Review: Griffin iTalk Voice Recorder
Pros: Excellent microphone-based recording without a need for user adjustments, includes internal and external input/output options in one inexpensive device.
Cons: Speaker output is only acceptable, 8 KHz monaural sampling limitations of iPod limit utility of peripheral for many users.
In October of 2003, Belkin unexpectedly introduced the Voice Recorder, a $49.99 peripheral that uses a built-in microphone and speaker combination to transform a third-generation (3G) iPod into a digital voice recording device. By late November, Griffin Technology had informally announced the iTalk, an enhanced competitor to the Voice Recorder which promised three features missing from Belkin’s device: automatic gain control, a port for an external microphone, and a pass-through headphone jack, plus superior versions of the built-in speaker and microphone found in the Voice Recorder.
Five months have passed since then, and three things have changed: first, the Voice Recorder is now widely available online at prices under $35, and second, Belkin has released a follow-up $39.99 peripheral (sold for as little as $23) called the Universal Microphone Adapter. Belkin’s UMA separately incorporates the three features Griffin identified as missing from the Voice Recorder, but does not include a microphone or speaker of its own.
The third and most important development is the actual release of Griffin’s iTalk, which takes place this week. While unquestionably late to Belkin’s game-in-progress, the $39.99 (available for $31 and up) iTalk has managed to combine and improve upon all of the features found in both of Belkin’s accessories, all while employing a variant on the comfortably familiar 3G iPod-matching form factor of Griffin’s previous iTrip peripheral. It’s an accessory we’re excited about primarily because of the value it delivers for iPod users with voice recording needs, though as we will note, even the iTalk is still missing one feature everyone seems to want.
Like Belkin’s Voice Recorder, Griffin’s iTalk works only with 3G iPods and will not function with either earlier iPods or the iPod mini. A single white plastic enclosure matches the width of a 3G iPod and includes five components: a single metallic but otherwise unmarked port, a tiny hole with a built-in microphone, a similarly tiny red “microphone on” light, a silver grille that partially covers an internal speaker, and a headphone plug that interfaces with the top of the iPod.
When we first saw the iTalk, we assumed that Griffin had left out its previously promised external microphone port, because two separate ports were available on Belkin’s UMA design and we had successfully tested the iTalk’s metallic unmarked port with headphones. Then we discovered that Griffin’s design automatically switches the port between external headphone output or external microphone input based on what you plug into it, a nifty implementation of a feature we knew was supported by the iPod’s system software, but hadn’t in our experience yet been implemented.
While we like the look of Belkin’s entirely plastic microphone accessories, there’s no denying that the plastic and metal iTalk looks at least as sharp and fits the 3G iPod even better. Each of Belkin’s microphone add-ons juts out unevenly from the iPod’s surface, creating an odd 7/8” bump on top; Griffin’s iTalk adds a uniform, three-quarter inch plateau. And of course, the iTalk combines the features of the two Belkin accessories, removing the need to choose one or the other, or detach and attach two different products depending on circumstances.
The only other design difference between the Voice Recorder and the iTalk is the location of their built-in microphones: Griffin mounted its mike on the front, while Belkin placed its on top. It’s a trivial difference, but may impact the way you position the iPod for recording purposes.
Our review of the Voice Recorder detailed the automatic recording interface and capabilities of the iPod, so we won’t rehash it here, but suffice it to say that nothing has changed since October of last year. All three devices are plug-and-play, instantaneously bringing up the same “Voice Memo” screen upon insertion with a large timer and buttons to record or cancel recording, and the menuing system is nearly as intuitive as possible.
The primary problem with these devices is an Apple system software limitation rather than a peripheral design limitation: the iPod is currently constrained to recording in monaural WAV format sound at a mere 8 KHz, which restricts the utility of each company’s “recorder” to strictly voice recording applications. No matter how superb the microphone (or other audio source) you connect, the recording quality will always be comparatively low-grade, and because of the WAV format, will consume an inordinate amount of space relative to the audio data contained inside. While we continue to hope that Apple will implement true, high-bitrate MP3 recording capabilities in later system software and/or iPods, for now the iTalk will solely serve to record speech.
With that said, we were impressed by the iTalk’s recording performance, primarily because of its automatic gain control, a feature more significant than most users might initially believe. Automatic gain control enables an inexperienced user to plug the iTalk in, hit “record,” and virtually guarantee that the microphone will record voices to the best of its ability, adjusting dynamically to keep voices crisp while filtering out background noise.
Gain control was a significant but forgivable omission from Belkin’s first-generation Voice Recorder product, and though the UMA includes a user-adjustable, three-position gain control switch (with a multi-colored LED to help people pick the right settings), Griffin has simply done the feature better for most purposes with its automatic, and smart gain control, which we found was only outperformed under a single condition: when the UMA is set on high gain to record at distances greater than 30 feet from the microphone.
In short to medium range recording conditions, the iTalk was easier to operate and delivered comparable (generally superior) results unless we played with the UMA’s switch, studied the LED, and fiddled a bit with the microphone, steps we didn’t have to take to get great audio out of the iTalk. Improper use of the UMA’s gain control switch yielded significant differences in its voice to background noise ratio, and sometimes left certain sounds inaudible. This was never an issue in our testing of the iTalk.
It’s also worth noting that the iTalk’s built-in microphone performed a bit better in our testing than the one in Belkin’s Voice Recorder, and even the inexpensive external microphone we used for testing. We were impressed by its crisp-sounding rendition of voices, and its apparent lack of noise when we listened through headphones. Ambient noise became more noticeable (though still not bothersome) at a distance of thirty feet from the built-in microphone, and it became hard to separate voice from background with that microphone only at around the 40 foot mark. With the right external microphone, we wouldn’t expect this to be a problem.
Without question, headphones are the best way to listen to the output from each of these devices. Whereas the Voice Recorder needed to be unplugged from the iPod for headphone listening, neither the UMA nor the iTalk has this limitation, though unfortunately neither device permits headphone monitoring of recording currently in progress - the iTalk because it has only one port, and the UMA because its external microphone and headphone ports won’t work at once. We would have liked such a feature, as it would permit easy previewing of audio quality, though it may have added considerably to the price or been impossible because of the iPod’s limitations.
Despite its impressive metal exterior grille, Griffin’s speaker is nothing to write home about, though it does (as promised) compare favorably with the six-month old Voice Recorder. Unless you’re in a quiet room for playback, you’ll need to turn the iPod’s volume up in the 75-100% range to hear normal conversational recordings made close to the microphone, and music output is similarly limited. (The speaker’s sweet spot before significant bass distortion is at around the 75-85% mark.) To hear recordings of average volume voices fifteen or more feet away, headphones will be all but necessary except in very quiet listening spaces. On the bright side, this is a limit of the speaker rather than the recording itself - the voices are there and recorded, just relatively quiet.
At a $39.99 suggested retail price and $31+ street price, Griffin Technology’s iTalk offers great performance and tremendous value for the dollar. With the ability to use built-in or external input and output devices, and excellent automatic gain control performance, the iTalk combines and improves upon the functions of two competing alternatives. After six months with Belkin at the top of the hill, Griffin’s product is now our top pick for all voice recording purposes save high gain recording at distances greater than 30 feet. Under such conditions, we’d recommend a quality exterior microphone for the iTalk, though the built-in one is no slouch.
That said, any user who expects more than voice recording from the iTalk will be disappointed - not by Griffin, but by the limitations of current iPod system software. A limited 8 KHz monaural sampling rate and WAV format recordings are acceptable for recording lectures and conversations, but hold the iPod back by comparison with less expensive devices made by iRiver, Creative, and other competitors. While it’s great to see Griffin, Belkin, and other Apple accessory developers pushing the performance envelope with increasingly superior microphone and speaker accessories, their incentive to improve further will diminish if the iPod’s recording capabilities remain unnecessarily crippled.
Jeremy Horwitz is Senior Editor of iLounge and practices intellectual property law in his spare time. His recent book, Law School Insider, has been called the “best book about law school -ever,” and he continues to contribute to Ziff-Davis electronic entertainment magazines.