Review: The best headsets with good microphones in 2023

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Mark Vletter

26 January 2023 Clock 11 min

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Let me get straight to the point: stop using the built-in laptop microphone during meetings and video calls. Poor sound quality is one of the most annoying problems during a (video) call. You are usually not bothered by it, but your conversation partners are. Fortunately, this problem is easily solved with a good headset.

This blog was originally published on the website of Voys South Africa.

I have tested the most popular headphones and earbuds for calling. Do you ever hear from someone that your audio quality isn’t great? Do you experience this yourself? Then read on.

I tested the headsets in three main environments:

  • The home workplace
  • The office where your colleagues also work and where there are ambient sounds
  • On the move

The best-selling earbuds of 2022 are the Apple AirPods Pro 2. I’m going to see how they stack up against the competition to determine which headset comes out on top.

Tested headsets

I tested the following devices:

  • Apple Airpods Pro, second generation
  • EarFun Free Pro 2
  • KZ ZSN PRO
  • PALOVUE Lightning
  • Soundcore of Anchor Life P3
  • ULIX RIDER
  • RØDE NT-USB
  • Unbranded USB-C headphones
  • Bose 700

Some of these headsets have Environmental Noise Cancellation (ENC) or Active Noise Cancellation (ANC). Both options offer noise cancellation, but there is a difference in the way the headsets filter the sound: ENC filters the ambient noise entering your microphone; ANC filters the noise entering your ears.

A sight for sore ears

Best headset for calling at your home office

For your home office, the best option is a special external microphone. Some webcams may have one built in, but it’s better not to use that microphone. Do you work from home a lot? Then an external microphone is the best solution. I chose the Røde NT-USB.

You can combine the Røde with the loudspeakers of your monitor because the microphone is directional. You don’t see headphones on camera because you’re not wearing them. In addition, the sound quality is great. Because there are often other people in my house, I usually connect wired earplugs to the Røde. The microphone has a function where you hear your own voice through the earbuds, so you talk softer.

The Røde microphone is great for my home office, but I don’t like dragging it into the shared work environment. In addition, it is an expensive solution.

The colossus of Røde

Best headsets for calling in the shared office

If I have to make calls at the office, I try to find a quiet place. In addition, in this environment I need something that I can easily take with me and that filters out background noise. Do you use Apple devices? Then the second generation AirPods Pro is a great option. And that’s a good thing given the approximately R6,000 you’ll pay for them. 

For that kind of money – and less – there are plenty of other options. At scarbir.com you will find all kinds of headphones for every budget. Are you looking for a headset for the office? Then you need earplugs with Environmental Noise Cancellation. EarFun and Soundcore are popular Bluetooth earbud brands and both offer great solutions for just over R2,000. I tested the Soundcore Anker Life P3 (R2,300 at Takealot) and the EarFun Free Pro (R2,500 at Manicaa).

I also ordered four pairs of wired earbuds:

  • Two with a jack plug
  • One with USB-C
  • One with a lightning connector

After testing the options at the office, the Soundcore is the best Bluetooth solution. However, that is surpassed by the USB-C earplugs.

Pro Tip: Turn off Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) during a call. If you can hear your own voice, you talk much less loudly. You will make your colleagues happy with this. With the Soundcore you cannot switch between noise-cancelling functions during a call which is something to bear in mind.

Now that I’ve tested the two indoor scenarios – home and office – it’s time to go outside. How do these headsets fare in windy conditions?

Best headsets for on the move

I love calling when you’re on the go, especially if it’s a one-on-one call. I often take a walk for conversations that go into depth. If physically walking together is not possible, then talking and walking during a telephone conversation is the best option. Research shows that it is better for the depth of your conversation because you listen better than with a video conversation, so you connect on a more visceral level. In this context, therefore: calling > video calling.

Of all the earbuds I’ve tested, the Soundcore and the ULIX RIDER 30 handle wind the best.

Dynamite in small packages

How do these headsets sound?

When it comes to music quality, I have a long and a short answer to this question.

The long story: Bluetooth audio quality is poor and you can blame Apple for this

Apple made a commercially very smart move when the company removed the headphone jack from iPhones. They basically created the market for wireless headphones and their share of this market is 34 percent. That means Apple made $12 billion in sales of AirPods alone in 2021. 

But for audio quality, Bluetooth is not the best option. Bluetooth is a wireless protocol, and the higher the audio quality, the larger the audio file. Larger audio files require more bandwidth and Bluetooth doesn’t have much of that. That is also the reason why the sound sometimes cuts out when you are on a call: as the bandwidth then has to be shared, it is therefore halved. To make the most of the available Bluetooth bandwidth, companies use codecs to compress the files while preserving as much audio quality as possible. Popular codecs are:

  • AAC at up to 250 kilobits per second (kbps)
  • SBC at up to 345 kbps
  • aptX at a constant 352 kbps
  • aptX HD with a data rate of 576 kbps
  • LDAC at 330, 660, or 990 kbps, depending on what your phone decides: 990 kbps for sound quality or 330 kbps for connection reliability.

Why did I say you can blame Apple for poor sound quality? They only support AAC, the worst codec.

That might make you wonder: why should I pay for high quality lossless audio when using Apple Bluetooth headphones? My honest answer? You shouldn’t.

To enjoy music, you’ll need a non-Apple smartphone and earbuds that support high-quality codecs. In addition, it is good to adjust your Spotify settings so that you listen to high-quality audio. To be fair, you can’t only blame Apple as all the wireless earbuds I tested all support only AAC. Even the expensive Bose 700 only supports AAC and SBC.

The wired headphones I tested tell a completely different story. Which brings me to the short answer.

The short story: for audio quality, go wired and look at KZ

The short answer is that for the best audio quality you want to use the wired KZ ZSN PRO.

For only R450 (at Marshall Music) you get an amazingly good sound quality. Through these headphones I have rediscovered the pleasure of listening to music. The quality of the sound depends on the quality of the audio output from the jack port. My Android phone with a Qualcomm 888 chip has a high sound quality (384 kHz/32 bit). Together, the phone and the KZ ZSN PRO form a perfect pair. Are you willing to spend a little more? Then the KZ ZS10 PRO is even better. They will, however, set you back around R1,500 (at Dealsdaily).

It’s good to know that the iPhone also has a built-in digital-to-analog converter that supports up to 24-bit/48 kHz lossless audio. So if you have an iPhone and want great audio quality, use a Lightning to 3.5mm Headphone Jack Adapter.

The KZ ZSN PRO. Small bud, big sound

Overall: How do the tested headphones perform compared to the Apple AirPods Pro 2?

Of all the headphones I’ve tested, the Soundcore Anker Life P3 is the best Bluetooth solution for calling at home, in the office, or on the go. They sound a little tinny in a quiet environment, but they perform well in the office and very well when it’s windy outside. With a decent price, these are the lightweight wireless earbuds you want.

At half the price, the ULIX RIDER 30 is actually the better solution. They perform better in a quiet environment and sound much more neutral. In an office environment they are slightly worse than the Soundcore, but outside they outperform the Soundcore. This makes them the best choice.

There’s one area where the AirPods Pro 2 beat the rest, and that’s filtering out the noise around you through Active Noise Cancellation. But as I mentioned earlier, is ANC on while you call? Then you automatically start talking louder and that is not so pleasant for your colleagues at the office.

My favourite earbuds are the KZ ZSN PRO. I had already started listening to my Bose 700 wired headphones because of the difference in sound quality, but the KZ earbuds blew me away. They’re not bad for calls either: only the Soundcore Anker Life P3 is better for the office.

If there’s one thing you should take away from this review, it’s this: stop using your laptop’s built-in microphone. Your phone is built to make calls, your laptop isn’t. So using headphones is a big win for both the people you talk to and those around you. You don’t even have to dig deep into your pockets to please them. Then you can also get the most out of your favourite music.

Sleek design, clear calls

Everything in a row

Below is a handy overview of my findings per headset. Below that you will discover which headphones perform the best per environment. Are you curious how the headsets sound? I made all kinds of recordings during testing, which you can listen to here.

Final standings

  1. ULIX RIDER 30: The best solution
    The ULIX has a very nice, neutral microphone and performs well in a quiet environment and okay in an office environment. In a windy environment you hardly notice the ambient noise, which is why the ULIX came out best in the test.
  2. Soundcore by Anker Life P3: Best Value Wireless Solution
    Where the Soundcore sounds tinny in a quiet environment, the headphones perform well in an office environment and great in a windy environment. With a very decent price of 60 euros, these are the wireless earbuds to go for.
  3. KZ ZSN PRO: Best Audio Quality (Music)
    Incredibly good sound quality for the price.
  4. RØDE NT-USB: Best solution for home use
    Friendly on the camera and the best audio quality.
  5. Unbranded Anhuicco USB-C: Best low cost solution
    Incredible performance especially in the shared office with a very neutral sound for only 16 euros.
  6. Apple AirPods Pro 2: Best ANC, Bad ENC
    Great at removing background noise when listening to music (ANC). However, I would have expected much better ambient noise reduction from the microphone (ENC) for that price.

Home Office

Best to worst

  1. ++ Rode: By far the most natural and complete sound.
  2. + Unbranded USB-C: Very nice and neutral sound.
  3. + ULIX RIDER 30: Voice comes across very well. Neutral.
  4. + KZ ZSN PRO: Nice and warm sound.
  5. 0 Bose 700 cable: A little tinny, but very clear.
  6. 0 Palovue PV1: A little too warm and loses clarity of voice because of it. Also picks up some background noise.
  7. – Earfun Free pro 2: Warm but processed.
  8. – Apple AirPods Pro 2: Sounds “closer by”, but a little less clear than the Earfun, especially on hard input. Sound processed.
  9. – Soundcore by Anker Life P3: Sounds a little tinny, but the voice comes across clear. Does take energy to listen to.
  10. – – Bose 700 BT: Very muffled.

Shared Office

Best to worst

  1. ++ Unbranded USB C: Background noises are only heard when you don’t speak and even then they are really far in the background.
  2. + Soundcore by Anker Life P3: Great performance. Filters away background noise when you speak and when you are silent. You only hear sound peaks vaguely in the background.
  3. + Bose 700 BT: Surprisingly, they sound better than in a silent home office. They filter background noise well, but the Soundcore has a better tone to make them more pleasant.
  4. + ULIX Rider 30: Voice comes across very clearly. Background noise is very soft.
  5. + KZ ZSN PRO: Voice comes across very clearly. Background is soft but present all the time.
  6. 0 Bose 700 Cable: You hear background noise, but it’s soft. The sound is a little more neutral than the AirPods.
  7. 0 Palovue PV1: On par with the AirPods. A little less processed.
  8. 0 Apple AirPods Pro 2: Not bad, but less clear than the Soundcore Life P3. I do like the sound colour. Filters away background noise when you are not speaking better than when you are speaking.
  9. 0 Rode: Voice keeps its clarity but you do hear background noises.
  10. – Earfun Free pro 2: Filters background noise well when you are silent. But if you talk, filtering is added which is disruptive and takes energy to listen to.

Outside and wind

Best to worse

  1. ++ ULIX RIDER 30: Performs really well. You don’t even notice someone is on a bike. Best one tested.
  2. ++ Soundcore by Anker Life P3: Filters away the wind surprisingly well.
  3. + Unbranded USB C: You hear the wind but the voice comes across nicely.
  4. 0 KZ ZSN PRO: Sound stays nice, but your guests hear the background.
  5. – Earfun Free pro 2: Not bad, but while talking your voice “fades away”. Voice does not come across clearly.
  6. – Palovue PV1: Too muffled.
  7. – – Apple AirPods Pro 2: Inaudible.

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