype connections. Large buttons at the front of the base station let you select regular phone or computer phone.

Lots of telephone headsets, wireless and otherwise, connect the way this one does, and there is a slight flaw with all of them: to start a call, you have to put the headset on, take the handset out of its cradle and set it beside the phone, then dial the number. After the call, you have to remember to hang up the handset. Not very elegant. GN Netcom does sell an optional device that lifts the handset automatically when you make or take a call on the headset, but it's not particularly elegant either.

As a Skype phone, the 9350 works the way any USB headset does — except it's wireless. You first have to set up the Skype software to use the 9350. Select Options from the Skype Tools menu and then choose Sound Devices in the Options dialog. When you click on the down arrows beside the Audio In and Audio Out options, the GN 9350 should appear in the pull-down lists. Select it for both, and you're in business. Other Internet phone services will have similar utilities for setting up sound devices.

To make a Skype call, you put the headset on, press the Internet phone button on the base station, then make the call using the computer software the way you normally would. To take a Skype call, put the headset on when the incoming call pop-up window appears and mouse click the green Talk button. It's still not terribly elegant, but no more cumbersome than making or taking Skype calls with a dedicated USB headset. And the 9350 lets you use one device for both types of calls.

Set-up is fairly simple. The multi-lingual illustrated "Guide for basic set-up and use" walks you clearly through all of the above steps. Software set-up — to adjust speaker and transmit volume and select radio channel — is simple. The top of the base station comes off revealing a small LCD screen for displaying menus and simple controls for making menu selections.


GN Netcom's GN 9350 wireless headset
Handy Headwear: GN Netcom's GN 9350 wireless headset lets you take and make both Skype and standard phone calls. But no one would call it an inexpensive fix.

Design and Performance
Beyond it's dual-mode functionality, the 9350 is also a very well-designed wireless headset. It's lighter than many we've tried, though not the lightest. It's a feather heavier than the headset on our Plantronics wireless headset phone, for example. On the other hand, with the Plantronics phone, you have to carry the dial pad (which incorporates the battery) clipped to your belt when you go wireless. The 9350 lets you wander with just the headset on.

The 9350 also offers three "wearing styles." The product ships with the speaker and boom microphone and three different devices for attaching it to your head: a traditional over-the-head loop, a behind-the-neck loop and an ear clip. The only one we liked was the over-the-head loop, but it is very comfortable and unobtrusive. We've never found a behind-the-neck headset that was comfortable, and the ear clip is a little small for our Dumbo-sized male ears.

We tested the 9350 around our home office. Incoming audio on regular telephone calls was always clear and at an appropriate volume. In Skype mode, incoming audio sounded even better on good connections. Outgoing audio, while clear and intelligible, did sound a bit tinny at times and occasionally broke up. This was most noticeable when we roamed furthest from the base station.

GN Netcom claims the headset will work at a range of up to 300 feet in an office. It's difficult to get that far away in our office, but we noticed very little if any degradation in connection or voice quality anywhere, including when over 100 feet away from the base station, outside. When we walked down the street, beyond about 120 feet our caller reported that our voice was breaking up, although hers remained clear.

Bottom Line
If you're looking for a wireless headset, and you already use Skype or anticipate using it or some other computer-based phone service in the future, this is an excellent, if somewhat expensive, product.

There is a less expensive alternative worth considering, however. Purchase a wireless headset phone such as the 900MHZ Plantronics CS50, which sells for as little as $165 online. You can't make calls using a conventional handset with this system — you only get a headset — and, as noted, you carry the number pad with you when using it in wireless mode. Now add a VoSKY Call Center from Actiontec ($70) so you can use the Plantronics system for both Skype and regular telephone calling.

The beauty of this solution is that you no longer need to use the PC software to make Skype calls. You can make them directly from the Plantronics keypad, and you answer a Skype call exactly the way you answer a regular call. The VoSKY unit automatically routes Skype calls to the phone.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s. Just for fun, he also authors features and columns on digital photography for Here's How, a spiffy Canadian consumer technology magazine.

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