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Phone Headsets: When You Really Need to Watch Your Back

September 02, 1998|LAWRENCE J. MAGID | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When we think of dangerous jobs, we envision police officers, firefighters and folks who climb utility poles. But sitting at a desk can be dangerous too, if you spend a lot of time on the telephone.

If you type or do anything else with your hands while you talk on the phone, chances are you're using your neck muscles instead of your hands to hold the phone. That puts strain on your neck, shoulders and back. If you're holding a phone while driving, you're putting yourself and others at even greater risk.

Speakerphones allow you to make hands-free calls, but the sound quality is often poor. And unless you're alone, speakerphones can annoy co-workers and invade the privacy of the person on the other end of the line.

The best solution is a telephone headset because it lets you carry on a private conversation without tying up your hands or turning you into a contortionist.

One of the cheapest options is a cordless phone that comes with a headset. I found a General Electric cordless telephone at a discount store for about $70. It works and looks like a regular cordless phone except that you plug in the headset. Because it's also a stand-alone cordless phone, I can wander around while making and receiving calls. The only problem is that it has a single line, which can be inconvenient.

Vtech ([800] 624-5688 or http://www.vtech.com) makes a $229 two-line cordless phone with a headset jack, but I've never seen a cordless phone that supports more than two lines. One solution is to get an external telephone switch box that lets you toggle between multiple lines.

Another option is to attach a wired or wireless telephone headset to your standard phone. The advantage here is that these headsets connect to your single, dual or multi-line phone so you can take advantage of all the features built into your existing phone.

I've tested a number of corded and cordless headset options from Plantronics ([800] 544-4660 or http://www.plantronics.com) and Hello Direct ([800] 444-3556 or http://www.hellodirect.com).

Plantronics wired headsets have two parts to them. An amplifier plugs into the phone itself and the headset plugs into the amplifier and is worn over your head or in your ear. The DuoSet headset I tested can be quickly converted from an in-the-ear to an over-the-head device, which is a good idea because the only way to know which type you prefer is to try it both ways. This model comes with one earpiece, but if you're in a noisy environment, consider one like the Plantronics Supra Binaural, which covers both ears.

The Plantronics Vistal Universal Amplifier, which plugs into the phone and has volume control, is supposed to work with "almost all telephones," but it didn't work with the GE Proseries phone on my desk. It worked well, however, on the other phones I tested it with. Prices on Plantronics headsets and amplifiers start at about $89 but vary widely. The DuoSet headset and amplifier I reviewed start at a combined price of about $200.

Hello Direct sells a variety of headset systems, including two wireless models. It's an expensive option at $399, but the OfficeRover Cordless Pack uses the same 900-MHz frequency as high-end cordless phones, yet works with your existing single- or multi-line phone. The headset is extremely light, but when you leave your desk, you have to carry around a small power pack that clips to your belt and provides up to four hours of talk time and 12 hours of standby. It has a range of about 100 feet.

If you want a one-piece solution, you can opt for the $349 HelloSet Cordless 100, a self-contained 7-ounce headset with a two-hour rechargeable battery. Some people might find the extra weight on their head annoying, but it eliminates having to carry a separate power pack.

One annoying thing about adding a headset to a standard phone is that you still have to lift the receiver to make or receive a call. But Hello Direct has an interesting solution. Its $99 Readiline accessory physically lifts the telephone receiver off the cradle when the phone rings or when you place a call.

A number of companies make headsets that can switch between the telephone and the PC. This can be handy if you use a headset to dictate to your PC using speech recognition software such as IBM's Simply Speaking or Dragon's Naturally Speaking. The PhoneLink 400/CTI ($179) from ACS ([800] 995-5500 or http://www.acs.com) lets you toggle between hands-free telephone use and computer input. ACS also makes conventional phone headsets starting at $59.

Most headset companies also offer models designed for cellular phones, which is a good idea if you use your cell phone while driving.

For links to companies that make and sell headsets, visit http://www.larrysworld.com/headsets.htm.

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Find out more about small business and technology at The Times' Small Business Strategies Conference Oct. 17-18 at the Los Angeles Convention Center. You can e-mail Lawrence J. Magid at magid@latimes.com and visit his Web site at http://www.larrysworld.com. On AOL, use keyword "LarryMagid."

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