Low End Theory

A Mystery for Our Times


By Brendan I. Koerner

Okay, I'm not gonna lie to you: the mystery referenced in the title of this week's column isn't exactly a Top Tenner of all time. In fact, it's probably several thousand places behind such timeless headscratchers as "Who shot JFK?" and "Why is water wet?" (the latter of which I've yet to hear a decent answer for). But as far as stumpers go in the realm of low-end electronics, I'd say my question's pretty sound: why can't someone come up with a decent sub-$30 digital voice recorder?

Before y'all start shooting off angry e-mails, alerting me to the existence of some 64 MB refurbbed unit on Overstock.com or somesuch, lemme add some parameters to the mystery. I'm talking about a voice recorder that's brand new, designed solely for the task of getting folks on "tape," and has the capacity to handle more than a pair of western civ lectures. Anyone? Anyone? I thought not—unless you're willing to include cheap MP3 players that feature voice recording, of which there are numerous options. So, what gives? Why can I scoop up a 128 MB MP3 player with voice-recording capabilities for less than a Jackson, but a single-purpose player of lesser capacity will run me at least $10 more? Informed commentary tempered by wild speculation after the jump. PLUS: Those long-promised low-end reviews are en route, honest.

As a journalist, I probably have a bit more experience with portable recorders than your average citizen. I made the switch from my clunky ol' Panasonic tape recorder—which was hardy enough to survive a trip to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland—to a digital IC recorder back 'round 1999. I've experimented with several recording setups since then, including an ill-fated dalliance with an iPod microphone. I'm currently using a Samsung YP-MT6, a 512 MB MP3 player that's one of the few low-end gadgets I own—though, in my defense, I bought it used.

I didn't want to get the pre-owned route for a piece of equipment so vital to my profession, but the low-end pickings were just too slim. Take the models from Olympus, a leading low-end brand among digital recorders. Their products, such as the VN-1000, are nifty enough, and obviously designed with power users in mind; features such as index marks are a godsend when transcribing notes and interviews, for example. But even the 32 MB version costs over $30, and closer to $40 unless you can find yourself a real online bargain. Oh, and a USB port? Nein! For that, you've got to cough up an extra $30 or so for the next Olympus model up.

Compare that to something like this BenQ Joybee 210, a 128 MB MP3 player that can be had for right around $12. Sure, they installed the voice recorder as an afterthought, but I've always found BenQ's sound quality decent enough—certainly better than what I got from my mic'd-up iPod. And it's USB 2.0 compatible, to boot.

The downside to the MP3 players is that they don't have the transcription features, especially bookmarks and variable playback. But I refuse to believe that adding those features should triple or quadruple the cost of a barebones audio player. And I don't buy the inevitable argument from manufacturers that there isn't a market for dedicate voice recorders. Okay, okay, I acknowledge that you can't fire up the Guangdong factories to satiate the members of my profession—there just aren't enough journalists on the planet to justify the investment. (Cue snarky retort akin to, "And that's a good thing, punk!") But it's not just me and my ink-stained brethren who would be willing to shell out twenty bones for a stand-alone voice recorder. In the tradition of Homer Simpson's riff on who's watching TV at 3:17 a.m. ("Alcoholics, the unemployable, angry loners..."), here's an off-the-top-of-my-head list of potential customers:

*Students (duh)
*Insurance claims adjusters
*Attorneys (particularly of the ambulance-chaser variety)
*Genealogists
*Medical examiners
*Police detectives
*Stand-up comedians
*The stoned
*Send me your own

No doubt I've proven the viability of the low-end voice recorder market beyond a shadow of a doubt. (Okay, not really, but play along at this point.) But what do the fly-by-night brands give us? As Seen on TV dreck like Mr. Voice. Oh, the humanity...

Maybe there's some good, logical reason why no one's jumped on this opportunity. Maybe it's part of a grand conspiracy among reputable manufacturers of microcassette recorders, who don't want to see their media sales vanish overnight. But the more likely explanation is that everyone's been too busy ratcheting down the cost of faux Discmen, and they've simply overlooked a potentially profitable low-end niche.

Low End Theory

Well, jWINs and Cobys of the world, I give you permission to steal my idea. Make us a nice $20 single-purpose voice recorder, and you won't regret it. I, for one, will buy one—perhaps even two, as I tend to lose things. Is that enough incentive, or what?

MEA CULPA, IT'S COMING: In a late-June column, I appealed to y'all for ideas on low-end gadgets to review. You see, my Gizmodo overlords are gonna hook me up with a nice lil' $50 review fund per week, which should be more than enough to buy a few cheapo MP3 players of portable TVs up on 125th Street or down on Canal.

A lot of my favorite readers came through with some excellent ideas for product categories to cover. Alas, I've dropped the ball recently, and need to get my ass on a shopping mission to round up the first batch of gizmos. For the very last time in my life, I'll use the wedding excuse, along with my stock "I'm writing a book and traveling a lot" excuse mixed in for good measure. But fear not—I'm gonna motivate ASAP, and those reviews will be here before you know it. Thanks, as always, for your eternal patience and patronage.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate. His Low End Theory column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.

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