Review: Olympus DS-2 Stereo Voice Recorder
Pages: 1, 2

Playback

The DS-2 also offers a handy Repeat feature. Say you've recorded some tricky chord progressions or political doubletalk. Just click the Repeat button twice as the recording plays back, and you'll create a loop. With practice, it might be possible to create rhythmic loops; the DS-2 doesn't insert loop markers exactly where you click.

Pressing the Play button while a file is playing will play it back faster or slower--without changing the pitch. You can set the amount of speed change beforehand in a menu, from half to double.

Holding the Display button down while a file plays will toggle through two levels of noise reduction, a surprising bonus on a handheld device. It did a reasonable job diminishing background noise on voices I'd recorded in a drafty lecture hall and a speeding car, but it did more to reduce the annoying extra sound than to bring out hidden detail in the voices.

DSS Player, Main Window In DSS Player (Mac/Win), you can audition your files at different speeds, rename them, add comments, and convert them to uncompressed format for use in other programs. (Click to enlarge.)

Hello, Computer

The DS-2 learns a few new tricks when you connect it to your computer with the supplied USB cable or docking station. On both Mac and PC, it shows up as a removable storage device, so you can drag your recordings in and out manually, or transport other types of files. You can also configure it as a USB microphone or speaker, so you can check your mixes on a 0.9-inch woofer!

I was curious if the docking station was just a simple USB passthrough, since it's so small, so I opened it up. I saw what looked like two tiny diodes and a capacitor, which I suppose protect against reversed polarity, because current does travel on the cable. (You can run the DS-2 from USB even with its batteries out.) So perhaps that points a way to hack up an external power supply for extended recording sessions, although fresh batteries should last as long as the memory on all but the lowest-quality recording modes. Olympus's Japanese site says you can charge the batteries in a similar-looking recorder over USB, but I didn't try it on the DS-2.

Installing the Olympus DSS Player software opens other options, including mass file import and comment-editing. It's a whole lot easier to enter file names on a computer than in Morse code on the DS-2, and you can even beam the titles back to the gadget. An optional foot switch ($59.99) turns the program into a transcribing machine. Unfortunately, there are precious few keyboard shortcuts in the Mac version of the software, and what commands exist are often in unlikely menus.

My biggest software gripe was with the audio-editing window, which was consistently off by a second or more. Because there's no Undo function, it was a drag to make edits, not knowing if I'd have to start over because I'd snipped out the wrong part. One workaround is to export the compressed files as uncompressed AIFFs (or WAVs) and edit them in a real audio editor. Of course, if you wanted to put them back on the DS-2, you'd then have to recompress them. Another workaround would be to use an alternative WMA editor. Windows users have several such programs available, but I'm not aware of any on the Mac. Still, it's a pleasant surprise to get software with this much functionality with a $149 recorder.

DSS Edit Screen The editing window in DSS Player lets you add index points (the red dots), delete sections of audio (the blue-underlined section at the end of this clip will be deleted when Erase is pressed), and insert new audio recordings. Unfortunately, the markers are not very accurate and there's no Undo command.
Mic Closeup Strangely, Olympus mounted the speaker on the back of the recorder, but it's bright-sounding enough that speech is still intelligible from the normal listening position (facing the screen). There's also a headphone jack, of course. When recording, I got the best sound quality by pointing the DS-2 at the sound source like a TV remote control.

Audio Examples

Other Voices

Olympus cites the Sony ICD-ST25 voice recorder as the DS-2's closest competitor, but it's been discontinued. The new Sony ICD-SX25 (Figure B) seems to be a better match anyway. I didn't have a chance to try the SX25, but did note that it has half the DS-2's memory, a smaller display (apparently with no backlight), and no Mac software. The menu-control slider looks reminiscent of the one on the ST25, which several reviewers found hard to use. On the positive side, the Sony sports an external power jack, a full metal case (the DS-2 is mostly plastic), and a slimmer design.

Sony SX25 Voice Recorder

Figure B. Like the Olympus DS-2, the Sony ICD-SX25 voice recorder costs $149, records in stereo, is about 4.75" long, and features USB file backup.

The brand-new Olympus WS-200S is probably the model I'll buy. It's smaller than the DS-2 but features double the memory and a built-in USB plug. (No schlepping a cable around!) Unfortunately, it appears to lack time-stamping and a backlight.

For music-quality (albeit not quite pocket-size) recording on the go, options include MiniDisc recorders such as the Sony Hi-MD series, and professional flash-RAM recorders such as the Edirol R-1 ($439 street) and Marantz PMD660 ($499 street).

Because we haven't yet configured the O'Reilly pop-up media player to work with WMA files, the DS-2's native format, I transcoded all of these demonstration WMAs to MP3s using a brilliant Mac program called EasyWMA. That saved me the step of first converting them to AIFF or WAV. Of course, double-compressing a file will degrade its quality, but the difference was subtle in this case. You can download the original WMA files (2.9MB Zip file) to compare if you'd like.

Test 1: Ambient Vocal (angle and sensitivity). In this first batch of tests, I tried to find the best angle for recording--facing the screen, talking down into the end of the recorder, or talking into the small holes on the back. I was also curious how the mic-sensitivity setting would affect the sound. To gauge the effect of reverberation, I went into a shower stall.

Test 2: Dry Vocal. Here, I repeated the test in a jury-rigged vocal booth: my closet. By pushing the hanging shirts apart, I made an anechoic chamber of sorts.

Test 3: Lecture (various quality settings). The DS-2's High mic sensitivity setting is also labeled "Conference," so I experimented at a public lecture by trying various recording-quality levels. I was also curious how stereo recording would affect intelligibility. I was about 15 feet from the speaker in a low-ceilinged, rectangular room with a noisy ventilation system.

Test 4: Parking Garage Ambience. This was a perfect example of why it's so cool to have a digital recorder in your pocket at all times. I was in an underground parking garage and saw a truck coming down the ramp, so I whipped out the DS-2.

Test 5: Children's Song. My 3-year-old son realized recently that the Alphabet Song and "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" have the same melody, so he started singing them back to back. Another one of those fleeting moments that would have been lost without a pocket recorder.

Test 6: Outdoor Drummers. At a Japanese cultural festival last weekend, I heard a taiko drumming troupe start to play from across the koi pond. Pulling out the DS-2, I recorded the performance as I walked toward them. The crowd noise is interesting as well.

Conclusions

I'm really impressed with the Olympus DS-2. It's fast, sounds good, and looks great. I wish the buttons were textured differently to make them easier to identify without looking. I also wish the software worked more precisely and had more key commands (and Undo!). The only drawback for me is that the DS-2 is just a tad too big to coexist with the rest of the detritus in my pocket. (Yeah, I know I could wear it on my belt, but that's goofy. Maybe I should switch my wallet to my hip pocket.) Fortunately, Olympus just released a smaller stereo recorder, the WS-200S (see sidebar). Neither model is the exact answer to my greedy sonic quest, but I can't imagine letting more amazing sounds slip by, so one will definitely end up in my pocket soon.

DS-2 as Phone This press shot from Olympus's European site shows why people who saw me use the DS-2 kept mistaking it for a cell phone. It's not the smallest voice recorder on the market, but it does have an elegant look.
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David Battino is the audio editor for O’Reilly’s Digital Media site, the co-author of The Art of Digital Music, and on the steering committee for the Interactive Audio Special Interest Group (IASIG). He also writes, publishes, and performs Japanese kamishibai storycards.


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