In our last column, we discussed how to find the ideal interpreting headphones.

Once you do so, just plug that perfect pair into a console for onsite work.

More experienced interpreters might also use their favorite headphones with a USB microphone and mixer for remote interpreting.

But without a doubt, the easiest path to solid audio during remote meetings is to invest in a USB headset.

In this column, we’ll cover the basics and share our suggestions for finding your perfect interpreting headset.

Headsets

Headsets are simply headphones with an integrated microphone. They keep the microphone close to your mouth, giving you the freedom to move around, lean back in your chair or even stand without worrying about how far you are from the microphone. (Farewell, hunching over!)

Since most are plug-and-play USB models, they’re easy to set up and use. Google Chrome - the browser of choice for many remote simultaneous interpreting platforms - generally recognizes them automatically. Plus, the majority feature noise-canceling or unidirectional microphones, which means they naturally pick up less ambient noise and create better sound for your listeners.

When using a headset, place the microphone slightly below your mouth to avoid breathing or popping sounds. If the mic capsule is too close to your mouth, it will pick up breathing, plosives, and other unwanted noise. If it’s too far away, you’ll be less audible.

Take some time and listen to yourself while getting your microphone positioned perfectly. The ideal position is generally about 3 cm from your mouth, with the microphone slightly below and to the side of your lips.

Don’t forget to move the mic down if you’ve flipped it up during a break to eat or drink!

Even if you opt for the microphone and headphones setup, a USB headset is a quick grab-and-go option to address issues that may crop up on a platform - and they will. Plus, it doesn’t need to break the bank. As a result, we recommend that everyone purchase a headset for remote interpreting.

Unfortunately, gear can fail at the least convenient times. Make sure to keep a spare headset or microphone and headphones close at hand.

How to pick your headset

What makes a headset high quality? Surprisingly, price isn’t always a good indicator. What really matters: the right features.

Start by selecting a wired headset. Wireless or Bluetooth headphones are fine for listening to music at home, but a cabled model will ensure the most stable, reliable connection for incoming and outgoing sound. (Plus, it won’t need to be charged.)

Like headphones, USB headsets can be over-ear, on-ear, closed, open, semi-open, and noise-cancelling. Pick the headset that feels most comfortable to you. (And if you need a refresher on all these terms, head back to our last column.)

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) establishes a limit of no more than 200 grams for interpreting headsets, which means you’ll likely want to avoid over-ear models. After all, if you’re going to be wearing a headset for hours, you want it to be light! If you do pick an over-ear headset, we recommend open or semi-open styles, and have found that semi-open headsets tend to offer the best results.

Headsets come with either a USB plug or an audio jack - usually the 3.5 mm mini-plug. Although it’s possible to use a headset with a 3.5 mm audio plug, you will likely need to pair it with a USB sound card. Plug-and-play USB headsets are less complex - just plug them in and they’re ready to use. Since computers can often identify headsets, selecting your model on your remote interpreting platform tends to be relatively trouble-free.

You might come across call-center style headsets which only cover one ear. We don’t recommend these for interpreting, since you won’t be able to “switch ears” or use both earpieces to hear the original in one ear and your boothmate in the other.

Instead, pick a binaural headset - in other words, one with two earpieces. It should have a flexible boom arm which lets you place the microphone at exactly the right distance from your mouth. (Bonus points if it swings 180 degrees backwards and forwards so you can use it on both sides.)

Some headsets include volume controls and a mute button, which is convenient - this works just like the cough button on your console. Pick a model with an indicator light so you can tell if the mute is turned on.

Headsets might also offer noise-cancelling microphones which filter out background noise. This feature also helps keep the incoming audio from feeding back into the microphone while you are interpreting, though it can significantly increase the cost of your headset.

As we mentioned in our last article, both your speaker and your microphone should span a frequency response range of 125 - 15,000 Hz. This sounds like jargon, but it’s really quite simple: the lower number represents bass frequencies and the higher number represents treble tones. Purchase a headset that covers this entire range to hear and be heard well. Microphones and speakers that cap out at lower ranges will deliver sound that is less crisp and clear.

Some headsets have built-in limiters. These tend to limit sound to levels between 110 and 120 dB, which is much higher than the SO stated maximum for simultaneous interpreting (94 dB for longer than 100 ms). As a result, although these technologies may offer limited protection, they cannot provide full protection from acoustic shock And beware: Even if a brand offers a built-in limiter, not all models will include the feature. Software limiters may help to address the problem, but in general, the best protection is to keep the volume as low as possible.

Finally, since people’s preferences differ, you may need to try out a few headsets to see which one fits right and works best for you.

Wondering which specific headsets we recommend? The Interpreter’s Guide to Audio and Video is for you! It features a table including nearly two dozen popular headset models in every shape and size, with price points as low as $22. (No joke!) Snag your copy for just 25€ using this link!

This column is excerpted and slightly modified from The Interpreter’s Guide to Audio and Video, by Josh Goldsmith and Naomi Bowman. It also appeared in the July 2021 edition of the ToolBox Journal.