iPod Mic Shootout
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XtremeMac MicroMemo

The MicroMemo sports a monaural microphone on a short, flexible boom. At first I was taken aback: Why mono? Upon reflection, it makes sense. The intended use is for recording voice memos and lectures. Who cares if your history teacher's in stereo?

Even with no way to adjust recording levels, the MicroMemo did a decent job of recording voice:

The guitar recording lacked some of the detail and depth of the others, but made up for it by eliminating the hard-drive noise:

Because of the lack of hard-drive noise, the XtremeMac MicroMemo is the recorder I'd choose for capturing tunes at a jam session.

Although the MicroMemo literature mentioned using external mics, I was unable to find one that worked. A call to tech support confirmed that the MicroMemo supplies 50mV of phantom power to the 1/8" jack, but the tech added that "the rings might not line up properly" with third-party mics. The supplied mic twists into the socket to lock in position; so there may be something to that. XtremeMac's Katie Hathorn subsequently added, "We have tried many condenser mics with our MicroMemos and not had any problem with them. If you are using a stereo mic, it needs to be powered and it needs to be switched to line-in on the MicroMemo."

Tests I did with an external mic and mixer sounded overly compressed and unnatural:

Holding the button on the MicroMemo for two seconds activates tiny speakers. Yep, you can listen to your new voice memos without earbuds—provided the room is very, very quiet.

So Which One Is Best?

Each of these devices does an adequate job capturing lecture notes, grabbing a tune on the go, or making quick notes to yourself. All are absurdly easy to use, all have acceptable mics, and each has one unique feature that makes it stand out. I'm hard-pressed to pick a favorite, so I listed some impressions in the table below.

The iPod as Recorder

After all is said and done, just how good is the iPod as a recording device? Not very, I'm afraid. Apple dropped the ball by not implementing real-world recording features. Inadequate (or nonexistent) gain-staging; no way to monitor while recording; no MP3, AAC, or lossless compression; terrible battery life... Can you say "afterthought?"

Until someone comes up with a true high-fidelity recording solution, I'll save my iPod for listening to music.

None makes what my nontechie buddies call "clean" recordings; there's just too much preamp hiss even when using external microphones. That in itself would preclude using any of these for field recording or creating podcasts. On the other hand, look at the price!

Of the three, I think the Belkin TuneTalk Stereo's mics have a slight edge in terms of fidelity and stereo imaging. I like the MicroMemo's design, but I wish it had some way to adjust levels. The iTalk's one-button recording is a solid plus.

I was put off by the way the Belkin and Griffin units picked up hard-drive noise. However, both made very good recordings when I used my mics and mixer via the line in. (In fact, somebody's already released a CD recorded this way; check out how he did it.)

But that's not really what these gadgets are all about. If you need an inexpensive way to record memos or lectures on your iPod, any of these mics will work.

Device Price Pros Cons
Belkin TuneTalk Stereo $69.95 USB port for recording while charging. Includes stand. Picks up hard-drive noise. Can't use stand when connected to USB.
Griffin iTalk Pro $49.95 One-touch recording from iTalk button. Three input levels. Picks up hard-drive noise. No stand; hard to position mics.
XtremeMac MicroMemo $59.95 Boom stand facilitates mic placement. Doesn't pick up hard-drive noise. No recording level control. Monaural.

Mark Nelson is both an acoustic musician and the author of Getting Started in Computer Music (Thomson Course Technology). He oscillates between Oregon and Hawaii, where he co-produces the Aloha Music Camp.

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