Review: Tunewear Stereo Sound Recorder for iPod
In early 2006, Belkin, XtremeMac and Griffin Technology began to show off new audio recording attachments for the fifth-generation iPod, which unlike similar attachments for the third- and fourth-generation iPods were capable of creating CD-quality stereo recordings, or more than acceptable monaural voice recordings, using new built-in Apple software. These attachments began to appear on store shelves in mid 2006, ranged from $50 to $70 in price, and eventually became compatible with the second-generation iPod nano, third-generation iPod nano, and iPod classic as well. You can read more about them here. They do not work with the iPod touch, the iPhone, or earlier iPod models.
This month, Tunewear—a Japanese company known mostly for its iPod cases and clips—joined the iPod recorder club with the Stereo Sound Recorder for iPod ($50), which we’ll call SSR for short. SSR hits the market at a point in time when its competitors have fallen in street price to $20-40, at least in the United States, and may be of more interest to Japanese consumers than those elsewhere in the world.
In short, what Tunewear brings to the table here is style, rather than substance. SSR has a flashy black and chrome enclosure that’s more rock star than the business-like XtremeMac MicroMemo or the iPod-neutral Belkin TuneTalk Stereo and Griffin iTalk Pro. In addition to a large central red recording light, its face has a large metal grille that hides two omnidirectional microphones inside, while its bottom looks nearly identical to Belkin’s: there’s a USB port for charging on the left, a line-in/mic switch at center, and a 3.5mm microphone/line-in port on the bottom right. Their tops are different, however: Belkin built TuneTalk Stereo with an extended Dock Connector that’s compatible with almost any iPod case, and included a plastic stand to prop the fifth-generation iPod or classic up while recording; Tunewear doesn’t include either of these features.
Tunewear also takes a slightly different tact than Belkin with its one-touch recording menu and gain control features: Belkin has the button on its left and autogain built into the line-in/mic switch, while SSR oddly puts both features on a two-position switch on the unit’s left. In other words, if you want to use the recording menu feature—only supported on the fifth-generation iPod and second-generation nano—to jump directly to the iPod’s Voice Memos screen, you flip the switch to the left. If you want to turn gain control on, you flip the switch to the right. Belkin’s handling of both features is more intuitive, and prevents you from turning gain control on accidentally when you’re using the line-in feature, where it will just screw up your audio. That said, Tunewear’s switch-based handling of these features will be better for newer iPod users than Griffin’s on-screen menuing, which doesn’t work properly with current iPod models thanks to changes Apple has made to their software.
It’s also worth noting one omission from the Stereo Sound Recorder design: an integrated speaker. This feature elevated XtremeMac’s MicroMemo to the top of the prior recorder pile, and is missing from both Belkin’s and Griffin’s alternatives as well. If you want to listen to SSR’s recordings, you’ll need to use headphones or transfer the files over to iTunes; the accessory adds no convenient way to play them back immediately without connecting something else to the iPod.
Our past reviews of voice recorders went into considerable detail on the various sound characteristics of the earlier devices, but in SSR’s case, it suffices to say that comparisons are almost unnecessary. Tested as a voice recorder at the same distances as Belkin’s TuneTalk Stereo and XtremeMac’s MicroMemo, SSR’s audio sounded artificial, with highly apparent metallic background noise and more compressed, unrealistic sound; both competing devices rendered voices more fully and believably. Like Belkin and Griffin, Tunewear reversed SSR’s built-in microphone channels such that the left microphone records right-channel sound and vice-versa, enabling recordings to better approximate the stereo separation originally heard by the microphones as they face forward; however, like the others, the stereo separation is modest because the mics are close together, and thus the iPod’s stereo mode is better reserved for line-in recordings or external mics.
Like Belkin, Tunewear includes a USB cable in the package, enabling you to connect an iPod with SSR attached to a computer for charging or synchronization. We found that charging the iPod while recording with SSR resulted in small bits of low-frequency interference in the recorded audio, detracting from its fidelity. On the other hand, identical line-in recordings made with TuneTalk Stereo and SSR sounded a little better on SSR; both produced clear audio, but SSR’s recording was slightly louder and slightly more dynamic. We wouldn’t call this difference profound enough to recommend Tunewear’s design over the alternatives, but it’s worth mentioning.
Overall, Tunewear’s Stereo Sound Recorder isn’t a strong enough fourth entry in the iPod voice recorder category to leapfrog any of its competitors. Though there are reasons some users might initially prefer SSR over Griffin’s iTalk Pro, namely Tunewear’s inclusion of switches rather than on-screen menus, as well as a Belkin-like USB port for charging and synchronization, SSR’s implementation of both features leaves something to be desired, and its microphone-based sound quality isn’t very impressive. That said, it does a good job when connected to an external audio source, and at least attempts to be aggressive in its suggested retail pricing. If you’re shopping someplace that only sells iPod accessories at full MSRP, and using an iPod classic or third-generation iPod nano, consider the Stereo Sound Recorder a decent, not fantastic option. With the fifth-generation iPod and second-generation iPod nano, it’s a clear fourth-place finisher given the sound quality and functionality of other options that are out there.