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If you use a pocket camcorder, you’re used to crummy, tinny audio being captured alongside your HD video. So, what if manufacturers turned such low consumer expectations on their ear and designed a high-quality audio recorder that just so happens to do video -- complete with a bump to 1080p HD? Olympus’ new recorder is just that -- a capable video device for audio enthusiasts that’s unfortunately hampered by one unique design decision.
Olympus bills the LS-20M as a “PCM Recorder” (for pulse-code modulation, the method used by digital audio devices for capturing analog signals), despite the fact that it also records full 1080p digital video using removable SD or SDHC cards. About an inch taller and three-eighths of an inch thicker than Apple’s iPhone 4, the LS-20M resembles a souped-up Flip camera with extra buttons, although the back of the unit swaps a 16mm speaker grill for the camera lens.
Quickly switch between video and audio modes with a button on the side.
The lens is mounted at the very top of the unit, sandwiched between a pair of microphones capable of recording stereo sound at up to 24-bit, 96KHz linear PCM in WAV format (MP3 recording is also available). Although it’s sold as an audio recorder, the quarter-inch, 5.32 megapixel CMOS image sensor mostly trumps similar video shot with the FlipMino HD. A bright, two-inch color LCD display for selecting options also doubles as a monitor for video recording and playback. A smaller monochrome backlit LCD below lets you keep tabs on audio levels, playback/record time, and battery life at all times.
Unfortunately, the main display doesn’t swivel or adjust, so you’re forced to hold the camera horizontally while shooting video, looking down at the display. It’s an odd compromise by the designers, although it does allow for clever shots you might not get otherwise. But yes, it feels awkward.
The included 2GB SD card is capable of recording up to 55 minutes of WAV audio only at the highest quality (three hours at 44k 16-bit WAV or 16 hours at 256kpbs MP3 setting), or 15 minutes of 1080p video (30 minutes in 1280x720 or a full hour in 640x480). The audio quality is indeed excellent -- you’ll hear details in full stereo that are simply lost with the iPhone 4 or Flip cameras. The LS-20M also includes a Magic Movie mode for live effects using one of four presets (Rock, Pop, Sketch, and Pin Hole), a typically so-so 4x digital zoom, mini-HDMI port, tripod mount, and a choice of three visualizers for audio playback.
The bottom line. If you need to do budget-minded, quality field audio recording with the option for HD video, the LS-20M makes for an enticing package. The top-mounted lens is a fairly serious limitation for frequent users, especially considering the price, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find another pocket-friendly recorder capable of such uncompromising audio quality coupled with HD video.
LS-20M PCM Recorder
Mac OS 10.4 or later; USB port
Excellent audio recorder at a budget price. 1080p HD video recording is a nice bonus, and image quality is on par with iPhone 4 and better Flip cameras. Nice variety of features, including tripod mount and 1/8-inch mic and headphone jacks.
Top-mounted camera lens limits video shooting in many situations. A few too many buttons. Recording video requires extra button press to switch to camera mode.