Olympus Linear PCM Recorder LS-20M SRP: $299

by | Aug 6, 2011 | Component Reviews | 0 comments

Olympus Linear PCM Recorder LS-20M
Hi-Res Audio & Hi-Def Video in Compact Mobile Device
SRP: $299
($223 at Amazon)

Formats: Audio – Linear Pulse Code Modulation, 44.1/16 to 96/24, MP3 (320 kbps or 256 kbps)
Video – MOV, 30 frames per sec., 480p, 720p or 1080p definition
Recording media: SD card, comes with 2 GB, takes up to 32 GB
Lens: f4.1mm focal length; 16:9 at 49mm, 4:3 at 59mm
Auto-focuses from 30 cm to infinity; 4x digital zoom
Digital ESP photo metering, spot metering system
2” color LCD display built-in
16 mm dynamic speaker built-in
Headphone output at 3.5 mm mini-jack: 150 mV
Input Jacks: Mic – 3.5 mm mini-jack 2.2 kOhm impedance; Line – 3.5 mm mini-jack, 39 kOhm impedance
.25” 5-megapixel CMOS sensor
Connects to computer via USB 2.0, and has HDMI port
for viewing contact on big screen
Maximum working output: 270 mW (with 8 Ohm speaker)
Shipped with 2GB SD card, rechargeable Li-ion battery, USB-AC power supply (F-3AC),
USB cable and thick instruction booklet, as well as a quick-start flyer
Optional RS-30W wireless remote and F-3AC external power supply also available
Dimensions: 135 mm x 63 mm x 18 mm
Weight: 154 grams (5.4 oz.)

This is a fairly amazing pocket camcorder with high-end specs. It fits a bill since Cisco has stopped producing their little Flip camcorder.  In addition to the 2” video display, there is a smaller 1.46” LCD data screen under it which shows the time left on the SD card, audio levels and battery life.  There is no viewfinder, which does create some problems.  You can modify the basic video settings if you want with the Magic Movie options.  They include Rock Magic Movie (to recreate rock videos), the artsy Sketch effect, Pop, and Pinhole (which I found darkened the entire image and looked nothing like pinhole photography). In the center of the bottom area of the LS-20M is a standard camera tripod  socket which can fit a mini or standard tripod – and after looking at my test videos I would highly recommend one.
Many optional accessories are available for the unit: a pair of higher-quality omni-directional mics for recording musical performances, which come on a miniature tripod and are supported by plug-in power, a compact unidirectional gun mic, a compact unidirectional zoom mic for recording from a distance – integrated with a tripod, a unidirectional noise-cancelling mic, a tie-clip omni mic, a telephone pickup, a remote control set which handles recording, shooting and stop functions, and an HDMI cable for connection of the recorder to an HDTV with an HDMI port (the connector at the recorder is an HDMI micro).  When an external mic or mics is plugged into the LS-20M, its internal mics are bypassed.  The mini-tripod is very useful because it can become a handle to hold the LS-20M when doing hand-held interviews, and you will be able to see the LCD display if you keep it low enough.
The two mics built into the LS-20M are arrayed on either side of the small lens and are condenser mics.  If you have it set on manual level adjustment, you can raise and lower the recording level using the + and – of the center joystick control. If you select automatic level control you won’t have to worry about level adjustments. There are Low and High Mic Sense settings; the High setting is suggested only for recording large conferences and groups. There is also a low cut filter to reduce ambient noise in the environment, with two frequency settings: 100Hz & 300Hz. You can set both audio and video to record with a self-timer, and it also has an auto voice-activation feature which automatically starts recording only when a certain sound level is reached.  So the Ghostbusters could leave a LS-20M with that setting in a creepy hallway during the night to see if it picks up any strange sounds. Or just leave it running with 44.1K audio and a 16GB SD card, which would give them up to 24 hours. There is a red Peak LED indicator on the front of the LS-20M, near the two mics.
The voice-recording function has a Visualizer which can provide five different types of color video patterns while you play back audio files. And audio files may be transferred to the LS-20M in WAV or MP3 format in addition to the files it records itself.
I recorded my piano with the LS-20M, using the 96K/24 option. I then played it back thru my main AV system, and the fidelity was excellent – as good as most CDs of piano music. Recording at either of the MP3 sampling rates was easily heard as greatly inferior to the 96K/24 files. I found in most recording situations – especially outdoors – the manual setting was to be preferred to the automatic. Sometimes there were gross variations in level of the recording, especially when outdoors and hand held.  The LS-20M naturally picks up some of the noises of being hand-held, and for both audio and video, having it mounted on some sort of tripod would be preferred.  Though it does have a type of image stabilization so that handheld imaging does not make the viewer totally seasick.
Everything is stored in folders on the SD card, in two sections – one for strictly audio files and the other for video with audio files. The main folder is titled Music, and it can hold up to 128 other folders, which can each store up to 999 files. Each time you press Record (one to set up level etc. and again to record), a new folder is created for that recording, with a different number. A switch on the side of the LS-20M changes between a microphone and camera icons.  If you edit a file, a new folder will be created with a different number.
Now for some video shooting. (Odd that this unit is called a Linear PCM Recorder and the user manual refers to it as a Voice Recorder. It is a great deal more than that!) I first shot some 720p videos of most of my AV equipment and the various areas of CDs, DVDs, LPs and cassettes around the house. I narrated it, pointing out the various items for a  loose sort of property survey – replacing a VHS video I had done years ago.  I discovered that there was some problem framing the image correctly for components and recordings that were on high shelves, due to the lack of a view finder.  One way around that is to hold the recorder upside down over your head, and look up to view what is on the small display.  I didn’t use any special lighting, and found the LS-20M quite forgiving in low light levels, especially if the High ISO option is selected in the menu. The automatic exposure functioned very similarly to the one I had in my Super 8 camera many years ago.  It was a bit slow in registering light changes, so don’t expect it to handle well panning from a very bright subject to a very dark one. Again, if you have it on a tripod and shoot that way, the unit would have time to adjust for more proper exposure in dark areas.
I also took the LS-20M to record some video clips of a theater group doing a Star Trek episode in a public park.  They lacked wireless mics, so some of the dialog was inaudible from a distance – manual control of the level was a necessity. And the problem of having no viewfinder mean merely pointing the unit at the performers, and not using the digital zoom, since it’s effect could not be seen in the LCD display. The automatic focus and exposure worked very well, providing just as good-looking (though a bit shaky) 720p imaging as one would see in a TV news report. I didn’t use the 1080p option because recording time would be so limited at that high resolution on only a 2 GB card. However, in a brief test of the image quality, it appeared as good as a 1080p Blu-ray disc, especially considering no special lighting was being used.
Speaking of recording times, the first thing you would probably want to do after purchase of the LS-20M is to replace the 2GB SD card with an 8, 16 or 32 GB one. For example, when shooting video at 720p with standard 44.1K audio, you can put 4 hours on a 16GB card and 8 hours on a 32GB. The supplied 2GB card only has a 30-minute capacity for this format. When recording audio only at 96K/24bit, the 2GB card only gives you 55 minutes, whereas the 16GB card allows for almost seven and one-half hours. At CD standard 44.1K/16 it gives over 24 hours of recording capacity.
However, there is also a maximum recording time per individual file, no matter what size SD card you use. With “voice” recording at 96/24, this is 55 minutes; 3 hours for 44.1/16 format. The maximum recording times for video are different: At 720p, it is 45 minutes with 96/24 audio and an hour with 44.1/16 audio. The maximum size of a single video file is also limited to approximately 4GB.  So don’t expect to make that feature film you plan to shoot with this thing a no-edits, all-one-shot epic.
Downloading the files from the LS-20M to your computer is easy, using the USB cable plugged into the base of the unit. That’s good, because if you don’t replace the tiny SD 2GB card you will be doing that quite a bit – then erasing the SD card so you can put other material on it up to its capacity. It’s not much different from downloading a digital still camera into iPhoto or whatever you use. It’s also simple to send the MOV video files  to friends or to You Tube.  The same with the PCM audio files, though for some uses you might want to convert them to WAV or WMA audio files. Both video and audio files play right away in QuickTime.
I had some trouble with the many options in the menu, and in fact never found a couple of them listed in the manual. I took the File Move/Copy option as the way to get the MOV files to my Mac’s desktop, but it refused to work. I found it easier to just click on the MOVIE100 folder, find the video clips I had shot, drag them to the desktop, and then  drag their duplicates in the LS-20M to the trash.  In addition to Record and Stop at the top of the joystick controls, there are five buttons around the bottom: Erase, Fn (Function), A-B Repeat, Menu and List. The instructions of the Fn button are extremely confusing. It is supposed to allow changes in the various settings in the Menu, but I found you could do that without it. The only time it seemed to do anything was pressing after pressing Stop – then it brought up the Image Quality setting. By the way, the moment the LS-20M is plugged into the USB cable, it will begin charging. Which if fully depleted takes about two hours.  During that hookup you cannot access the menu or any controls on the unit.
On PCs running any of the recent Windows OSs, if you don’t have a built-in webcam as we Mac users do, you can use the LS-20M as a PC camera. In the recorder’s USB Settings, you set USB Class into PC Camera, and use the + and – joystick to zoom the lenses appropriately. It also works with older Macs lacking a built-in camera.
All in all, this is quite an amazing audio AND video recorder, and at a very low cost for what you get. I think the main refinement I would like to see on a future version is a viewfinder.
— John Sunier

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