As a journalist, audio recorders play a key role in my arsenal of professional gadgets. Unfortunately, I had the bad luck last fall of watching my old warhorse of a Sony MiniDisc recorder - which had served me reliably for eight years - die in the middle of an important interview with the head of Treyarch, the studio behind popular video game Call of Duty: Black Ops. I picked up a cheap replacement, but I've been on the lookout for something more permanent ever since.
That's why I was eager to check out Olympus' new DM-620, a digital recorder with four gigs of flash memory (that's about 1,000 hours of recording time) and a microSD card slot. It's not the Japanese company's fanciest digital recorder, but it's not far off. And while its $160 price tag may seem high for a device the basic functionality of which is duplicated by many modern smart phones, its advanced features and superior sound quality could make it worth the stretch for some professionals.
Its slim, silver metal and plastic body has a nice weight and feels solid. I didn't test its capacity to endure scuffs and falls, but it looks and feels like a hardy device designed to weather years of frequent use, much like Olympus' sturdy cameras.
Comfortably sized and positioned buttons used to control recording, playback, and menu navigation are scattered around the bottom half of the recorder's front side. Button depressions are rewarded with satisfying clicks that are felt more than heard. I particularly liked the dedicated "list" and "erase" buttons, which make finding and deleting files quick and simple (I've been surprised in the past by how hard it can be to scrub specific data on some recorders).
An optional thumb-sized remote with a tiny infrared receiver that plugs into the side of the device is sold separately. I had little need for it, but those accustomed to dropping their recorders at the head of a conference table prior to retreating to their assigned seat might find it useful.
The recorder's backlit black-and-white LCD screen accommodates up to eight lines of text. I experienced light claustrophobia while scrolling through lengthy file lists - a consequence of being spoiled by the spacious displays of touch-screen phones, I suppose. At any rate, I don't see how the screen could be made much bigger without increasing the size of the device itself.
During my evaluation period I recorded telephone interviews, press conferences, and in-person conversations, all of which provided ample opportunity for me to play with the DM-620's robust feature set.
The adjustable zoom mic proved quite handy when sitting at the end of a long board room table. It let me hone in on the speaker while cutting down noticeably on chatter coming from people lining the sides of the table. Unwanted noise is still present, but less distracting. The ability to alter mic sensitivity is useful, too, especially when confronted with unusually hushed or loud interviewees.
If you don't want to monkey with settings like these yourself, just scroll through a selection of graphically depicted scenes - lecture, meeting, dictation, and conference - and choose the one that fits your circumstances. The recorder will make adjustments automatically.
Another feature I found quite useful during some presentations was Olympus' variable control voice actuator. It eliminates spots of dead air by pausing recording whenever the mic stops picking up sound, then starting up again when speaking resumes. There were no clicks between breaks, and, impressively, it somehow manages to catch the speaker's first syllable when picking up after a pause.
Users can choose between PCM, MP3, and WMA file types, as well as change the capture quality of each format. This, along with the ability to split certain file types (sadly, WMA files appear to be indivisible) and then edit them further on PC using Olympus' powerful and surprisingly un-clunky Sonority sound editing software made me feel as though I had plenty of control over my recordings.
The DM-620 offers loads of functions to toy with, but I never felt overwhelmed. Menus are clean and simple. Plus - and this is very important - you can alter many settings without pausing. I never missed capturing a word while fiddling with recording options.
Plus, in an apparent nod to the popularity of audio recorders among the vision-impaired, all menu items are accompanied by an optional voice guidance system. When switched on, a British woman reads aloud each feature and their associated settings.
As useful as many of these features may be, audiophiles may find the DM-620's most compelling selling point to be its "tresmic" microphone system, which features a trio of sound grabbers. Two stereo mics tilted to either side pick up audio from the left and right while an omni-directional centre mic captures sound from all directions equally.
The resulting audio is simply terrific. While listening to a recording of a press conference that featured multiple speakers scattered across a wide stage I was able to distinguish between similar sounding people based on the direction from which their voices came.
What's more, those voices sound clear and rich. Speakers with a deeper tone sound especially lovely; their voices resonate with a warmth and nearness that just isn't possible to capture using, say, an iPhone as an audio recorder. In the right conditions - echoless rooms, outdoors without wind - voices have an almost studio-like quality. I can easily imagine the DM-620 employed as a mobile podcast recorder.
However, I do have a couple of words of caution.
First, default mic sensitivity is pretty high. I had to keep the recorder a good distance from louder speakers to avoid redlining, especially in enclosed spaces. Keep an eye on your levels and adjust sensitivity accordingly.
Also, don't expect to get much satisfaction from the included earbuds, which fit poorly and deliver light, tinny sound. The onboard external speaker is even worse, spewing garbled, ugly audio. You'll need to invest in some decent headphones if you want to get the most from your recordings, at least if you plan on listening to them on the device.
On a brighter note, it's worth mentioning that the DM-620 doubles as an MP3 player. The bare-bones graphical user interface isn't exactly an iPod killer, but people without dedicated players or whose phones lack music playback may find the ability to store and play music, audio books, and podcasts on their digital recorder a useful extra.
Having now used the DM-620 for several weeks, I'm sad to send it back to Olympus. Much like trying fancy cheese after a lifetime of processed slices, the thought of going back is a little depressing. The high price tag still gives me pause, but if Olympus' recorder makes my job easier - and keeps me from flubbing any more important interviews - it may well be worth the investment.