Pros: A voice recorder with good built-in microphone, acceptable speaker, port for external microphones and headphones.
Cons: External microphone doesn’t work properly with current-model 4G and photo iPods, lack of gain control limits VoiceNote’s utility from a distance by comparison with similarly priced iTalk.
A year and a half has passed since Apple added voice recording capabilities to the iPod’s firmware, but since no microphone is included with iPod hardware, you’ll still need a separate accessory in order to make on-the-go recordings. To date, three companies have released top-mounting recording peripherals: Belkin, Griffin, and DLO. Belkin’s Voice Recorder (iLounge rating: B) was first, followed by a separate device called the Universal Microphone Adapter (iLounge rating: C+), and then Griffin’s iTalk (iLounge rating: A-), which improved upon both devices’ best features. DLO has recently released VoiceNote ($39.99), a similar add-on with an added bonus: it includes its own lapel microphone. There’s also a plastic cap to protect its connector, which plugs into a full-sized iPod’s extended headphone port.
(If you need a briefing on how the iPod’s voice recording functionality works, see the Voice Recorder review for details. No software is required; it’s built-in and easy to figure out, with simple button presses to activate and save recordings. The same menus are used on all 3G and 4G iPods, with slightly more attractive visuals (and nothing else) on the iPod photo.)
At around the same size as Belkin’s Voice Recorder, VoiceNote has similar features: it has the small white and glossy body you’d expect, with a front surface that displays a star-like pattern of holes for a small speaker, an oval-shaped hole for a microphone, and a DLO logo. The big differences start on the unit’s gray top, which features a hidden red light that appears when you’re recording, and a dual-purpose headphone and microphone port. Like Griffin’s iTalk, the port is designed to let you either listen to audio that’s playing back, or record audio through a microphone when the iPod’s set to “Record Now.” DLO’s inclusion of this dual-purpose port is the primary feature that sets VoiceNote apart from the Voice Recorder.
The second feature is the packed-in lapel microphone – a small silver and gray cabled, mono microphone with a clip at the top that attaches to your shirt, and a plug at the bottom that connects to the VoiceNote. While it doesn’t match the iPod, the microphone may well blend better into your clothing than competing products such as Griffin’s Lapel Mic, and has an ever-so-slightly longer cord. It’s easy to get enough distance from the mic on your shirt to the attached iPod to comfortably pocket or hand-hold the iPod.
VoiceNote’s biggest problem is one that unfortunately affects its competitors – because of a quiet change Apple made to the hardware of 4G and photo iPods, the external microphone doesn’t work properly with those iPod models. When the external microphone works at all in these units, the recording is at a very low volume that’s hard to hear even through sensitive headphones. However, the external mic worked fine in our testing with a 3G iPod. If this sounds bad, it is – but not just for DLO. The first revision of Griffin’s iTalk, for example, has the same problem with external microphones and 4G and photo iPods, but a the version currently in stores partially fixes the issues.
Thankfully, VoiceNote’s internal microphone worked fine with 3G, 4G, and photo iPods alike, recording fairly clear audio that wasn’t as loud as the iTalk’s, but generally sounded good. As with Belkin’s Voice Recorder, Its speaker is small and unimpressive – not the match of iTalk – yet sufficient for most people’s playback purposes. Voice recordings sound significantly better through headphones or your computer than through the iPod, a phenomenon we’ve seen with all of the recording devices we’ve tested.
VoiceNote’s major omission is the same ones that hobbled the utility of the Voice Recorder – its lack of automatic gain control, which Griffin uses to great advantage in creating clear, loud(er) recordings that sound good even when the iPod’s at a distance from the person who’s talking. For that reason, you can expect to do most of your VoiceNote recording at only a foot or three from the microphone, and expect signficant volume fall-off as you move further away.
There are at least two ways we could rate the VoiceNote: compare it clinically with other available options, or slam it for bundling an microphone that doesn’t work properly with current iPods. We’re going to take a third path. Because the VoiceNote is available for around the same price as two options that don’t include external mics, we don’t think it deserves a huge knock for bundling a mic that doesn’t work with all iPods. Strictly speaking, it isn’t any worse than Belkin’s B-rated Voice Recorder, and performs better on 3G iPods to the extent that the external mic works. Now that the Voice Recorder is selling for around $30, 3G iPodders will have a tougher call to make between those two devices.
That said, VoiceNote doesn’t live up to the promises of its features, and some potential users will unquestionably be disappointed by the failings of the external mic. Griffin’s current-model iTalk is a better option, as it doesn’t make you give up distance recording or speaker output quality, and works with Griffin’s (separate) external Lapel Mic; the automatic gain control feature in particular makes current iTalk hardware a considerably better product for users of 4G iPods and iPod photos with or without the use of an external mic. But VoiceNote is a fine alternative for a certain niche of users – particularly 3G owners – with less demanding needs, the hallmark of our B- rating.
Company and Price
Company: Digital Lifestyle Outfitters (DLO)
Model: DLO VoiceNote
Compatible: iPod 3G, 4G*, photo*