Gadgets

Do You Need a Fancy Bluetooth Speakerphone to Make Your Zoom Meetings Better?

As if freeing up printer jams and troubleshooting Wi-Fi problems weren’t enough, audio engineering has now joined the list of frustrating technical tasks that office workers are expected to master. With many meetings now combining employees in a conference room with colleagues on Zoom, office workers who can barely figure out their home stereo often struggle to get everyone coming in loud and clear. The causes are manifold: cheap webcam microphones, noisy conference rooms with terrible acoustics, and most annoying of all, TED Talk wannabes who wander the room when they speak. What should be a productive conversation can turn into a frustrating exercise in lip reading, clairvoyance, and disambiguation. Did you just agree to proofread a contract for the boss—or to take care of their basset hound for a week?

Fortunately, new, sophisticated Bluetooth speakerphones aim to make conference calls sound as if they were produced by Quincy Jones. (Well, almost.) These compact devices combine the functions of a conference-call microphone and a portable Bluetooth speaker. We found their promise to pluck people’s voices cleanly out of the noise and echo irresistible, so we collected several leading models and put them through the toughest tests we could conjure up.

I’ll confess that part of this quest was personal. I’ve been pining for a good speakerphone ever since the pandemic hit in 2020. Not for me, but to send to my family. When I call them, they often put an iPhone in speakerphone mode and then huddle around it to talk with me. Or rather, they start by huddling around—and then they gradually wander off to different parts of the room, where the reverb from their marble floors and wood-paneled walls starts to swamp their sentences.

Simulating the chaos of corporate meetings

An assortment of eight bluetooth speakers arranged in rows of 4, 3, and 1.
Photo: Brent Butterworth

The Bluetooth speakerphone models we tried were the Airhug 01, the Anker PowerConf S500, the Beyerdynamic Space, the Cyber Acoustics Essential SP-2000, the Emeet M3, the Jabra Speak 510, the Poly Sync 20+, and the Raycon Work Speaker. The models are priced from $60 to $220. All of them can also hook up directly to a computer, tablet, or smartphone through a wired USB connection—a useful feature considering the scant possibility of getting a room full of people to deactivate Bluetooth on their phones.

To test the speakers’ ability to pick up multiple voices in a suboptimal space, I asked three of my Wirecutter colleagues to record themselves reciting text from different Wirecutter guides, after which I edited the recordings into a simulated conversation—with people speaking singly and sometimes with multiple people talking at the same time or talking over each other, much like what you’d encounter in a real meeting. I then played each of the four voices (including mine) through its own speaker, with the speakers arranged around a table in my acoustically reverberant kitchen to simulate four people sitting around a conference-room table. As luck would have it, we got a great mix of voices: two female and two male, and each gender included someone who spoke loudly and someone who spoke with a softer voice.

(Here’s a video that shows how we did the testing and lets you hear the difference between a couple of the speaker models we tested.)

I placed each speakerphone in the middle of the table, played the fake conversation, and recorded the results. I then added 60 decibels’ worth of noise (a moderately loud refrigerator and two fans) and repeated the process to see how well the speakerphones cancelled the noise. I did the same tests with my Samsung Galaxy S10 phone to see how its speakerphone function compared with the dedicated speakerphones. Five Wirecutter colleagues and I then listened to the recordings (identified only by number to eliminate brand bias) to judge how well the speakerphones picked up the voices. Afterward, I set up a Zoom call with Wirecutter senior staff writer Lauren Dragan to find out how well my voice came through on her side. Finally, I listened to the same simulated conversation through each speaker, followed by some music, to see how good the speakers sounded.

A Bluetooth speakerphone that cuts through the noise

As the listeners weighed in with their opinions, I started to worry that speakerphones weren’t all they were cracked up to be. There was some disagreement as to which models performed best on what we believed was the most relevant test (multiple talkers without added noise), and models that did well on that test didn’t necessarily do well on other tests—and vice versa. Some listeners put the greatest value on reducing the amount of room echo, while others preferred speakerphones that preserved more of the natural tonality and fullness of voices instead of thinning out the sound of the voices as some models did.

Making the judging more challenging: In the panelists’ opinion, the Samsung Galaxy S10’s speakerphone function outperformed all but three of the dedicated speakerphones. The Galaxy S10 is a higher-end Samsung model, so its performance is pretty good, and we can’t generalize about other phones’ potential performance on this test. But this result does suggest that before you rush out to buy a dedicated speakerphone, you should try using your phone to see how well it works in this role. If it does the job, it won’t cost you a penny extra, and you won’t have to carry an extra device around.

The Emeet M3 Bluetooth speakerphone emitting a green light.
The Emeet M3 Bluetooth speakerphone has LED lighting that shows the direction in which its microphone array is focused. Photo: Brent Butterworth

Once all the results were in, though, one speakerphone model stood out: The Emeet M3 was the top pick on the multiple-talker test for four of our six panelists, and it didn’t flub any of the other tests. Unlike many of the other models, it largely preserved the natural sound of the four different voices, which is important in an animated conversation where it may be difficult to distinguish talkers’ identities. The M3 eliminated most of the room echo, and on the test with noise added, it cut out most of the noise, although it sometimes made voices sound a bit unnatural and chopped-off in the process. “I felt it had clear vocals that sounded the most like the actual person, and had less sense of room presence affecting the quality of the sound,” one panelist noted. Some of that performance is probably due to the fact that the M3 features four microphones with a “steering” system similar to that found on many smart speakers: It detects the direction of the loudest talker and focuses on them. An LED array on the top indicates the direction in which the microphone array is focused.

The M3 was capable of playing voices from the people on the other end of the line about 6 decibels louder—about the difference between speaking normally and raising your voice—than many of the other models. That’s important for large conference calls. For especially large meetings (up to 20 people, according to Emeet), you can connect two M3 units together. However, at 5.25 inches in diameter, 1.5 inches thick, and 14 ounces, the M3 might be more than some people want to carry. It does come with a carrying case, though.

Other good options for clear conference calls

Three bluetooth speakerphones, each a different shape and size.
Clockwise from left: the Anker PowerConf S500, Poly Sync 20+, and Emeet M3. Photo: Brent Butterworth

Two other models also earned praise from multiple panelists: the Anker PowerConf S500 and the Poly Sync 20+. The PowerConf S500 edged out the Sync 20+ for second place in the multiple-talker test, and both speakerphones did an excellent job of picking out our talkers’ voices clearly in the presence of added noise—better even than the Emeet M3 did. The Sync 20+ had the clearest reproduction of voices from the other end of the line. Although my measurements showed that the Sync 20+ didn’t really play any louder than my Samsung phone, it sounded much clearer. Considering that the Sync 20+ cost only 60% as much as the Emeet M3 at the time of our tests, that makes it an appealing choice for budget-minded businesspeople and families.

The PowerConf S500 also did pretty well in reproducing voices from the other end of the line, but its price was 10% higher than the Emeet M3’s price last time we looked, so we suggest buying the M3 unless it sells out or is discontinued.

Although none of these speakerphones will make you feel like all your remote meeting colleagues are with you in the room, they do have the potential to make conference calls and Zoom meetings more effective and enjoyable when multiple people are in the same room—and the best of them should be especially helpful in reverberant or noisy rooms. Buying a good speakerphone is much cheaper and simpler than fixing a conference room’s poor acoustics.

There’s also one more benefit to placing a speakerphone on the table while everyone is gathering around for a call. As a business associate in Silicon Valley told me when I mentioned that I was doing these tests: “If you show up with one of those, it looks so much more professional than plopping someone’s phone in the middle of the table.”

This article was edited by Erica Ogg.

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