Review: Griffin iTalkPro Stereo Microphone for iPod 5G
Company: Griffin Technology
Compatible: iPod 5G (with video), iPod nano (aluminum)
Pros: A stereo microphone accessory compatible with fifth-generation iPods and second-generation iPod nanos, capable of using the iPod’s CD-quality stereo and lower-quality monaural audio modes to create voice and other audio recordings. Overall sound quality is more than acceptable, with comparably loud line-level recordings and acceptable internal microphone recordings.
Cons: Lacks internal speaker for instant playback or pass-through port for simultaneous recording and charging, features found in top competitors. Though superior to 3G/4G iPod recordings by a wide margin, recordings through both internal microphones and line-in port were off the levels of competing options.
It’s only partially amusing that it’s taken until late October for us to be able to review the final version of Griffin’s iTalkPro Stereo Microphone ($50), a CD-quality voice recording device compatible with fifth-generation iPods and iPod nanos: readers will recall that we went hands-on with a near-identical prototype back on April 7, and have subsequently reviewed final units of both of iTalkPro’s competitors in the months that have passed. Belkin’s TuneTalk Stereo (iLounge rating: B+) was first to actually hit store shelves in July, followed by XtremeMac’s even better MicroMemo (iLounge rating: A-) in August; iTalkPro is set to appear in early November, last to market despite the fact that it was the first we tested.
Up front, there’s good news and bad news to share. The first piece of good news is that iTalkPro improves upon its 3G and 4G iPod predecessors (iLounge rating: A-) in sound quality, thanks to Apple’s new and improved recording technology, discussed further below. If you want to hear the differences for yourself, this sample recording lets you hear the iPod 5G in High and Low Quality modes outdoors and indoors, alongside the iPod 4G in its original, lower-quality recording mode with the prior iTalk. Second is iTalkPro’s price: at $50, it is more expensive than Griffin’s prior iTalks by $10, but it’s still the most affordable of the three iPod 5G and nano 2G recorders currently on the market. Griffin has attributed the price increase to added component costs, perhaps including the cool new casing. Unlike the metal-grilled TuneTalk Stereo and MicroMemo, iTalkPro is entirely made from plastic, with a jet black front half, but its rear is an iPod-matching chrome, both colors blending neatly with a black full-sized iPod. A red light ring surrounds a recording and menu activation button in its center, and an iTalk logo is a nice visual focal point. Like its competitors, it looks big only when attached to an iPod nano, but unlike them, it doesn’t come in a second, white color.
Aesthetic tweaks aside, it’s also changed locations - now it sits on either iPod’s bottom, using its Dock Connector rather than attaching to its top. A microphone/auxiliary input port is found on its bottom; unlike the original iTalks, this is only for input, and doesn’t serve double duty as an audio output port. It’s more noteworthy that, like XtremeMac, Griffin omits another port: Belkin included a USB pass-through port on TuneTalk Stereo, enabling the iPod to be charged while it’s recording, one of the major differentiators between the TuneTalk and iTalkPro designs.
The last semi-positive change from old iTalks is the new model’s stereo recording functionality. Like Belkin, Griffin now includes microphones in its housing, hidden under three-hole depressions in its front left and right sides. This double-mic design is intended to record both left- and right-channel audio at the same time, taking advantage of the 5G iPod’s and 2G nano’s new “high” CD-quality stereo recording mode, which creates 1411kbps WAV files at 44.1kHz, 16-bit stereo. This mode - also accessible via the microphone port on the bottom - is better-suited to recording music, while the iPod’s “low” lower-quality monaural mode (22.05kHz, 16-bit mono at 352kbps) is better for conversations, lectures, and other situations where high-quality stereo recording isn’t critical, or preserving storage space is. In monaural mode, audio from both microphones is merged together into a single channel recording.
Both types of audio are recorded as WAV files, an old, uncompressed audio format that uses up lots of space (around 600 Megabytes per hour at high quality, 125 Megs per hour at low), and keeps the iPod 5G’s hard drive spinning during recording. For these reasons, iTalkPro can record for roughly as long as your 5G iPod can play back video on its own screen, or until it runs out of hard space, at which point you’ll receive an error message that there isn’t sufficient capacity left for recording. iTalkPro and other voice recorders can actually run for longer - up to seven or eight hours - on the battery of a hard disk-less iPod nano, but storage space is, for obvious reasons, a greater concern there.
How does recording work? As with past iTalks, and thanks in part to Apple’s easy recording interface, it’s simple. To activate recording, you quickly press the circle in iTalkPro’s center - it’s actually a button that takes you straight into recording mode, then starts the clock running.
If you hold the button down, a digital gain control screen appears: low gain is appropriate for close-distance recording, high gain for greater distances, and automatic dynamically figures out the appropriate setting for you during recording. If you’re transferring a CD manually to the iPod, you’ll want to flip it on to low gain mode, but otherwise, you’ll probably want to leave automatic mode on.
Playback of recorded tracks, and everything else about the Voice Memo feature, works pretty much as it did in 3G and 4G iPods. You can select a recording from a list of time- and date-stamped tracks, press the Action button, and then choose to hear or delete the recording. Upon connection to your iTunes-readied computer, iTunes will recognize that there are new recordings on the iPod, and give you the option to transfer them to your iTunes library. There, you can listen to the WAV files, convert them into smaller MP3 or AAC tracks, or pull them out for editing in a separate program.
How do the recordings sound? Good, not great. We’ve already noted that we preferred the recordings made by MicroMemo to those created with Belkin’s TuneTalk Stereo, as MicroMemo’s noise levels were considerably lower, and the value of having a second microphone so close to the first proved limited. iTalkPro takes a smaller step down from TuneTalk Stereo, with slightly higher noise levels and similarly small decreases in apparent microphone quality; none of the devices was a standout on automatic gain control during distance testing. You can hear some of our direct voice recording comparison tests here: Belkin TuneTalk Stereo Uniform Test, Griffin iTalkPro Uniform Test, and XtremeMac MicroMemo Uniform Test. By comparison, during line-in recording, iTalkPro delivered the loudest copy of our original source material, with what appeared to be some distortion as a consequence; MicroMemo’s copies sounded a bit quieter and better, with Belkin’s levels lower than both. Our view is that iTalkPro creates recordings that are good enough for average users - the reason for our general recommendation - but not at the levels that professional users would demand.
Additionally, unlike TuneTalk Stereo, Griffin’s integrated mics record left-channel audio with the left mic, and right-channel audio with the right mic, which makes logical sense but goes against the way that most stereo microphones record. Standalone stereo mics and those built into camcorders, amongst other recorders, reverse the channels to better approximate the way that a listener perceives sounds - hold up iTalkPro at a concert, and if someone’s on the left of the stage, what little stereo separation its microphones achieve will place that person on the right in your recording. Some users will care about this more than others; those who intend to use iTalkPro only for voice recordings probably won’t mind at all.
In our view, the most glaring thing missing from iTalkPro is its playback functionality, rather than its recording: unlike its iTalk predecessors, and MicroMemo, all of which we loved, it has no integrated speaker. Instead, you’re supposed to preview your recordings using earphones connected to the iPod’s headphone port, which as we’ve noted many times before is often inconvenient. The ideal iPod recorder would make it easy to both create and hear audio samples; iTalkPro only does one part.
Overall, iTalkPro was a bit of a disappointment for us - Griffin had months to trump its competitors on audio quality or features, but didn’t do so, and despite its earlier excellent iTalk designs, the resulting “Pro” product seems like a late third-place finisher against two more aggressive challengers. Judged against MicroMemo and TuneTalk Stereo, each of which has a standout feature and better overall audio performance than iTalkPro, this is a true rarity for Griffin: an accessory that earns its recommendation solely by being more reasonably priced and competent enough for average users, rather than by virtue of spectacular or innovative design.