Intro from Jay Allison: Jeff Towne reviews two recent digital audio recorders we've been eyeing: the Tascam DR-100MkII and the Olympus LS-100 (Transom review). They are both relatively small, inexpensive, and have XLR mic inputs, which we strongly favor. For the needs of radio producers, one recorder gets a very positive review. The other doesn't. I'll leave it at that. Jeff will give you the whole story, with photos, sound files, etc.
From Jeff Towne
We reviewed the original Tascam DR-100 when it first came out a few years ago, and gave it mostly positive notices. We liked the abundance of hardware switches and controls, especially the large input gain knob, making it possible to adjust many common parameters without delving into menus. The XLR inputs and phantom power made it easy to use a wide range of professional microphones, and the dual battery system (rechargeable and standard AA) made long sessions in the field practical.
The main thing we did not like was that the mic preamps were underpowered. A mic preamp is a circuit that boosts the very low-level signal that microphones create, and makes it loud enough to be efficiently recorded and monitored. The original DR-100’s mic preamps were weak, or perhaps simply designed for recording louder events, so that it was hard to get a strong signal when recording the spoken voice with most dynamic mics, even with the input gain turned fully-up. Consequently, most recordings made with low-output mics, especially the dynamic omni microphones such as the Electrovoice RE-50 that reporters like so well, were hissy and weak. It was possible to get decent sound quality when using high-output microphones, such as most condenser mics, but even with those, there was often a bit of residual noise.
So it came as a pleasant surprise when Tascam updated this recorder, and released it as the DR-100mkII. It’s almost identical to the original model, so rather than repeating all of the particulars of how it works, please refer to the original review for a description of the basic functions. There are only two major changes, both of them positive: the microphone preamps are quieter, and have more gain, so now, most any microphone can be used with good results, even low-output types like the RE-50; and the XLR mic inputs now have latches, for a more secure connection.
On one level, the fact that Tascam only improved the quality of the microphone preamps is fine: that upgrade fixed the most significant complaint we had about the DR-100. On another level, it’s a little surprising that they didn’t take the opportunity to add a few more functions while they were making updates. The much-less-expensive Tascam DR-40 model (Transom review) can do a few tricks that might have been nice additions to the DR-100mkII. The DR-40 can record from its built-in microphones and the external XLR inputs at the same time, making two separate stereo files that can be mixed together later. Neither version of the DR-100 has that capability.
Also, the DR-40’s external inputs are versatile “combi” jacks, which can operate as XLR or Quarter-Inch inputs. The DR-100mkII’s XLR inputs can be switched (as a pair) from Mic to Line level, and there’s a second line-level in that uses a stereo mini jack, but it would be nice to have the option of two quarter-inch inputs, or even better, to be able to mix and match one mic and one line input. The DR-100mkII can only record from the built-in mics, or external mics, or an external line-in, accessing only one of those selected stereo inputs at a time. (The DR-100mkII also has an S/PDIF digital input, which the DR-40 lacks.)
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The DR-40 has another dual-recording trick: it can make a real-time back-up recording, reduced in level by a few dB, so you can record at a healthy level, and also have a safety copy, recorded lower, if things get unexpectedly loud. The DR-100 does not have this function. The DR-40 also has a few ways of automatically setting a fixed record level, based on the incoming signal. The DR-100 only has manual input gain or the continually changing Automatic Gain Control (which doesn’t sound very good.)
It’s a little surprising that Tascam didn’t find a way to squeeze some of those functions from the less-expensive DR-40 into the DR-100mkII, but for most users, that wouldn’t be a deal-breaker. The DR-100mkII remains firmly straightforward, more concerned with sound quality than versatility, and in the end, that is indeed more important. It’s nice to be able to recommend a recorder without the common caveats about needing to use certain microphones, and plotting tricks to get around its sonic limitations, and the DR-100mkII does indeed sound very good with most mics that a reporter or journalist might want to use.
Is it as quiet as our benchmark machine for remote recording, the Sound Devices 722? No, but it doesn’t cost over $2000 either, rather it can usually be found for around $300, sometimes less. It does sound as good or better than the Marantz PMD 661 (Transom review), at about half the Marantz’s price, and it’s smaller than the 660 or 661 too. The Marantz 660 and 661 have the distinct benefit of being designed to work well when hung on the shoulder on a strap, or in a bag – while the DR-100mkII’s meters and input gain controls are not located well for that kind of use. The DR-100mkII is a little too large for most pockets, but it’s still easier to pack than its big brother the Tascam HD-P2 (Transom review), or a Marantz 661, or a Sound Devices 722.
It sounds as clean as a Sony PCM-D50 (Transom review), and offers XLR inputs (and phantom power). The DR-100’s built-in directional mics don’t sound quite as good as the Sony’s, nor are their pickup patterns adjustable, but they’re capable mics that do a decent job of recording ambience and other stereo events. There is also a pair of omnidirectional mics flush-mounted to the face of the DR-100mkII, but they sound pretty bad – though they might be effective for recording voices for transcription, the pair of unidirectional mics has a much richer sound.
Like its predecessor, the DR-100mkII has two battery powering set-ups: a proprietary rechargeable battery, and a compartment that holds two standard AA batteries. It’s quite nice to be able to operate on the rechargeable battery, to avoid burning through disposable AAs, but at the same time, it’s a relief to be able to use easily obtained batteries if needed. There’s a menu item for selecting the primary battery, the manual claims that the recorder can seamlessly cascade from the rechargeable to the AAs when the rechargeable runs-down. I must admit I haven’t been able to get it to work, at least not while it’s recording, but the battery source will indeed change on its own if one source runs down. Manually setting the recorder to use one battery or the another as the default power source often takes several tries: it doesn’t seem to “take” at first, but eventually you can choose whichever battery makes sense for your task. Fortunately, the battery life of the internal rechargeable is pretty good: 4-5 hours of record time is typical. Sadly, the recorder does chomp through AAs pretty quickly. Tascam clearly meant for the rechargeable to be the primary powering source, and for the AAs to serve as more of an emergency back-up. Though perhaps they should have considered making the battery compartment larger, and used more than two AA batteries, as many other recorders do (the Zoom H4n uses three, the Marantz 661, four)
The rechargeable lithium battery is removable, so it might not be a bad idea to carry a charged spare or two on long assignments. However, the Tascam BPL2 Lithium Ion batteries are not cheap (they run about $30) and need to charge inside the recorder via a USB cable, so it would take some good planning to make sure one had fully-charged spares. Maybe a handful of AAs is the easier answer. You can use rechargeable AAs, just be sure to change the menu setting for AA type, so that the battery life indicator on the display will be more accurate. There’s also a jack for an external power supply, but it’s not provided, it’s an optional purchase (about $20).
We like the many recording options that can be controlled by hardware switches and knobs on the DR-100mkII, but there’s one important control that’s buried in a menu: the option to switch from mono to stereo recording. You must press the Menu button, then scroll down to Input Setting. For some reason, there’s a lot of blank space on that screen, but you can scroll down to the Type field, select that, and toggle from mono to stereo. There’s not an indicator of this status on the black-lit display, and the level meters still show left and right (the displays on some recorders switch to a single level bar when in mono mode.) You should be suspicious if the Left and Right meters are bouncing exactly in parallel, there should always be at least a little bit of variation between the left and right meters when you’re recording in stereo. It should sound different in your headphones too: the switch from mono to stereo changes the monitoring, so you’ll hear the same thing in both ears. In fact, one major benefit of this mode is that you’ll hear sound in both ears even when recording with a single (mono) microphone. The Tascam still records both left and right soundfiles, even when in the Mono input setting, but the two files are identical. Some recorders save disc space by only recording a true mono file, at half the size of a stereo file, but the Tascam always records a stereo file, even when the information on it is mono. That used to be a big deal with flash recorders, but large memory cards have gotten pretty inexpensive, so it’s not quite as important to be efficient about memory space. If you’ll be out on a long recording trip without regular access to a computer to transfer your recordings, buy some large SD memory cards.
At the time of this review, the DR-100mkII is the best-sounding recorder in its price range, and rivals the quality of many recorders that cost a good deal more. The Tascam DR-40 is less expensive and offers many more recording options, but it’s quite hissy with low-output external mics. If you’re looking for an affordable audio recorder with XLR inputs that can sound good with a wide variety of microphones, including dynamic omnis, the DR-100mkII might just be the one.