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How To Save Your Neck

Plantronics MX 100 telephone headset (Plantronics)
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It's hard to get excited about telephone headsets. They don't really do all that much - just make it possible to use your phone hands-free which, though kind of boring, can be really useful.

I remember the first time I saw someone walking down the street talking on one of those cell phone headsets. He didn't have a phone in his hand, he wasn't conversing with anyone nearby, yet his mouth was moving. I assumed he was just talking to himself.

There's nothing crazy about telephone headsets. In fact, it's against the law in New York State to hold a cell phone in your hand while driving.

As you can imagine, headsets, along with speakerphones, are very popular in the Empire State. Bills to ban driving with handheld phones are pending in most other states.

There are now plenty of low-cost headsets available starting at under $10. What's more, most cell phones have an industry standard 2.5 mm connector that works with off-the-shelf headphones. Some brands require a special adapter, so check your phone before shopping for a headset.

Although some of the cheap ones are OK, you are taking your chances with sound quality. The problem usually isn't on your end. You can hear the caller OK; it's the person on the other end who may have trouble hearing you. Many inexpensive headsets either have poor microphones or microphones that hang down too far from your mouth, making it hard for them to pick up your voice.

The call quality of many cell phones is bad enough without making it worse.

When I'm in the car, I use a $25 Plantronics MX 100 headset that sticks in the ear. Unlike many in-ear headsets, this one doesn't fall out because it has a flexible rubber grip that holds it firmly in place. The sound quality of the earpiece is fine, but the people I converse with sometimes do have trouble hearing me. That's because the microphone hangs down from a wire attached to the earpiece. If I hold it in front of my mouth they can hear me fine, but that defeats the purpose of a hands-free adapter.

When it comes to sound quality in both directions, my favorite headsets are those that fit over the head with a boom microphone positioned directly in front of the mouth. They're not as comfortable and they're larger, but the sound quality is better.

I have also have a Belkin Universal ActiFlex OverHead Hands-Free Headset (about $25 which has a boom microphone and sounds great in both directions. Instead of using it on my cell phone, I have it attached to my home phone, and people say that the sound quality is better than the phone's regular handset.

Having a headset on your home or office phone isn't required by any state laws, but it can save on neck and shoulder strain if you spend a lot of time on the phone, especially if you're using a computer while you're on the phone. If you go into any newsroom, you'll notice many reporters using headsets because it makes it possible to talk and type at the same time without having to bend your neck to hold the phone.

Most home and office phones don't have a built-in 2.5 mm jack, so you may need to buy a special headset adapter if you want to use your existing phone. These adapters typically cost at least $80 and up. Most of them plug into the handset connector on your phone and are basically a pain to hook up and use.

A far better - and often cheaper - solution is to get a new phone with a 2.5 mm jack and then buy an inexpensive headset.

You'll find plenty of corded and cordless phones with 2.5 mm jacks starting at under $50. I have three lines in my home office, so I bought a with a GE 3-Line Business Speaker Phone for about $65. It's a great phone with 16-number memory, a decent speaker phone and a headset jack. GE also makes a two-line version and there are also one-line phones with headset jacks.

Also, most cordless phones have headset jacks. The packaging on most headsets on the market say they're designed for cordless or cell phones, but all that I've tried work fine on my corded phone as well.

With my new phone and headset, I'm able to talk on the phone - or sit on hold while waiting - and use my hands for other useful tasks. The combined price of the phone and the headset wasn't a pain in my wallet, and thanks to this combination, talking on the phone is no longer a pain in the neck.

By Larry Magid