The comments on a recent Hacker News post inspired me to test my setup for video calls. It was awful, and Bluetooth was to blame. Here's how I fixed it.
The top comment in that post linked to this blog post about how wireless (audio) is a trap:
many bluetooth devices will play high-quality audio when the microphone is turned off, but degrade to much lower-quality audio when it’s turned on. You can test this for yours... if you have a bluetooth headset: play music on it, then open your microphone settings to the page where it shows the mic input volume. You’ll probably hear the audio cut out for a second, then return at lower quality.
This reminded me of how on some calls my incoming audio would sound terrible. Other times my colleagues would say they could barely hear me. I would flail at my audio settings because I was in the middle of a call and needed it to work ASAP. Some switch got flipped, the quality would become tolerable, and we would continue.
I used the Mic Test tool, a fantastic site where you can record audio and hear what you sound like to other people. This told me that my headset sounded unacceptably bad, launching me into research mode. Here's what I learned:
- Bluetooth is a trap. Most Bluetooth devices—including Bose headphones and Macbooks—support two modes: listening to high quality audio, or listening and speaking with telephone-quality audio.
- On phone calls, my Bluetooth headset was fine because we were expecting telephone-quality audio.
- When listening to music, everything was still great.
- When on a video call using my headset's microphone, my input and output were of very poor quality compared to my colleagues.
- The fix I would stumble across in the moment was to use my laptop's integrated microphone, which is better than the Bluetooth headset but sat between noisy fans and the thunder of my fingers typing. Not a good situation.
The solution is to use a separate microphone like this Samson Go Mic I dug out of my closet. When mounted on something other than my laptop, I had good audio outbound to my colleagues. To get good audio into my ears, I skipped the Bluetooth step and plugged directly into the headphone output port on the microphone. Microphones have this headphone jack so you can monitor what you sound like as you speak, play music, etc. Cool right? Maybe I'll record a song later.
The only downside is you have to hear your voice over a speaker, which is a universally appalling experience.