Esem / Eesn

M-Audio Microtrack 2496 - a disappointment

  • Solid state recording to CompactFlash
  • +30V phantom power for condensers
  • Plastic feel
  • Godawful blue-lit screen
  • Takes forever to power on
  • Sluggish interface and screen refresh
  • Inconvenient navigation
  • Battery issues. $75 to replace battery
  • Noisy w/ plug-in powered mics
  • TRS inputs not spaced enough to use XLR-TRS convertors
  • Monitoring issues when recording via digital
  • Quickly superseded by Microtrack II

First things first. M-Audio Microtrack has a new version - the Microtrack II. In this case I am leaving my review as more of a checklist of problems the 1st edition has. Make sure they've been fixed in II maybe...

Disclaimer: This review is negatively biased because of my disappointing experience and daily problems with the Microtrack. There.

M-Audio's portable recorder replaces my trusty Sony MZ-R909 minidisc. Though I sometimes get the impression that the R909 sounds better with Core Sound's Low Cost Binaurals, I can't otherwise argue with its USB connection, CompactFlash card, or Li-Ion rechargable battery (over Sony's Ni-MH).

Now let me elaborate.

Build

It's plastic but feels solid. Solid but plastic. It's compact. It has an awful blue-backlit screen that is difficult to read unless it's bright around you. The screen is a real shame. Dear M-Audio / Avid, please make it yellow. You can read more about the screen under "operation" below.

Lots of connectors and switches. The only side that isn't used is the back.
Note: the TRS inputs are not spaced enough to fit two XLR to TRS converters, so if you wish to use professional microphones you'll need XLR to TRS *cables*.

Sound

Listen: Amsterdam Street Art Market Harp (02:15 VBR MP3)

OK, Maybe microphones are like camera lenses and preamps are like DSLR sensors. Bigger and more expensive ones capture much better . Yet I am convinced the old Sony R909 does sound better with small mics such as the Core Sound Low-cost Binaurals. With these, the MicroTrack is quiet/noisy, so your sound better be louder.

The MT does NOT provide true 48V phantom power for mics. It does, however, provide 30V. I was cheeky enough to try the MicroTrack with a Rode NT5 mic, despite the lower voltage. It sounds great. I have not tried to record an analogue (line) or a digital source. I guess the unit is much better at line recording as it's easier. I'll add this when I have more.

Some people will tell you the MicroTrack hasn't got true 24bit. I still record in 24 bits, though at 44.1 kHz. I'd rather end up with a bigger file than a poorly quantised recording. Up to you.

Software

My MT came with Audacity, an open source software, which, pardon me, is far from a decent sound editor. It is awkward, unstable, and the developers are making the classic mistake of adding new stuff without getting the main features right (and polished). By now it has probably matured.. or not. If you're on a Mac, get Sound Studio. If you're on PC, look for a copy of Cool Pro (works fine on XP), or Adobe Audition (or go for Soundbooth, I don't like its interface).

But there's something else missing.
See, it's very easy to organise visuals. You can store a single screenshot of a video and refer to it at any time. Photos are even easier.

Not the same with sounds. I wish someone would just sit down and develop a nice audio organiser. Computers can do so much more nowadays. If a device such as the MicroTrack names files such as "file0094.wav", there's clearly a need for some organiser. Tags, attached photos, spectral fingerprints, similar sounds, and so on. This bit is missing. I repeat, a crucial bit of the whole equation is missing. If I am supposed to go out and collect sounds out there, I have to spend a roughly equal amount of time renaming them later. I am sure someone could do something about this?

Battery Life

The battery is not serviceable and can't be replaced, unless you send the unit back to M-Audio. What a classic iPod stunt! Costs $75 + postage to get it replaced.

What's more annoying is the battery goes out too quickly. Even when you leave the unit on standby, next time you power it up, most likely half the battery is gone.

What's even more annoying is the early units have a bug in their firmware so they go about recharging the battery as soon as it drops to 99%. WTF? This virtually kills the battery or lowers its health/life substantially, in just the first week of use.

On the top of the annoyances list sits this:
The MicroTrack has two modes of operation. If you connect it to USB it will just start charging the battery and operate as a mass-storage device. Recordings can be downloaded to computer. The battery indicator shows a charging battery animation. After charging for some time (read carefully, I didn't say when the battery is full), the unit will just display this weird, meaningless icon of a battery that's filled with a GRADIENT! Naturally I'd boot the MicroTrack then and it would continue charging. (!) At the same moment the attached storage is gone, and I get a warning that I didn't unmount it properly. The battery indicator then shows "CHG" (don't ask me). If I turn the unit off again I lose the mass storage, battery stops charging and I have to unplug the cable and plug it back in.

At this point i'm like: Guys, sort out your act. I paid a decent amount of money for this unit. I feel let down as every little corner you've cut adds up to a bad overall experience.

Finally here's something Sony got right and M-Audio didn't. Li-Ion batteries, good as they may be, don't like being charged for 30 seconds. Sony, being NiMH (cell memory!), had even more incentive to not screw their battery, so you have to enter charge mode manually. Another example of this design done right is Leica's D-Lux-3 camera. The unit won't charge the battery. There is a separate charger.
 
M-Audio's MicroTrack starts charging as soon as you plug the USB cable in. Want to transfer your files without screwing your battery? Get a card reader.

Operation

The device feels slow. It is slow to update its screen, and it is slow to operate. The button on the side is a silly idea. Why not a jog dial? What's with the interface? And, please, tell me what is so wrong with the record+pause+adjust_levels idea that you had to scrap it??

It takes forever to boot. It isn't just "several seconds", it feels like forever, and hearing/seeing the moment you were just about to capture slip away is one of the most terrible feelings on earth. Every time I turn it on I pray that I have some battery left too.

As mentioned above, navigating through the files, and pretty much everything else, works, but is too damn slow.

And do not get me started on the blue-lit screen:

Notice any difference? It's like a McDonalds hamburger and its photo! Reflections, low contrast, annoying shade of blue. It has it all! I turned my screen brightness all the way down, so as not to be unfair. Mind, I've had a Casio watch that has the same blue backlight like the one on the shot. Flawless! But not this unit.

And here's the Microtrack in the dark. A lot better:

Yet the Record button is really convenient. All settings are remembered, there are no silly defaults. You just press the button and it records. Period. There is no red light, which is both good and bad. I have to look at the screen, to know when it's recording, but then, it's stealthy and people around me don't notice it.

Recording in MP3 is convenient, especially if I am going to mangle that recording later on, and want to keep more on the card. By the way, the supplied card is a joke.

File transfer

Plug the unit in. Transfer your files fast via USB2. Eject/unmount it. You're done. Unless the battery is dead, that is. Then you have to wait for some initial charge to flow in.

Unfortunately using USB for both file transfer and battery charging means battery life issues, which I described under "Battery life" above.

Digital-in recording

This is beyond me but when recording via s/pdif from Audiofire4 (at 48khz) after some 5 minutes a kind of buzz starts creeping in. A minute later it's full-on noise that blasts from one of the channels. The recording is fine, but you can't monitor.

Conclusion

I may be biased and on the negative side here. I've accumulated the following M-Audio gear over the years: Delta Audiophile 2496, Midisport 2x2, TriggerFinger, MicroTrack, Transit as well as the ESI nEar05 which M-Audio used to brand and sell as BX-5.

MicroTrack and Transit are the two most disappointing devices I have ever owned. What's worse, M-Audio decided to shift priority to Microtrack II instead of just pushing out some decent, well-mannered firmware version. Way to go Avid, for ditching your userbase in the gutter.

On paper, MicroTrack has it all. In reality, it packs a massive amount of disappointment. It's killer app, recording, works just fine, but you'll have to accept all kinds of inconveniences. I am so going back to my Sony minidisc recorder!

» Read more about it on M-Audio's website.

equipment:

main

additional

  • M-Audio TriggerFinger
  • Novation Launchpad
  • Korg Nanokontrol 2
  • Sennheiser binaural mics
  • Audio-Technica BP4025
  • Røde NT5 matched pair mics
  • Studio Projects C1
  • Core-sound Binaurals2
  • Various DIY piezo mics
  • 2 x Doepfer Pocket Control
Equipment notes
  • 1,2 - kindly donated by Tsvetan Toshkov
  • 3,4 - Logic v7 ($999) and Komplete 4 kindly donated by Tsvetan Toshkov
  • 5 - version 1 was provided to me free of charge by iZotope
  • 6 - made possible by listeners buying Aquanaut

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