At the How Hill Spring Meeting this year Gordon Edgar, encouraged by Phil Rudkin, invited me to review a flashcard recorder that I had purchased - the Nagra Ares-PII. I bought the PII because I thought it was the best I could get that suited my needs.
For many years I have been using a Tascam DA-P1 DAT recorder. This is fine for recordings made within a few days of charging the battery but I could never take it anywhere without also carrying the heavy charger and finding a suitable mains power supply. When I went abroad I took a Sony MZ-R37 MiniDisc recorder. (Recordings of mine from both these recorders can be heard on SM139.) The PII gives me the sound quality of the DA-P1 with the portability of the MZ-R37.
With the caveat that I am reviewing a unit that I instantly fell in love with, here goes!
As I have already mentioned batteries: the PII uses five 'AA' size, I purchased rechargeable 2500 mAh batteries that give me about 6 hours use with the phantom power permanently switched on.
The PII can record to a variety of card formats. I am using Compact Flash (CF), which requires a PCMCIA adapter. A 1GB card gives a recording time of 1 hour 36 minutes stereo at 44.1kHz 16-bit, and the highest sampling rate is 48kHz at 16-bit (1hr 29min).
Mic input is via a single connector with 12 pins, the plug has a screw-locking collar, the pins are tiny and it is no fun to solder.
Two minor irritations: the batteries take 14 hours to fully recharge in the PII; and the body of the PII has to be opened to remove either the batteries or the CF card. I transfer recordings to a computer via a card-reader and this means removing the CF card from the PII, placing it in the card reader and then returning it to the PII. To remove the card or the batteries from the PII is fiddly. I have the PII in the (optional) soft case, which is a tight fit and has to be removed for access. When opened the two halves of the body are held together only by a small hinge of about 2cm. I think this is a possible weakness - it would be better to avoid opening the PII at all. There is a USB 1.1 connector so it should be possible to transfer recordings without removing the card but I can still see situations in the field where the PII needs to be opened.
But, why do I like it so much? First of all, the pre-amps are the best I have ever heard outside a studio, very quiet with a wonderful clarity and presence.
One-hand operation is very good. The PII fits easily into my left hand (while my right holds the mic, map, beer, etc.) and all controls fall under my left thumb.
Recording is extremely easy: the PII is ready to record 4 seconds after switching on; record is a single button that also functions as a track index marker; to stop record press stop (there is no pause).The record level can be altered at any time via + & - buttons, and the same buttons are used in playback to set the monitor level. I have my PII set up so that record-monitor is on at all times - in playback mode the mic inputs can easily be switched off by holding down the level decrement button. There is no pre-record buffer so recordings only start when the record button is pressed. Record level is shown via an on-screen bar-meter and three traffic-light LEDs below the keypad. Active recording is indicated by a circle in the display and by a red LED, also below the keypad. There is also an audible tone in the headphones whenever a button is pressed.
Recordings can be erased one track at a time or from any track to the end. (This can be time-consuming if you have 84 tracks recorded and want to erase all but the last.) Erasing a track seems to fully release the memory but I have yet to push the PII to a state of card-memory fragmentation. Tracks can also be erased via computer when the CF card is in a card-reader.
The display is on a 25x45mm back-lit screen. The light comes on at power-up and dims after 10 seconds but comes on again if any button is pushed. I find it easy to read and all necessary information is shown clearly. Set-up is very easy and follows the menu system employed by the majority of small electronic devices, accessed via a central button surrounded by four incremental buttons - up, down, left & right. As with most such devices all the information required for operation is shown on-screen (the manual contains the same information in screen-shot form).
There is no manual titling function in my PII, the first track is automatically named 001 and all subsequent tracks are numbered incrementally. The date and time are also recorded and all this information is retained in the file details when recordings are transferred to computer. However, the time shown seems to be the end time of each track rather than the start time.
The headphone socket is via mini-jack and I have taken to using Walkman style in-ear phones because of their lack of size and weight, and because they have an angled jack plug (I am currently exploring other headphone options). The only other audio out socket is a Lemo connector 2-pin, which I have not used. There is also a USB 1.1 socket.
The PII is about twice the size of a small MD recorder, has a sound quality second to none and is so easy to operate in the field - switch on, set level, hit record. Simple - and all controlled just by my left thumb, what else can I say, I love it!
List prices (from Nagra):
Nagra website http://www.nagraaudio.com
Nagra Ares-PII £1152; 1GB Sandisk CF card £75; 5x rechargeable batteries £20; power supply £40; soft case £20; PCMCIA to CF adapter £8; stereo mic cable (to 2x XLR) £46.
All prices are ex-VAT