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Review: Olympus VN-960PC Digital Voice Recorder

Olympus VN-960PC 128 MB Digital Voice Recorder with PC LinkIn an earlier post called Record Your Voice for Fun And Profit, I had mentioned my recent purchase of an Olympus VN-960PC Digital Voice Recorder. My goal was to replace my dead micro-cassette recorder and possibly find an inexpensive solution for recording audio content that I could post on the web and maybe even sell as part of an educational audio series or audio book.

I knew from the product descriptions and reviews that this recorder compresses the audio pretty heavily and stores it in a proprietary format. My hope was, given the narrow dynamic range of spoken voice recordings, with a little tweaking in post production I could get an acceptable quality recording. I figured a close mike would also help by creating a strong input signal.

Digital Recorder Testing Procedure

My test was very simple. I recorded a short clip of myself talking into a low-cost headset (a likely recording scenario) and also into the built-in mike. The recorded was set to its highest quality settings. I also recorded a short clip on my laptop at high quality 48khz 32bit using the headset mike.

I created a processed version of the first two recordings in an effort to improve the overall quality of the sound. (I’m not a sound engineer, so I’m sure it is possible to do a better job with this. Mostly I normalized the levels and adjusted the EQ to boost the low and midtones a bit and roll off the highs where noise seemed most distracting.)

Finally I converted everything to 44khz 128Kbps mono MP3 files for posting on the web.

[audio:/olympus_test/built-in.mp3,/olympus_test/built-in_processed.mp3,/olympus_test/headset.mp3,/olympus_test/headset_processed.mp3,/olympus_test/ref_recording.mp3]
Listen to the sample audio recordings from the Olympus VN-960PC Digital Voice Recorder

Conclusions

The Olympus VN-960PC Digital Voice Recorder is a very compact and easy to use device. The controls are simple to operate and intuitive. I could start and stop recording, and playback recordings without having to look at the device. This is great for taking notes while driving and during other multi-tasking situations.

The recorder has long available record times (5 hours in HQ mode) and other nice features like voice activated recording that stops during the dead space in a recording without the user having to ride the pause button.

Functionally speaking, I was impressed with the recorder. But my hopes were deflated when it came to the quality of the finished recordings. As the samples make clear, they don’t cut it. They are acceptable for creating free podcasts, etc., but I’d be disappointed if I paid for a recording that sounded like that. It would undermine my impression of the value of the content. I was surprised to find that the built-in mike sounded so much better than the headset.

I think this device will be great for note taking and for snagging unexpected interviews, but my search for a high quality compact recorder goes on (Why doesn’t my Palm Tungsten T5 not have a mike jack and recording software… the previous version did?) In the meantime I’ll be transcoding audio bits through the USB connection on the Vn-960PC. That brings me to a pet peeve.

Everybody and their uncle uses MP3’s for high quality compressed audio. It does a good job of holding the important bits of sound while keeping file sizes low and every audio editing package and player can read and write MP3’s. It drives me a little nuts whenever companies (Sony, are you listening?) insist on proprietary compression formats. Olympus does this for their whole voice recorder line. This means everything must be transcoded as you transfer it to the PC before it’s useful anywhere else. And that brings me to another irritation.

Why must I be forced to install another audio program to connect with the recorder? It should show-up as an external storage device with files and folders. I should be able to plug in to the USB cable and open up a file for playback. Instead, I run more software to handle this one task. Maybe it’s incredibly useful and intuitive for fortune 500 executives and their personal assistants? Not for me!
In spite of these drawbacks, the Olympus VN-960PC Digital Voice Recorder is a nice piece of equipment that works as advertised – I was just hoping for a little more.

If you are taking notes or recording a meeting or lecture, the audio quality is much better than a tape based micro-cassette recorder. The recordings are intelligable and the built in mike does a remarkable job. But, if you have an Ipod or Pocket PC that you carry around anyway, get a microphone adapter and record to that. That way, if you ever need it, you’ll have a clean recording to sell.

The Go-To Guy

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8 Comments

  1. we have the recorder bought it new and the lost the cd.
    can you help

  2. Jennifer,

    Olympus doesn’t offer software downloads for this product (an extremely disappointing customer service choice given that the software is pointless to anyone not owning the recorder.) You can buy a replacement from them for $20 at their website:

    http://www.olympusamerica.com/cpg_section/cpg_support_accessories.asp?id=1178&ct=79

    The software is just a tedious extra step you have to go through to get the sound files off the recorder and into an MP3 player. Somebody might find it useful, but not me.

    This unit should show up like a USB thumb drive when you plug it into your PC and let you drag and drop the files onto a harddrive. This, combined with the use of a proprietary compression scheme, are my two major complaints with this recorder.

    Sorry I don’t have better news, but I can’t part with my copy of the software and it’s illegal to duplicate it.

    The Go-To Guy!

  3. Hi Andrew

    Do you have any idea if I can use a Treo (700 W) to capture recordings? It does have a 1 gig storage card.

    Thanks for any help! 🙂

    Sheree
    http://www.DesignsforGiving.com

  4. Sheree,

    I don’t think this functionality is built into the default setup of the 700w. But, there are 3rd party software products that will handle the job.

    Check out this one: mVoice

    http://handheld.softpedia.com/get/Audio/mVoice-for-Treo-700w-700wx750v-21392.shtml

    All of the tools for making a good recording are built into the unit, so this, or some other software, should be able to get the job done.

    The Go-To Guy!

  5. I have a coworker who has been trying to use the Olympus VN-960PC as a usb removeable device, but he doesn’t seem to be able to get it to show up under my computer. He has removed and reinstalled the driver. Any suggestions?

    Thanks

  6. The recorder does not show up as a USB drive when you plug it in. The only way I can get access is using the recording manager software included with the recorder.

    The good news, you can still get the software through their website. The bad news, you have to pay for a CD-ROM – there is no downloadable version!

    If you find another way to access the files, let me know.

    Andrew

    BTW – I recently purchased a copy of Dragon Naturally Speaking (the premium version.) It can transcribe audio recordings and my test of transcribing one of the files from my Olympus worked very well. It was as accurate as when I dictate directly into a headset.

  7. necesito me envien el sofware olimpus digitalvoice recorder vn-960pc gracias

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