Review: Olympus LS-20 sound/video recorder

I’ve been anxious to try out the Olympus LS-20 digital recorder and was able to borrow one from a friend. It seems like a good reporting tool since having a video record of interviews can be useful when you need to remember how your interview subject reacts to questions or even how they dressed. The LS-20 can also be used for webcasts and website copywriting services.

Of course, most Flip type cameras can do the same basic things as the LS-20 and for a lower price, but this PCM (pulse code modulation) recorder is capable of capturing high quality broadcast-quality sound. It’s really more of a high quality portable sound recorder with video capability tacked on.

I didn’t expect much from the dinky lens that’s about the same size as the one on my BlackBerry Torch. Although, the LS-20 doesn’t compare to my Canon 60D, the Olympus has a lot of manual settings that allow it to beat the quality of most cell phone cameras that I’ve tried. And mounting the lens on top of the recorder can be a discreet way to record a news conference when set on a podium. It definitely won’t intimidate any camera shy interview subjects like a camcorder would.

There are three standard movie modes offered: 1080 at 30fps, 720 at 30 fps and 480 at 30 fps. The LS-20 also has an exposure compensation setting that allows the user to adjust for tricky lighting situations, a surprisingly good range of white balance settings to compensate for different lighting and a somewhat effective stabilization mode that helps to reduce camera shake. There’s even a grainy high ISO mode for shooting in low light and a USB and HDMI out port on the bottom of the recorder if you want to output video off the recorder to a laptop or television.

As expected, the sound quality is good from both the high and low mic sensitivity settings. Olympus has always put decent preamplifiers into its PCM recorders, which is what the recorder uses to boost microphone sound sensitivity. Surprisingly, I found that the low sensitivity mode performed better than the high. Even after bumping up the sound in post production, the noise floor–or hiss–was still quieter on the low mode when using my Sennheiser MD46 dynamic mic. It’s still hissy but usable. My shotgun condenser mic and condenser lav were fairly quiet on either modes but needed a lot of gain to pick up, despite having their own battery power.

The internal mics sounded thin but are fine for reference. They do pick up a lot of handling noise as most digital recorders of this type do. An even bigger problem that I discovered is that Olympus doesn’t offer a windscreen. The exposed mics are thus susceptible to the cracks and pops from breath sounds. Things get worse outside where the wind will turn your recording into an unintelligible thrush of white noise. I didn’t see any aftermarket windscreens online. You can probably DIY something out of foam or adapt the LS10 windscreen.

For the price ($220 new on eBay), the Olympus LS-20 is a nice, compact multimedia package that’s perfect for reporters that want to travel light. It’s a very portable device that’s not much bigger than the Olympus LS-10 that I usually carry for non-broadcast jobs and it uses the same removable SD card memory. I recommend using the LS-20 with a mini tripod like the Zeikos ($1.83 on Amazon) or a small Gorrilapod that allows the camera and mics to be easily positioned.

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About Dennis Nishi

Dennis has been a freelance writer and blogger for over 15 years, covering business and lifestyle topics for various publications, including the Wall Street Journal, NPR and the BBC World Service. He currently writes and illustrates for a syndicated career column in the Sunday Journal section of the Wall Street Journal. He has also fully produced radio segments for the WNYC program Studio 360 and done photography for Speakeasy, the entertainment blog.