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The quest for the perfect interpreter headphones

The quest for the perfect interpreter headphones

I wrote a comprehensive blog post about headphones years ago, in German, which still gets traffic on my website. So I decided to update it and publish it here in English.

Headphones. They are probably one of the most important tools that interpreters use during their work, but at least in my view they don't get the attention they deserve. In fact, I know quite a few colleagues who just use the headphones that are provided for them in the booth. That's fine, but I personally cannot wear those cheap plastic thingies for more than five minutes without getting irritated. Other colleagues may just use the earbuds they got with their last smartphone. That's fine, too, but I personally don't like having something IN my ear all day, and I tend to be a bit of a neat freak and would have to clean them all the time.

In short: I really recommend you buy a dedicated, decent pair of headphones for simultaneous interpreting. And the point of this article is to help you find the right ones. (Check this Wikipedia article for a very thorough write-up.)

The first and probably most important thing to bear in mind is how comfortable the headphones are - you'll be wearing them for hours on end, after all. If you wear glasses, like me, you may find that over-ear or on-ear headphones put too much pressure on your ears, and not all them can be adapted. In-ear headphones are an alternative, but also come with drawbacks like loose fit. Another factor is whether you usually cover both ears or just one when working - you'll want to be able to hear your own output. Lastly, I would avoid headphones that are very big and cover the ear up too much. Not only can you not hear yourself properly, you may also find that your ears start sweating after a while.

Headphones should also sound good. Obviously. Make sure you get a product with high-quality, natural sound and avoid anything that says "deep bass" or similar on the packaging. To test this, you can bring your audio player or smartphone to the shop with a few voice recordings or podcasts.

Additional criteria include build quality (especially of the cables - they tend to break easily with heavy use), design (headphones don't have to be ugly) and accessories (like adapter plugs for different consoles or a pouch or case).

Other types

Headsets are headphones with an integrated microphone - a good idea in and of itself. They keep mouth and microphone at an equal distance, which is more plesant to the listener, and we don't need to hunch over the booth table to be close enough to the console microphone. In practice, they seem to be a rare sight. Both technicians and interpreters are rather sceptical because of wear and tear and connector incompatibilities.

Neckband headphones are an interesting alternative. As the name says, the band that holds both earpieces together goes around the neck. Mostly pitched for sports, they are rather comfortable for the booth, too.

Wireless headphones are getting increasingly popular for listening to music, podcasts or TV at home. The most frequently used technology is Bluetooth. While they provide freedom from cables, they need batteries, and batteries have a tendency to be empty when needed most. In addition, a transmitter or sender needs to be connected to the console for the headphones to be able to pick up the audio. Use at your own risk.

Some colleagues are intrigued by noise-cancelling headphones (like the ones you see on airplanes all the time). In my view, though, the disadvantages are too big: these headphones are rather heavy, they require batteries and they don't let us hear our own output.

Lastly, a word on bone-conduction headphones. The theory is simple and intriguing: instead of transferring sound through the air into the ear, transfer it through the cheekbones. This will keep the actual ears free to perceive surrounding sounds (or the own voice, in our case). I know at least one colleague who has been trying it successfully, and he assured me it was a good experience, albeit after having had to adapt to it. I might try it out myself in the future.

What should you buy?

To get you started on your quest to find the perfect pair of headphones, here are some models that are popular or that I would recommend you take a look at (click image for more info):

Headsets for remote interpreting

If you want to get started with interpreting remotely from your home office, using services like ZipDX or VoiceBoxer, I recommend you take a look at this informative and comprehensive post by the tech-savvy Barry S. Olsen. 

Happy headphone hunting! (Don't forget to keep them clean.)

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