Every now and then on The Vergecast, we like to do a microphone test. Because we spend a lot of time worrying about our headphones and how things sound to us but not enough time testing our microphones and how we sound to others.
Last year on the show, we stress-tested the microphones on a bunch of flagship wireless earbuds to see which sound the best for voice calls. But not everyone uses earbuds for conference calls and video chats — and many people don’t even have analog wired headphones anymore. So can your laptop’s built-in microphone handle a voice call these days?
To find out, The Vergecast sent senior reviewer Monica Chin with six laptops to one of the most chaotic spots in New York City: Times Square. The results were not what we expected.
Here is a recording of Monica walking through the middle of Times Square, en route to the TKTS booth, on a video call with the 16-inch 2021 MacBook Pro.
The microphones held up surprisingly well in a super crowded area with lots of traffic and street performers. This is probably the most “realistic”-sounding recording of the laptops we tested, too. It’s not embellishing voice frequencies, but you can hear Monica clearly above the sounds of the city.
This may look like an unrealistic test; no one is really walking through Times Square holding a laptop in front of them, after all. (If you are, please stop.) But I’m sure many of us have tried to take a call in a crowded coffee shop, at a park in a city, in a backyard with airplanes flying over, or in a home office with a house full of kids. This test mimics a bunch of those scenarios all in one. Despite all of the chaos, it was surprising how easy it was to hear Monica (without many interruptions besides wind and internet connectivity) in a part of the city many New Yorkers do not dare to go. The results aren’t perfect, but they are very impressive.
The Dell XPS 13 also fared pretty well in this test. Monica’s voice is right in the front of the recording, but there is a lot more detail in what is going on in the background. There is also some boost in the higher-end frequencies, presumably tuned for human speech.
Just to check our benchmarks, we also tested a $400 Gateway laptop that Monica picked up from Walmart just before our tests. It did not do well on this test at all and, if anything, shows how impressive these other laptops are. The audio was physically painful to listen to.
We also tested the mics on a Lenovo IdeaPad 5i gaming Chromebook. Lots of people use Chromebooks, especially for education, and lots of people take classes online, so you’d hope Chromebooks would be good for this. It was certainly better than the Gateway laptop! The voice was very prominent in the recordings, with a little too much high end and distortion for our tastes. This recording did have the widest dynamic range between the voice and the background noise, though — Monica’s voice came through the loudest with this laptop without also boosting street noise.
Laptop number five is the ThinkPad X13, a classic business laptop. This one in particular is built with mobility in mind, which is all the more reason the mic should be good. Its audio had less processing and tuning to the voice and a lot more detail of what else was happening in Times Square. We were almost picking up other people’s conversations.
Our final test subject was the newest M2 MacBook Air. It’s a highly recommended laptop for most needs and probably the laptop I’ve seen the most running Zoom in a coffee shop. The recording was great but not as good as the MacBook Pro, so it’s a good case for how much hardware matters for this.
The overall takeaway here: we were sort of amazed at how good these sounded. I could easily take a call from just my MacBook if I were in a massively crowded space outside and not worry about annoying the other person on the call, especially factoring in any other noise reduction and processing happening in apps like Zoom, Teams, or Google Meet.
Over the last couple of years, it looks like laptop manufacturers started to care about the quality of their microphones, for basically the first time ever, and things have gotten a lot better really quickly. Not that long ago, I would have winced at the idea of using the onboard laptop microphones for a voice call, but lately, it’s a great backup option for guest audio for our podcasts.
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