[bct] Olympus WS320M Review

  • From: "Eric StevenS" <sseric57@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <blindcooltech@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Thu, 2 Mar 2006 10:41:54 -0500

I figured since Larry had made this his new pick for best digital recorder 
and per Mary's review, I would consider it.  So, poking around for sources 
and prices, I came across this review.  Granted, some people aren't happy 
with anything and some like to spout just to show their superior knowledge 
and that doesn't come across nearly as much when saying positive things, 
this may be taken with a grain of salt.  I am not so interested in the 
technical specs as I was his description of the quality of fit and finish, 
which seemed in some cases at odds with how Mary described it, but also 
confirmed a few of her observations.  I have decided this is not a purchase 
I want to make without being able to put my grimy little paws on the unit 
first, though.

Eric SS




67 of 67 people found the following review helpful:
 Toy, December 1, 2005
Reviewer: An electronics fan
[I came back and edited this review after reading the next guy's more 
favorable take on the player. I gave it another chance and... I still don't 
like it
much, but it's worth a third star after getting over the shock of its not 
being the same quality of the DM20]

For context, understand that I also own an Olympus DM-20 that I am using for 
comparison: whereas the DM-20 is the perfect voice recorder, aside from 
memory
and transfer speed limitations, the WS-320 looks like a toy by comparison.

#1, claims USB 2.0 speeds, whereas my unit is transferring music at about 
20Mb per minute (yes, per MINUTE). Same speed as the USB 1.1 DM20, roughly 
(I've
been racing them).
#2, The manual claims that you can now put MP3s and your own WMAs in the 
Voice folders in order to use fast/slow play, etc. on language-learning 
programs
and for music-learning. It won't recognize MP3s in the voice folders, but 
you can put WMAs encoded with the standard 9.1 or lower codec in there that 
were
recorded with bitrates of 256kbps or less, mono or stereo, at 22khz or 
others (I've only tried 22khz and 44.1). I haven't tried vbr, but it will 
not recognize
the "wma voice" codec or acelp.net. Also, You cannot place index marks 
infiles other than those recorded on an Olympus recorder--you can transfer 
from
one recorder to another and place index marks, but not add them to files 
recorded onyour PC.
#3, there is a lot of hiss in the background when you record, even in STHQ 
mode. I don't think this is a defect issue, I think it's a CODEC issue or 
maybe
hiss from the device electronics getting in as EMI--I don't know, but the 
noise knocks it right out for any sort of serious recording. It's close to 
the
same when using an external microphone, more than for the DM20, although 
some hiss goes along with analog microphones of course. This reminds me of a 
microcassette,
for example. I've tried using a pro-quality studio mic and good headphones 
to make sure, which gave less hiss but still more on the 320 than the 20 
(The
DM20 mic and codec are pristene by comparison)
#4, compared to the DM-20, HQ quality is much lower than what I was 
expecting. HQ on the WS320 already sounds a bit like an answering machine 
with digital
background flutter (artifacts) when you hear it on headphones, whereas on 
the DM20 I can hear the words to music being played on the stereos of 
passing
cars fifty feet away in HQ mode! After looking at the files from both 
recorders, I can't really explain the fact that the DM20 files sound clear 
(barely-detectable
digital sheen in the background in HQ mode, and most users won't hear it at 
all in normal use) while WS320 files have a pronounced digital sheen. HQ 
mode
on both recorders is 44.1khz mono 32kbps. Note that STHQ mode on the WS320 
is 64kbps/44.1 stereo, but 64kbps isn't an option in the WMA codec for mono
recording, for whatever Microsofty reason (a better choicefor HQ might have 
been 22kHz stereo, which yields precisely the same file size). I'll note 
that
several reviewers on the net complained that the DM20's mic only recorded up 
to like 8+ kHz, which some consumers (probably playing anumbers game on 
paper)
thought was too low; certainly, the WS320's mic captures higher frequencies. 
I tested this by holding one recorder in each hand (like a complete dork)
and recording the same voice file simultaneously onto both, then listening 
to both files on my HTPC on headphones and looking at them in software. Bear
in mind that virtually all the action for human voice occurs below 2kHz, so 
all you're adding for frequencies above that are basically harmonics and 
what
I experience as a sense of airiness. ...And hiss, which is a high-freq 
phenomenon. All those extra kHz (that's thousands of Hz, btw) have now to be 
compressed
into the wma, with the results being (1) that the very same file is about 8% 
larger when recorded on the WS320 relative to the DM20, and (2) the 
meaningful
frequencies down below 8kHz all have less bandwidth to play with, and so 
sound degraded because of all the extra stuff (hiss...) being compressed 
into
the same bitrate from higher frequencies. That's my story, and I'm sticking 
to it. [Tip: I use a lowpass filter of 19 to 19.5 in the LAME.exe MP3 
encoder
settings to deliver demonstrably richer bass] Finally, the mic level on the 
DM20 is much, much stronger than the WS320. "Dictation" mode on the WS320 is
inadequate unless you're playing back the files in a silent room with the 
recorder's volume max'ed, and even then it's very low playing back. In both 
dic
and conf modes, the DM20 mic makes much LOUDER RECORDINGS!!! The "dict" 
setting on the WS320 is unusable in my opinion unless you tend to speak very 
loudly
into the mic; me, I'm usually muttering into it at 4a.m. On the bright side, 
SP mode on the WS320 uses the WMA codec now, and aside from heavy digital
artifacts, the speech itself is intact. The DM20 used a propriatary DSS file 
format that was wretched for SP and LP modes.
#5, The plastic housing conducts and amplifies every slight pressure of your 
hand on the recorder. It's a constant distraction, and very pronounced. This
is not a problem when using an external mic.
#6, The hold and voice/music switches are now so small and have so 
incredibly little travel distance that I literally can't tell with certainty 
by touch
when I've pressed a button. Somehow I always manage not to successfully put 
it on hold when I attach it to the computer, probably because the switch 
slides
back while I'm separating the pieces or plugging it in. These controls are 
slightly too easy to move by accident.
#7, The buttons are now too small to operate easily. I have to concentrate 
on them to a degree that's distracting, especially record/stop/play. I've 
also
noticed that the recorder seems to shut off after X seconds, whether or not 
it's in hold mode. As a result, sometimes I have to hit Rec twice five 
seconds
apart before anything will happen.
#8, Once you pull apart the battery compartment to expose the usb port, 
reattaching the two pieces is a trick. Since the housing is rather flimsy 
plastic
(ah-hem, the DM20 is all metal), I feel like this is going to either break 
one fine day or the ridges that help hold it in place will break or the unit
will begin trying to separate on its own. Maybe it'll last until I'm ready 
to call such an event an excuse to upgrade. I use these things hard,no 
doubt;
the thing is so light that I forgot it was in my breast pocket and it fell 
onto the pavement, detaching instantly into four pieces (battery 
compartment,
compartment cover, battery, and recorder). The finish scratches easily, btw, 
and so I've ended my mental dialogue as to whether or not to keep the unit.
Sliding the two pieces in place isn't always easy, since it has to be lined 
up just so; at least for me, it's requiring a new habit of how to do it 
right.
I also keep misplacing the battery compartment, but that's just me. Point 
being that this is not a "use it hard and don't worry about it" kind of 
device,
further reducing its suitability for a research project, etc.
#9, Whereas the DM20 has a hinged door for the battery compartment, the 
WS320 has a piece of plastic that pops all the way off, and can do so if you 
squeeze
the recorder the wrong way. It fell off without my noticing while I was 
manhandling the two pieces back together and I found the recorder later in 
my pocket
with no battery cover. I spent an hour looking for it.

I had no idea there would be such a vast gulf between Olympus' "business" 
products like the DS-2 and DM-20 versus these new products that attempt to 
cram
in features at a "low" cost. Certainly, buying separate devices for voice 
and MP3s might be better, at least until they release a pro lineup to match 
these
specs and boost the transfer speeds somehow. I'm looking at it from a 
professional perspective (where $200 is a sensible price), and from the 
perspective
of voice memos (where $200 is NOT required). This new lineup disappoints me 
even for the task of making voice memos while I'm writing, since it's so 
unergonomic;
and certainly I could never take it into the field for interviews.

I suppose I should also mention the good stuff, right? The MP3 player has 
very nice sound quality. I have WOW and 3d on "low," since I usually dislike 
these
things and I'm otherwise a Grado-headphone-wearing audio snob who wouldn't 
touch an Ipod. Listening on the ws320 is pleasant. MP3 folders can have two
levels beneath "Music" (e.g., Music\artist\album\title.mp3). The built-in 
speaker is very adequate (for voice playback, obviously). One major reason 
for
my "upgrading" from the DM20 is the USB-direct feature: plugging it directly 
into the computer without a cable is very, very useful, especially since it
uses standard removable disk drivers like other recorders and so requires no 
proprietary drivers or software.

In general, Olympus seems to be the only place to look for quality voice 
recorders; however, if voice recording quality is your primary concern, I 
don't
think this recorder will ever satisfy you. As for space, the 1GB capacity 
only becomes of use for (a) field recording, which isn't a good idea on this
unit, or (b) mp3s. I've rarely filled up my DM20, since I frequently 
download the files to my computer for backup and transcription.


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