We noticed business and technology author and noted Mac guy Ben Thompson volunteered a pic of his setup on Twitter when tech and politics writer Casey Newton posted a shot of an immaculate setup, wondering if he has “remotely what it takes to put something like this together.”
Well, Taiwan-based Thompson certainly has what it takes to put together a great setup — even if it’s more lived in and not quite as photo-ready as the one Newton posted.
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As it turns out, Thompson is in the middle of a personal blog project all about his setup: “The Ultimate Home Office (UHO)” on monkbent.net. He’s writing it for anyone who wants to improve their setup. Aspiring podcasters, especially, should find plenty of good information.
A long journey
He began building the setup in 2013 with a $5,000 stipend. Today, only the standing desk remains from the original configuration.
Everything else has been added over time — particularly during recent Covid-19-related isolation, when traveling less and being on more video calls forced his to up his audio-video game.
“I was pretty embarrassed at how terrible I looked on my iMac’s built-in camera: it was both low quality and, given how far away the iMac sat on my desk, far too zoomed out,” he writes.
Unfortunately, his iPhone camera didn’t help much. So he went on a bit of a buying spree. Some of it you can read about on his blog now, but some is still to come. As he notes, he will add live links to the table of contents as he completes the content.
Because he’s big on podcasts — Exponent, Dithering, and the Stratechery Daily Update Podcast — as well as videoconferencing, audio is hugely important to Thompson. Great audio quality for different applications, such as podcasting versus listening to music, was an important consideration in his setup build-out.
His enviable mics are a Shure BETA 87A Supercardioid Condenser Vocal Microphone for recording at home and an Audio-Technica ATR2100x-USB Cardioid Dynamic Microphone for use while traveling.
With a condenser mic, you generally get better sound quality than you would with a dynamic mic, he points out, but less forgiveness of background noise. However, he finds his Shure blocks most background noise. Nevertheless, the dynamic mic is still a better bet for unpredictable recording environments, like hotel rooms.
A high-end mic like the Shure requires a preamp to provide power and convert the signal to work with a recording device, such as a USB interface. Thompson uses a Sound Devices USBPre 2 USB Audio Interface. He finds it easy to use, with minimal software and straightforward connections to his mic, headphones and computer.
A new addition to the setup is a Sony ECM-B1M shotgun mic mounted on a camera. Thompson notes it can be set to record sounds it’s pointed toward. He says it’s better than using a lavalier, AirPods or, really “anything other than a mic right in your face. And it’s not right in your face.”
Headphones and amp
Thompson describes his acquisition of the ideal headphones as “a bit of a saga.” He goes into it in great detail. Anyone gearing up for podcast recording should take a read – especially if they might want use their fancy new cans for something else, like listening to music.
The long and short of it is that Thompson ended up with Dan Clark Audio AEON Flow 2 Closed Headphones, which he calls “absolutely incredible.” He powers them through a Schiit Jotunheim with Multibit DAC headphone amp.
With his USBPre 2, he tends to use Sennheiser HD-380 Pro headphones, which are great for podcasting, but as he discovered, “terrible for music.”
Thompson calls a “maxed-out” 2017 5k iMac the center of his home office. Though happy with it for the most part, an uptick in fan activity (and noise) is annoying enough that he wonders about upgrading
He also has a 2019 16-inch MacBook Pro and a 2017 13-inch MacBook Pro – neither of which pleases him. On the 16-inch he hates the Touch Bar and the 13-inch, while nicely portable, has only two USB-C ports and no Touch Bar.
He makes limited use of an original 13-inch iPad Pro – watching sports and making illustrations for his business and technology blog, Stratechery.
Thompson runs two 24-inch LG UltraFine 4K Displays with the iMac, effectively giving him three screens with the same resolution.
He likes to run different apps in defined places. On the left he keeps a slew of messaging apps. On the right he has TweetDeck, notepad apps and any open browser windows. The iMac screen displays whatever he’s currently focused on, such as email, OneNote or a text editor.
Thompson keeps his iMac and the monitor with a hard drive attached to a Cyberpower UPS system. In the event of a power outage, it keeps his vital hardware going for 10 to 15 minutes, plenty of time to shut down safely.
Keyboard, mouse and track pad
Calling himself a “devotee” of the original Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard, Thompson praises the way it slopes down away from him and notes he came to like its function buttons (which, on most keyboards, would be keys, not buttons). The downside, he writes, is the keyboard wears out in about a year.
To go along with the keyboard, he uses a Sculpt mouse. It fits his hand well and he likes that the scroll wheel works vertically and horizontally.
He also uses a Magic Trackpad for the rare times his mousing wrist hurts, but mainly for pinch-to-zoom motions in an audio editing app for podcasts.
As for the rest of Thompson’s setup, we’ll see when he eventually adds to his blog.
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