When A Phone Headset Is The Right Call

Good ones can prevent workplace injuries and make workers more productive

Talking on the phone can be a pain in the neck--literally. Just ask Jean Dunn, the branch manager for Interim Personnel Power, a temp agency in Lackland, Mo. She spent so much time with the phone awkwardly balanced between her head and shoulder that by the end of the day, her muscles were in constant pain. "I would go home and rub on the Flex-All and just eat a lot of ibuprofen," says Dunn, who was visiting a physical therapist up to four times a month.

Then, two years ago, she bought a telephone headset. The pain eventually faded away, and the physical-therapy visits ended, too.

Such workplace injuries aren't uncommon in modern offices. Susan J. Isernhagen, a consultant with Duluth (Minn.)-based Isernhagen Work Systems who specializes in work-related injuries, says casual phone users can be victims, too, if they have sloppy posture that puts an undue strain on muscles. Headsets help avoid that problem and can make workers more productive by leaving their hands free.

But not every model will do the trick. You should expect to pay about $150 to $200 for a commercial-grade unit that includes a headset and accompanying amplifier. "Some who are slightly savvy balk at the price because they think they can go to RadioShack and buy one for $50," says Steve Seltzer, an efficiency expert in Harvard, Mass. "If you do that, you'll get a headset that doesn't fit very well and people who won't use it."

Good fit isn't the only consideration. Headsets come--or don't come--with a host of options, including one or two earpieces, noise filters, quick-disconnect cables, and mute buttons. Some are clearly sturdier than others, a major consideration if you spend most of your day on the phone. And sound quality can vary from superb to downright tinny.

You'll also need to consider the design and how you'll feel about wearing it. Dunn already had received a headset from the corporate office, but shunned it because the headband style messed up her hair--a concern when meeting clients. The headset that eventually satisfied her could be worn simply by draping it over her ear.

Which headset you pick depends on what kind of an office you're running. If it's a noisy place with a lot of people in the same room, a headset with two earpieces will make it easier to hear, and a noise-canceling device in the microphone will ensure that the person on the other end can't hear the cacophony, either. If the headset will be used in a high-visibility location, such as a reception or customer-service area, image can be as important as sound quality. And if you spend a lot of time away from your desk, a cordless model may be the answer.

NO-BRAINER? With these possibilities in mind, we looked at a dozen commercial models, all from leading headset manufacturers and available through distributors and the mail. We also tested a couple of consumer models sold at retail stores.

If price were the only consideration, models such as the RadioShack HS-149, currently available for as little as $30, would be the no-brainer buy. But it was noticeably less comfortable than more expensive headsets, and our testers said the sound was more muffled. It also comes without conveniences such as a quick-disconnect, which allows you to untether yourself from the phone without having to remove the headset.

Given the bargain price, it might be good enough for infrequent users. If you're on the phone all day, though, check out the GN Netcom/Unex Optima OPT-1N and ACS Wireless Inc.'s Applause Monaural (which, despite the company's name, is not cordless). Some callers said they heard our testers more clearly on these headsets than on a regular phone handset, perhaps because of the noise-canceling feature found in both models. The Applause suppressed background sounds so well when the headset user wasn't speaking that the caller on the other end could barely hear a radio blasting in the background.

COMFORT ZONE. Both the Optima and Applause feature headband-style designs, which we found to be more effective in helping us hear clearly and in limiting distractions from background sounds. But you may not want to base your decision on audibility alone. The headbands on the ACS Wireless Stratus Ultra and GN Netcom/Unex's Profile 405-FLEX proved much less comfortable, and while the headband on Hello Direct's UltraLight Pro fit well enough, its stiff plastic boom was hard to adjust.

In a high-visibility location where image counts, a headband won't do. Instead, you'll want a headset that looks sleek, sounds excellent, and is easy to remove. With these criteria, the edge goes to the Plantronics TriStar, an over-the-ear model that combines clear sound with unobtrusive design. Most of the other models were the antithesis of sleek, especially ones that featured spongy microphones that look like big black acorns floating in front of your face.

Cordless models go beyond being merely hands-free. Untethered to the phone, you can carry on a conversation as you walk over to a file cabinet or down the hall to the water cooler.

In this category, another Plantronics model stood out, the CT-901-HS, because it has controls that can dial and cut off from up to 150 feet away, along with decent sound quality. It's not compatible with digital phone lines, but a company called KONEXX (800 275-6354) offers a $225 adapter that bridges the gap.

Even then, cordless headsets may not be appropriate for everyone. Gregory T. Moffatt, a criminal lawyer at Boston-based law firm Foley, Hoag, & Eliot, says he ruled out cordless models because wireless chat may be picked up by eavesdroppers. "It just makes sense not to broadcast these conversations," he says.

No matter which model you choose, one thing does make sense: putting down the receiver--for good.

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