After more than 30 hours of research and testing 11 different headsets, the Jabra UC Voice 550 Duo is our pick for the best USB office headset. It’s comfortable enough to wear during even the longest conference calls thanks to soft, well-padded earcups that don’t put pressure on your ears, and it has the best sound quality for voice calls of all the models we tested but still allows you to hear what’s going on around you. The noise-canceling mic filters out background noise so you won’t drive your callers crazy, and when you don’t want to be heard, the easy-to-use mute controls were among the quietest and most discreet we tried. It also features an easy-to-position mic boom, which combines rigid plastic with a more flexible wire tip. If your day at the office consists of frequently switching between calls and your mp3 collection, Microsoft’s LifeChat LX-6000 remains a very good option—it was our previous pick, and it’s currently a few bucks cheaper than the Jabra. It’s heavier than our main pick but also has a fuller sound profile that is better for music, while voice calls still sound great.
For heavy users, the UC Voice 550 Duo is the best USB headset we tested. Calls are crisp without being so bright that your ears get fatigued. The mic boom offers the convenience of rigid plastic with the flexibility of a wire—allowing you to place it precisely for the best possible sound and quickly flip it out of the way. It’s light and doesn’t feel bulky, so it’s easy to wear all day.
Microsoft’s LX-6000 was our previous pick, and is still a great headset—especially if you switch between voice calls and music. The sound is fuller than the Jabra UC Voice 550 Duo, which improves music performance. Voice calls were clear, even with background noise, and the ear pads and headband aren’t too tight, even for marathon conference calls. However, it’s slightly heavier and less comfortable than our main pick.
The Plantronics Blackwire 725 has the best music performance of the USB headsets we tested and calls sound great. A host of bells and whistles like superior and switchable noise cancellation, auto-answer, compatibility with a range of calling software, and a foldable design add up to a premium headset, with a price tag to match.
I’ve been reviewing and writing about consumer gadgets since 2007. I previously worked as Reviews Editor at Mac|Life, where one of my major beats was audio products, and have continued to write about audio for a range of publications.
As a full-time freelancer, I spend several hours each week in Skype collaborating with remote colleagues, which requires a good-sounding, reliable headset. As a DJ, I broadcast a weekly radio show and have regular live gigs, so I have an understanding of audio quality and comfort needs from a wide variety of perspectives.
I also interviewed Forrest Guest, an Indirect Tax Automation Implementation Consultant with Thomson Reuters, who spends “all day in conference calls. Some are pretty short and some are several hour marathons.” His perspective as a heavy user helped shape the criteria we looked for in choosing headsets and how we evaluated their performance.
If you’re currently calling into audio or video conference calls with the mic and speakers built into your laptop, you should definitely consider upgrading to a proper headset to improve your sound quality. Callers will be able to hear you more clearly, and background noise will be reduced—a boon for anyone who works anywhere there are other people.
If your current headset causes ear pain, upgrading to a more comfortable device will be money well spent. If you’re using a headset for more than the occasional call, or for more than 20 minutes or so at a time, having a headset that’s comfortable to wear makes the difference between being able to focus on your call and constantly being distracted by your headset—possibly to the point of actual pain.
You should also consider upgrading if your current headset doesn’t offer noise cancellation. A microphone that filters out background noise will make your calls clearer and more professional-sounding. Inline volume and mute controls make it easier to adjust call volume on the fly and let you quickly mute your microphone if you need to talk to someone who isn’t on your call. While answer and end controls are convenient, finding a headset that works with your combination of hardware and software can be a challenge (especially for Mac users).
When it comes to USB headsets, overall sound quality is important so that you can hear your callers clearly and they can hear you, so we looked for headsets that had favorable reviews for overall sound. As when we first wrote this guide in 2013, there are few editorial reviews, so we relied on user reviews from Amazon and other stores.
With our expert, we also identified several important basic hardware features—most notably a noise-cancelling microphone, volume and mute controls, and a visible mute indicator—so we looked for these basic hardware features (that work with nearly any setup) in selecting models to test.
Personal experience (and the preferences of our expert) focused the search on dual-ear models (although if you prefer a single-ear model, some of the headsets we tested also come in a one-sided version) for better sound isolation when working in a noisy office environment.
We found 13 new headsets since our last guide that fit our general parameters and ultimately called in 11 of them for hands-on testing.
Since we focused on headsets for office use, we concentrated on audio/video chat usage for the bulk of the tests. We used each headset for audio calls from a computer to judge the incoming sound quality, got subjective feedback about microphone sound quality from people we called, and tested the hardware mute buttons.
I recorded calls made with each headset so that I could evaluate sound quality head-to-head. Using Skype, I made outgoing calls to a voicemail number and downloaded the voicemail messages so that I could directly compare audio quality. For each call, I read a passage from a magazine article and used the hardware mute buttons to test how easy the buttons were to use, how well they worked, and whether they created any noticeable noise or interruption on the other end of the call. I conducted this test twice in my relatively quiet home office. The first round of calls I completed without any additional background noise. For the second pass, I played a podcast of multiple people speaking in the background, at a moderate volume comparable to ambient office noise.
To test long-term comfort, I wore each of the headsets for several hours while doing other things. For anyone who uses a headset for more than the occasional call, comfort over the long term is a huge concern. I have a particularly large head (hat size 7 7/8) so I also had a friend with a more average-sized cranium give me some feedback about the comfort of each of the headsets.
While our picks are geared primarily toward voice use, many users may also want to use them to listen to music or podcasts. I tested each with familiar passages from a couple of songs, as well as a short snippet from an episode of This American Life, to help discern overall differences in sound quality.
Price-wise, the sweet spot for USB headsets seems to be about $25-$55. Cheaper models tend to lack inline volume and mute controls. More cash might get you a nicer-looking box, and in a few instances accessories like drawstring bags (which don’t really offer much protection), slightly upgraded materials or design, or even more advanced noise reduction. Unless you use a headset for hours every day and need to carry it around with you, the higher-end models are overkill for most people.
Many extra features may not be worth paying for because compatibility varies widely. A few of the headsets we tested, including models from Jabra and Plantronics, featured optional software for enabling additional features like answer/end controls, but compatibility was spotty. If you find a headset with software features that work with your setup, consider that the cherry on top.
Jabra’s UC Voice 550 Duo is the best USB headset for most people. It offers great audio quality for calls and features noise-cancellation technology that keeps background sounds from muddying up your conversations. It’s comfortable enough for long-term wear, so even back-to-back conference calls weren’t a problem with this light headset.
When it comes to sound, the UC550 was in the top tier of headsets we tested. Callers’ voices sounded clear and natural, not muffled or difficult to listen to for extended periods.
The UC550’s mic offers noise cancellation, which in testing was very effective at canceling out background noise, including moderately loud speech. In addition, a compression feature called PeakStop “eliminates potentially harmful sound spikes,” according to Jabra.
Circuitry aside, the mic boom was the best among all the headsets tested. Most booms are made of either rigid plastic or a coated, bendable wire. Wire booms allow for the most flexibility in positioning, but are kind of a pain to reposition every time you flip them back down for a call, unlike rigid booms. The boom on the 550 is a hybrid of the two, a rigid plastic piece with wire at the mic end. It flips out of the way easily without getting bent out of shape, but the flexible tip allows for precise placement for the best call quality.
Some of the headsets we tested produced audible clicks or hums when toggling the mute on or off. The UC550 mutes silently, avoiding creating any noise that callers will notice. When the headset is muted, a red LED—large and clear enough to be visible in a brightly-lit room—lights up on the inline remote.
As we quickly discovered, comfort is extremely important when it comes to headsets, which sometimes need to be used for hours each day. The UC550 Duo stands out for being a close-to-unnoticeable 2.6 ounces (not including cables). I was able to easily get through a series of conference calls and other tasks without being bothered by the weight or bulk of the headset.
The traditional over-the-head headband is flexible enough not to exert too much pressure on my ears, something I’m particularly aware of and prone to as a person with a big head. Additionally, the top of the headband and the speakers are well-padded with a soft material that seems like it should stand up well to regular use.
Overall, we were very impressed with the UC550, but our testing process was heavily weighted toward using a USB headset to make voice calls. For music listening, however, while the UC550 is certainly better than the tinny speakers in your laptop, it won’t give you the same kind of sound you get from a great pair of headphones. You’ll be disappointed by the thin sound, and lower frequencies are rolled off to ensure clarity of voices.
A definite drawback is the layout of the inline remote, which consists of two buttons (answer/end and mute) flanking a rocker switch for volume. The buttons and switch are small and have raised icons to indicate their functions, but those icons aren’t large enough to feel much different from each other. And the physical design doesn’t offer any real clue as to which way is up, so it’s hard to tell what’s what by feel and you most likely won’t be able to rely on muscle memory to use the controls.
After six months of moderate use, our pick is still going strong. It still looks almost-new, all the buttons are still working, and the headband, ear pads, and foam windscreen are in good shape. Audio quality hasn’t changed—no clicks or loose connections—and it has continued to work as a plug-and-play headset through a couple of OS 10 updates on my MacBook. I haven’t traveled with it lately, but it’s holding up well when used at my desk in my home office.
In 2013, we picked Microsoft’s LifeChat LX-6000 as the best USB office headset and it’s still a really good choice. Calling it a “runner-up” doesn’t really do it justice. In testing, it was a head-to-head race between the LX-6000 and the winning UC550 from Jabra, and the Jabra won out primarily on comfort and convenience. Microsoft’s headset weighs 3.5 ounces, while the Jabra is only 2.6 ounces. The difference seems slight on paper, but after wearing both for extended periods of time, we definitely preferred the lighter, less-bulky Jabra headset. The LX-6000’s mic boom is also rigid plastic all the way through, which offers less placement flexibility than the bendy tip on the Jabra.
When listening to music, the deeper bass of the LX-6000 was quite noticeable. Users who spend a good deal of time listening to music while working might actually prefer the LX-6000 over our pick.
The Blackwire 725 from Plantronics is certainly not cheap, but it offers excellent sound quality and switchable active noise cancellation that’s better than what’s available on the other headsets we tested for this guide. It offers excellent clarity whether you’re working in a quiet or noisy environment, and its build quality is a notch or two above the cheaper models, with ultra-soft earpads and a sturdy, padded headband. The earpieces rotate so that the headset packs flatter in your bag, which is handy, if not entirely essential. Users can download software to control a variety of voice applications and media players as well as an auto-answer function that answers incoming calls when you pick up the headset from your desk.
Aside from the lack of Macintosh compatibility for software features, the only major downside is the 24-step volume control, which takes about 10 seconds to go from one end of the scale to another, with accompanying beeps in your ear along the way.
Andrea NC-185 VM USB: It looked promising with an aggregate Amazon rating of 4.3, but the over-emphasized high frequencies made longer calls fatiguing to the ears, and there’s a slight hum in the background.
Jabra UC150 Duo: A less-expensive sibling of our of top pick, with a few small problems. The headset sounded airy, with a slight but noticeable background hiss. On calls, incoming voices were lightly muffled.
Sennheiser SC 60 USB ML: It’s light and comfortable to wear, but the light background hiss was distracting, and incoming callers sounded slightly muffled.
Logitech H540: It’s on the bulky side, so it’s less comfortable for longer chat sessions. There was an intermittent background noise (possibly a ground loop issue, but it went away before we could isolate the cause), which was distracting, and muting and unmuting the microphone produces ticks that are audible to callers.
Sennheiser PC 36: Comfortable and with good sound quality, its major downfall is the mechanical mute switch on the inline control, which causes a loud “thump” whenever it’s turned on or off.
Microsoft LifeChat LX-3000: The flexible boom allows for precise placement of the mic, but the bulk of the headset, coupled with the overall muffled sound of voices, kept it out of the running.
Plantronics Audio 648: It offers decent sound quality and noise reduction, but the behind-the-head design gets annoying after a while, and the headset put uncomfortable pressure on the ears after moderate stretches of use.
Logitech H390: Mediocre sound quality and an occasional significant background hum kept us from considering this headset.
iMicro IM320: Terrible sound quality and annoying background buzz had us quickly tossing this headset aside for any of the others, which are all significantly better options.
Logitech H340: A lower-priced version of the H390, it lacks any inline controls.
Microsoft LifeChat LX-2000: Few professional reviews, middling user reviews, and similar pricing to the LX-3000.
(Photos by Ray Aguilera.)
Originally published: December 17, 2015