While most MP3 players come with built-in audio recording capabilities, this one puts the digital recorder first and an MP3 player second. While $199 is steep for a voice recorder, you get 2GB of flash memory and top-quality recordings.
You can easily wrap your fingers around the palm-sized piano-black WS-331m. Since the device doesn't come with a lanyard, we placed it in our pocket and felt far from weighed down by the 1.7-ounce rectangular device. While the WS-331m's design isn't groundbreaking, we like that the battery unit detaches and plugs right into a USB port, which means no USB cord to keep track of.
The all-important microphone lies below the silver band around the top of the player, and the LCD screen resides directly below that. The screen is easy to read and displays file information and recording time, but we wish it looked a little more 21st century: With standard text on a plain black screen, it resembles a 1980s handheld video-game console. The other controls lie below the screen or on the right or left spine of the device. We found all the controls intuitively located, albeit small and hard to press.
We put the WS-331m to the test in a phone interview with Pandora's Tom Conrad (a Q&A in our September issue). We kept the recorder about four feet away from the phone's speakerphone and set the recording mode to High Quality (HQ) on the menu screen. Getting to the Record settings menu is a tedious process and requires a thorough read of the user manual.
As with older Olympus digital recorders, you can save and organize recordings in folders on the device. We first listened to the 55-minute interview playing on the WS-331m's small speaker, and the quality was quite good. Transferring the file to our Windows XP PC was a breeze; we just stuck the recorder into our USB port, found the file in Windows Explorer, and dragged it to our desktop--no software installation required. The WMA file sounded almost perfect while playing in Windows Media Player 10. We heard absolutely no echo or background interference in the recording.
We took the recorder out to a loud local restaurant to try a mock interview in a noisier space; we put it on the table and used the Stereo High Quality setting (STHQ). When we played back the recording on our PC, we heard our interviewee perfectly, although we did hear some background noise.
As expected, the WS331m's MP3-player functionality was mediocre. Loading MP3s was a cinch, thanks to a special folder on the drive for music. Our tunes sounded great with our headphones plugged in, but the screen's interface will make you miss your iPod, as it displays only the song title. We did like that we could listen to our music out loud right from the device.
We didn't have an opportunity to test Olympus' claimed 556 hours of recording time, but our one AA battery lasted longer than 15 hours during a combination of recording and playback, and we still had gobs of recording space left. We liked conducting an interview without worrying about running out of room or having to delete one interview before recording another.
Though the WS-331m doesn't receive an A for MP3 playback, it's absolutely at the head of the digital voice-recorder class.
This little voice recorder squeezes in flash memory and music playing capabilities.
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