If you never plan on using external mics, there are cheaper options. If you require phantom power for professional microphones, there are larger and more expensive units. For details of these options see my previous articles, starting here. But otherwise it is these three models I have chosen to investigate further, on the basis of my previous evaluation.
Unlike my previous summary, where I compared devices based on published information and third-party tests, I have the M10 and LS-10 in hand and have used both for some time in the real world. Not having the LS-11, I will assume it is identical to the LS-10, except for colour and those improvements the manufacturer has stated.
First, let's have a look at the physical interface. You can click through the image here to view larger versions on my Flickr stream.
Olympus has long been a manufacturers of recorders for voice dictation and business markets. With the LS-10/11, they are taking on the musician and semi-pro audio market with a high quality series of recorders.
The device is designed to be easily used in one hand. Controls are well-placed and responsive. There is enough separation between them to ensure they are all easy to find with the thumb. Definitive clicks indicate activation. A large peak light sits front and centre. The Record button is rimmed with a light that is impossible to miss. It takes one push of the button to go into record standby and a second push to initiate recording. Easy!
On the left-hand side is a socket for your headphones, a knurled volume dial that will not turn accidentally and a power slider that you must hold for a second or two to activate. Sliding this the other way turns on the Hold feature. A well-protected USB socket and SD card slot complete the profile.
On the right-hand side (picture below) we find sockets for line in and microphone, a record level knob and sliders for input sensitivity and low-cut filter.
On the bottom is a socket for AC power. On the back is a tripod mount and the speakers. These are useful only to quickly confirm that you have a signal; use headphones to listen properly. On top of the unit, between the microphones, is a socket for a remote control.
The Sony PCM-M10 is the latest in a long line of digital recorders from that manufacturer, who paved the way with MiniDisc units of surprisingly high quality some years ago. This is the third in their line of solid state portable recorders, and is the smallest so far.
As you can see from the side-by-side comparison (top photo), the Sony is not as long as the Olympus but more chunky. Though you can hold it in one hand it feels more likely to slip away from you. The circular buttons are recessed and provide good tactile feedback. They are illuminated in use, which is a slick touch. The line of buttons above these are somewhat clunky to use, as they have no space between them and require a very firm press. Instead of a compass arrangement, Sony has chosen to have three of the round buttons double as navigation controls. This is less "intuitive" than the Olympus.
To enter record standby one presses the Rec button. To begin recording, press Play. The pause button will now flash. While this may be similar to how cassette decks used to work, the Olympus system is much simpler, requiring one button and not three.
On the left-hand side of the unit lies the line/headphone socket, USB socket (no cover, unfortunately), micro-SD / M2 card slot and AC power socket. Just below these, facing onto the back panel, is a speed control switch and the output volume rocker. While easy enough to use with the thumb, I prefer a dial, so one has better control and can see the setting. Otherwise one could have the level cranked from listening to the speakers and then plug in headphones -- ouch!
On the left-hand side is a large record level dial, the power/hold switch and a socket for the remote control. I believe Sony includes this with the unit in all markets. (It's pictured in the top photo for scale.) Below these, again facing onto the back side, is the sensitivity switch and a switch for manual or automatic record level. I am not fond of the way these controls lie on the bottom edge of the recorder.
The bottom of the unit is home to the speaker. The back also has the battery compartment and tripod socket. The top of the unit has sockets for line in and microphone in. Again, I prefer the LS-10 in this regard. The top of the recorder, between the microphones, is the least convenient place for access. I prefer that something infrequently used be here, rather than mic in, which I use all the time. That said, I see Sony's logic. If you are using mic in, you do not care about the internal microphones, so it's OK to fiddle around in their vicinity.
Build and UI Comparison
The LCD panel on the Sony is bigger and seems to display more useful information. But I have had no problem using either. In fact I often wish for a display mode that would convey less information, so I can focus on what is critical during recording. Holding down Stop on the Olympus transforms the display mode momentarily. But this is obviously not useful when recording, as it would stop that process! The Display button on the Sony only changes the date/time part of the LCD. I would like multiple display modes that are easy to cycle between. Why not a display filled with the record levels? Or another with only track info? Or even a frequency analysis? Even MP3 players have features like these.
The Sony has independent LEDs for each microphone that indicate a -12dB signal and a positive ("over") signal. I like having separate channel indicators in theory, but as one cannot adjust left and right input channels independently (a limitation of both units) it is not that field relevant. In fact the central positioning and larger dimensions of the Olympus light makes it more practical. It lights an unmissable red for OVER. If it lit green at -12dB it would be the best of both worlds.
To summarise: the overall fit and finish of the Sony is good, much better than the Edirol, Zoom and other cheaper makes I have used in the past. But it is no match for the Olympus, which I prefer even to my Fostex FR-2LE. The Sony power switch, a wobbly bit of plastic, is particularly worrisome. The LS-10 switch is also plastic, but much firmer. Still, this is one place Olympus could improve their unit.
The difference in the functionality of the provided controls is minimal. If you really need an external switch for auto record level, you need the Sony. If you prefer to have low-cut on hand, get the Olympus. Not that these should be your main decision points!
The LS-10 menu system is dead simple to use by way of the compass control. It is clear and well organised into groups. You can cursor left to move between the groups or just cursor down through the lot. This is easier to do than to describe.
The Sony menu is a confusing linear list. Hidden in the many options is a "Detail Menu" that contains a further sub-menu of choices. Several of its options might need to be accessed regularly; having them buried here is a pain. Sony need to improve this aspect of usability.
Both units provide quick access to repeat mode, a rather useless function for our purposes. Both also have buttons for the menu, folder access and erasing a track. The Sony has a dedicated track mark button but the LS-10 does not have this feature, an oversight corrected on the LS-11.
Finally, the Olympus has a convenient "Fn" button to which you can assign various functions, depending on which one you need to use the most. I think all recorders should provide this level of customisation.
Both units run off two AA cells in easy-to-access compartments on the back. I use rechargables and get good battery life. In fact, this is one area in which the technology has advanced to an amazing degree. The LS-10 is rated for 12 hours, a claim I have not tested. But since it is easy to carry a spare set I have never been caught short. However, when I first started using the Sony I forgot it had batteries at all! I used it day-to-day for a couple of weeks before the indicator dropped a notch. Officially it is rated at 24 hours when recording CD quality. But it's easier just to say "it's magic". The Olympus LS-11 has a similar official figure, which I no longer doubt.
All units have a peak limiter (digital realm) that works very well. I have done many recordings that occasionally peaked out -- the resulting files are totally usable with no distortion. Of course an analogue stage limiter would be even better, but I do not expect that feature at this price point.
The LS-10 has 2GB internal memory and takes handy SD cards up to 8 GB, but you need to specify in the menu which you are recording to. The LS-10 has 8GB internal, supports SD up to 32 GB and lets you move files between memory locations. The M10 has 4GB and will record "cross-memory" between the two locations... nice! All units operate as mass storage devices. All power on and are ready for use promptly. However, this delay will lengthen when using large storage cards.
The Olympus has a "zoom mic" feature, built in reverb and something called "euphony"; the Sony has the aforementioned speed control, pitch shift and bass boost. I don't care for any of these DSP tricks. But oddly, though both devices function as MP3 players, neither has a proper EQ control, something I would take for granted on a dedicated MP3 player.
Each brand provides one useful "bonus" feature. The
Microphones And Recording
The LS-10 and LS-11 have cardioid microphones angled 45 degrees from the centre axis. These are perfectly decent in frequency response and noise floor for low-demand applications like street interviews or getting a quick recording of a band. The unit comes with custom foam shields to help keep out wind noise. Though I mentioned above that the Olympus feels better in the hand, always use a tripod if you can, since these units are notorious for picking up handling noise.
The M10 has omni microphones, which results in them being less directional, with a rather poor sound stage, but significantly lower noise floor (spec says 17 dB(A)). In practice I have found that when targeting a point sound source (eg interviews) the subject sounds distant and background noises can become objectionably intrusive. But for ambience these mics are superior to those on the Olympus.
Of course, if you are serious about recording you will be using external microphones. Both these units have a stereo mini socket with plug-in power (PIP) to fuel electrets. If you use more demanding condensers you will need to power them from their own internal batteries or an external battery pack.
In independent tests (by Avisoft Bioacoustics) the microphone pre-amps on these units, in the best case scenario, have identical EIN noise figures of -122 dB(A). That is a remarkably good spec. In practice, however, the frequency characteristics of the noise might make one unit more or less objectionable. This also depends on the noise floor of the microphone you have chosen as well as their sensitivity and other factors. I have not done extensive tests but find both units entirely usable.
The LS-10 can record in WAV, WMA or MP3 formats at a range of rates up to 96KHz 24-bit. The Sony does not support WMA but provides lower quality standards, namely 64kbps MP3 and 22KHz 16-bit PCM, perhaps useful for when you are trying to cram a lot in memory. The LS-10 has 64kbps in their WMA options, but no PCM format as low as 22/16. Only the LS-11 provides mono recording, a useful feature that effectively doubles available recording space. I would like to see FLAC support in these units, so as to increase recording time with no audio compromise.
If you need to record continuously for long periods of time, the "seamless file" feature is important. Otherwise, once the file reaches the WAV/FAT file limit size of 2GB/4GB, recording might stop or even be corrupted. The Olympus LS-10 has supported seamless recording as of firmware 1.10. I assume that the M10 also has this support, since the previous Sony models did (but I have not tested). The recorder will then automatically save the first file and open a new one, continuing to record with no loss of data.
Tracks are automatically named with the date and time on the Sony unit but are given arbitrary numbers on the LS-10, an unfortunate and annoying choice. On both units the LEDs and display can be turned off (independently), for times when lights would be disruptive or stealth recording is called for.
If you are running low on space the record light on the Olympus units starts flashing a warning. When you plug a mic into the Sony, it asks you if you want plug-in power turned on. Both great ideas!
The Bass Issue
On their Asian site Olympus provide a graph comparing the internal mic response of the two models. The LS-10 starts rolling off bass at 150Hz and the LS-11 at 90Hz. The smoothness of the curve indicates that this may be a deliberate decision, and maybe not a bad idea to help beginners, since it limits handling noise, wind noise, rumble and so on. But here's the bad news: some have measured the mic input on the LS-10 and found that it too rolls off the bass at about 6dB per octave. While it would be possible to EQ it back up again, that is a less than perfect solution. I have not found anyone who has confirmed the problem on the LS-11, but I must assume it is still there. It appears that Olympus have decided to arbitrarily limit the low-end reproduction of microphones connected to their recorders. (The line input does not have this problem.)
By comparison, the Sony mic is down only 3dB at 40Hz, according to their own chart. And their input is not reputed to have this limitation.
Does this matter? Well, maybe not as much as it might appear. It depends on what you are attempting to record. A piano or orchestral piece might sound weak. Birdsong would be unaffected. For what it's worth I have used the LS-10 successfully to gather material for my electroacoustic compositions with no issues. But that is because I use a larger and more professional rig when ultimate sound quality is a priority. I don't expect too much out of a hand-held recorder.
Furthermore, a German listening test (Google translation) found the LS-11 to be one of the best recorders in their batch. Intriguingly the LS-10 was not rated so highly, so perhaps the sound improvements Olympus claims in the new model are definitive in the real world. Certainly 60Hz more bass extension is a real benefit, but it is not enough. I hereby call on Olympus to fix this problem once and for all.
Package And Accessories
All units come with a USB cable, hand strap, and two batteries to get you started. I recommend Eneloop rechargeables and a good charger. Cheap mini tripods can be found for a fiver and are very handy.
The M10 is provided with an AC power adapter (120V only) and wired remote control. On disc is a copy of Sound Forge Audio Studio LE, editing software which is capable but sometimes quirky (baulking at perfectly good files, for example). An essential wind screen is a $50 extra. A carrying case is $30.
The Olympus units come with a foam wind screen; a fluffy "Windjammer" is an optional $50 accessory. A wired remote comes with the unit in Europe but in North America it's a $60 option. Cubase LE4 is provided on disk, which can be good value for anyone needing a multi-track recorder. But it's maybe not the best choice for stereo editing.
In both cases the software is Windows-only, so users of other operating systems are left without freebies.
I now list the main benefits and features of these units. Prices are retail.
* 2GB internal memory
* cardioid mics
* top-notch build quality
* excellent interface
* wind shields provided
* good battery life
* very good sound except for the low end roll-off
* 165g weight
* 131.5 x 48 x 22.4 mm = 141 cc
* $300 / €349
Olympus LS-11, as above except:
* 8GB internal memory
* insanely good battery life
* index mark
* sound-activated recording
* mono recording option
* improved low-end response (but still limited)
* $400 / €499
* 4GB internal memory
* cross-memory feature
* omni mics (low self-noise but poor sound stage)
* good build quality
* average interface
* insanely good battery life
* index mark
* remote supplied
* pre-record buffer
* excellent sound
* 187g weight
* 114 x 64 x 22 mm = 161 cc
* $400 / €410
Finally, to be complete, I will list the limitations of this class of recorder:
* no digital input or output
* no phantom power
* no lossless compression (eg FLAC)
* inability to edit track or folder names
* limited display options
* sensitive to handling noise
Olympus have given us an object lesson in how to design an interface. Their units, made of aluminum, are solid and have excellent fit and finish, better than some professional gear. With the LS-11 they have corrected some omissions (track mark) and provide so much internal memory one may never need the SD slot. The interface is dead easy to use and responsive. The fact it has cardioid microphones make it a better choice for voice recording or any other directional application. And if you need sound-activation or mono recording, it's the only game in town. The low-end response is the Achilles heel, but it still rates well in listening tests.
The Sony M10 has microphones with the lowest self-noise of any portable recorder and so is the recorder best suited for phonography. However, this matters less than one might think, since in these cases most recordists would be using external mics. The pre-amps rate the same as the Olympus but are said to be better in practice, which will matter if you have pro microphones with very low self-noise. It has decent build quality and sufficient memory for many situations. If you add a micro-SD card, the ability to seamlessly use both locations is a boon. The pre-record buffer is the killer feature for certain applications.
Good luck choosing!