Why Audio Quality Really Matters for Conferencing
Conference calls are a fact of life in business, and as we continue moving towards virtual organizations and more dispersed workforces, their value will only increase. When people have to collaborate, conferencing is essential, not just to communicate effectively in real time, but also to provide an environment where all the elements of a UC solution can be brought into play. This makes audio conferencing a cornerstone of UC, so there’s a lot at stake when the experience isn’t great.
Poor user experiences are typically the norm, and poor audio quality is often the root of the problem. To cite a recent market study, 66% of buyers are “actively looking” for new and better conferencing solutions, and by far, the biggest reason is to get a better user experience. While this can be a highly subjective concept, there’s little doubt that audio quality is the most important factor for an effective conferencing experience.
Not only is conferencing an everyday activity, but as the reasons stated above suggest, the need for conferencing is growing – and supported by the aforementioned study, which also shows that 91% of employees report their activity with meetings is either static or increasing. Whether just focusing on the need for conferencing or the broader UC value proposition, the magnitude of having a poor quality experience will only get bigger.
What’s the problem?
Conferencing doesn’t have to be that way, but there’s a confluence of factors leading audio quality to diminish the user experience. Here are just a few to consider.
- TDM (Time Division Multiplexing) is still prevalent, which means narrowband codecs for conferencing, namely G.711 and G.729. The audio range is limited compared to natural speech, so even at the best of times quality will be good but not great. To illustrate, the range for narrowband is 300 Hz to 3.4 kHz, while the range for human voice is 80 Hz to 14 kHz. Narrowband limitations can lead to confusion in hearing sounds and words, such as the letters b, d and v, or the words “paint” and “faint.”
- As the need for conferencing proliferates, the variety of meeting environments grows, especially for ad hoc meetings. Increasingly, teams are using small meeting spaces – huddle rooms – which are supported with scaled-down conferencing tools. In these settings, the focus is more on having space availability for on-demand meetings than planning ahead for a bigger room to get a high fidelity experience.
- These huddle rooms are just one example of how varied conferencing spaces have become, and that presents a major challenge for delivering a consistent experience. In the absence of a standardized, controlled environment, most conferencing systems and endpoints have limited ability to manage audio quality.
- Increasingly, employees are using personal endpoints for conference calls, and this simply compounds these other problems. In particular, mobile phones are not HD-capable, and the use of USB-connected endpoints over mobility will absolutely compromise audio quality, not to mention the variables of wireless interference, poor mobile reception and choppy voice quality from a cloud OTT service or public Internet connection.
Impact of poor audio quality on conferencing and UC
If you’re not attuned to HD, it’s important to articulate the impact of poor audio quality on conferencing, and by extension, workplace productivity. To illustrate, here are some examples.
- Lack of audio clarity impacts understanding what people are saying. Think of all the time wasted having people repeat things because similar-sounding words get mixed up, their diction is lax, their voice level or tone is hard to hear, or their accent is hard to understand.
- Following the flow of the meeting when people start speaking at the same time or the speaker is getting drowned out by side conversations nearby. Again, the meeting has to stop and then everyone has to backtrack to make sure all the comments are heard by the group.
- As a conference call wears on, “audio fatigue” sets in. During the early going of the call, the above problems are manageable, but if they persist as the call wears on, the extra energy expended to listen closely detracts from focusing on what the meeting is trying to achieve. As callers start to mentally tune out, the productivity value of conferencing can really suffer.
The last point is especially relevant when you consider how long conference calls typically run. Definitive data is hard to come by, but a 2013 study by conferencing provider SmarterCalls of their own customers serves as a reasonable proxy. Their data shows an average length of 27 minutes, with an average of four participants on a conference call. While it’s hard to say at what point in the call that “audio fatigue” sets in, it will certainly happen if the above audio problems persist.
Taking a holistic view for conferencing solutions
Given the importance of conferencing to workplace productivity and the centrality of audio quality to a good user experience, it should be evident why getting the right conferencing solution matters. As with UC, this calls for a holistic view where the overall conferencing system is considered, rather than piecing together various point products.
In terms of technology, the most important element for addressing the audio quality issues discussed above would be wideband codecs. When deployed over IP, these codecs – with G.722 being the best-known example – support a much wider audio range than narrowband, namely from 50 Hz to 7 kHz. As audio quality improves, so does the user experience, and this is the first big step forward.
Also note that G.722 is not the final stage of evolution for voice codecs. Beyond wideband is ultra wideband, with Advanced Multirate (AMR) and Opus being the prime examples that can provide even higher fidelity for conferencing. AMR is also being developed for mobile devices under the G.722.2 moniker, but this is a few years away from mainstream deployment.
Aside from the codecs, however, the business must have sufficient bandwidth to support wideband audio, primarily for fixed line conferencing today, but in time also for WiFi to enable HD with mobile endpoints.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, would be the purpose-built conferencing solutions. Both the software and hardware need to be fully integrated to ensure interoperability across all endpoints for an HD experience. The ability for hardware to support HD – along with wideband codecs – varies widely, but this is only part of the story. Purpose-built conferencing endpoints also vary in their ability to deliver HD, either as centralized speakerphones or as extendible microphones with placement optimized for the meeting space.
Each of these elements warrants more technical analysis, and the main conclusion here is that a holistic view across all of them is needed to get the most from an HD solution. Wideband codecs will be the key driver of improved audio quality, and when the rest of your conferencing solution is properly built around this, you’ll notice more than just great sounding audio – meetings will be more effective, employees will conference more often, and you’ll get a better ROI on UC.
This paper is sponsored by Revolabs.