WS-Series: A 'Carry-Anywhere' Recorder

Static RAM digital storage technology quickly is becoming the standard for professional field recording. At the same time, the technology is appearing in consumer devices, albeit without the high-end features and flexibility, and mostly as part of MP3 players.
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(click thumbnail)Olympus WS-Series Voice RecorderStatic RAM digital storage technology quickly is becoming the standard for professional field recording. At the same time, the technology is appearing in consumer devices, albeit without the high-end features and flexibility, and mostly as part of MP3 players. Can these consumer recorders have a place in the radio mix?

The Olympus WS-Series voice recorders are a handy next-generation upgrade to the inexpensive pocket tape recorders that used to be a staple at many radio news operations alongside bulkier “pro” devices.

The WS Series comprises three models that differ in their storage capacity. Each is basically a USB-flash drive — those tiny computer accessories that have virtually replaced the floppy drive — with a recorder built around it. The entry-level WS-300M has 256 MB of memory, the WS-310M has 512 MB and the flagship WS-320M comes with a full gig.

Used as a field recorder, the increase in memory is mostly irrelevant. With the high-compression Windows Media codec (WMA), even the WS-300M will record more than eight hours in stereo. The added storage serves the needs of audio entertainment, as these also are designed to double as MP3 (and WMA) players. With prices under $100 available, this can serve as a backup, carry-anywhere recorder.

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PRODUCT CAPSULEOlympus WS-Series Voice Recorder

THUMBS UP:

Tiny and light (under 2 oz. with battery)

Good battery life

Decent audio quality

THUMBS DOWN:

Limited recording level choices

No hi-resolution recording options

Settings reset after downloading audio

PRICE: $179.99 (estimated retail per Olympus site)

CONTACT: Olympus America at (800) 622-6372 or visit

www.olympusamerica.com
The WS-320M I tested is set apart from its smaller storage siblings with a piano black finish. The .73 inch L x 1.50 inch W x 0.43 H unit is actually a two-part package. The simple controls are self-explanatory. A switch on the left side toggles between recording and music-player functions so it is easy to put business before pleasure.

On the right side, familiar transport controls feature buttons for record, stop and play. On the front, controls toggle between menu functions selecting mono or stereo recording and compression levels. Other options include mic sensitivity, marked as “voice” or “conference.”

An integrated speaker and stereo microphone are geared towards business recordings, while the 1/8-inch jacks for an external mic and headphones open up the opportunity for radio use with external mics. A small LCD screen shows recording time, time remaining, and recording and battery levels.

The battery compartment holding a single AAA battery wraps around the male USB-2.0 connector hidden in the rectangular form. The battery compartment clicks into place, as does the detachable battery cover on it. The unit, ready-to-record, weighs less than two ounces with battery.

Testing the unit with a beyerdynamic MCE 58 at the highest quality mono setting delivered audio that was at least a match for old cassette recorders — minus the tape “hiss.” The 32 kbps WMA codec did a respectable job on voice recordings. With over 70 hours recording capacity at this compression, I wish that a 64 kbps option was allowed, or even uncompressed PCM recording. But even so, the 32 kbps was quite listenable. The published spec shows that this delivers a 100 to 12,000 Hz frequency response, fine for spoken word recordings.

Additional tests with a Crown SoundGrabber II PZM mic did well in capturing speeches from a podium. In both cases, mic sensitivity was set low, though over-modulation wasn't pronounced when set to the high setting. Aside from the sensitivity settings, levels are fixed. It's strictly a “two sizes fits all” deal — lo and high. Depending on your mic, that's hit or miss. The LCD meter was actually usable. The integrated mic was less so, but if the option is getting no sound versus something through the built-in stereo mics, these will do in a pinch.

After a recording session, popping off the battery compartment and plugging the unit into a USB port made transferring audio files easy and fast. The recorder is recognized as a removable drive under Windows XP, and dropping and dragging files is quick with its USB 2.0 data rates. The only annoyance here is that the recorder's settings are lost after detaching the battery to dump audio.

Though the WS-320M is small, controls proved easy to operate and menu options easy to navigate. Users can jump right into recording without having to refresh their memory with the manual, even if only used occasionally.

The bottom line here is that the Olympus WS-Series voice recorder makes an excellent backup or student field recorder. If you already carry an MP3 player or are thinking about getting one, having this along is worth considering. Toss an EV RE635 and a cable in the glove compartment and you're ready for anything.

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