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Product review: Headset for softphones

A review of a headset that helps convert a PC to a softphone.

Product: DSP 300 headset
Product Description: USB-based headset with built-in sound card capabilities.
Class: Individual user level softphone headset (additional softphone program required for VoIP use)
Company: Plantronics
Cost: $68-77
You'll love this product if: You like a lightweight (8 oz), reasonably compact wired headset that's easy to install and use.
You won't if: you're looking for the smallest headset available, or a wireless headset (this one uses a fair amount of wire and gets its sound card capabilities from an in-line circuitboard and includes an inline volume control/mute button as well).
Fringe Benefits: Doubles as a hi-fi headset for listening to music, MP3s, or DVD sound tracks.

As part of how I make my living I conduct Web seminars online at least once a month, including Webinars for numerous TechTarget Web sites from time to time. In days of yore, I'd make a call on my POTS line while looking at PowerPoint slides through my Web browser, then juggle both tools to stay in synch. But these days, VoIP makes it a snap to integrate voice traffic as part of the overall Web delivery environment along with slides, text messaging tools, and more (WebEx is one of many companies that offers good tools that integrate all these various components effectively).

An unexpected benefit of taking on this work was that it required me to purchase a good-quality USB headset. Instead of plugging a headset with microphone and headphones into an audio interface (sometimes into sound cards plugged into a computer's interface bus, sometimes into sound cards integrated right into PC motherboards), you can purchase head sets that integrate all necessary electronics into an oversized on-off switch/volume control built into the headset cable. Then, simply by plugging the headset's USB connector into a PC running a recent version of Windows (and installing an updated driver where necessary) you acquire a VoIP connection that permits you to place and receive calls as soon as you install a softphone on your PC or laptop and establish a service relationship with a VoIP provider. For $9.99 a month, for example, Vonage supplies a softphone application, and lets you place and receive calls pretty much anywhere you can establish a sufficiently speedy Internet connection (International calls cost extra, and of course you need to pay for your underlying broadband service as well).

Because suitable USB headsets are available from vendors such as Plantronics, Logitech, and USBGear, for prices from $25 to $75 (higher-price models typically also double as high-fidelity headsets for MP3, other digital audio formats, and DVD sound), price is really no barrier to adding a softphone to employee PCs. And because softphone programs are normally furnished as part of VoIP service bundles, and free alternatives abound, making the connection doesn't add much cost.

For many organizations, VoIP phone service is a great deal, especially for mobile employees who must carry laptops anyway. While only a few companies have been rash (or brave) enough to lower cell phone issues as an outcome, most experience lower overall phone charges as a result of enabling mobile staff to use either a VoIP softphone or a cellphone, as circumstances dictate. For companies with VoIP phone service in house already, adding softphone capabilities for mobile staff is a natural extension of that infrastructure.

The Plantronics DSP 300 headset weighs about 6 ounces (175 g), and fits easily into a notebook bag or briefcase. The unit retails for between $68 and $77, and includes a software CD with Windows drivers and a handy device control program; volume discounts should be available to those who wish to purchase this unit in numbers. Installation requires simply plugging the unit's cable into an unused USB port on a desktop or laptop, then running the CD installer. In informal testing, it installed on Windows 2000 and Windows XP notebooks and desktops without a hitch. Companies or organizations should be able to issue these units to their staff, along with a compatible softphone application and deploy this technology with little or no additional IT support needed.

Ed Tittel is a regular contributor to numerous TechTarget Web sites, and the author of over 100 books on a wide range of computing subjects from markup languages to information security. He's also a contributing editor for Certification Magazine, and edits Que Publishing's Exam Cram 2 and Training Guide series of cert prep books. E-mail Ed at


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