Verbatim: Olympus Recorder Captures Every Word

By Gerry Blackwell | Posted April 27, 2005

In this day and age of Swiss-Army-like gadgets that cram 17 functions into a box the size of a pack of Tic Tacs — whether you need them or not — is there room for a device dedicated to a single task? Happily, yes.

The Olympus DS-2 Digital Voice Recorder is that rare thing in this era of "converged" devices: a dedicated, single-purpose tool, and it does a very good job of recording voice in all kinds of situations. If you need a recorder to capture meetings, interviews, lectures, phone conversations, dictation or voice notes, this is an excellent product.

The DS-2 measures 4.8 x 1.5 x 0.7 inches, weighs just 2.8 oz. and fits easily in a shirt pocket. It comes with 64MB of built-in flash memory, which may seem stingy given the price of flash memory these days since 512MB USB flash memory cards now sell for under $50. But it records up to 22 hours of audio in long play (LP) mode and two AAA batteries last up to 18 hours. That should be enough for most purposes.

It records in DSS (Digital Speech Standard) format, a data compression format developed by Olympus, Grundig and Philips for voice recorders — 11 hours in short play (SP), 22 in LP. It can also record in WMA, Microsoft's streaming audio format — four hours and 20 minutes (HQ), two hours and 10 minutes (SSP) or one hour and five minutes (SHQ). A 30-minute recording made using SP mode — a good general purpose format — takes up a shade over 3MB of hard disk space.

You can record up to 199 separate files in each of five folders for a total of 995 recordings. The DS-2 also comes with a USB cable so you can attach the device to a PC, and software that lets you download recording files and organize or edit them on the computer.

This product is unusual in having built-in stereo microphones, which means that in a meeting or an interview — if you use one of the two WMA stereo recording modes — the voices of different participants will come from different directions in playback, making it easier to identify them.

Quality Trumps Quantity
Given that many digital cameras, MP3 players, PDAs and cell phones today can record voice, why choose the DS-2?

Those other devices may be adequate for recording quick voice notes, where you hold the microphone right up to your mouth. For any other application, their microphones and recording electronics — designed either for telephony or note taking — simply aren't good enough.

Using a PDA to capture voices even a few feet away consistently produces fuzzy, low-volume, virtually un-useable recordings. Even with the device held close to your mouth the sound quality isn't good enough for dictation and transcription purposes.

The DS-2, on the other hand, clearly captures amplified voices in a huge conference hall, despite rustlings and murmurings. In a quiet environment, unamplified voices even 15 feet away are clear and the volume high enough to hear them distinctly in playback.

Unlike multi-purpose devices, the DS-2 has a voice activation mode. Most dedicated voice recorders have this feature, but the DS-2 goes one better. In voice activated mode, the device records only when sound reaches a certain level. This means you don't have to listen through long silent passages when reviewing or transcribing interviews, meetings and voice notes. The DS-2 has a Variable Control Voice Actuator (VCVA), which lets you adjust the point at which it starts recording.

The DS-2 also lets you set index points in a recording. If you hear something in a meeting or a presentation that you know you're going to want to listen to again later, you can push the Index button on the side of the unit while it's recording. When listening to the recording later, if you hold down Fast Forward, the recording will stop at each index point.

After you upload the recording to the PC, you can see the index points on a time line and click on them to go directly to that part of the recording. One slight flaw: you can only place 16 index points in any file. It's not hard to imagine situations where you might want more.

PDAs, music players and the like also typically don't have an input jack for an external microphone, which the DS-2, like other purpose-built voice recorders, does. You can use this jack to plug in a lapel microphone when doing interviews.

We're disappointed that this product doesn't include an external corded microphone. Some similar products do, such as the less expensive MiVoice 918SU from Sora Inc. The Sora recorder also comes with a telephone recording adapter. That said, the DS-2 produces clearer recordings, and the PC software makes it much easier to use and more functional than the MiVoice recorder.


The Olympus DS-2 Digital Voice Recorder
Listen Up — The DS-2 Digital Voice Recorder performs its one task admirably, providing clear, audible voice recordings even in the face of background noise.

Once you download recording files from the DS-2 to a PC, you can listen to them using the noise cancel function. Noise suppression really only works well when there is a fairly loud constant noise obscuring the voice. And using it at too high a level can distort voices, making them more difficult to decipher. In our testing, even the lowest level of noise suppression in the DS-2 software distorted voices more than it suppresses noise.

Control Issues
We like the DS-2's physical interfac. It features a small, backlit, monchrome LCD and good-sized Record, Stop, Rewind, Play and Fast Forward buttons on the front surface. Four multifunction buttons and a volume controller sit on the right side, and you'll find a Hold button and the headphone jack on the left.

The multifunction buttons, which let you access the setup menus and switch from folder-to-folder and recording-to-recording, take a little learning. You have to know, for example, to press and hold the Menu/Set button for a second in order to display the menu. It took us the longest time figure out how to turn the DS-2 off. You do it by sliding the Lock switch into the lock position.

It would also be nice if the Index button — one of the multifunction buttons on the right side — was a little bigger or a different shape than the others so that it's easier to find by touch.

One other quibble: when you download files from the DS-2 to a computer, it looks like they're being transferred to folders on your hard drive that mirror the folders on the recorder — Folder A, Folder B, etc. Initially they appear in the DS-2 software in the Download Tray, but the next time you launch the software, they don't. You have to import the files back into the program from the subfolder where the program stored them when it first uploaded them: very annoying.

Bottom Line
Notwithstanding the few quibbles, this is an excellent tool for the task. Given the features and overall quality, $150 is a reasonable price to pay.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s. Just for fun, he also authors features and columns on digital photography for Here's How, a spiffy new Canadian consumer technology magazine.

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