If there is one thing the last year has taught me, it’s that communication is key. This reality is made more clear with each virtual donor visit and every board meeting video conference. Similarly, some of us are using this time to discover how to develop audio and video content to reinforce our work. If your experience is like mine, then you’ve likely discovered that your current suite of technology is a roadblock to clear and effective communication.
Some have been able to get by with the built-in laptop webcam and microphone. But this mode of operation is not ideal or sustainable for the long-term. A technology upgrade is one of the most important steps in making your transition to the new normal. Moving forward, a modest investment in higher quality audio and visual gear will dramatically improve the quality of communication with external constituents.
Adding video to your meetings will bring nonverbal communication into the mix. The benefits of nonverbal communication includes the ability to maintain eye contact, interpreting when somebody else is trying to speak, even gauging their attention to the conversation. In assessing webcams, the features that I used to select the finalists included the following: system compatibility, field of view, resolution, mounting options, lens quality, auto focus and light correction.
Logitech C925e – budget choice
The Logitech brand ranked high in my research and testing. They are a trusted brand with a quality service, support, and build quality at reasonable prices. The budget option makes some simple but important upgrades to the camera build into most laptops. First, the resolution quality is at the HD rate of 1080p and will improve image clarity. The second most important upgrade is that it includes functionality to mount it on a monitor or laptop as well as the option to use a tripod. It features a glass lens and works with both Windows and Mac systems without the need for additional software. If you use a work-supplied computer this will allow you to bypass the need to contact your IT department to install drivers. It has a fixed field of view of 78º (more in frame than just your face, but not so much you’ll have to clean you entire room).
Logitech BRIO – affordable upgrade
Like the more affordable Logitech C925e, the Logitech BRIO includes the premium features for monitor and tripod mounting. This model also includes a bulletproof plug-n-play functionality across both Mac and Windows.
The advantages of this model includes a higher grade resolution, more seamless auto focus, and an adjustable field of view. At 65º less of your background is in frame and the focus is on you. At 78º you’ll be able to maintain good eye contact with your audience but have more of your surroundings in frame. The wider 90º format is idea for conducting webinars, where background needs to be within view or for use in a conference room with multiple participants. This model is more expensive, but with virtual meetings replacing regular travel, the cost is nominal compared to the performance upgrades over the budget option.
Panasonic LUMIX G100 – next level
The advantage of this particular line of mirrorless micro four thirds camera is that it includes (beta) software that enables it to perform as a webcam. This means that you don’t have to purchase additional hardware encoders or spend additional time configuring your set-up. This will work right out of the box on both Mac and PC. I have successfully tested it on an Intel Mac, but have not had a chance to try this with the M1 Apple Silicon Macs. If you’re looking for that pro-level bokeh effect that blurs your background but keeps you in focus, you’ll need to get an additional lens at an additional cost. This is also a 4K camera, so overkill for most purposes.
GoPro Hero9 Black – multi-tasker
This multi-tasker option may also be overkill for most professionals. However, if you manage a small shop or are also responsible for developing video content outside of web meetings, this multi-purpose camera is designed for alternate uses and extreme conditions. It can be used for live-streaming or recording high quality video content for your nonprofit and it comes in a reliable and compact package. In short, this option is hard to beat.
The webcam software is not quite as plug-n-play as the Logitech options, but does provide three field of view options for different meeting formats and purposes. The options to mount this camera are nearly endless, but require some attachment upgrades based on your needs. This works flawlessly on Intel Apple and Windows devices. However, if you’re using this on a device with the new M1 Apple Silicon, use the Intel software version of video conferencing/streaming services until the next software version. The GoPro Hero9 Black will multi-task for uses beyond virtual meetings and that alone makes it a real contender.
Most laptops include built-in microphones. Unfortunately, their proximity to the built-in speaker increases the likelihood of audio feedback (echos) in your virtual meetings. This kills productivity and makes communication difficult.
By increasing the distance between your microphone and speaker you’ll dramatically improve the voice quality of your virtual meetings. These microphone options are also dramatic improvements over the microphones included in earbud style devices. If your work environment allows you to unplug from earbuds, I have found that call quality improves and the headaches are diminished.
Audio-Technica AT2005USB – budget choice
For the budget options, I recommend two different products that are nearly identical both in features and price. My leading pick is nearly identical to the slightly more economical Samson Technologies Q2U. However, I recommend the Audio-Technica brand because I’ve used headphones, record player, and other microphones produced by the company and have had zero issues or complaints.
Both the Samson and the Audio-Technica will provide a dramatic improvement to your laptop microphone for the price. They both connect via USB, include a place to plug your headphones, and are rated highly on Amazon. However, based on personal experience with other products produced by this manufacturer, the Audio-Technica AT2005USB is my recommendation.
Blue Yeti – affordable upgrade
This is the microphone I used while appearing on Patton McDowell’s podcast, Your Path to Nonprofit Leadership. The interview audio from that podcast was recorded via Zoom. However, the audio quality and clarity speaks for itself. There are several different models, color options, and features across the Blue Yeti line of microphones. This brand is extremely popular among podcasters, and for good reason. It provides seamless plug-n-play compatibility (I currently have it plugged into the USB hub on my monitor making it hot-swappable with whichever computer is currently plugged into my docking station. I’ve also used it with my iPhone and iPad using a USB adaptor.
There are two features that make this one stand out (even in comparison to the next level options). The first is the ability mute from the microphone itself. When switching between video conferencing services, the location of the mute button is not always intuitive or accessible. By having a mute button (with a red indicator light) directly on the microphone, this issue is solved. This has saved me SO. MANY. TIMES. The second feature is the ability to select the microphone “pickup patterns.” This offers incredible flexibility and allows you to record in ways that would normally require multiple microphones. If you’re thinking about starting a podcast, this may be the one to consider.
Rode NT-USB – next level
An upgrade to the traditional style Audio-Technica microphone listed above, this one upgrades a few key features that will make a notable difference in your work-from-home or upgraded office set-up. The addition of headset volume and microphone gain adjustment allows you to fine-tune for the situation.
The addition of a pop filter (the mesh screen in front of the microphone receiver) will take the spikes out of your audio so those hard consonant sounds don’t disrupt the conversation. This is the model we purchased for members of my team. It has successfully eliminated echos in Microsoft Teams, WebEx, and Zoom. I think you’ll be happy with the results.
The Audio-Technica AT2020USB+ is another option that is nearly identical from the previously mentioned Audio-Technica. It is a solid choice, but the Rode slightly edges out the Audio-Technica version in my head-to-head comparisons.
Apple AirPods Pro – multi-tasker
These are rather expensive in comparison to the budget and affordable upgrade desktop microphone options listed above. I include these because their noise canceling and sound isolation features make them a dream for blocking out distracting noises (for both you and the other side of the conversation). If you’re like me and find yourself with intermittent responsibility to keep an ear out for children while working from home, the transparent mode is quick and easy to implement.
Like the GoPro Hero9 Black listed as a multitasking webcam option, these don’t excel in their category. However, their flexibility for use as both microphone as well as listening device makes this a valuable multi-tasking tool. The other feature that separates them from stand-alone microphones is the ability to easily take them on the go. This is my pick when I want a reliable all-in-one option for listening in to a conference call while on a walk, or participating in a Clubhouse room.
Earbuds – budget choice
Chances are your mobile phone came with earbuds. If so, stop using speaker mode on your phone or the built-in speaker/microphone on your laptop. Plug in some earbuds to improve audio quality for both you and your audience. If you don’t have a pair lying around, you can find these online or at any of your local big box retailers.
Sony MDR-7506 – affordable upgrade
This over-the-ear headphone is of the wired variety and is trusted by DJs, podcasters, and of course, me. Although it isn’t wireless, I count that as a benefit. When you have to pick up on a call, you don’t want to have to first make sure your bluetooth is connected. These include a 1/4″ adaptor so it plugs right in to an audio interface (check out the long-term investments mentioned below). I’ve worn these for multi-hour conference calls and have only felt minimal fatigue from their use. I produce a “radio show” with my two oldest kids and these are what they use. It includes a nylon storage bag. You won’t be disappointed with these.
Audio-Technica ATH-M50X – next level
These are what I use for producing higher quality audio content. They are a bit heavier than the above recommended headphones, but I have found them to be slightly more comfortable. I have found them to have better audio frequency range and provide slightly better isolation from outside noise. I like that they are more sturdy than the above mentioned option. They also feature interchangeable cords and a sturdy protective case. If a podcast is in your future and you’re going more toward the professional audio production route, these are a worthwhile upgrade to the Sony option above.
Bose QuietComfort 35 II Wireless Bluetooth Headphones – multi-tasker
This my pick as an upgrade to above mentioned multi-tasking Apple AirPods Pro. Before the pandemic, I was traveling. A lot. That meant a lot of time in airports, airplanes, coffee shops, and hotel lobbies. These headphones were given to me as a gift from my wife to help make those trips less stressful (the sound of jet engines gives me terrible headaches). These have performed like a champ for several years on the road. As it turns out, they also perform exceedingly well as wireless noise canceling headphones/microphone for video and phone calls. If your work area has higher than usual ambient noise (road traffic, cross-conversation, jet engines), this will be a substantial upgrade to your technology toolkit.
What I like about the Gator Frameworks brand is that it is build for gig musicians and is heavy-duty. My Gator Frameworks gear has withstood the rigors of the past year both my me and my kids.
This has been my exclusive go-to lighting solution both in the office and on the road. The brightness and color warmth are adjustable. They can adapt to cold shoe mounting on your selfie-stick if you want to do vlogging. I have found Lume Cube customer service to be responsive as well. I had a button develop a short about eight months into using one of my lights and Lume Cube provided a replacement with rush shipping, no questions asked. I plan to add another pair of these to my gear bag for when I’m on the road and need a remote studio set-up. Yes, they’re that good.
If you accept that virtual meetings and remote work are here to stay, then you may want to consider upgrading your office for the long-term. This pivot reflects a significant investment in your office, but will result in greater flexibility and improved work quality. These products are more expensive or may require more set-up effort than the items listed above. However, they represent long-term investments that will serve you exceedingly well for years to come.
This is an audio interface to connect multiple microphones and monitor headphones to your computer via USB. I use this on a Mac, Windows, and my iPad with incredible results. This is my solution when serving as a Clubhouse host and moderator. This is also what I’m using for a video podcast currently in development.
Just like the mute button on the front of my Blue Yeti, this indestructible microphone includes an on/off switch. It doesn’t have a mute indicator light, but this thing is INDESTRUCTIBLE! If you add this, you’ll need an audio interface to connect the microphone with your computer. I recommend the above recommended Focusrite 2i2 (3rd Gen).
If you want to add the Shure SM58M Vocal Microphone, but don’t want to invest in the Focusrite Scarlett right away, this will give you USB functionality for a slightly lower price. It will only connect one microphone, rather than the two possible using a Focusrite. But if you’re not planing to have guests or adding other audio sources then, this would be a way to save money without sacrificing performance.
If you are using the Focusrite and the Shure SM58S, then you may want to add this to increase the strength of the audio signal coming from the microphone to your computer. I use this and it allows me to turn down the gain from the max to mid-range for a 6″ distance from the microphone. If I lean back a little further, I can turn up the gain and I still come through loud and clear.
There is a reason this model of microphone is so desired among top-tier podcasters. The underlying technology is very similar to that of the Shure SM58S, but with two important additions. First, it has upgraded shock mount hardware that improves vibration absorption. This protects your audio from the sound created when you bump the arm holding the microphone. Second, it improves clarity by forcing more distance from the microphone receiver. This will reduce the bass echo-effect that you may encounter when getting too close to other microphones. If your budget can spare it, this is an upgrade that will serve you for years to come.
Webcam & Lighting Stands
Monitor mounting webcams works as you start out. As you improve your set-up consider using a table top or telescoping, or standard floor tripod for your webcam to give your work-from-home set-up more flexibility. All the webcams recommended above feature the ability to mount by tripod.
A table top version tripod is limited in height adjustability, whereas telescoping and floor tripods will give you more options. In my experience, the desktop telescoping version strikes the right balance between features, functionality, and price. Here is the tabletop/telescoping brand and model I recommend: Ulanzi MT-16 Camera Tripod Mini Tabletop Tripod Selfie Stick with Cold Shoe.
If you go the standard floor tripod route most any brand will perform to your expectations. You may even remember there is one in your closet going unused. If you don’t want to wade through all the options and just want a solid recommendation, I have a Dolica AX620B100 62-Inch Proline Tripod and have been pleased with it’s performance the past several years.
The ring light linked above has a tripod mount that will work with your webcam. I also recommend the Lume Cube suction cup mount. This is what I use to mount my lighting and webcam to the computer monitor in my home office.
Microphone boom arms
As an Amazon Associate, GivingThree LLC may earn commissions from qualifying purchases from Amazon.com.