EVERY YEAR IT SEEMS PORTABLE DIGITAL recorders sound better, offer more features, and become easier to use without getting more expensive. This is certainly the case with the latest pair from Olympus, the LS-12 and LS-14, which are designed with musicians in mind (that impatient bunch who want to record right now without fuss).
Olympus endowed its new recorders with upgraded mic capsules and preamp circuitry, and increased the separation between the audio and system electronics. The result is higher quality recording with less self-noise. The cardioid condenser mics on both units are positioned at a 90-degree angle, similar to what professionals call N.O.S. stereo. This captures a wide stereo field that is perfect for documenting a show or tracking a pair of acoustic guitarists sitting next to each other.
Except for the color, the LS-12 (gunmetal gray) and the LS-14 (black) look identical. And in fact, they are identical in many ways, though the LS-14 adds some very cool features that are well worth the extra 50 bucks.
For starters, the LS-14 has an omnidirectional mic positioned between the cardioid pair. When the third mic is on, its output is mixed into the stereo file. In addition, the omni mic extends the unit’s bass frequency capture from 60Hz down to 20Hz, so it adds low end while filling in the center image.
Another distinguishing feature between the two units is the amount of built-in flash memory— 2GB in the LS-12 and 4GB in the LS-14. With 4GB of internal memory, the LS-14 will record 1.5 hours of music at 24-bit/96kHz, and a lot more at lower resolutions. Both units support SD/SDHC cards up to 32GB in size, allowing you to further extend your recording time. On top of the included USB cable and AA batteries that ship with both units, the LS-14 comes with a carrying pouch and a plastic mounting clip.
Olympus really nailed the ergonomics on these recorders. Whether you’re navigating the menu system or using the function buttons and data wheel, the majority of features are accessible with a press of the thumb. One particularly useful addition is the Mode Select dial that you use to select one of three record modes—Quick, Manual, Smart—or the chromatic tuner. That’s right, you don’t need to surf menus to get to the tuner! Hit the Record button in Smart mode and the unit automatically sets the input level as the timer counts down from 30 seconds, then it starts recording. In Quick mode, you’ll start tracking as soon as you hit the Record button. In fact, speed is one of the main assets of these recorders: they boot up in less than five seconds— faster than any other portable recorder I’ve seen. And with their two-second pre-record function, you won’t miss sonic surprises that catch you off guard.
While musicians will enjoy the recorders’ metronome, playback speed control (50-300 percent), and built-in mono speaker (for quickly checking your recordings), one of the most attractive features of the LS-12 and LS-14 is the ability to do sound-on-sound overdubbing at 16-bit, 44.1kHz resolution. Select the file you want to add to, hit the function button below the words Over Dub, and the selected track immediately begins playing. As you record the overdub, you create a new file that combines the previous take with the new one, so you never have to worry about ruining the original recording. If you want to do more overdubs, hit the function button again to create a new file with the additional material.
The devices can record 16-bit WAV files at 44.1 or 48kHz, 24-bit files at 88.2 or 96kHz, and MP3 files at 128, 256, and 320kbps. If you’re simply recording a lesson or lecture and want increased recording time, you can record in mono at 44.1kHz or 64kbps. All the handy features you’d expect on a portable stereo recorder are here too: limiter, low-cut filter (100 or 300Hz), line-level input, and external mic input with plug-in power. Once you’re done recording, you can perform basic edits on the files, such as move/copy, trim, divide, partial erase, and lock.
Despite their diminutive size (roughly 5.5" by 2"), the recorders have a large (1.75") LCD screen that is easy to read. They also include a voice guidance system, which benefits the visually impaired. When the guide is on, the recorder tells you verbally where you are in the menu system and what feature you’re selecting.
Ultimately, a portable recorder is only as good as its audio quality, and both the LS-12 and LS-14 sound terrific. The stereo separation is exceptional for recorders at this price, thanks to the directionality of the mics, and it has never been easier to record quickly and get such great sounding results. While the LS-12 is an exceptional value, I wouldn’t hesitate springing for the LS-14, with its extra mic, additional storage capacity, and accessories.
OLYMPUS LS-12 AND LS-14
PRICE $149 street/$199 street
INPUTS Two cardioid mics, omni mic on the LS-14, stereo mic input, stereo line input, wired remote input
OUTPUTS Stereo headphone, USB ,built-in speaker
KUDOS Sound quality. Interface. Overdub mode.
CONCERNS Only overdubs at 16-bit, 44.1kHz. Inadequate manual.