Review: XtremeMac MicroMemo High-Fidelity Digital Audio Recorder for iPod
Pros: A high-quality digital recording accessory for video-ready iPods, complete with a flexible, detachable microphone and an integrated speaker. Easy to use design provides optional access to 3.5mm port for stereo mic or line-in recording, impressive voice and line-in recording quality, full integration with iPod’s simple menus and iTunes storage. Black- and white-colored versions to match today’s 5G iPods.
Cons: No pass-through port for simultaneous charging and recording, only connects to caseless iPod. Packed-in omnidirectional mic is only monaural. While more affordable than only current competitor, price is still high by iPod recorder add-on standards.
If you’re looking for a recording accessory for your fifth-generation iPod, you now have a second option. Two months ago, we took an extended First Look at XtremeMac’s MicroMemo High-Fidelity Digital Audio Recorder for iPod ($60) - a competitor to Belkin’s recently-released TuneTalk Stereo (iLounge rating: B+) and Griffin’s announced but still unreleased iTalkPro. This week, the final version of MicroMemo is shipping to stores, and though it’s almost exactly the same as what we looked at before, we opted to wait for the finished, packaged unit to update the First Look into a finalized review. When you’ve finished reading, you can download this clip to hear the MicroMemo for yourself as we put it through a series of audio tests.
Like Belkin and Griffin, XtremeMac was faced with three challenges when Apple released the fifth-generation iPod late last year: the new iPod was physically incompatible with earlier top-mounting, low-quality microphone accessories, contained a new menu system with two better-than-ever recording quality settings - “high” (16-bit stereo, 44.1 KHz) and “low” (16-bit monaural, 22.050HKz) - and required developers to use a new recording authentication chip that only Apple could provide. Consequently, companies had to design new bottom-mounting add-ons featuring higher-quality microphones, and then had to wait for parts from Apple, a process that took more than eight months, frustrating iPod-loving podcasters and average consumers alike. Only recently have Belkin and XtremeMac released their recorders; Griffin’s iTalkPro is currently missing in action.
MicroMemo: Key Features
Thankfully, XtremeMac hit the ground running with MicroMemo, which is currently available in a black version; a white version will follow soon. Adding a TuneTalk Stereo-like single inch to the iPod’s height, our black review unit is slightly thicker than a 30GB iPod and thinner than a 60GB model, otherwise matching each model’s curves and width quite nicely. It is less visibly complex than the TuneTalk Stereo, with only a single button - a now silver “X Man” XtremeMac logo, on its front - and has no adapters, ports or switches on its top or bottom save the standard iPod Dock Connector.
Aesthetics aside, we were surprised that the company - a first-timer in iPod recording devices, by comparison with four-time recorder developer Belkin and three-timer Griffin - out-thought both of its competitors on key features in this new generation. By luck or design, it has released the only 5G recording accessory to include both a microphone and a speaker for instant previewing of recorded content, a feature combination that worked especially well in Griffin’s earlier iTalk accessories for 3G and 4G iPods, and has been done better in MicroMemo. First, there’s XtremeMac’s standalone omnidirectional microphone, both flexible and detachable, found on the device’s left side. Though stabilizing grooves on the microphone allow it to be inserted only upwards or downwards into the port, you can thereafter bend it into your preferred position in front, back, or off to the side of the iPod. You can also disconnect it entirely to reveal a 3.5mm minijack-style input port and a switch.
The switch above the port is labelled “Line” and “Mic,” which like the Autogain switch on Belkin’s TuneTalk Stereo lets you toggle gain levels between line and microphone input, one setting appropriate if you’re connecting a CD player or other constant output level device to MicroMemo, the other appropriate for microphones. Keeping the switch properly set is important to producing good-sounding recordings.
MicroMemo’s most distinctive feature is hidden under the unit’s front metal grille: unlike Belkin’s and Griffin’s latest offerings, XtremeMac includes a small speaker that enables your iPod to instantly play back recordings (or music). Overall, the speaker is sufficient for audio previews and occasional low-volume listening - a little smoother and less tinny than the one in the old 3G/4G iTalk accessories, though not quite as loud. In an apparent effort to limit battery drain and/or prevent you from having to constantly adjust volume levels, the speaker defaults as “off” and turns on only when you hold down the X Man button for 2 seconds. This only needs to be done once per connection of the accessory to the iPod. Pressed quickly, the button instead calls up the iPod’s recording screen no matter where you are in its other menus.
MicroMemo: Key Omissions and Audio Quality
MicroMemo’s back is shown here - simple, and lacking for extra features, buttons, or switches. In fact, with the exception of the big flexible mic and noteworthy speaker, XtremeMac’s design and pack-in approach is simpler than Belkin’s TuneTalk Stereo by a substantial margin, and some of Belkin’s “frills” are missing here. For instance, Belkin pioneered a case-friendly Dock Connector plug that lets you use TuneTalk with or without a case on your iPod, and also included a simple plastic stand to hold your iPod upright during recording. XtremeMac doesn’t include either of these things; the recorder snaps on a bare (or InvisibleShielded) iPod’s bottom, and its mic turns upwards if you need to move something around. Belkin’s approach was better on both of these small but practical points.
More significantly, MicroMemo does not have a pass-through port for simultaneous recording and charging, a feature addressed by Belkin with a mini-USB port and cable - you needed to provide the charger. XtremeMac’s approach means that you can only record with MicroMemo until your iPod’s battery runs down: on a full charge, a 30GB iPod can record for roughly 2 continuous hours, and a 60GB iPod for around 3.5, which is far less than the total capacity of either model’s hard disk. Though some people - particularly those prone to recording from their iPods with less than a full charge - will mind, it’s our view that this won’t be a killer limitation for most users. However, if you have a need for longer recordings, or tend to record when your iPod’s not at its peak, consider TuneTalk Stereo instead.
Finally, and unlike both Belkin’s and Griffin’s designs, MicroMemo’s included microphone is monaural rather than stereo - another point of potential controversy for some users. In short, the lack of a stereo microphone means that you can’t take full advantage of the iPod’s new stereo recording mode unless you connect a different microphone or audio device to the line/mic port. But after testing both of MicroMemo’s competitors and considering this issue, we’ve reached a surprising conclusion: on balance, XtremeMac made the correct choice here. Despite including twin mics in each of their designs, TuneTalk Stereo and the prototype iTalkPro provide very little stereo separation during voice and other recordings, making the feature more of a gimmick than a bonus. Though we weren’t fond of Apple’s old 8KHz, 3G/4G iPod monaural voice recording mode, the problem for everyday use turned out to be the pairing of low-quality microphones with a low sampling rate, not the lack of stereo.
In most situations, we found that XtremeMac’s single good microphone produced great-sounding audio - voice recordings with the final version of MicroMemo were richer in bass and more natural-sounding than those done with TuneTalk Stereo, and displayed a lower base level of noise. Although XtremeMac doesn’t tout any sort of automatic gain adjustment feature in MicroMemo’s manual or packaging, the aggregate quality of distance microphone recordings made with the unit compared roughly to TuneTalk Stereo’s, and were sometimes actually better, as MicroMemo doesn’t pick up iPod hard disk whirring and clicking sounds to nearly the same extent as Belkin’s microphones do, a distraction from TuneTalk’s ability to focus on recording only distant subjects.
MicroMemo’s line-level recording also proved impressive: using an audio splitter, we played a test track using one 5G iPod and recorded it simultaneously using a TuneTalk Stereo and a MicroMemo. The MicroMemo’s recording was closer in volume and clarity to the original file in our iTunes library - basically indistinguishable - while the TuneTalk recording wasn’t as loud and dynamic. If we had to choose just one of these recorders for everyday voice- or line-recording use, we’d go with MicroMemo.
Use of the MicroMemo: A Brief Tutorial
As with TuneTalk Stereo, PC users wanting to make the most of MicroMemo should 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. You can get the latest iPod Updater here.
Not surprisingly, the iPod’s recording software (“Voice Memo”) works just as it did with Belkin’s TuneTalk Stereo and Griffin’s iTalkPro. Connecting MicroMemo brings up this screen immediately, and one X Man button click begins and stops your recording. Saving to your hard disk takes place during the course of the recording process, and again at the end.
Recordings show up in this Voice Memos menu, which also lets you toggle between the High and Low quality recording modes. Both modes record WAV files, which can be edited in various audio editing programs (such as the free utility Audacity), or converted by iTunes into MP3, AAC, or other formats as you prefer. The High quality mode requires roughly 10.3 Megabytes per minute (1411kbps); the Low quality mode around 2.6 Megabytes per minute (352kbps), allowing you to record for nearly 200 hours on an empty 30GB iPod, or 400 hours on a 60GB model. Synchronization with iTunes is fast, requiring only a single button click; all of the additional details are found in our earlier TuneTalk Stereo review.
All things considered, XtremeMac’s MicroMemo is the best audio recorder we’ve tested for fifth-generation iPods. Though it’s not perfect - most notably, it’s missing a few of the frills that Belkin packed in with its competing TuneTalk Stereo recorder - Xtreme made some smart compromises here, achieving a lower asking price than Belkin, importantly including a speaker, and optimizing the quality of its monaural mic and stereo line input. For a company that hasn’t released an iPod recording accessory before, MicroMemo is a truly great first offering, and hopefully a sign of even better things to come.
That said, we remain uncomfortable with the fact that MicroMemo’s $60 suggested retail price - currently the lowest for a 5G-compatible recorder - is $20 higher than what Griffin was charging for its very similar iTalks a year or two ago. While we’re glad that XtremeMac shaved $20 off of MicroMemo’s almost staggering original $80 MSRP, bringing the product closer to a reasonable price level and earning it our high recommendation, we remain conscious of the fact that certain standalone voice recorders can be purchased online for the same or lower prices, say nothing of the fact that similar features are integrated into so many iPod competitors. XtremeMac avoided pushing the envelope here, but we sincerely hope that Apple and its developers will recognize - soon - that there are limits to what people will pay for simple add-ons, and that even very good products will suffer if unreasonably priced.