The Olympus DM-520: A Detailed Review Article
Capture Any Moment: A Look at the Olympus DM-520
Digital recorders have moved from curiosity to interesting gadget to access technology in a span of less than ten years. Olympus has been a leader in the dictation recorder market for several decades starting with the famous micro-cassette based Pearl-Corder. Today, they manufacture a wide variety of digital voice recorders ranging in price from $29.95 to over $500.
The most accessible model in the previous year’s crop of offerings is the DM-520, a commercial digital voice recorder that was designed with the needs of blind and visually impaired users taken in to consideration. Available from Olympus since September 2009, the DM-520 can be purchased from a plethora of online surplus vendors with prices ranging from $139 to $200. In addition, vendors who specialize in access technology, like Ferguson Enterprises, IRTI, Independent Living Aids and Maxi-Aids, offer the DM-520 with extras, like talking tutorials and Braille labels. Note these vendors offer newer models as well, which are similar, but not identical to the device covered in this review.
Most digital recorders use the concept of “notes” or messages" as a way to store individual recordings. You press the record button, talk in to the built-in microphone, and then press Stop. Each recording made this way is a message, or note, but on the DM-520, these notes can be as short as one second or as long as over 148 hours. The DM-520 has five separate folders, labeled Folder A through FolderE for storing your messages, so for example you could put restaurant menus in one folder, and your business contacts in another.
If you’ve only taken notes using standard or micro-cassette based recorders, you might wonder why a digital recorder is useful. Like computers, digital recorders provide faster access to your data, enabling you to store each category of information in its own location, and jump between notes with a few keypresses. You can also fast forward and rewind recordings by “skipping” forward or backward by seconds, minutes, or even hours. You can place bookmarks in a recording, (Olympus calls them index and temp marks), so you can easily return to them later. It’s quick to adjust the speed of playback without affecting the pitch, so say goodbye to the chipmunks! You can erase a portion of a recording or a single “note” without fear of erasing more than you wish to delete. And you can’t accidentally record over something you had no intention of erasing. With the DM-520, your recordings can be easily downloaded to and manipulated on a PC and even burned to CD to archive or share with those who wish to listen using a CD player.
This implies that you need to use a computer with the DM-520 but actually you do not. The advantage of working with a computer is that you can move information on and off the recorder easily, but many digital recorder users simply delete unwanted notes, and don’t mind keeping all their information on the device. It is important to remember that information is a flexible concept; it might be a 3-hour lecture you slept through in your college history course, or it might be a quick note you made about your bank balance, a department store sale, a doctor’s appointment or a friend’s telephone number. It might be more permanent, including your address book, recipes or steps on how to use the devices in your home. It might be a music teacher demonstrating how to play a difficult passage, or a bus driver explaining how to find your destination when he drops you off. Because it handles such a wide range of audio quality, the DM-520 is suitable for capturing all the audio information in your life. The DM-520 also lets you store information recorded from another source including audiobooks and podcasts.
Going far beyond the garden variety voice recorder, the DM-520 offers 12 choices of audio quality from the LP (or long-play) mode which stores an impressive thousand hours of recordings to the DVD-quality PCM 48K mode which stores only five hours of recording on the device. Files can be recorded in MP3, WMA or .WAV formats, with a variety of sampling and bit rates to choose from. Of course you can mix and match quality settings so that you can have a dozen hours of medium quality, two dozen hours of low quality and only two hours of high quality recordings even in the same folder. The high-quality audio is great for capturing concerts, birdsong, highlights of your vacation or the voices of your grandchildren! The lower quality audio is suitable for lectures, conferences, grocery lists, TV programs, and of course taking general-purpose notes.
I found that whenever anyone described anything, or read to me out loud, I’d automatically switch on my digital recorder to capture the information, thus eliminating the need for anyone to repeat information in the future. I use mine for capturing everything from driving directions to the tech support call we made to the cable company. I even recorded the annoying noises our truck began to make in order to play it back, in CD-quality audio, over our truck’s stereo, to the mechanic, when he claimed that the truck wasn’t making any unusual noises! Now when we go somewhere, the first question my sighted husband often asks is “is your digital recorder in your purse?”
Measuring about 1 inch thick, 1 inch wide and 5 inches long, the DM-520 contains 4GB of internal memory, weighs less than 6 ounces, and runs on two rechargeable, but user-removable AAA batteries. It can be charged by connecting it to any USB port or phone charger with a built-in USB connector. Olympus is correct in that it does indeed run for fifty hours or more on a single charge. An SD-card slot supports optional Micro SD memory cards up to 16GB, giving you unimaginable amounts of storage space.
The manual, which can be downloaded from the Olympus website and is also available right on the device, is a semi-accessible PDF. Though most of the text is readable, the button names are icons. It’s a long and confusing tome, written by someone who was neither precise nor a native speaker of English. By contrast, the DM-520 FAQ, only available on the Olympus website, is a fine piece of technical writing, detailed but extremely clear.
The recorder’s menus talk, and there are high and low-pitched beeps to indicate which direction you are moving through many of the setting choices. A pleasant musical chime sounds when the recorder is switched on or off, and it beeps once for pressing record, twice for pausing and two fast beeps for stop. The beep volume can be changed, and both the volume and speed of the menu voice is also adjustable.
Most settings can be adjusted easily without the need to look at the display. A few features, like setting date, time, alarms and timed recording can be set without sighted assistance, provided you don’t mind counting keypresses and are good at remembering which menu choice is currently selected. You are helped with a high-pitched beep when you reach midnight, or the top of other lists. When browsing through files, a pair of lower-pitched beeps sound when you reach the first file in a folder. A few items on the menu, such as the display of system information, firmware version and free memory, are only available through the display. The recorder does announce the battery level each time it is turned on.
The little screen is clear and bright, but its font is extremely small and the status for most settings are represented by tiny icons. Contrast can be adjusted by sixteen increments, and the backlight can be turned on high or low. Even at its low setting, the backlight is fine for a user with normal vision in most situations. A timer can be set as low as ten seconds to automatically shut off the backlight to save your battery. A red LED glows brightly when recording is in progress, a green one blinks when playing files , and the LED can also be turned off to save battery life. An orange LED glows when it is charging, and status information about the charging also appears on its display. Battery life is also saved if you set it to switch itself automatically off after a preset interval. Even when off, the DM-520 will play alarms or switch itself on for a timed recording session.
Paradoxically, this recorder is also a fine choice for a sighted deaf user, since all the audio features can be disabled and the display shows the same information. When recording, the display will also show the filename and date and time, plus duration of the recording in progress and how much recording time remains. This information is not available verbally. However if you have a shy sighted person making recordings for you, they will appreciate that the recorder can operate so effectively in what I call its stealth mode. As a stealth recorder for blind users, all visual features can be disabled, and as a stealth recorder for the sighted, annoying audio is easy to turn off as well.
Being able to engage or disable all the visual features and/or all the audio features makes it also a good choice for people with learning disabilities who enjoy using access technology. I am often asked to recommend digital recorders to people with other disabilities, so it was important to be familiar with every feature.
You can browse through folders and select a particular recording easily without sight as long as you are willing to practice a bit. It can be confusing at first figuring out what folder you have landed in, since you can easily fill the device with podcasts and similar audio. Audio you download from another source can go in folders with names of your own choosing. Music and podcast folders are available for you to optionally use. However if you aren’t located in folders A through E, you cannot record. The display does show the ID3 tag or properties of a file, and it is able to scroll through the entire data, but this information is not accessible.
An innovative feature called “intro play” plays the first few seconds of each note as you browse, enabling you to locate a particular message without being able to read its filename. Even if you can see the display, filenames like “DM-5200034.WMA” are not that useful. Files can be renamed, both on the recorder, and with the accompanying Olympus Sonority software. The recorder is smart enough to create unique filenames each time, so there’s no worrying about overwriting older files when you download to your PC.
With the Sonority software on a Windows or Mac, the user can also adjust some of the recorder’s settings, directly control it with the computer, download the recordings, selectively erase on the recorder, synchronize the date and time of the device with the PC and even use the DM-520 as a USB microphone. Even though it is very graphical, Olympus Sonority works great with JAWS, and with a bit of experimenting, I quickly mastered it. People who are less familiar with their screen reader’s more advanced features, may find the Sonority software more challenging. Its online help is brief but complete, and it does have keystroke shortcuts.
Unlike previous Olympus recorders, the DM-520 always records in an audio format which can be played on the PC, without the Sonority software being necessary. Even the low-quality LP mode is just Windows media format with 8KHZ 8-bit samples. This means that you can avoid Sonority and manually copy recordings to your PC, but you must be careful not to erase or format the recorder using your PC, since its special folder structure should not be tampered with. Digital cameras are similar, often behaving like thumb drives, so that photos are easy to copy, but their internal firmware expects the files and folders to be in a particular state.
With a $10 upgrade, Sonority becomes even more useful, enabling you to arrow and tab through a simple and very accessible tree view to adjust any menu setting on the DM-520. This includes setting alarms and similar features that are awkward without the ability to read the DM-520 display. Other features, like the ability to edit the files by working with a display of the waveform, are not accessible, but aficionados can easily manipulate the files with their favorite editing software, such as Studio Recorder, Sound Forge or Gold Wave.
Some minimal editing, including the ability to split files and delete a portion of a file, can be also accomplished directly on the recorder, and those features, though they do take practice, can be performed without sight. There are even more advanced recording features: a low-cut filter can remove the bass sounds of noisy air conditioning fans, and “VCVA” is Olympus-speak for voice-activation; it automatically starts and stops recordings when there is silence. The VCVA is adjustable, so that either the softest sound or very loud sound only will trigger the recording to start and the absence of sound at that level will stop recording. Using VCVA avoids lengthening recordings with stretches of silence or background noise. A “standby monitor” menu choice lets you toggle whether to listen to the result through headphones to determine when voice-activation triggers recording and adjust the settings accordingly. It’s a very fun feature to experiment with.
A timer recording feature lets you set it to both start and stop a recording at specific times, making it easy for example to capture a favorite radio show. You can set it to record once, weekly or daily, just like a VCR. And because you can set so many recording properties, a “recording scene” feature lets you save all your preferred settings under a specific “scene”. You have three scenes you can set and three presets for the timed recordings. In addition there are built-in scenes for dictation, conference and lecture, so you can quickly select one without going through all the menus to make multiple configuration changes.
Unique to the DM-520 is a non-removable “zoom” microphone, with sophisticated signal processing that enables it to capture directional sounds, or behave like a standard unidirectional mic. In my tests, I found that the zoom feature was indeed the most narrow, focusing on sound from only one direction, a useful feature for recording a single speaker or nature sound. Besides zoom, the mic has a narrow and wide setting, and at wide, captures an expansive stereo panorama. Confusingly, the “narrow” setting is actually less narrow than zoom, offering a compromise if you want some directionality, but not as much as offered by the zoom setting. Mic sensitivity can be adjusted high, middle or low, and middle, I found is suitable for most ordinary use. At high, more distant sound, but more background noise is also captured and the low setting is particularly useful for dictation in loud settings. You would also choose the low sensitivity setting to record a loud band. For even more flexibility, its automatic record level with built-in limiter can be turned off and a manual record level can be adjusted. All these settings can be part of a saved “scene” so once you’ve figured out what works best in a particular environment, just a few keypresses can recall your saved scene when you need those settings again. For example, for capturing a speaker on a podium, setting the mic sensitivity to high and the zoom to its most narrow would be a preferred choice.
The zoom mic feature does not operate when an external stereo mic using plug-in power is connected. Olympus sells an external noise-cancelation mic which works great for conferences, and though they do not recommend third party products, a consumer-grade binaural mic I tried with plug-in power worked marvelously. Olympus also sells a few other microphone accessories, and another phantom power mic I purchased on eBay, which is designed to mimic an ordinary ballpoint pen, also recorded superbly but picked up more noise than the special-purpose Olympus external or built-in zoom mic. Note that any external mic must have plug-in power; you cannot use an ordinary SoundBlaster compatible computer microphone or a simple mic that might have worked fine with your ordinary tape recorder.
Unlike cassette recorders, using an external mic does not necessarily improve recording quality, since the Olympus has no moving parts, and its built-in mic therefore picks up no motor noise. In cheaper and first-generation digital recorders, the built-in mic sometimes picked up RF from the machine’s microprocessor, but the DM-520 doesn’t have that problem. The mic is so sensitive however, that even jostling the DM-520 a tiny bit, say in a backpack, obliterates any sound you are actually trying to record. The included leatherette case has a nifty fold-down mic stand, and also a hold to screw it in to a standard camera tripod; both features will isolate it from noise that might be picked up from vibrations on a conference table.
Playback settings are equally complex but feature-rich. Mutually exclusive voice filter and noise cancelation let you either emphasize the frequencies of the human voice, or simply filter out all but the loudest sounds in a recording. I often found that some messages were easier to hear with either voice filter on or noise cancelation engaged. Euphony, a model-specific feature which enables the user to “alter the audio dynamics” during playback, can only be enabled when the voice filter and noise cancelation are off. It’s a bit like a graphic equalizer; the FAQ says it “creates a natural, expansive feel so listeners are less prone to experience a closed-in feeling or grow tired over extended listening periods”. In practice, I found it to be less interesting than the hype implies, but still useful for listening to audio books and podcasts.
Playback speed can be adjusted from two times slow to two times fast, and of course volume is also adjustable. Transcribing from the device is fairly painless, as you can instantly pause and set the skip interval to 1 second for jumping back to catch a missed sylable. You can also set skip interval to a longer period, like three minutes, to quickly jump over commercials in a recorded show. The skip intervals for back and forwards can be separate settings. The tiny built-in speaker is nothing to write home about, but listen to the DM-520 through earphones and the audio quality is quite a surprise; it plays MP3 and WMA music admirably. It also is compatible with audible.com and the free DRM-protected overdrive audio books downloadable from many public libraries.
Playback scenes can also be saved and recalled, and six presets are available for your configuration pleasure.
Overall, I’ve found my DM-520 to be both a wonderful tool and a thoroughly fun toy. I recommend it to anyone who would not find its complexity daunting and who wants a single recorder for all situations.