Jabra Evolve 80: Serious business, incredible sound

For business pros that live on conference calls, but also enjoy their content on their mobile devices, look no further than Jabra's new hybrid VOIP headset.

Many folks work in large offices in densely packed shared spaces, often affectionately refered to as "Cube farms."

I don't work in one of those. I work at home. But there's something that we have in common, and that's worker distraction. Especially for those of us that actually have Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) which can be utterly debilitating for your productivity.

Like many "Knowledge workers" much of what I do involves heavy email as well as intense voice communication -- specifically on long conference calls using unified communications (UC) technologies, such as Microsoft's Lync which is built into Office 365.

Other popular UC technologies include Cisco's UC/WebEx and Citrix GoToMeeting, as well as consumer grade VOIP/video conferencing technologies such as Skype, Apple's Facetime and Google Hangouts.

It's not uncommon for me to be on these calls for hours at a time. Because I work from home there is always some element of distraction -- my wife may walk into the room to ask me a question, not realizing I am working, particularly if my microphone is muted and I am just listening.

There's also low-frequency noise from fans and air conditioners and also the occasional truck that trundles by as my office window faces the street, as well as the thrumming sound of jet engines while aboard an aircraft, on the occasions when I do travel.

To try to isolate myself from these distractions I have used number of methods and technologies over the years, but few have been truly successful in creating a isolated work zone for every scenario.

Some VOIP headsets are optimized for desktop use, but are not particularly good for mobile phones. Some Bluetooth earpieces are good for mobility, but are not particularly good for busy office environments.

And then of course after I am done working for the day, I might want to watch a movie on my iPad or Surface or listen to music. You need an entirely different headset for that, as the speaker drivers that are optimized for voice aren't necessarily good for high-fidelity sound, and they have completely different connectors -- USB versus mini-jack.

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Jabra's new Evolve 80 Unified Communications Headset.

Jabra's new Evolve 80 headset aims to solve all of the above problems. And at an MSRP of $329.00 (but can be found for somewhat less at the usual online e-tailers) it actually does.

It sounds pricey -- but imagine if you could replace your desktop VOIP headset and your noise-cancelling stereo entertainment headphones with a single device. With this product, you can.

Out of the box, the Evolve 80 (which comes in two variants, optimized for Microsoft Lync or Cisco UC) looks like a set of high-end entertainment noise cancelling over-the-ear cupping headphones that you might see from the big names in the space, such as SONY, Bose or Sennheiser.

Plug the 3.5mm mini-jack from the headset directly into your smartphone, tablet or other entertainment device, and you'll be treated with incredible theatric sound.

My benchmark test for this was watching Lone Survivor and Jimi Hendrix: Hear My Train A 'Comin on Netflix.

I would never call myself an audio freak and I don't review high-end headphones normally.

But as a means of comparison I own a classic set of low-end Sennheiser monitors ($100), a pair of mid-range Audio Technica QuietPoints ($250) with active noise cancellation as well as very expensive ($400) active noise cancelling digital SONYs.

Not only does the active noise cancellation on the Evolve 80 completely zero out low frequency noise when it is simply turned on -- creating a total concentration zone of peace and quiet -- but the sound reproduction when listening to content is incredible, matching or even besting my SONY and Audio Technicas easily. 

You would expect this from a pair of entertainment headphones that retail at $329. But entertainment headphones aren't meant for business.

The Evolve 80's primary purpose is for work. The entertainment part you get as a bonus.

When you are ready to go to work, the integrated boom microphone flips down from the headband in front of the right earphone. It swings back up effortlessly when you want your me-time with Mark Wahlberg playing Navy SEAL and the Voodoo Child jamming out some serious riffs.

To interface the headset with your PC or Mac, a USB connected control unit -- that has integrated call answer, volume and mute controls (which is about the size of a double-stuff Oreo cookie) plugs into the micro jack on the bright red headphone cord. 

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The Jabra Evolve 80 USB control unit.

The USB control unit also acts as the headphone charger. The headset has an advertised 24 hours of use with active noise cancellation, so if you are on a long flight, you should be good to go with quite a few movies and music playlists on your tablet even without having to connect the control unit to your laptop.  

The noise cancellation kicks into gear by default, but you can turn it off manually with a switch on the right side headphone. The ANC (and the Passive Noise Cancellation) alone is a godsend for concentration.

But the real value is when you hit the circular "Do not disturb" button on the control unit.

When you hit the DND button, or initiate or receive a VOIP call, both sides of your headphones light up with big, bright red rings. That's a key signal to your co-workers or anyone around you that you don't wish to be interrupted. 

Voice audio as well as microphone performance on the Evolve 80 is excellent, and is as good if not better than the Logitech H650 and H820e that I normally use. "Crystal clear" is how my co-workers described my voice in Lync calls.

I also tested the Lync variant of the headset on Skype, Google Hangouts, GoToMeeting, WebEx and Facetime calls, during desktop sessions on a Windows 8.1 PC and a Mac, as well as with iOS and Windows Phone devices.

The headset performed admirably with all of these, but I suspect the main difference between the Lync and Cisco UC version is strictly firmware-related and has to do with call handling using those apps.  

Jabra's Evolve 80 is not by any means a budget VOIP headset that you want to issue to an entire fleet of office workers. But it is definitely a product you want to treat yourself to, particularly if you do heavy conference calling at your desk, own mobile devices, and need to be able to "tune out" when necessary.

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