- The Washington Times - Monday, October 2, 2000

I was going to behave. This column was going to wait until November, when some rather remarkable products would be in stores. But I just can't wait, at least not if I want to be fair to you, the reader, since one mission I have is to make this useful reading.

Plantronics is a company in Santa Cruz, Calif., that does something rather amazing: they make headphones and microphones that make computing easier and more fun. The firm's latest offerings, which won't be in stores for a couple of weeks yet, offer radically improved speech recognition (I'm dictating this column as one example) and incredible audio reproduction.

Even more amazing is that the device does this while bypassing my computer's built-in sound card. And to top it off, the headset I am wearing now is about half the weight of the previous model that offered similar features but is leagues behind in terms of quality.

The new headset, which will cost you around $110 in stores, has the prosaic name of DSP-500, but there's nothing prosaic about the performance of this device. That is because Plantronics is utilizing a digital signal processor (DSP) to handle the audio input and output to a computer. The headset connects via the Universal System Bus (USB) port.

Besides making connecting simpler, the DSP chip converts sound into digital information. Since digital data is what computers inhale and exhale, it's easier for the machine to process bits and bytes than it is to turn analog sound into digital information and vice versa.

That's the theory, anyway, and in practice the Plantronics headset is almost flawless in its execution. Listening to music, streaming audio or just about anything else via the headset is nothing less than a revelation: Music that I've listened to for decades reveals new nuances and shadings that were not noticed before. When used to place a free Internet long distance telephone call via Dialpad.com, hearing the other voice was as clear and natural as using the best telephone line.

Controlling volume on the headset is a simple matter of clicking the up-and-down control built in to the cable. The volume is automatically adjusted and a "mute" button can block the microphone from picking up your voice when necessary, such as when placing an Internet phone call on hold.

However, you'll want the microphone to be functional when dictating into an application such as L&H; Voice Xpress. This application, one of the premier voice processing software packages around today, is a unique and worthwhile tool both for document creation, as well as commanding a computer in basic operations. While I had enjoyed a good response from the software using another Plantronics headset, an analog model, the digital headset yielded far better results.

How can I tell? Well, the simplest way is to know that it took far less time to dictate text, and fewer corrections were required. Speech recognition software is at best an inexact science, since ambient noise, varying pronunciations and other vagaries can trip up even the most fluent of speakers. However, the very low rate of error that I encountered using this headset encourages me to believe that users will find more success with this device than analog counterparts.

The Plantronics headset is supplied with a version of L&H; Voice Xpress, as well as the "Soldier of Fortune" game from Activision; Net2Phone telephony software; MusicMatch Internet audio player; Firetalk messaging and voice mail software and other programs.

These added programs might be inducement enough to buy the headphones, almost without regard to the sound quality. But, for speech, telephony and similar applications, sound quality on this headset is excellent.

Yet, it is playing music where this device truly shines, and I can't emphasize that enough. I often enjoy listening to music while I work, and late at night it wouldn't be nice to blast my neighbors with my taste in "songs to write columns by." Thus, good headphones are not only a luxury, but often are a necessity. The Plantronics DSP-500 is one of several digital models well worth your consideration and purchase when available. More info can be found at www.plantronics.com, and the devices should be in stores within a few weeks.

• Write to Mark Kellner in care of The Washington Times, Business Desk, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; e-mail [email protected], or visit the writer's Web page, www.markkellner.com.

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