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If I were to design my ideal compact field recorder, here is my wish list: It would be tiny yet rugged, have a decent pair of microphones with sturdy windscreens, and record both compressed and uncompressed audio at a variety of resolutions. I'd be able to set recording levels with a thumb wheel and operate the transport controls with one hand.

It would have acres of memory, run forever on replaceable batteries, transfer files to my computer at the highest possible speed, sound great, look cool, and fit inside the accessory pocket in my ukulele case. Oh, and I shouldn't have to take out a second mortgage to buy it.

Tall order? Maybe not when you consider the new Olympus LS-10.

Picture This

Although this is its first high-resolution audio recorder, Olympus has been in the game for quite a long time. The company's pocket voice recorders are well regarded by many users. With the LS-10, it looks like Olympus was paying attention to what musicians and broadcasters want, too.

The LS-10 fits comfortably in your palm and makes barely a bulge in your shirt pocket. Despite the recorder's diminutive size, the display is large and the controls feel reassuringly solid. There is little wasted real estate, yet nothing feels cluttered.

Olympus LS-10
With its metal case, elegant curves, and solid buttons, the Olympus LS-10 feels good in hand. (Click to enlarge).

The rear panel sports two tiny stereo speakers (handy for spot-checking recordings, though not powerful or hi-fi enough for serious listening), a metal insert for a camera tripod, and a large door for two AA batteries. Olympus claims battery life up to 20 hours; I can't dispute that because I'm still using the original batteries after almost two months! A jack for an optional power supply is located on the bottom.

Two slider switches for the low-cut filter and Hi/Lo microphone sensitivity are within easy thumb range on the right side. Above them is the sturdy little Rec Level wheel. Next come a pair of mini jacks for an external mic ("plug-in power" is available) and a line source.

Olympus LS-10 Left and Right
Ports and controls are well laid out. (Click to enlarge.)

On the left, a three-position slider turns the LS-10 on in a respectable four seconds (it takes slightly longer with a card inserted); moved the other way, it serves as a hold switch, locking out all the function buttons. Next comes a small flexible plastic door covering a mini-USB port. The LS-10 supports hi-speed USB 2.0, though transfers may slow down depending on the removable memory card you choose. Even better, the LS-10 runs off USB bus power. It will not double as an audio interface or record while connected, however.

Rounding out the left-hand side are a volume wheel for playback volume and a 1/8-inch jack for headphones. Watch out — the headphone amp gets loud!

You'll also find a slot for a memory card; SD and SDII cards up to 8GB are supported. But you don't need one to start recording, because the LS-10 also has 2 gigs of internal memory. I really like the flexibility of recording to internal or removable memory; it's handy for organizing files or quickly adding memory in the field.

A pair of small condenser mics angled at 110 degrees sits up top, with a jack for an optional remote between the mics.

Olympus LS-10 Top and Bottom
Top and bottom view. (Click to enlarge.)

Face the Music

The front panel is clean and well laid out. Stop and Rec buttons — one press puts you in record-ready, a second commences recording, and a third pauses the recorder — flank a red peak LED. The LED blinks rapidly if you're running out of memory — nice. A four-position click wheel with a multi-function button at the center serves double duty as cursor and transport controls.

Four small buttons run along the bottom; three call up the Menu, Folder/File lists, or repeat a short section of an audio file. The fourth button, labeled Fn, accesses an assignable menu function with a single button press. I set it to jump to the recording setup screen, eliminating a couple of button presses. Other options include turning the LED on or off, selecting internal or removable memory, toggling between normal and automatic recording gain, stepping through the various recording or playback effects, etc. It's a great little feature that I came to love.

The menu is well thought out; you navigate between sections using icons on the left side or scroll through menu choices on the right. For instance, selecting a little microphone icon jumps you to the Rec section; a wrench leads you to a menu of handy tools for setting the date and time, protecting individual files for accidental erasure, etc. No matter where you are in the menu, a quick press on the Stop button jumps you back to the main screen.

Would that were so in the List screens, where you select one of five folders for recording or playback (there's an additional folder for audio downloaded from a computer). From the List screen, pressing Stop brings up a momentary display showing the time and date; the only way to get back to the main screen is to press FF. Worse, if you enter the List screens via a menu option (as when you select memory location), you can find yourself in a loop that keeps jumping between the Menu and List screens until you remember to press FF. Not exactly intuitive, that.

The main display is easy to read with large meters active during recording and playback. Additionally, there is information about the file type and sample rate, elapsed time, current folder, the number of files in that folder, and the battery status. When recording, the LS-10 also shows the remaining recording time at the current settings; in playback the file length is displayed.

To save batteries, or for stealth recording, you can turn off the display's backlight.

Olympus LS-10 Back
Two small speakers let you verify you captured the sound without fumbling with headphones. (Click to enlarge.)

How's It Sound?

The LS-10 ships with everything you need to start recording, including the batteries. Rooting through the box, I was happy to spy a couple of foam windscreens that clip securely to the mics. Several other recorders I've reviewed skimp on this important accessory.

Once I set the date and time, I was ready to roll. I popped the recorder into its case (supplied), grabbed a mini tripod (optional) and headed out to a local pub (beer supplied) for an old-time session (banjos optional). I recorded in 44.1kHz, 24-bit WAV format, then converted the file to 256kbps MP3 in my computer for faster online playback:

The LS-10 is one of the easiest recorders I've ever used. The transport (if I can use such a term for a random-access device) and level-setting will feel familiar to anyone who has even a passing knowledge of recording. I auditioned different audio file formats and resolutions, changed folders, etc., all without cracking the manual.

Here's something from an Irish session later that week where we were scattered a little farther apart. I recorded this one as an MP3:

And here is an example showing how the LS-10 handles vocals and guitar (also recorded in MP3 format). To raise the recorder high enough to capture both the guitar and my voice, I fastened it to a standard-issue boom-mic stand with a Velcro strap I had lying around. Apologies to Mississippi John Hurt, and anyone else who expects some degree of vocal competence.

To find out how the LS-10 handled loud sounds, I took it to a rehearsal of Kevin Carr's band Charanga, which features Galician bagpipes, percussion, accordion, brass, and yours truly on electric bass. I recorded this one in 44.1kHz, 16-bit WAV resolution, and then converted to 256kbps MP3:

Zoom Zoom

One of the LS-10's more intriguing features is a digital signal processing effect called Zoom Mic. Licensed from DiMagic, the Virtual Microphone Sound Pickup System purports to change the stereo field from normal through ultra wide to mono. It's the audio equivalent of a zoom lens, which makes sense, given Olympus's camera background.

I first tried out the Zoom Mic presets at the Charanga rehearsal. With the effect on, levels were well within the safe zone; as soon as I switched it off the peak LED blinked almost continuously. And the audio playback was just plain ugly — distorted and choked of all dynamics. That was odd.

When I loaded the files onto my DAW, I found out why (see Figure 1). Even though the levels were well below the ceiling, the audio clipped horribly. So take that as a warning — set your levels before engaging the Zoom Mic effect.

Zoom Mic Waveform
Fig. 1: Engaging the Zoom Mic effect dropped the level considerably, yet also drove the signal into clipping distortion, as you can see from the squared-off waveform. (Click to enlarge.)

To test the effect in a more controlled environment, I then created a short loop in Apple GarageBand, recording as it played through my speakers. This test confirmed that the Zoom effect seriously messes with the gain; the more extreme the effect, the more attenuated the signal (see Figure 2).

Zoom Mic Preset Waveform Comparison
Fig. 2: All of the Zoom Mic options altered the signal level. (Click to enlarge.)

To give you a taste of what it sounds like, I edited several takes together in the order the presets appear in the menu: Off (no effect), Wide, Standard, Narrow, and Zoom (dual mono), ending with a reprise of the unprocessed file. Because Zoom Mic only works with 44.1kHz, 16-bit recording, I uploaded the example here as an MP3 for faster download:

Olympus LS-10 on White
You can turn off the backlight and LED for stealth recording. (Click to enlarge.)

Not especially appealing on music, but the extreme Zoom Mic settings are designed to focus the stereo mics, as when you need to capture a speaker at the end of a long conference table. To test that, I recorded myself walking to the end of my studio. I purposely positioned the recorder near my air conditioner to simulate the kind of hubbub you might find in a lecture hall or boardroom. After boosting the Zoom Mic track's volume, I edited the two takes together in my computer and converted them into an MP3:

As you can hear, the Zoom mic does a good job of ignoring the fan while focusing on the sound coming directly in front of the mics.

Euphony and Reverb

In case you've ever wondered what your band sounds like in the MegaDome, the LS-10 offers a handful of reverberation effects. These only apply to playback, which means you cannot accidentally ruin your recordings. How do they sound? Let us just say you will not want to sell the rack gear. Still, a little 'verb eases ear fatigue when listening to extremely dry recordings (or lectures).

Another effect, Euphony Mobile, attempts to create faux surround from two-channel audio. One setting, aptly named Power, acts mainly as an unsubtle bass boost; the other two (Natural and Wide) try to create a more expansive soundstage. I say "try," because I am not convinced; I listened to a number of recordings using my Sony MDR-7506 headphones and could not hear much difference with either setting.

If you get the idea that I don't care for the DSP effects, you're right. That's not to say you won't like them, but I don't want anything to color my recordings until I'm ready to mix. The effects are there if you want them; the good news is they don't get in the way when you don't.

The Acid Test

As with most of my reviews, I recorded my guitar at 44.1kHz, 16-bit resolution using the recorder's internal mics. Because it's the same guitar, recorded the same way each time, you can compare the microphones and preamps on each of the recorders. Here's the same recording in both MP3 and WAV formats:


To my ears the LS-10 did a good job capturing the thump of my big Taylor flattop. There's plenty of high-end detail, though it's not as smooth as I'd like, and I can hear a little hiss creeping in as the guitar trails off. Nonetheless, I think the LS-10 does as good a job recording music and voice as some recorders costing quite a bit more.



And the Winner Is…

I like the Olympus LS-10 a lot. I'm tickled with the design, ergonomics, audio quality, and the rugged aluminum case. I even like the little carrying case; it's just big enough for the recorder and a mini tripod.

I'm less than thrilled with the DSP effects. The playback effects are okay, but I don't like the Limiter or AutoGain, both of which are pretty heavy handed.

I'm quite happy with the mics overall — they did a good job of grabbing the full range of instruments at the various sessions and rehearsals I recorded. Although the mics are reasonably free of wind noise, interviewers will want to use the excellent windscreens and engage the low-cut filter to minimize handling noise.

For those who need more flexibility, the external microphone input does a reasonable job, as you can hear in this voice recording. I go quiet in the middle so you can analyze the sound of the preamps:

I also like the wide variety of file formats and resolutions the LS-10 offers. It's handy to be able to record to MP3 to save memory with non-critical recordings; WMA compression is almost as efficient and sounds noticeably better. When memory is not an issue, WAVs at higher sample rates and bit depths will improve the sound of your recordings.

So, is this the ultimate flash recorder? I can't say until I finish this series; there will always be a contender on the horizon. But it is within spittin' distance of the winner's circle. If you are looking for a recorder that is easy to use, can go anywhere, gets great battery life, and makes excellent recordings, give the Olympus LS-10 a try.

Mark-o's Buying Advice Rant 2.0

Although I've said this before, it appears it's time to repeat it: I cannot give personal buying advice or tech support.

Every week I get dozens of e-mails from readers just like you asking me which recorder is the best for recording a church choir or documenting endangered grunting traditions in Touriststan or capturing every precious moment of a five-hour, folk-Goth, punk-rock opera.

Other readers want help with specific technical issues, such as uploading files to their computers or understanding why their grandmothers sound like they've been hitting the helium again.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, these are great questions. In fact, they're so great that you ought to share them. That's why we have a nifty little discussion area at the end of each article.

And don't forget O'Reilly's Digital Audio forum, where you can post questions and comments pertaining to any facet of digital recording.

These are invaluable resources. Without them I never would have learned how to create surround sound using the Zoom H2, to name just one example. (Another great resource: all the audio examples posted with each review. I strive to record similar material with each recorder so it's possible to compare them long after I've returned the review unit to the manufacturer.)

By posting your questions to the forums, you have the eyes and ears of a large number of committed and interested recordists. That means you'll get real, useful answers, often from folks who know a whole lot more about the subject than this boy. I'm consistently amazed at the level of expertise out there.

What's more, the chances are pretty good someone else may have the same question down the line. By posting yours publicly you will help your fellow human, promote truth and beauty, and make the world just a little bit better. Isn't the Web wonderful?

The remaining one percent of the questions I get are from folks too lazy to read the reviews. My all-time favorite was the guy who wanted me to create a point-by-point comparison of five recorders — including a couple I had not reviewed — and record a short interview and musical example with each one. At each supported sample rate and bit depth. He stopped bugging me when I quoted my studio fees.


Olympus LS-10 Linear PCM Recorder Specifications

Street Price

$399

Included Accessories

Strap

Carrying case

USB 2.0 cable

Wind Screen

2 AA Batteries

Steinberg Cubase LE4

Instruction Manual

Recording Formats

WAV (44.1/48/96kHz, 16- or 24-bit)

MP3 (128/256/320kbps)

WMA (64/128/160kbps)

Recording Media

Built-in 2GB flash memory

Optional SD/SDHC Card (512 MB to 8 GB)

Recording Time (internal memory)

WAV: Up to 3 hours 10 minutes

MP3: Up to 35 hours 35 minutes

WMA: Up to 69 hours 35 minutes

Input Level

Mic sensitivity high: –59dBv

Mic sensitivity low: –39dBv

Line input: –6dBv

PC Interface

USB 2.0 hi-speed

Display

35x29mm backlit LCD

File Organization

5 folders with 200 songs per folder, plus music folder

Speaker

(2) 16mm dynamic speakers, 8 ohms, 200mW output

Mic Input

3.5mm stereo mini-jack, 2 kohms

Line Input

3.5mm stereo mini-jack, 2 kohms

Headphone Output

3.5mm stereo mini-jack, 8 ohms, max 3 mW per channel at a load of 16 ohms

Batteries

2 AA alkaline, lithium, or NiMH

External Power Supply

Olympus D-7AC AC adapter (optional)

Dimensions

131.5 x 48 x 22.4 mm (without protrusions)

Weight

165g (including alkaline batteries)

OS Supported

Windows: 2000/XP/Vista

Macintosh: Mac OS 10.2 or later

Which One's for You?

See how this recorder stacks up in our
portable recorder comparison chart.

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