A fortnight ago, EPOS had their APAC launch of their enterprise audio products, all of which are compatible with all major Unified Communications (UC) platforms. The team was kind enough to send me an EPOS Sennheiser Adapt 360. The headsets were sent to be used in conjunction with the press conference, but of course I jumped the gun and started using them right away.
The launch panel's discussion raised some interesting points, from a study across 2500 people:
- 95% of modern workforce admits their concentration suffers from audio setbacks
- Audio issues can result in 30 minutes of productivity lost per employee per week
- 35% of end users report feeling frustrated, irritated or annoyed by audio experiences
In a previous life's work for me, these would be called intangibles - something that you cannot place an asset value on the books, yet causes an impact to the business overall. My over two decades working with businesses from a technology enabling business perspective is a stunning indictment of just how poorly understood the intricate linkages between tangible and intangibles are. In this case, audio quality outside of a conference or meeting room is often neglected.
With the exception of home theatre and music, most of us would probably take sound quality for granted. I mean look at us here in Australia, we turned off analogue mobile signal at the end of 1993. Digital was supposed to provide better quality sound and less drop outs. 27 years on I am still sniggering at these claims. The same goes for enterprise Unified Communications headsets. The marketplace is crowded with all kinds of audio devices, wireless earbuds, headsets, UC certified headsets, gaming, conference phones, there are so many choices, and chances are that we go with something within our budget without investing too much effort into it.
A few years ago, I was very reluctantly involved in helping a business select headsets for their UC strategy. 25 hours of discussions and meetings involving 5 people, endless hours of testing sample units and they decided to go with the cheapest offerings. The managers got Bluetooth enabled headsets, the plebes got wired headsets. Needless to say the decision was made on price point over any genuine functional specifications (let alone non-functional specs), and the results reflected that.
What is Unified Communications (UC)?
Unified Communications are the practice of integrating a set of products that provide a consistent unified user interface and user experience across multiple devices and media types for better business efficiency. Like "cloud" there is no standard definition or specification for UC. Instead, Unified Communications are a business and marketing concept describing the integration of enterprise communication services both real-time and non-real time.
The concept can include services such as instant messaging (chat), presence information, voice (including IP telephony), mobility features (including extension mobility and single number reach), audio, web & video conferencing, fixed-mobile convergence (FMC), desktop sharing, data sharing (including web connected electronic interactive whiteboards), call control and speech recognition with non-real-time communication services such as unified messaging (integrated voicemail, e-mail, SMS and fax). [Source: Wikipedia]
My review kit came in a gorgeous black presentation box, along with Koko Black chocolates, First Press cold drip coffee, a EPOS branded Moleskine in purple and pen, and a coffee table book on EPOS. The headset itself is an Adapt 360 white, the entry level headset in the EPOS enterprise portfolio.
To be honest, after the initial wow of the goodies and presentation, it was a little disappointing to find the Adapt 360 Bluetooth headset in a fairly non-descript, cheap feeling nylon storage bag with no padding. On the other hand, the headset itself looks professional in matte white, I love the feeling of a well built device in my hands. Unlike most modern headsets, this one fairly bristles with controls on the right ear piece. The good part is that I can easily see when I am holding them in the correct orientation, but bad part is that I had to read the instructions on what they all do.
The inside flap of the packaging gives a "summary of a summary" overview on how to get started. I really liked the fact that everything you need to get on your audio journey with EPOS comes together with the headset - BTD800 Bluetooth dongle, USB-A to USB-C cable and a 3.5mm audio cable.
Thanks to the Bluetooth 5.0 support, pairing to my notebook and phone was an absolute breeze. I was up and running in very short order and I was heading straight into a team meeting with new, untested gear. Not how I usually roll, but I figured I could always swap them out if things went a bit pearshaped.
The bit above where I talked about intangibles? I have been using the same earbuds with no active noise cancellation since before the lock down. They had not been an issue before the COVID isolation, when I work out of a quiet office or at home without the kids around and demanding my attention. Given the small footprint of the earbuds they are often in my pocket ready to go at a moment's notice. Unfortunately it also meant very suddenly and quickly, I found out that the same earbuds are amplifying my background noise and blasting out eardrums at the other end when my toddler yells at me to get off my chair demanding "[she] work" instead of me. Certainly not a professional look, despite that most of us are in similar boats.
The Adapt 360 was a game changer for me. I have gotten around to minimising my background noise problem by hiding in my kids' bedroom and sitting on the floor. Not ergonomic and definitely not ideal for my old bones. With my first rodeo using the Adapt 360, I deliberately left my mic unmuted and went about my business. The proof in the pudding was that I wasn't asked to mute myself.
The first couple of times I used the Adapt 360, I found that they felt a bit tight on my head. It was not so tight as to give me a headache but I definitely felt them, but that eased up with the headset in the fully extended position and a little extra wear over the course of a few days. I also noticed that my ears got a bit warm from wearing them for the first few days, but not uncomfortable enough to make me take them off during a call. That said, I do tend to find most over ear cups to get a bit warm for my taste.
The connection range is fabulous, previously I might get as far as my bathroom about 8m away with mostly "soft" materials in the way. With the EPOS Adapt 360, I could get all the way to the furthest corner of the house away from my "office", with my kitchen right in between with all its metallic glazed tiling, oven, stone and all that in the way. It was quite staggering just how well the signal held, and how good the audio quality was even as it strained through some drop outs.
And on that note, just how good is the sound quality? Leaps and bounds ahead of what I was using previously is what I was told. The combination of Active Noise Cancelling and 2 beamforming MEMS microphones, background sounds of a very happy and noisy toddler magically fades away. My workmates can clearly hear me, and only me on a call, be it on a mobile, Microsoft Teams meeting, Skype, BlueJeans, WebEx, Cisco Jabber or GoToMeetings. Yes, these are all in my repertoire on a far too regular basis. The Adapt 360 never missed a beat with any of these meetings. That said I did have an audio issue with Whereby, and to be honest, I was half sleep with that one so I am pretty sure it was my carbon-based error.
In between the ANC and the padding over the ears, I find that it is putting me into a noise isolation bubble. I am barely aware of sounds outside of what I am hearing through the headphones. When my partner tries to sneak in a quick question I am totally oblivious to it, compared to before when everyone else heard it too. Now I have to toggle TalkThrough to hear people around me, or physically pull the cup away from my ear to hear her.
The Adapt 360 really excels in the mids to highs, right about where voices are. Given that it is aimed at enterprise, that should be of little surprise. But what if you want to listen to music in between meetings? My music taste as I have always stated, eclectic. Right now I have a selection of Han Zimmer's best scores pumping through the headset and I am projected into whichever world he is composing for. To be perfectly honest, I am struggling a little to stay in the present to continue writing this review, I am pretty immersed into the music and it is sending shivers down my spine. The soaring arrangements with his signature integration of electronic music and traditional orchestral arrangements are well reproduced.
For music with vocal arrangements, the sound is as good as expected, given the core emphasis on enterprise calls. Is it the best quality sound reproduction I have ever experienced? No. But at this price point and the purpose the Adapt 360 is designed to be use it in, the experience is definitely pleasurable for both work and leisure.
There are a few buttons on the EPOS Adapt 360 and it will require some RTFM to learn your way around them as some buttons have multiple functions whilst the headset is in different modes. For example the on-off button also sets up the headset into BT pairing mode (hold 2 seconds to power on + 2 more seconds into pairing mode), or a single press to mute/unmute the microphone, or double press to activate/deactivate ANC, or single press to activate or deactivate TalkThrough.
Other buttons have similar capabilities to perform multiple tasks whilst in different modes.
The EPOS Adapt 360 comes with a BTD 800 USB dongle, which EPOS always recommends when pairing the headset with a PC. This ensure that the full experience has been extensively tested end to end, and the EPOS has control of the signal strength and quality of the Bluetooth connection.
With the BTD 800 dongle in, the LED light will change to purple and can pulse to indicate meeting join notification, voicemail notification or miss call notification. The "hook" button on the headset will provide Microsoft Teams notifications on screen. There is a variant BTD 800 ML dongle, which has extra certification for Microsoft's Skype for Business (nee Microsoft Lync).
As an additional feature, the same hook button can activate Microsoft Cortana for voice command.
The BTD 800 dongle itself has a button for Bluetooth connection and disconnection.
The battery life of the Adapt 360 is no slouch, the specs says 28 hours talking time and 30 hours listening time with ANC on, that is easily 2 to 3 "standard" business days before it needs a recharge. Of course nothing is normal or standard anymore, but it can still get you through a day without issues.
There is an EPOS Connect software which provides updates for itself, firmware updates to the BTD 800 dongle and Adapt 360 headset, as well as the ability to configure soft phone defaults.
The soft ear cups are removable and (I assume) replaceable.
The EPOS Adapt 360 is a full featured headset, with everything you need for work and play. There are 4 buttons on it that enable all kinds of control from multiple calls, conferences and music playing. To be honest with the number of headphones and earbuds that I test, I have little hope of learning the ins and outs of any of them quickly. It takes time, opportunity and muscle memory, all of which are on short supply as a reviewer. What would really come in handy is a small cheat sheet to stick on my laptop to at least give me a fighting chance.
I find that I can't tell whether the headset is powered on or off, at a glance.
For such a premium product, the carry / storage case is decidedly cheap and flimsy feeling. I would have preferred something with a bit of padding since it is designed to be used anywhere.
Why UC Certified products?
Given that Unified Communications is a business and marketing concept, why would anyone want to splash out for expensive certified headsets instead of your cheap variety that you can abuse and replace without a second thought?
The certification part is about functional integration into soft clients. Vendors such as Microsoft, Cisco and Unify, Genesys to name a few, have specific requirements to integrate a headset. For example when you accept an incoming call with the physical buttons, certain commands must be integrated. An UC certified headset will work with all clients based on a standard Human Interface Device (HID) integration specification.
Putting my CIO hat on, the argument I make comes down to the intangibles. Resources are stretched thin with more results expected from less monies spent, this is even more so with remote working which is rapidly becoming the "new normal" with savvy businesses. Do I really want my team wasting time troubleshooting issues with disparate headsets, or do I invest in a baseline knowing that it will head off (pun intended) many service calls before they even start?
In this day and age, firmware updates are de-rigueur. I am almost at a point where I expect my toaster to get an update. Something as full featured and with company wide deployment expectations, managing firmware updates of headsets is a challenging task.
EPOS Manager was developed as a means to control the UC environment, and works in conjunction with EPOS Connect, the client side application. It is a free management tool that allows management, updates and configuration of these assets, regardless of their geophysical location. The dashboard view shows all the audio devices including headsets and speakerphones, and there are claims made that even non-EPOS devices will be visible to the dashboard.
As all managers know, information is the key to the kingdom. The EPOS Manager can report on the device mix and headset usage across the fleet. Device allocation, active and inactive devices - who is using which device and how are the devices are being used, can all be reported on. It is another tool in the arsenal to boost productivity and reduce redundant resources which can be better allocated.
The EPOS Manager is available as an Azure-based SaaS offering, there is a brief mention of an on-premise solution, but I have not been able to find much supporting document for that. The security and data collection information around the SaaS offering is documented here. Putting my Business Continuity hat on, it is notable that EPOS has an upfront mention of disaster recovery for the EPOS Manager.
Without a doubt, what the launch panel said is true - poor audio setbacks and audio issues are the scrounge of modern day productivity. I know that with my previous earbuds I had inadvertently created distractions due to background noise.
Introducing the EPOS Sennheiser Adapt 360 into my work life certainly had immediate real-world benefits, it allowed me to focus better, the sound is immersive and clear. After a while I no longer notice that I am wearing over the ears headphones which have never been my preference in the past. The fabulous battery life means I am not worrying if the headset will last through the day (and believe me I can work some incredibly long hours). It gets put onto my charging station at night, along with any peripherals lying around and it will be ready to hit the ground running in 2.5 hours from empty.
Going back to my earlier point of the intricate linkages between tangible and intangibles, frame the scenario this way. You are holding a team meeting, or teleconference, or client. You have 10 people on the call and just one person delays the meeting by 1 minute due to audio issues, that is 10 minutes of productivity lost. Now if your average charge out rate is $240 per hour, you have just lost $40. Now multiple that by the number of meetings occurring concurrently across your organisation per day and this rapidly becomes a large number.
The EPOS Sennheiser Adapt 360 has a MSRP of AUD$399.00, although a few places are selling them for under AUD$350.00. They may not be the cheapest headsets available, but in combination with the free EPOS Manager, what could be your business' nett tangible and intangible gains?
Product description: Wireless ANC Bluetooth® headset with PC dongle
Wearing style: Over-ear, double-sided headband
Color: Black or white version
Headset weight: 238 g / 8.39 oz.
Transducer principle: Dynamic, closed
Connectivity: Bluetooth® 5.0, audio cable (2.5 mm twist lock and 3.5 mm jack plugs)
Supported Bluetooth® profiles: Hands-Free Profile (HFP), Headset Profile (HSP), Audio Video Remote Control Profile (AVRCP), Advanced Audio Distribution Profile (A2DP)
Supported codecs: SBC, AptX™
Charging time: 2 hours 30 minutes
Standby time: Up to 62 days
- Listening time: up to 46 hours (ANC off)
- Listening time: up to 30 hours (ANC on)
- Talking time: up to 39 hours (ANC off)
- Talking time: up to 28 hours (ANC on)
Range: Up to 25 m / 82 feet (device dependent)
Voice prompts: Yes (can be toggled off)
Warranty: 2 years
Speaker frequency response: 18 Hz to 22,000 Hz (-10 dB)
Sound pressure level (SPL): Limited by EPOS ActiveGard®: 108 dB (1 kHz/0 dBFS)
Total harmonic distortion (THD): < 0,3%
Noise cancellation: Active Noise Cancellation (ANC)
Microphone type: 2 beamforming MEMS microphones
Microphone frequency response: 80 Hz to 8,000 Hz
EPOS Connect (Freeware): Remote call control, firmware updates and settings: eposaudio.com/software-epos-connect
EPOS Manager (Saas): Manage, update and configure your EPOS audio devices from one location: eposaudio.com/software-epos-manager