Wednesday, 14 June 2017

☴ Mobile Video ASMR Binaural Recording Awards (Summer 2017)

For as long as I can remember I've enjoyed experiencing hi-fi stereo sound - many an hour spent sitting in that sweet spot listening to an album.

Later I became interested in capturing authentic stereo sounds, experimenting with binaural and mid-side (M/S) stereo recording techniques to create interesting sound experiences for picture. Sound design with minimal design (because all the best design is as little design as possible).

With a surge in interest in ASMR (experiencing head tingles from certain sounds usually through headphones) and the Airninja Movie Method preference for stereo recording it was time for me to rationalise my gear to see what works best for capturing great stereo sound with decent video.

It's 2017 after a decade of UK austerity and on-going Brexit uncertainties, I just want a versatile device that easily fits in my regular pocket and won't break the bank (or, er, scorch my credit card).

Here's my top three devices:

BRONZE - Sony Xperia X Compact optionally with STM10 XY plug-in mic (£229 plus £35 option)

This is the most versatile combo on the list, but you do need the additional STM10 mic to really utilise that versatility. The Xperia X Compact shares next generation SNR results from its onboard MEMS mics with its bigger brother the XZ as well as an amazingly quick and capable autofocus system.

KILLER: The size, the potential, the astounding visual autofocus to support your aural. This is the smallest phone here and when accessorised with the STM10 is currently unbeatable for versatility (note: versatility at the sacrifice of some purist accuracy, the horror!) - the killer feature here is the sum of the parts and the adventures you'll have creating.

PROS: Sony know their audio and that knowledge seeps into every atom of this phone - clear decisions have been made for recording and playback. I've used the X Compact with Rode's Smartlav+ and Sony's Audio Recorder app (there's that versatility again) to record voice artist work and the client gave feedback saying the quality was amazing. So it's a capable professional tool - but I'll keep it my secret, thanks. This is also the only phone on this list that (with the STM10) can record vertical video with a natural horizontal stereo sound-stage. Think about that for a moment. This phone is also unofficially IP58 water resistant so don't be afraid of that thunderstorm.

CONS: My biggest disappointment with this phone is the onboard mic placement. It's not enough to be totally ugly since an untrained ear would never know. But I know. My soul feels it. This is why I would recommend partnering this phone up with the STM10. Instead of a mic on each end like the XZ or even the Galaxy A3 the X Compact has a mic on one end and another mic ... in the mouthpiece area (so far as I can tell). Not ideal, but workable. I've revisited recordings I've made with the onboard mic as a viewer and didn't realise until I switched to critical listening mode.

UGLY: This phone would be Gold if only the mics were positioned optimally for stereo recording and the damned camera didn't still overheat here in 2017. It's kind of unforgiveable but as a long time Xperia user I've kind of learnt to live with it by thinking of what else this device brings to my table. I also remember those tales of the RED overheating and that is not a cheap camera. If Sony can fix these two things on a sub-5" form factor then they have a winner once it hits the used phone market. Will that day ever some? Judging from the release of the Xperia XZ Premium, Sony are going large with the herd for the forseeable future.

SILVER - Samsung Galaxy A3 2017 (£220)

Make no mistake this is a slick looking phone and gets the job done in pretty much any weather condition.

KILLER: This is the only IP68 certified phone on the list. That alone means that with zero other accessories you can get a great binaural recording without worrying about the phone failing in adverse weather conditions or falling in your pint.

PROS: Um, fingerprint sensor? I suppose the SNR is decent too, certainly next gen SNR on par with the Xperia. Decent onboard mic placement for stereo recording. Headphone jack can be useful with Rode products.

CONS: Camera and video recording is pedestrian at 30fps FHD tops (so no 60fps, and none of the phones on this list do 4K). Autofocus hunts and can be inaccurate often.

UGLY: Samsung. I just can't place it but I find it difficult to get excited about Samsung products. Especially ones that are neglected and suffer from an annoying touchscreen lag. It remains a capable device it just --- has no soul.

GOLD - Samsung Galaxy A3 2016 (£130)

A great looking phone even against latest iPhone designs but ... how much?!

KILLER: Simply the price of "good enough". Make no mistake you can get decent results out of this device and your viewership won't know or care and nor should they.

PROS: Have you seen the price? It's a lovely built phone for the price. It will meet pedestrian needs no question and also delivers binuaral recording from decently placed onboard mics.

CONS: It's just not exciting (outside of looks-to-cost ratio) and "good enough" extends to performance. Nothing stellar but do you care. Well you might care in the wet because this phone has no official water resistance, no, not even rumoured.

UGLY: Let's face it, Samsung are never going to update this device with future Android upgrades that might otherwise make the phone more efficient. The paltry onboard RAM is pretty ugly too and the refurb unit I used had a defective GPS so no turn-by-turn navigation.

It seems strange that my favourite device is Bronze and of the uglies has the ugliest. That must be testament to Sony's UX which has a focus on audio/DSP and increasingly aligns with stock Android as Sony perhaps wind down development completely, d'oh. Samsung will obviously be around forever to pick up the slack, but what a shame to swim with the bottom-feeders at this price-bracket. Perhaps in another year we won't even have compact devices available and a new Lumia will be sporting 360 audio capture ... who knows!