The latest entry into the world of portable stereo recorders comes from a company better known for their cameras and accessories.
The first the world knew of the LS10 was a high-profile launch at the NAMM show in January, where everyone I talked to came away from the Olympus stand saying something along the lines of "That looks like a classy piece of kit." It's an impression that is only reinforced by looking at the review unit, which simply oozes quality.
Olympus are a huge name in photography, and also make a range of dictation machines and other recorders aimed at those with a need to record speech, but the new LS10 is their first foray into Sound On Sound territory. It's a portable, solid-state, stereo recorder with built-in microphones, which presents an affordable alternative to the revered Sony PCM-D1 and competes more directly with the likes of the M-Audio Microtrack II, Edirol R09 and Zoom H2 and H4. (If you're interested in comparing the specs of portable recorders, take a look at the charts on the Wingfield Audio web site: www.wingfieldaudio.com.)
I was going to say that the LS10 is about the size and shape of a mobile phone, but then I remembered that most SOS readers have probably bought a new mobile phone within the last eight years. Even so, it sits comfortably in the hand, and would fit fairly easily in most pockets. A soft padded case is included. The metal casing is light but feels sturdy, and the controls are all easily accessible, yet Olympus have given serious thought to ensuring that they won't get activated accidentally — the thumbwheels for playback volume and record level are protected by unobtrusive bulges in the casework, while the power switch has to be slid and held for a couple of seconds to turn the unit off. The backlit LCD is clear, and it is also much larger than, for example, that of the Edirol R09. Other nice touches include a mounting for a standard camera tripod, and neat little foam windshields that clip to the heads of the microphones.
The microphones themselves are fixed in an X/Y configuration, although some electronic jiggery-pokery described in the 'Virtual Microphones' box can be used to vary the apparent width of the stereo field. A mini-jack headphone socket doubles as a line-level output and is complemented by a small pair of speakers, permitting you to check how your mixes translate to being played through a teenager's mobile phone on the top deck of the number 73 bus. The LS10 is clearly designed to be used in conjunction with a computer, as there is no dedicated line out or S/PDIF digital output. I didn't find that I missed them, but others might.
A remote control kit is an optional extra, as, unfortunately, is the 5 Volt power supply. Since the LS10 is equipped with a USB connector for transferring files to and from a computer, I was rather hoping it might be equipped with internal batteries that could be charged, iPod-style, over USB, but unfortunately this isn't the case. However, two AA batteries are supplied, and the manual quotes battery life as ranging from eight hours to 35 hours, depending on what kind of batteries you're using and what you're doing with the LS10 — recording is more battery-intensive than playback. These figures compare extremely well to most of the LS10's competitors.
Perhaps by way of compensation for the fact that its stereo mics are fixed in position, the LS10 employs a technology called DiMagic Virtual Microphone to "record by focusing on sound from any direction". This can only be used when recording 16-bit, 44.1kHz WAV files, and is activated by selecting one of five options from the Zoom Mic menu (can you tell that Olympus make cameras?). At one end of the spectrum there's Wide, which makes the apparent width of what you're recording much broader. I found this very effective for some ambient sounds such as passing traffic, where you want exaggerated movement within the stereo field, but I'd be hesitant about using it for music: there's an obvious hole in the centre of the field, and recordings made with the Wide setting are not at all mono-compatible. At the other end of the spectrum, the Zoom setting records mono, but somehow matrixes the two microphones to produce a more directional pickup pattern. DVM settings can't be changed or undone after the fact, so it's probably best to leave them switched off unless you're very confident they can deliver the results you're after. The LS10 also offers basic reverb and 'Euphony' settings that can be applied on playback, but these don't get recorded.
There seems to be some law of product design whereby those manufacturers who are thoughtful enough to create massively detailed manuals are also clever enough to create intuitive products that don't require massively detailed manuals, and so it proves here. The LS10's extensive printed documentation is actually far more intimidating than the product itself, which is about as easy to use as you could possibly hope. This is not something you can say for all its rivals.
The LS10 is equipped with a fairly generous 2GB of built-in, non-volatile memory, and has an additional slot for Secure Digital (SD) cards; the manual doesn't say what sizes are supported, but only lists recording times for 8GB and below. Uncompressed PCM data can be recorded at up to 24-bit, 96kHz, or you can record at three different bit-rates in either MP3 or WMA format. The internal memory and any SD cards used are formatted in such a way as to contain five folders for recorded audio, plus a Music folder. There's no obvious way to change the default structure, but it seems perfectly sensible to me, providing enough options to keep unrelated recordings separate whilst keeping operation very simple. When you hook the LS10 up to a Mac or PC it appears on the desktop just like any other removable storage device, and I had no problems opening up these folders and dragging things in and out of them. Thanks to the 'high speed' USB2 interfacing, even large files transfer quickly. Simple file-management tasks such as erasing and moving files are handled straightforwardly, and if you power down during playback, the LS10 will pick up seamlessly when you switch it on again.
The Music folder allows you to treat the LS10 like a conventional MP3 player, should you wish to. You can drag and drop albums of MP3 or WMA files from your computer into this folder, or synchronise it with Windows Media Player, and all names are displayed correctly.
The folders and the menus are brought up on the LCD by hitting the List button, and navigated using a conventional arrangement of cursor keys around a central Play button, and there are dedicated buttons for Stop and Erase. There's also an A-B Repeat button, which allows you to set up simple looped playback within a recorded file, should you wish to do so. The Menu button does precisely what you'd expect a button labelled Menu to do, while a neat addition is a single Function button that can be assigned as a shortcut to various different menu items; so if, for example, you find yourself often needing to switch between recording WAV and MP3 files, you can set this button to take you directly to the relevant submenu.
The top level of the menu structure is displayed as a vertical list of symbols down the left-hand side of the LCD, while the main area displays a submenu corresponding to whichever of these is selected. Selecting one of these items brings up a further submenu, which will usually allow you to select between three or four well-chosen settings. In case I've made that sound more complex than it is, let me say again that the LS10 is impressively easy to use. Although there are lots of menu items in total, the structure is very well thought-out and intuitively arranged, and everything is easily accessible with only a few clicks.
Recording on the LS10 is simplicity itself. You hit the Rec button once, it flashes, and the display shows a large level meter to augment the unit's red LED Peak light. Adjust the Rec Level dial and Mic Sensitivity switch to suit (or switch it to Auto level), press Rec again and you're in business. It's possible to connect external mics or other input devices via Line and Mic mini-jack sockets, and 'plug-in power' for mics is available (as opposed to phantom power, which is not). I didn't feel the need to attach an external mic in any case, as the quality of the inbuilt units is very good indeed. I'm not sure there are many circumstances in which I'd bother recording at 24-bit/96kHz with this sort of device, but the mics and other circuitry are quiet and clean enough to capture even fairly distant, ambient sounds without adding noticeable self-noise.
The fixed X/Y configuration is not as flexible as some of the LS10's rivals, although the DVM technology (see box above) adds useful options. For ambient recordings, I found that it delivered a convincing and reasonably wide stereo field, although it seemed to me that the high end was attenuated a little when I converted my field recordings to mono. The supplied windshields are pretty effective, but you do need to be a little careful how you hold the LS10 to prevent handling noise being picked up. A 200Hz high-pass filter is switched manually using a slider control, while there's also a digital limiter that is activated by a menu setting.
Each of the LS10's folders can contain up to 200 recordings, which are given the names 'LS100001', 'LS100002' and so on. The LS10 does have a clock built in, and when you transfer WAV files to your Mac or PC, the 'Date Modified' field in the Finder or Windows Explorer shows the time and date of recording, but the files are basic rather than Broadcast WAVs, and don't appear to contain timestamp information or other metadata. I was slightly surprised by this, although it's unlikely to present a big problem for most music applications. A more serious omission, as far as I'm concerned, is that it's not possible to embed markers during recording, as you can with rivals like the Zoom H2 and M-Audio Microtrack II. This facility would be very useful when making long recordings, such as of a band's live set.
Although it's competitively priced, the Olympus LS10 is not the most affordable product in its class: that honour goes to the Zoom H2. With its fixed mics and lack of support for markers or Broadcast WAV features, you could also argue that other recorders outgun it slightly in the 'bells and whistles' stakes. But as far as I'm concerned, unless you really need timestamping, markers, or an S/PDIF output, the LS10's plus points massively outweigh any negatives.
The most important of these positives are its sound quality, simplicity and ease of use. Unlike some of its rivals, this is a product you can pick up and master within a few minutes, thanks to an extremely well thought-out user interface and control layout. For my money, it also trumps the competition in terms of physical design and construction: if you're prey to gadget lust, be prepared to whip out the credit card when you try one of these out! All in all, a very neat piece of kit, and I hope Olympus have more ideas in store for our market.
- Very intuitive and easy to use, yet offers lots of functionality.
- Good sound quality from the built-in mics.
- Excellent physical design and build quality.
- Doesn't record timestamp information, markers or other metadata.
- Can't be recharged over USB, and mains power adaptor is a cost option.
- No dedicated line-level or digital output.
Stylish, well-featured and above all intuitive to use, the Olympus LS10 is a most impressive entry into the world of serious audio recording.