Review: Belkin TuneTalk Stereo for iPod with video
Pros: Dual-microphone attachment for 5G iPods enables superior quality microphone and line-in recording than any prior iPod voice recorder, creating loud, relatively clear WAV-format recordings in your choice of CD-quality stereo or lower-quality monaural modes. Works with iPod inside or outside of a case, includes plastic stand to prop iPod up during recording, and allows iPod to be charged while recording thanks to a mini-USB port and included cable.
Cons: Most expensive recorder ever released for iPod. No built-in speaker. Stereo separation of internal mics is extremely limited by virtue of accessory’s size, arguably not as useful as corded stereo or monaural microphone because it’s attached to iPod’s bottom.
When the iPod first became capable of recording audio back in October of 2003, we were mildly surprised, but not shocked. The prevailing wisdom was that the iPod was a media playback device rather than a recorder, so the release of new iPod firmware to support the first microphone - Belkin’s $50 Voice Recorder (iLounge rating: B) - was a breakthrough. But as noted in our review back then, older iPods were only decent recording devices: Apple limited the iPod to recording 8KHz, 16-bit monaural WAV audio files - one minute of recording per Megabyte - which was space-consuming, low-fidelity, and as suggested by Belkin’s accessory, suitable basically only for voices, and not for music.
Nearly three years later, a lot has changed. iPod 3G- and 4G-ready voice recorders are physically incompatible with fifth-generation models - a shame - but to compensate, Apple has substantially improved the latest iPods’ recording abilities. Now you can record WAV files at 44.1KHz, 16-bit stereo - CD quality - which requires roughly 10.3 Megabytes per minute (1411kbps), or in 22.05KHz, 16-bit monaural mode, which consumes around 2.6 Megabytes per minute (352kbps). Either is suitable for voice or music recording, but the higher-quality mode is best for music, and the lower more than adequate for voice. Until this week, the only missing piece has been recording hardware to take advantage of the new features. After unveiling the device back in January, Belkin - maker of the original Voice Recorder - has just delivered a finished, packaged recording accessory called TuneTalk Stereo ($70), which adds two microphones and related ports to the bottom of a 5G iPod. [Updated: Subsequent to our review, XtremeMac released the final version of its competing MicroMemo recorder, so we’ve updated our comparisons below. We’ve also added an audio clip so you can listen to sample audio tests conducted on the TuneTalk Stereo.]
Warning: Update Your iPod’s Software to Version 1.1.2
In order to get the best possible performance out of any new iPod recording accessory, PC users will need to install version 1.1.2 or later of the fifth-generation iPod’s software, found in Apple’s free 2006-06-28 iPod Updater. Earlier iPod software versions, including 1.1 and 1.1.1, contain a bug that corrupts Windows-formatted iPods’ high-quality recordings starting at the 14-minute mark and ending at the 22- or 23-minute mark, and low-quality recordings at approximately the 3-hour mark. Mac iPods weren’t affected by this bug, which wasn’t considered high-priority until now because no recording accessories were on the market. You can get the latest iPod Updater here.
The Competitive Landscape
Since we’ve had the unique opportunity to try final or virtually final versions of all of the high-quality recorders known to be coming for 5G iPods - ones from Belkin, Griffin, and XtremeMac - we wanted to quickly recap the alternatives so that you can make an informed choice as to which is best for you. Each uses the same Apple-designed iPod recording interface, which we’ve previously documented in detail; click here for the full breakdown. While it’s possible that other companies such as DLO or Kensington are working on additional, unannounced options, it’s unlikely that many no-name alternatives will emerge: all high-quality recorders require a special Apple authentication chip that is only available to Made For iPod program members.
Announced in April, Griffin’s jet black and chrome iTalkPro is planned as the least expensive recorder of the bunch, with a suggested retail price of approximately $50. The unit boasts twin microphones, a prominent central button to activate recording or an on-iPod menu for its digital gain control feature, and a red recording light ring. It has a microphone-/line-in port on the bottom, but lacks a speaker and a pass-through port for iPod charging. For the latter reason, it can only record for around 2 hours on a 30GB iPod or 3.5 hours on a 60GB iPod before their batteries run out. At the moment, we are uncertain as to when or whether iTalkPro will be released: it does not appear on Griffin’s web site, and a Griffin representative provided a “no comment” response when asked for the product’s current status.
Announced in January and delivered in virtually final form to iLounge in early June, XtremeMac’s MicroMemo takes a different tact from its competitors. Selling for $60, it includes one flexible monaural omnidirectional microphone that can be positioned at the iPod’s top, middle, or bottom, rather than a fixed-position two-microphone set. You can detach the microphone and use your choice of a separate stereo mic or a line-in cable for recording; MicroMemo uses a switch to toggle between mic and line-in gain modes. XtremeMac’s most unique feature is a speaker that lets you instantly preview what you’ve recorded; a button on the front activates the iPod recording screen and turns the speaker on or off to conserve power. Like iTalkPro, it lacks a pass-through charging port, and can only record for 2 or 3.5 hours before a fully charged iPod runs out of juice. A black version of MicroMemo is expected to ship within a week or so of this review, with a white version to follow several weeks later.
How Does TuneTalk Stereo Compare: Concept
TuneTalk Stereo bears obvious similarities and differences to both of its competitors. Like MicroMemo, it is being produced in separate white and black versions, and as its name suggests, its primary feature is a pair of stereo microphones, just like those on Griffin’s iTalkPro, only spaced closer together. Only as thick as a 30GB iPod, TuneTalk Stereo has a button on the side that calls up the iPod’s recording menu, plus a switch on the bottom that toggles between automatic gain control for voice recordings, and no gain control for line-in recordings. A microphone- and line-in port on the bottom is accompanied by a pass-through USB charging port, which unlike iTalkPro and MicroMemo enables the TuneTalk Stereo to conceivably record until your iPod runs out of hard disk space, rather than battery life. And Belkin includes a few novel accessories in each box, too.
The first is a USB charging cable that connects to TuneTalk Stereo’s bottom and either a computer or power adapter. You can use it to charge and/or synchronize your iPod while the microphone hardware is connected. Belkin has also included two mounting accessories: one is a small clear plastic sizer that detaches to lets the accessory work even when the iPod is inside of a case - so long as there’s a hole in the bottom of the case - and the other’s a thin plastic fold-out stand that lets you make the iPod stand up and recline while it’s recording. Though none of these items is especially sexy, they all work exactly as expected, and the stand folds up for easy carrying.
In our view, the most important omission from TuneTalk Stereo is an integrated speaker - something that XtremeMac includes in MicroMemo, at a lower overall price. Because Belkin doesn’t include this feature, you’ll need to plug headphones into your iPod or transfer files into iTunes to preview your recordings, which may not be convenient depending on where you are.
Recording: The Process and Performance
We have mostly good things to say about TuneTalk Stereo’s recording performance: though it preserves the simple interface of earlier iPod voice recorders, it has taken a major step forward in quality. You access the iPod’s Voice Memo screen by plugging the accessory in or pressing its left side button, then begin recording by pressing the iPod’s center button. A red light on TuneTalk Stereo’s face indicates recording, and turns off when you press Stop and Save on the iPod. The process is nearly effortless, as is the process of transferring recordings to your computer.
Once an iPod with new voice memos is connected to a machine with iTunes, a window automatically appears in iTunes to let you transfer the files to your media library. Clicking yes begins and finishes the process, resulting in the addition of one or more modestly tagged WAV-format audio files to your computer’s library. You can edit the WAV with your choice of editing programs, or just right-click on it within iTunes to convert it to MP3 or AAC format, drastically reducing its space requirements. Though the WAV format and lack of editing tools are concerns - not Belkin’s - Apple couldn’t have made the transferring process much easier if it tried.
Predictably, recordings made with TuneTalk Stereo sound leagues better than those made with Belkin’s old Voice Recorder, or with Griffin’s later, superior iTalk and iTalk 2 (iLounge ratings: A-). Whether you prefer TuneTalk’s sound to that of MicroMemo or iTalkPro will be another question. Belkin’s internal mic audio is a little on the bassy side of neutral, its internal microphone recordings are loud, and it carries a low, but audible base level of noise on auto gain mode. Combined with the automatic gain control, which worked at least as well as Griffin’s and XtremeMac’s recorders, TuneTalk Stereo’s loudness made far-distance (15-20 feet away) voice recordings especially easy to understand. However, like older iPod microphones, TuneTalk’s internal mics occasionally pick up noises from the 5G iPod’s hard disk, a problem that we didn’t hear in MicroMemo, though we honestly found it to be far less noticeable here than ever in the past. You can listen to audio samples from TuneTalk Stereo here.
Whether you’re using the included stereo microphone, a separate one, or a direct line input from another audio device - iPod, CD player, etcetera - TuneTalk Stereo’s recordings are truly stereo-separated, with only one major caveat: the internal microphones are so close to each other that they provide only limited stereo imaging unless you’re literally only inches away from the audio source, or try tests such as tapping individually on the microphones. This isn’t an issue if you use the line-/mic-in port with a more separated stereo audio source; we tried this, and found line-in recordings to sound acceptably close to the originals. That said, the recorded audio in XtremeMac’s final MicroMemo was a little louder and cleaner.
It’s also worth noting that, like the stereo standalone microphones sold by companies such as Audio Technica and Sony, Belkin has placed its internal mics in R and L orientation, so that the iPod records in the same way that sound is perceived by a listener (your right side is the speaker’s left, and vice-versa). Consequently, you will want to hold your iPod’s screen towards the person speaking to get the correct stereo effect. By contrast, the line-in port records the input device’s left channel as left and right channel as right.
Value and Conclusions
Our two biggest issues with the TuneTalk Stereo are its price and lack of a speaker: at $70, it’s more expensive than both of the other recorder accessories we’ve seen. Presumably, the new authentication chip has added somewhat to that price, which is $20-$30 higher than we’re used to seeing for iPod voice recorders, and high enough overall that many consumers will object. It also lacks the instant audio preview ability - read: integrated speaker - we liked in XtremeMac’s current MicroMemo, Belkin’s past Voice Recorder and Griffin’s old iTalk. We’d sooner have a speaker than two integrated microphones with such limited stereo separation.
On the flip side, TuneTalk Stereo does a more than competent job of recording loud, clear audio through its microphones - it’s very strong in this regard; similarly, its combination of charging functionality and a stand will make it more practical than the alternatives for certain users. It’s a premium performer at a premium price. Despite its omissions, we think it’s a very solid product - a little shy of our high recommendation level, but a good option for people concerned about the quality and volume of their integrated mic recording, or simultaneous charging and recording.