The year was 2003, and Apple was on its third iteration of the original hard disk-based iPod: the first to include a Dock Connector at the bottom for charging and audio output, and the first with a new headphone accessory port that could provide both power and microphone-in functionality for the device. Partnering with Belkin, Apple co-developed the Voice Recorder, inspiring a number of lower-cost audio recording accessories for the iPod that were limited to creating monaural, low-fidelity WAV files. With the release of the iPod nano and fifth-generation iPod, however, Apple abruptly killed support for these accessories, and began requiring audio recording accessory developers to buy and incorporate a new authentication chip that would communicate with the bottoms of certain iPod models. The chip was expensive, pushing prior $30 and $40 mics into $50-$70 territory, and suffered from delays, leading to a nine- or ten-month gap in which the new iPod had no audio recording add-ons.
There were some positive consequences. iPods suddenly became capable of recording either true CD-quality stereo audio or lower-fidelity but still clean monaural sound. Some developers created elaborate iPod-centric mixing decks and combination microphone-slash-speaker setups to take advantage of the features. And Apple even added audio recording support to the second-generation iPod nano, a feature missing from its predecessor and the similar iPod mini. But these newer, expensive microphones didn’t seem to take off, and were beset by unexpected, subsequent compatibility issues: eventually, Griffin and XtremeMac both exited the market with their microphones, leaving Belkin all but alone with its $70 TuneTalk Stereo. Tunewear unexpectedly showed up with a $50 alternative called Stereo Sound Recorder in late 2007, but like the only other $50 mic previously released, it didn’t sound great. For some reason, none of the authenticated recorders worked with the subsequent iPod touch or iPhone, either; at best, they advertised compatibility with the iPod 5G, iPod nano 2G through 4G, and iPod classic, though some don’t work on certain models for various reasons.
Though that’s a lengthy—and incomplete—introduction to Blue Microphones’ new Mikey ($80), the latest stereo microphone accessory for the iPod nano and iPod classic, it does help to explain why a company would even think of charging so much for a simple audio recorder. From one perspective, Mikey is only $10 more expensive than TuneTalk Stereo, the only good product left standing in the pocket-sized Dock Connector-based stereo audio recorder gunfight, and it promises to deliver superior audio performance. With the exception of an instruction booklet, nothing else is included in its package; you just get the black mic with its chrome edging and Blue logo. That’s it.
As it turns out, Belkin’s and Blue’s accessories are actually a bit different in approach. Whereas TuneTalk Stereo served only as a recorder, with no speaker output capability, Mikey lets you hear a low-volume preview of whatever you’ve just recorded. Similarly, where Belkin chose to include an Auto Gain switch that let the device dynamically adjust audio levels to determine wherever an audio source might be in a room, Blue—a serious, dedicated microphone company—went with a rear-mounted three-position switch that can adjust the gain for recording at different distances, plus an indicator light on the front that shows which of the gain levels is on. Blue’s take is that similarly earnest consumers would prefer the ability to self-select the right recording distance rather than suffering with a microphone that’s constantly hunting around and pulsing as it attempts to determine the right distance. In practice, the drawbacks of Auto Gain aren’t a huge issue for near-distance voice recording, but depending on the environment you’re in, it might matter. Maybe.
Mikey has a couple of other advantages over TuneTalk Stereo. It can flex in 45-degree increments through 180 degrees of freedom to sit upwards with an iPod nano or classic that’s laid on its front or back, a feature somewhat similar to the flexible monaural mic in XtremeMac’s discontinued MicroMemo. Blue has also designed Mikey with a wraparound metal grill that’s designed to let its stereo condenser microphones breathe, and has obviously paid attention to minimizing hissing and other ambient noise pickup in its audio signal. The consequence isn’t massive, but it’s noticeable: put TuneTalk Stereo on AutoGain and Mikey on its medium gain setting and Mikey sounds fuller, with less hiss and a more lifelike vocal rendition.
On the flip side, Mikey leaves out a couple of things that Belkin includes in TuneTalk Stereo. First, there’s the audio port, which allowed the Belkin accessory to serve as a line input for direct-from-device stereo recording; it wasn’t just for voice recordings. Second, there’s the USB port, which allowed a TuneTalk-equipped iPod to charge while it was recording or just plugged in. These features weren’t without consequences, but Mikey doesn’t include them at all.
The much larger issue, however, is raised by the untold second part of the iPod microphone story: one that started in late 2008, when Apple made another microphone-related hardware change to the iPod nano 4G, iPod classic 120GB, and iPod touch 2G, enabling these models to work with in-line mics that had been integrated into earphones. Capitalizing on that change, Incipio and SwitchEasy both came up with sub-$20 microphones that offer most of the stereo microphones’ key functionality without all the bulk or expense. With Incipio’s $18 Lloyd or SwitchEasy’s $13 ThumbTacks, you give up stereo, CD-quality recording mode in favor of monaural, lower-fidelity audio, pay one-fourth or less the price of Mikey, and get a mic that works with all the current screened iPods, including the iPod touch. The most interesting thing is that the microphones in Lloyd and ThumbTacks mightn’t be as sophisticated as the ones in Mikey, but for near-distance recording, they sound extremely good; Lloyd is extremely hard to tell apart in quality from Mikey, other than the modest stereo separation offered by Mikey’s barely separated mics. You can hear an audio sample comparing Lloyd and Mikey here.
While you’ll have to decide what you’re looking for in an iPod microphone, there’s little doubt in our minds that most users will be better served by the sub-$20 microphone accessories developed by Incipio or SwitchEasy than Blue’s $80 offering. What Mikey comparatively brings to the table is gain control for better distance recording, stereo mode compatibility that may help in some near-field recording applications, and speaker output functionality that may help some iPod nano and iPod classic owners; however, it’s saddled with a considerably higher price and lacks iPod touch support. This may change when iPhone OS 3.0 is released, but then again, it may not; Apple hasn’t guaranteed iPod touch compatibility for every type of Dock Connecting accessory. So, for the time being, Mikey merits our general recommendation as a stereo microphone on account of its TuneTalk Stereo-besting recording quality, though you’ll give up some features relative to Belkin’s similarly featured option, and pay a premium besides. This is a good product for what it does, but it can’t help but look expensive and a little behind the curve relative to its competitors.
Company and Price
Company: Blue Microphones
Compatible: iPod 5G, classic, nano 2G/3G/4G