Review – IPEVO X1-N6 Internet Conference Station

X1-N6

Professional audio and video conferencing products have always been out of reach for small businesses but, with limited staff and resources, they have the most to gain by developing an effective conferencing system.  The technology is well within reach given the availability of high bandwidth internet connections and simple communication software such as Skype.

Is there finally an affordable conferencing solution for small business?

Polycom has been the primary player in the conference phone market for years.  Since the release of the first SoundStation in the early-nineties, their voice conferencing phone has become a staple in every professional meeting space.  In recent years the focus has shifted to video capability, which I will cover in a future article, but any good conferencing system begins with an effective multi-user audio solution.  That is the problem the IPEVO X1-N6 Internet Conference Station hopes to solve.

Physical

The X1-N6 comes nicely packaged and includes all you need to get up and running.  As soon as you remove it from the box you can immediately see a similarity to the Polycom units and for a good reason.  The design is the most effective way to capture audio from all participants around a table without resorting to additional microphones.

The X1-N6 seems generally well built and has simple controls.  A volume dial is located on the top of the unit and somewhat less conspicuous mute and power switches are located along the side of the arms of the unit.  The unit emits a soft green glow when the microphone is enabled which changes to red if you activate the mute switch.  You will also find ports for an external analog headset for private conversations along the side and a single mini-USB port on the bottom of the unit.

Setup

To install, simply connect the X1-N6 via the included USB cable to your Windows or Mac OS computer.  The device did not require any special drivers and simply appears as an audio output and input device.  It can be used by any program so you may find applications beyond video conferencing such as recording meetings or group podcasts.

Performance

In my testing I compared the X1-N6 to the following devices utilizing both free and commercially available software packages.

  • Logitech QuickCall USB Speakerphone – Internal Speaker
  • Logitech QuickCam Orbit – External Seakers
  • Plantronics USB Microphone – External Speakers

The quality of the audio varies little between the competing applications so we will focus on the hardware itself.

The Logitech QuickCall USB Speakerphone is a very similar unit in that it is a combination microphone array and speaker.  It is also designed for Internet calling and, admittedly, has some nicer features including a digital volume control and soft buttons to manage the calling features.  The downside is that these features require special drivers to be installed and they are only available for Windows XP. Logitech has discontinued the product and there will not be drivers for Windows Vista or 7.

The QuickCall had a slightly fuller sounding speaker than the X1-N6 however the audio tended to echo slightly when used as a standalone solution.  It is also designed to face the users and was somewhat less effective when the user was located behind the unit.  Fortunately, the QuickCall is available for around $10 on Amazon while supplies last.

The Logitech QuickCam Orbit has an extremely sensitive microphone built into the camera housing.  While this might be effective in a controlled environment, it functions poorly in a large space and readily picks up background noise.  The Plantronics USB microphone is just the opposite.  It probably resulted in the best audio quality of all the devices tested, but only had an effective range of a few feet and the speaker needed to be situated directly in front of the unit.  It would be an excellent choice for a desktop solution however is isn’t well suited for a conference room.

The X1-N6 clearly bested the other devices tested in a small conference space.  The remote user could hear the speaking voice from any location around the table about equually and found the audio quality to be good.  Any echo was reduced to a manageable level and while, the speaker could be slightly fuller, the audio output was sufficient to conduct a conversation.  It would be ideal if the volume dial affected the volume of the computer connected, but I suggest this was an intentional design choice to eliminate the need for drivers.

Verdict

In an age where devices seems to get more and more complicated, it is nice to see a product that take a simple approach to a problem and does it well.  One of the greatest advantages of the X1-N6 is its simple configuration and compatibility no matter which platform you choose.  It is no Polycom SoundStation, but at $139 it is a fraction of the cost and is an excellent starting point of a voice/video conferencing system for any small business.

You can view more details at IPEVO’s website.

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