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Sennheiser SDW 5016, First Take: A quality headset for deskbound workers

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Making and taking voice and video calls from a laptop is pretty much an everyday activity for knowledge workers these days. It's certainly a must for anyone who does remote working. The earbuds that come with a smartphone are good enough for some, but specialist solutions offer a lot more flexibility. Since trying the Plantronics Voyager 6200 UC, that headset has become my first choice when making deskbound calls. At £249.95 (inc. VAT) the Voyager 6200UC is comparable to the Sennheiser SDW 5016, reviewed here, which I found retailing for £256.80 (inc. VAT).

The Sennheiser SDW 5016 is an altogether more chunky beast than the Plantronics headset, and it's not intended to be portable. Where the Voyager 6200UC comes with an (admittedly large) rigid case, there's no case here, and the desk stand for the Sennheiser headset is definitely too much for most people to want to carry around.

There are actually two versions of this kit. The Sennheiser SDW 5015 has no native support for mobile devices, although this can be added via a Bluetooth dongle. It's less expensive at £242.40 (inc. VAT), but the cost saving is minimal -- and frankly, Bluetooth seems like a must-have to me.

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The SDW 5000 headset comes with headband, neckband and ear hook fixings. The SDW 5016 model includes a Bluetooth dongle on the base station for mobile phone connection.

Images: Sennheiser

The base station has inputs for a standard handset, a phone jack, handset lifter, PC and busy light, as well as AC power -- for charging the headset when it's docked. Cables for PC and phone connection are included. There's a touch panel on the front that provides quick access to mute and switching between computer, regular phone and mobile phone. Bluetooth connectivity on the SDW 5016 is provided by a dongle that's lodged in a USB port on the right edge of the base station. It's a bit of a Heath Robinson solution for such an expensive piece of kit.

The headset comes with headband, neckband and ear hook fixings. The neck band is surprisingly minimal, but is comfortable to wear. At the Sennheiser website the neckband is described as an optional extra, but it came with my review kit. The ear hook is quite flexible, although I found it a little uncomfortable to wear with glasses. In the real world I'd probably go with the headband, but the provision of three choices means everyone can find their own sweet spot.

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The headset is exceptionally light, so wearing for extended periods should not be a problem. The battery can deliver up to 10 hours talk time on narrowband connections, and 6 hours on super wideband -- where sound quality will be at its best. Fast charging is supported, so even when calls are very long the headset battery should be boosted through short periods on the base station.

If you're concerned about data security during conversations, the SDW 5016 supports 128-bit encryption and protected pairing.

There are some very neat features, not all of them high-tech. For example, there's a small panel where users can insert a strip containing their name or initials -- handy when there are several units in an office.

The headset has an LED, one of whose functions is to light up when wearers are on a call, making it easy to see if they can be interrupted or not. The provided kit includes the more substantial busy light mentioned earlier. When plugged into the back of the base station this glows in various colours to indicate user status: if you're streaming music or not on an active call, it glows green; if you're on a call it is red. The light unit is on a fairly long lead, so it can be positioned where it's most visible.

A series of DIP switches on the base allows you to toggle various settings depending on requirements: DHSG and Panasonic connections; connection to a handset lifter; how calls are answered (manually via a button on the headset, automatically when the headset is undocked or maintaining an always open connection); band selection (Super Wideband for best quality through Wideband and Narrowband); and to toggle the headset's voice prompts.

In use, sound quality was really clear and crisp. The Super Wideband feature seemed to make a difference, and two-microphone noise cancelling was good too -- although my working environment is generally quite peaceful, so I didn't get to try it for extended periods with a lot of ambient noise.

The reliance on the base station means this isn't a particularly portable piece of kit, so it's not really suitable for business travellers. But where calls are an essential part of the day-to-day fixed location office, it's certainly worth considering.

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