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February 1999

Andrea Electronics Corporation
11-40 45th Road
Long Island, NY 11101
Ph: 800-707-5779
Web site: www.andreaelectronics.com

Price: ANC 750BE stereo headset, $124.95; PCTI headset interface, $149.95


Installation: 5
Documentation: 4
Features: 5
Overall: A-

Installation: 5
Documentation: 4
Features: 5
Overall: A

In today's call center environments, not only are headsets a necessity, but having multimedia capabilities will also become very important in the near future. For example, if a customer requests a Web-based callback, and the customer has H.323-compliant Internet phone software, the call center agent can make an Internet telephony call without switching to a separate headset connected to the agent's PC. Using Andrea's PCTI device, an agent can switch from "Phone" mode to "PC" mode to perform the aforementioned action.

This PCTI headset interface allows you to connect both your phone line and your sound card's output to the device, thus enabling you to listen (via a headset) to your computer or talk on the phone with the simple push of a switch. Using a single headset, which is also connected to the PCTI device, you can also record WAV files, perform PC-speech recognition or make an Internet telephony call from your PC.

Another reason call centers will need to be multimedia ready is so agents can playback phone conversations recorded by the call center's enterprise recording/monitoring equipment. Using PCs as opposed to the phone interface for playback initiates many obvious advantages - like a GUI-based playback system, such as Dictaphone's da Vinci quality monitoring system. PC-based playback of phone conversations is useful for self-training, supervisor analysis and quality control. Using the PCTI, a call center supervisor can quickly switch from monitoring live calls to making calls to playing back recorded calls.

A call center is not complete without headsets for all its agents. Choosing the right headset for your call center is very important. Andrea Electronics sells various headsets with special noise cancellation features. We examined Andrea Electronics' stereo headset, the ANC 750BE, which we connected to Andrea Electronics' PC/telephone headset switcher device.

Installation of the PCTI was beyond simple! Each input port on the PCTI was clearly labeled with an appropriate icon, whether it was a microphone, headset, speakers, phone handset, etc. This allowed us to hook up all the appropriate connections without even referring to the "terse" documentation, which consisted of a single tri-folded sheet. We hooked up the PCTI to a Windows 98 machine with a Creative Labs SoundBlaster; our Comdial handset was then plugged into the PCTI's handset port. In the process of hooking the PCTI directly to our sound card, we had to disconnect our multimedia speakers. The speakers can still be used with the computer, simply by moving the speaker's connector plug to the speaker output on the PCTI.

For the headset to be used with the PCTI, we used Andrea Electronics' ANC 750BE stereo headset, which features "anti-noise" capabilities. In fact, Andrea Electronics claims that their Anti-Noise Active Noise Cancellation microphone technology improves speech quality and intelligibility up to 200 percent by electronically creating a 180 degree out-of-phase signal that cancels background noise and echo speaker feedback.

The documentation for the PCTI device was very basic. It consisted of a single, small tri-fold sheet. The sheet contained a 3D diagram depicting the PCTI device, headset, speakers, a phone set, handset, AC adapter and corresponding wires to interconnect all the components. The diagram was very clear in explaining how to hook up the device.

The documentation for the ANC 750BE stereo headset, which came with Andrea Electronics' Multimedia Controller (MC-100), was equally terse, consisting also of a single tri-fold sheet. The sheet actually contained instructions on how to connect the headset to the MC-100 device. The MC-100 is a small black box, about 1 inch wide by 3 inches long and 1 inch high, which provides "anti-noise" cancellation. It requires 2 AA batteries and features an on/off switch, microphone and headset inputs, as well as a power LED and a volume control.

It would have been more helpful for the instructions to discuss the use of PCTI's features. For instance, one setting, called "Both," allows the user to listen to both the PC and the phone line at the same time. However, it isn't explained that the caller on the other end cannot hear whatever sounds or music the computer is making. (This is explained in more detail in the Operational Testing section.) Although the documentation was very basic, it sufficed, since the product was not that difficult to install.

PC/Telephone Headset Interface (PCTI) features:

  • Headset connectivity to telephone, computer or both,
  • Compatibility with standard PC sound cards,
  • Mute switch,
  • On/off switch to turn off multimedia speakers connected directly to the PCTI,
  • Headset volume control,
  • Compatibility with Electret- or Carbon-type telephones.

ANC 750BE Stereo Headset w/ Multimedia Audio Controller (MC-100) features:

  • Pre-equalized CD-quality sound,
  • Microphone on/mute switch,
  • Pro-Flex microphone boom,
  • Shielded cord,
  • Noise cancellation,
  • CD software bundle including Andrea Electronics' AudioCommander, IBM Via Voice 30-day trial, Microsoft Explorer, IDT's Net2Phone and Voxware's VoxPhone.

After connecting the A/C power and turning the unit on, as fate would have it, the phone rang. What better way to test the unit's sound quality and ease of installation than to take an incoming call? Of course, if we had improperly hooked it up, the caller might hear silence, or worse, the .MP3 song we were playing on the PC at the time of the call.

Luckily, we were able to answer the call, and the caller was none the wiser to us using him as a guinea pig. After hanging up, we wanted to test the sound quality of the headset (we were using Andrea's ANC 750BE stereo headset), as well as the extent to which the PCTI might impact the sound quality. We called one of our test engineers in our other lab facilities to ask him about the sound quality. He replied, "Sounds great. Perfect." This indicated that the headset's microphone was very good and the PCTI was not impeding any of the sound quality. A bit of a subjective test, but the human ear is in many ways much better than an oscilloscope.

One of the tests was to play an .MP3 file (compressed music file) on the PC, and then switch the PCTI from "PC" mode to "Phone" mode to see if during the switch the caller on the other end could hear any clicking or "pop" sounds. There was a minor "pop" sound, but this is to be expected when making a physical switchover/relay from one input source to another. Another reason we played with the switch was to see if the remote caller could hear the .MP3 song playing as we were moving the switch. During our tests, the remote caller couldn't hear the .MP3 song when switching the physical "mode switch" from PC to Phone.

The other choice on the "mode switch" is called Both, which allows the user of the PCTI to listen to both the computer and the PC. This feature worked great, allowing us to listen to the remote caller, talk with the remote caller, as well as listen to a music CD playing in the PC's CD-ROM.

Unfortunately, when in this mode (Both), the remote caller could barely hear the music CD playing. It was somewhat muffled in the background and very low volume. We cranked up the volume on the PC's Volume Control applet, which helped somewhat. We don't think this product was intended to send sounds/music from the PC to the remote caller when in "Both" mode. Our opinion is that there was some signal leakage from the PC's music CD in the PCTI device itself, which likely caused the remote caller to vaguely hear the PC's CD music playing. Also, with the volume on the CD music "cranked" up, the headset microphone was picking up some of the sound coming out of the headset's speakers. A workaround to let the caller hear the music would be to hold the microphone close to the headset speakers. But that would require taking the headset off, which probably isn't a good idea when trying to speak to a customer! Also, if you hold the microphone or the headset too close to the headset speakers, you might get feedback. However, Andrea provides a piece of software called AudioCommander with the headset, which has the capability of preventing speaker feedback.

Andrea Electronics sent us one of their stereo PC headsets (ANC 750BE) to test with the PCTI device. This headset features advanced microphone technology with excellent sound quality. The microphone featured what Andrea Electronics terms "Pro-Flex" capability, which permitted us to bend the microphone boom into many positions.

Toward the middle of the headset cord, a small black box allows you to easily mute the microphone with the push of a switch. We listened to some music played from the PC's CD-ROM and made several test calls in conjunction with the PCTI to see how the ANC 750BE "stacked up" in terms of quality. The caller on the other end could not discern that we were using a headset and was, in fact, impressed with the sound quality. Equally, on the local end, the testing engineer wearing the ANC 750BE felt that the sound quality was excellent - both when talking over the phone or when listening to music/sounds played by the PC.

We would like the ability for the volume control on the PCTI to not only work for adjusting the phone volume, but the PC's output volume as well. Of course, if you are in "Both" mode, then having a single volume dial might be counterproductive, since the phone volume might be just right, but the PC volume might be too low. If you were able to move the PCTI's volume dial to adjust the PC's volume, that might make the phone volume too loud. Perhaps, a separate volume control would be in order, although this would undoubtedly incur additional cost to manufacture the product. Of course, you could use the software volume control in Windows, but sometimes you need to adjust volume quickly, and a physical dial is much faster than using a PC's mouse to adjust volume levels. An alternative to adding a second physical volume dial would be to use the existing volume dial on the PCTI, but only have it adjust the PC's volume when the "mode switch" is in "PC" mode and not "Both." Clearly, the user is using the headset to listen to just his PC, and it would be convenient to use the PCTI's volume dial to adjust the volume.

As stated earlier, we would like the ability for the remote caller to "hear" the sound output from the PC's sound card. This would allow the remote caller to hear WAV files, CD music, or even listen to a recording stored on the PC which contains instructional tips on how to resolve a technical issue. This would be valuable to call centers and, in particular, help desks.

We found the ANC 750BE to have excellent sound quality and it certainly was a nicety hearing music or the caller in both ears, although it took a bit of getting used to, hearing a caller in both ears, since we are all so accustomed to listening to callers in just one ear. Some call center agents might find having a stereo headset a bit cumbersome, especially since both ears are covered. In this case, they may not be able to hear their surroundings or hear someone in the next cubicle ask a question. However, this can be a good thing as well, if you want your workers to concentrate without interruptions.

Overall, TMC™ Labs was very impressed with the ANC 750BE and would recommend those looking for a new headset to try it out. But those used to wearing a single ear piece headset should give this product a week or two of continual usage to get accustomed to the stereo effect and to having both ears covered.

The other device we tested, the Andrea Electronics' PC/Telephone device (PCTI), is a good quality product, with excellent sound quality and features which today's multimedia call center will certainly find valuable. This product is also great for the home consumer who would like to play video games late at night and not disturb other members of the household. In summary, the PCTI has many applications, including speech recognition, video conferencing, Internet telephony and others, and it unifies your telephony and multimedia requirements to utilize a single headset. At just under $150, TMC™ Labs was very happy with this product's cost, as well as its excellent features.

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