Mobile Computing: High-Quality Voice Recorder

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Nearly every week, I receive e-mail from readers asking about portable digital audio recorders. Have I heard of a gadget that is affordable, yet captures good-quality sound?

During recent podcasting classes and seminars I attended, I asked some audio pros for their recommendations. No single device earned a unanimous thumbs-up, unfortunately. But one recorder, M-Audio's recently released MicroTrack 24/96, was mentioned several times as an intriguing new contender.

I tested the MicroTrack and found a lot to like. The recorder has a few drawbacks, however. Here's the story.

Targeted at Both Pros and Consumers

The MicroTrack (about $499) is designed for audio professionals seeking to record high-quality sound on the go (or "in the field," as the pros say), and for consumers who want an easy-to-use digital audio recorder with above-average sound quality.

The MicroTrack records audio onto CompactFlash cards. With no moving parts, flash memory doesn't add noise to recordings. And flash memory is durable, whereas tape wears out with repeated play. Plus, digital audio files are easy to share and archive, unlike tape recordings.

The audio experts I spoke to liked the MicroTrack's professional features, such as two-channel recording, microphone and line-level inputs, and the ability to record uncompressed audio as .wav files. They were impressed with the device's compact size, and they liked the easy-to-use, on-screen menus.

In my tests, the MicroTrack's audio recordings were exceptionally clear. The T-shaped microphone included in the box does an excellent job of picking up detailed, warm sound. The device measures 4.3 by 2.4 by 1.1 inches and weighs 4.9 ounces, not including the memory card.

The Battery Could Be a Drag

In my recording tests, the MicroTrack's built-in battery lasted about 4 hours on a single charge. Though not stellar, that's probably fine for most casual users. However, the MicroTrack's nonremovable battery is a potentially big drawback for anyone who regularly records for hours at a time, without access to a power source.

M-Audio pointed me to a workaround: Apple's iPod Shuffle External Battery Pack ($30). Inserting two standard AA batteries into the battery pack and connecting the pack to the MicroTrack via USB cable can extend the recorder's internal battery charge. In my informal tests, the iPod Shuffle's add-on battery pack added about an hour to the MicroTrack battery's charge.

However, the USB battery packs aren't powerful enough to actually recharge the MicroTrack's battery, according to an M-Audio technical marketing specialist. Rather, a USB battery pack simply prolongs what's left of the MicroTrack battery's existing charge.

But That's Not All

I encountered a more significant problem with the MicroTrack: On several occasions, the device froze while I was recording. To restart it, I had to turn the recorder off, then back on. Unfortunately, this wiped out an hour-long recording I had been making.

Since my initial tests, M-Audio released a firmware update, version 1.3.3, designed to fix this and other known problems. I retested the MicroTrack with the new firmware. All but one subsequent recording continued without a hitch; in one instance, the MicroTrack froze after about 4 minutes of recording.

The Bottom Line

The MicroTrack 24/96 is a first-generation flash-memory audio recorder. As with most new devices, kinks need to be worked out.

And so, despite its many nice features and excellent audio quality, I hesitate to recommend the MicroTrack now. Put simply, I wouldn't be entirely comfortable relying on it for important recordings, especially those made in the field. Instead, I'll eagerly await a second-generation version. (M-Audio wouldn't say when an updated device would be available.)

In the meantime, you might consider a Sony Hi-MD MiniDisc player/recorder. Several audio pros I spoke to, including a producer for National Public Radio, believe MiniDisc players are among the best portable audio recorders available in terms of sound quality. In addition, MiniDisc players can record for about 30 hours on a standard AA battery, and 1GB Hi-MD discs cost only about $7.

MiniDisc players have drawbacks, too, however. In my brief, informal tests of the Sony Hi-MD Walkman MZ-RH10 ($300), I found the on-screen menus difficult to decipher--and the manual wasn't much help, either. Also, MiniDisc is a proprietary Sony format, so archiving your recordings on MiniDiscs exclusively could backfire if the format disappears. And you can only transfer audio recordings to a PC via Sony proprietary software; Macs aren't supported. Check out the current models at Sony's site.

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