Skype lets you do audio conferencing with wideband codecs, and a service called Vapps High Definition Conferencing does the same thing for non-Skype VoIP calls.
Now other VoIP providers can offer wideband conferencing too. A company called Wyde Voice sells an all-IP conferencing platform that natively uses wideband codecs. The Wyde platform uses the iSAC codec from GIPS, so anybody calling in from a soft phone like the Gismo5 client, or the Google, AOL or Yahoo VoIP clients can enjoy a conference in wideband. If one of the participants in the call is using a narrow-band codec, the Wyde device up-samples the signal to wideband quality for mixing.
I have always been an enthusiastic proponent of wideband audio – it is one of the major potential advantages of VoIP over circuit switched telephony. Circuit switched calls are encoded with G.711, which yields 12 bits of effective dynamic range and a maximum frequency of about 3.5KHz. Human speech has harmonics even above 10KHz, which is why it is hard to tell the difference between an “F” and an “S” over the phone. The G.711 codec places an absolute limit on the sound quality of a regular phone call. A VoIP phone call can use a wideband codec, with whatever dynamic range and frequency range you want. There are several of them, commonly with a sample size of 16 bits and a sampling rate of 16KHz which captures a maximum audio frequency of 8KHz. When you have a good enough connection Skype uses a wideband codec by default, which is why it can sound better than “toll quality” (if you aren’t limited by your loudspeaker and microphone.)
Unfortunately, for the non-Skype world there’s a chicken and egg problem – almost no phones support wideband codecs, so the carriers aren’t motivated to support them either. Worse, any VoIP call that traverses the PSTN at any point is converted to G.711, losing the wideband frequencies. Worse yet, to cut costs most carrier implementations of VoIP use a bandwidth-saving codec that intrinsically delivers inferior sound quality to G.711; for example, last I heard Vonage was using G.729A.
As VoIP matures, and more and more calls are IP end-to-end through VoIP peering and ENUM arrangements (what Gizmo5 calls “back-door dialing”) wideband codecs will become more pervasive and our conversations will become clearer. The Wyde announcement is a step towards that world.