Buyer’s guide: conference phones

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Much of the limelight today is focused on video communication and the challenges of making it universally available – problems that were resolved years ago in the voice conference is the easiest way for a group of colleagues to initiate real-time collaboration conferencing world. In many instances, a voice conference is still the most practical and cost-effective way to bring together colleagues or business partners for a synchronous, real-time, meeting. Here, UC News sets out the things to look for when buying a conference phone – and looks at some of  the current offerings.

Polycom has a comprehensive range of about a dozen different models, including the Microsoft Lync optimised CX3000 IP.

In the race to video, the conference phone has been somewhat overlooked as a standalone means of communication. Like videoconferencing, the technology of early conference phones has fostered some unfortunate preconceptions, which need to be addressed in the light of recent developments. While everyone has recollections of calls from ‘squawk boxes’, most of  these date back 10 or even 20 years.

So if you are interested in buying a conference phone from the current generation of products, what should you look for? Conference phone technology today is a broad church, with a host of variations on a theme. At the cheaper end of the market, speaker phones are sold, some would say miss sold, as conference phones. The problem with these are that they offer only half duplex operation, which means that only one person can speak at any one tome – in fact, the voice from the other end of the line is effectively muted, leading to a very unnatural form of communication.

As you work your way up the price range, full duplex models maintain an open connection throughout, supporting natural dialogue between meeting participants. This is a true conference phones. Digital signal processing detect reconciles the output from the phone’s speakers and the input from its microphones enabling multi-party participation.

Form factor

If a conference phone is the solution for your needs, the next decision you will need to make concerns the physical form factor of the phone. This will be determined by a number of considerations, ranging from the size and layout of the room, the nature of the meetings you want to hold and the number of participants.

In a dedicated meeting room, you might choose a corded conference phone, with a base unit containing the microphones and speakers. This is the classic round or three sided banana shaped device that sits on the conference table and it hard-wired into a telephone extension. Alternatively, you can look at cordless models in which the base station is plugged into a telephone extension and a power outlet. The handsets (or headsets)are portable, allowing users to move around. This solution is often adopted in open plan offices or in situations where there is no dedicated meeting room.

A good phone?

Whichever form factor you choose, the most important operating characteristic is intelligibility. Artefacts in the quality of the audio and the behaviour of meeting participants can be barriers to communication. These include:

  • Reverberation – the echo that occurs between the person speaking and the microphone, and makes speech difficult to understand. Reverberation is created by room characteristics including hard floors, walls and ceilings.
  • Interaction – the ebb and flow of conversation, with participants speaking over each other, interrupting
  • Frequency bandwidth – with a traditional analogue phone, about 20% of the frequencies (from 300Hz to 3.3kHz) of the human vocal range are carried. New technologies extend the upper end of this range to 22kHz.
  • Amplitude – the perceived loudness of a speaker to the listener is an important factor in intelligibility. The gains (the ratio between signal and noise on the phone line can vary up to 20dB.
  • Noise – this does not simply emanate from the phone line – it includes any extraneous sounds picked by the microphone and background room noise from air conditioning and other devices.

Your choice of conference phone can have a positive effect on all of these negative factors. For example, the latest generation of high-end conference phones employ digital signal processing and echo cancelling techniques. These allow the phones to reproduce the voices of the participants more accurately despite noise, echo and side conversations

Digital v analogue

Many of these new capabilities stem from the use of digital technologies in conference phones, and it almost seems anachronistic to be talking about analogue solutions these days – but they do have some advantages. Where the budget is limited, an analogue might fit the bill, or perhaps in situations where the rest of an organisation runs on analogue. This is often the case where an Ethernet network has not been installed and so a move to VoIP is prohibitively expensive.

Where VoIP is an option, a conference phone offers benefits which are simply not available with analogue solutions. These include: better sound quality (this comes from the higher bandwidth range); automation and customisable options; and simplified wiring (there is no need for a separate voice and data port in the room. Another factor here is that the life of an investment in a state-of-the-art conferencing phone can be extended by integrating it into a videoconferencing solution at a later date.

Whichever way you decide to go, installing or upgrading a conference phone delivers an almost immediate return on what is a comparatively modest outlay. For many users, a quality voice experience is, pound for pound, preferable to an inferior video solution. When it is natural, intelligible and free of artefacts, voice communication can be effective and persuasive in getting your point across.

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Considerations before buying a conference phone

With a wide choice of models on the market, here is a checklist of things you should consider before buying a conference phone:

  • How big is the room and how is it laid out?
  • What is the room used for?
  • Do you have plans to install video conferencing at a later date?
  • What is the maximum number of participants in your meetings?
  • Are the meetings formal, with participants in predetermined positions (e.g. sitting around a table?) or are they more freeform?
  • Are you equipping one meeting room / office or several?
  • How much do you have to spend (conference phones vary in price from a couple of hundred pounds to a couple of thousand)?

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Conference phones: what’s on the market?

While perhaps not quite so high profile, innovation in the conference phone market is just as prevalent. The objective of vendors in this space is to provide natural sound because an interrupted quickly becomes a cause of frustration. There are a variety of noises that can interfere with the signal of the conference phone.

Revolabs’ conference phones have RF Armor technology that is said to allow no more cell phone buzz, interference or noise from other wireless electronic devices. Konftel’s OmniSound supports 360° sound pickup and echo cancellation, with background noise suppression and an equaliser for personal adjustment of sound characteristics

To avoid some of the problems that arise from positioning the conference phone in the middle of a room, headsets or additional microphones can be added to some solutions. To avoid a mass of wiring, it is more convenient for the user to use wireless headsets pr mics. The Revolabs’ FLX wireless conference phone comes with two wearable microphones for room presentations.

The FLX is available in a number of versions with different microphone configurations to best meet specific customer needs. The conference phone comes with either, two omni-directional microphones (FLX2-200) for medium-sized conference rooms where two distinct areas of the room need to be covered; one wearable and one omni-directional microphone (FLX2-101). Recently, Revolabs announced that its FLX wireless VoIP conference phone successfully completed interoperability testing with Cisco Unified Communications Manager, version 8.6.

Bluetooth provides a wireless connection where speakers and microphone can be placed anywhere in the room. Wireless options with headsets and handsets offer flexibility and freedom to move through the room as often as a participant likes without loss of audio quality and without the feeling of being ‘chained’ to the conference phone.

Bluetooth is not only an advantage for physical flexibility in a conference but also provides a versatile connection with mobile devices, like other microphones, headsets, laptops, tablets and smartphones. It also supports conferences with a variety of services on laptops or mobile phones, for example Google Talk, Skype and Microsoft Lync. Konftel’s 300IP is also interoperable with SIP- compatible PBXs.

For even more flexibility the Konftel250 has an SD slot for SD memory cards with up to 2GB of storage, so you can record your call and save it on your SD card. When saved on your SD card as a WMV file it can be played on your laptop or computer. Recording calls to an SD memory card can be ideal for interviews, documentation, or simply as a reminder of important calls and meetings.

In a similar vein, the Konftel 250 can also be used as a Dictaphone. In addition to the SD card, the wireless Konftel 300M provides even greater flexibility by connecting to a 3G/GSM network when fitted with a SIM card.

With most conference phones you can create a phone book which often holds up to 50 contacts and call groups (usually 20) and additional microphones double the sound pick up area. For example, with the Konftel 250, one pair of expansion microphones increases the range from 30 square meters up to 70 (750 sq ft). Avaya conference phones allow users to create their own phone books with the user profile feature (up to 1000 contacts per profile). You can import and export contact details via a Web interface.

Avaya has also tackled the crucial ease-of –use issue. Soft-keys on the Avaya 2033 and 1692 IP conference phones are automatically labelled from the system, supporting easy navigation of call server features. You can use the conference guide on the Avaya B100 Series Conference Phones to call pre-programmed groups.

Security is a critical issue for many users. Last month, RevoLabs announced the Executive HD product family. The Revolabs Executive HD MaxSecure wireless microphone system and compatible microphones now offer support for the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES-256).

Videoconferencing suppliers LifeSize and Polycom are also active in the conference phone market. Now in its second generation, the LifeSize Phone offers an intuitive touch-screen interface that is simple enough for anyone to use, reducing training and IT support of end users. For those planning to add videoconferencing at a later date, the phone provides control of both HD video and audio collaboration. You don’t need a separate remote control. Polycom has a comprehensive range of about a dozen different models, including the Microsoft Lync optimised CX3000 IP.

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Avaya 1692: an IP-enabled solution for conference rooms up to 400 sq. Ft. This has optional microphone to extend sound coverage in larger spaces.

The LifeSize Phone: now it its second generation.

Revolabs FLX: completed interoperability testing with Cisco Unified Communications Manager.

The Konftel 250: you can record your call and save it on an SD card

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