Review: IK Multimedia iRig Mic Cast for iPhone/iPod touch/iPad
Microphone accessory manufacturers used to have it easy: iPods didn't have integrated mics, so any accessory was better than nothing. But with the release of mic-laden iPhones, iPod nanos, iPod touches, and iPads, as well as the free, bundled-in Apple Earphones with Remote + Mic, the standard was raised: what could developers offer that was decidedly better in some way than what Apple was including at no cost? IK Multimedia's iRig Mic Cast ($40) is the latest in a short string of answers to that question, priced and sized inbetween the least and most expensive microphone accessories that have been released in recent years. It's capable of making clearer-sounding recordings than the latest noise-canceling mics on the iPhone 4S, though users looking for pro-caliber audio may have to spend a little more to get it.
IK Multimedia’s designers chose a miniature but classic look for iRig Mic Cast: roughly 0.3” thick by 1.2” wide by 1.75” tall on its own, the silver-grilled and black plastic accessory juts out only a little over an inch from the headphone port of an Apple device, with only two notable external features—a “lo/hi” gain switch on the front, and a 3.5mm headphone pass-through port on the right. Hold iRig Mic Cast up to the light and you’ll see that much of the interior inside the reasonably solid-feeling silver grille is empty, with a circular unidirectional microphone floating in the center with some space to breathe. Close inspection of the 3.5mm headphone plug on the bottom shows a plastic extender that enables the accessory to be compatible with many cases, as its hard bottom doesn’t need to rest flush with the device’s top or bottom surface. We had no problems connecting it to iPhones or iPads inside common cases.
The critical promise of iRig Mic Cast is that the unidirectional mic will deliver “crystal clear sound with no background noise,” and there’s no doubt that the audio it records is superior to what Apple’s devices can do on their own. Sibilance in the iPhone 4S’s mic, for instance, is eliminated in the smoother-sounding voice recordings produced by iRig Mic Cast; Apple appears to have optimized its mic with added treble for intelligibility, whereas IK Multimedia’s equalization balance is more natural.
iRig Mic Cast also does better with ambient noises: on low gain with no noise in the background, it renders nearby voices a little more clearly than the iPhone 4S’s noise-canceling mic does, with noticeably lower background hiss; on high gain, the nearby voice remains clear, though the background hiss increases to iPhone-like levels, as the mic becomes capable of capturing voices at greater distances than Apple’s devices can do on their own. Additionally, with fairly loud ambient noise in the background, iRig Mic Cast does a modestly better job of isolating a nearby voice than the iPhone 4S does; once again, the iPhone’s treble sounds overly sharp by comparison, while the accessory’s rendition is softer but considerably less grating on the ear.
iRig Mic Cast’s single biggest limitation is a consequence of its microphone port interface: unlike some past stereophonic mic accessories that have connected to the bottom Dock Connector port, this mic records solely in monaural mode, typically in 64kbps, low complexity AAC files if you’re using Apple’s free Voice Memos app. While IK Multimedia gives away a free iRig Recorder app that looks a little nicer, it also attempts to charge for “high quality” WAV exports and processing tools with a confusing pricing scheme. Given the price of the accessory—higher than the simplest top-mounted mic accessories we’ve tested in the past—it’s hard to understand why there’s a need to charge anything extra to unlock app features. Most users will be better off putting their money towards Apple’s GarageBand for audio processing, and many people might not need to run the iRig Recorder app at all.
As suggested above, the question of whether to buy any microphone accessory has become cloudy due to the inclusion of similar functionality in Apple’s devices, so iRig Mic Cast isn’t a home run: for $40, it’s a different and somewhat better alternative to the microphone your iPod, iPhone, or iPad already has built in—you’ll have to decide whether the difference is worth paying for. Users who are merely making voice recordings for dictation purposes will have little to no need for this accessory, but IK Multimedia’s primary target audience of musicians will find it to be a clearer and more natural-sounding recording alternative to using an unassisted Apple product. The compact, nice design is a lot easier to carry around than a full-sized microphone, and its compatibility with free and paid Apple apps makes up for iRig Recorder’s nickel-and-dime pricing scheme. It’s worthy of our general-level recommendation.