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Sangean DAR-101 Digital Audio Recorder

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If a machine this sophisticated had been built back when tape recorders had actually involved tape, it would have weighed about as much as a refrigerator, and been almost as large. Despite it’s diminutive size and unthreatening price, it’s a remarkably capable recording device. However, beyond its laudable technical specifications, it has been designed with an admirable degree of forethought and prescience, to allow it to record all manner of things.

As nearly as I could determine, Sangean spends most of its time building sophisticated radios. The Sangean DAR-101 appears to have been created to record radio transmissions. This is hardly it’s best trick, however.

If it talks, sings, beeps, squawks, barks, plays, enunciates or howls at the moon, this recorder will listen to it, digitize it and store it in flawless, easily-accessed digital audio files. More to the point, it will do so using an intuitive tape recorder-like interface that could be easily mastered by three out of four bricks, and some liberal politicians.

The Sangean DAR-101 will record sound and store it in your choice of MP3 or WMA files, at varying degrees of quality to allow its users to trade audio fidelity for file size. Its storage medium is SD memory cards, rather than large nasty reels of tape. In that SD cards can be very large, and MP3 files can be substantially compressed, it’s possible to store truly frightening amounts of audio on a single memory card.

In its simplest persona, the DAR-101 will record whatever is going on around it. It includes two internal microphones, or you can plug conventional mikes into two quarter-inch jacks in its front panel for improved sound quality.

It can record when you tell it to, or it can be configured to be voice-activated, and turn itself on whenever there’s anything to listen to. Its voice-activation mode has an adjustable sound threshold, so it can be used in relatively noisy environments without its being fooled into recording lots of nothing.

Finally, it includes an internal clock, and it can be configured to record at specific times, without human intervention.

The DAR-101 can also record sound from other audio sources, such as a radio, through its Line In jack.

Let’s Rock

Every time the DAR-101 starts recording, it creates a new file on its SD memory card. In that the files have dates, it’s largely self-organizing, allowing it to create a long list of easily-accessed sound bytes that won’t get unworkably confusing.

Equipped with internal speakers and a fairly brutish little amplifier to drive them, the DAR-101 will play its sound files back just as a traditional tape recorder might have done during the late middle ages. It has an analog Line Out jack to allow its audio to be sent somewhere else, and a digital S/PDIF output jack to drive other digital audio devices.

In most applications, the easiest way to access the recorded audio laid down by a DAR-101 is to remove its SD memory card and plug it into a card reader connected to your computer. The files on the card can be browsed with Windows Explorer, and played with anything that accesses MP3 files.

One of the most sophisticated tricks the Sangean DAR-101 knows is recording phone calls – we bought this device to replace a seriously antiquated tape-based call logger. The DAR-101 comes with a telephone line interface cable that can be plugged into a conventional RJ-11 analog phone line. Suitably configured, the DAR-101 will automatically start recording when the phone is picked up, and store each conversation in a separate MP3 file.

Even with its MP3 quality cranked down to its minimum setting, telephone calls recorded by the DAR-101 are flawlessly clear. The recorder can optionally add an audible beep to the conversations it records, to notify whomever’s speaking that their words are being preserved for future generations. Some jurisdictions require the beep.

The DAR-101 can be powered by four internal AA batteries, or by an included wall wart power adapter. There’s a switch in the battery compartment to configure it for either conventional alkaline batteries, or rechargeable nickel-cadmium or NiMH batteries. In the latter case, the wall wart included with the recorder can be used to charge its batteries. There are a few catches to this:

  • The DAR-101 will only charge its batteries when it’s not otherwise engaged. You can’t have it record and charge at the same time.
  • If you fib to it, and set its battery type switch to indicate that it has been provided with rechargeable batteries when it is in fact grasping a fist full of alkaline batteries, its internal charger will likely destroy your batteries, and possibly the recorder as well. They call them “non-rechargeable” for a good reason.

The included power adapter carries CSA electrical certification – a worthwhile consideration.

Fast Forward

While the Sangean DAR-101 itself, and hence its controls and display panel, are somewhat diminutive, the machine is surprisingly easy to configure. It uses a wheel and selector button to drive its menu interface, and everything therein is arranged pretty intuitively. You can set it up for any of its intended tasks in seconds.

We had ours out of its box and busy logging calls in under five minutes, which included several minutes to find a digital camera and distract its owner long enough to abscond with its SD card.

The sound file playback interface is equally quick and easy to master, presenting its users with a list of files to scroll through.

While the DAR-101 acquits itself remarkably well, there are a few minor issues that potential users of this device will want to be aware of, to wit:

  • The recorder requires several seconds after it’s activated – either by its front-panel record button, by its voice activation logic or by an incoming telephone call if it’s operating as a call logger – to begin recording. It will, as such, miss the first few seconds of whatever it hears. The duration of this gap increases with the capacity of the SD memory card it’s provided with. In our experience, a sixteen-gigabyte card imposed a delay of about seven seconds, which bordered on unworkable. Replacing it with a two-gigabyte SD card pruned the delay back to three seconds, a livable compromise.
  • The internal speakers of the DAR-101 aren’t disabled when it’s recording. If you leave the playback volume knob turned up and the sound source is anything with a microphone – this includes a nearby telephone – it will feed back and scream like an environmentalist caught driving an SUV. Keep the playback volume knob all the way down.
  • There’s a very small mode switch on the front panel of the DAR-101 that has to be set to telephone mode to record calls. A fleeting reference to doing so appears in its manual, but there’s no nearby indication of where the switch actually resides.
  • As nearly as we could determine, the file names created by the DAR-101 are meaningless strings of characters. In that most applications of this device involve moving its memory card to a PC to access its files – and as such having access to the file creation time and date stamps – this isn’t a serious limitation. However, as they had to be named something, the current time and date would have been preferable.
  • The DAR-101 includes a USB port, with no indication of what it can be used for. Remarkably, its only function is to allow a USB flash drive to be connected to the recorder such that compatible audio files on the flash drive can be played back. A USB port that supported larger external recording media, or better still, an interface to allow a computer to browse the contents of the recorder’s SD card directly, would have been of decidedly more use.
  • The DAR-101 doesn’t come with an SD card, without which it’s a nicely-made desk ornament. This is light-years removed from a serious issue as long as you remember to buy one, or as noted earlier, permanently borrow one from an unsuspecting colleague or family member.
  • Regrettably, the least useful object in the DAR-101’s packaging is its manual. It’s decidedly terse, somewhat opaque in places, and it omits mention of a number of the more esoteric features of the recorder. While it includes no actual mistakes, so far as we noticed, it will arguably entail a somewhat longer learning curve than would have been the case if the manual had be subjected to one more trip through its word processor.

To their credit, Sangean maintains a customer service e-mail address, and our questions about the DAR-101 were answered promptly and correctly, somewhat mitigating the shortcomings of its printed documentation.

Despite a few minor rough edges, the Sangean DAR-101 is a peach of an audio recorder. It’s way easier to set up than some of its earlier forebears, and flexible enough for pretty much anything it can be asked to do. Ours has thus far proven to be utterly reliable.

It also looks seriously cool.

Our Sangean DAR-101 came from Amazon, which offered it at the lowest price on the block, and shipped it for free.