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Nagra Ares-MII solid state recorder

The Nagra Ares-MII recorder reviewed here is a solid state field recorder, retailing at around £700, recording onto 2Gb of non-removeable internal flash memory. 

Nagra Kudelski has a long and distinguished history of manufacturing fine tape recorders which were coveted by previous WSRS generations.  A solid-state recorder has no moving parts so it does not demand the precision mechanical engineering that earned the company its reputation in the past, but  the experience shows in other ways. This recorder is refreshingly free of some of the operational niggles that afflict some CF recorders made.

Nagra Ares-M2 on a CD
Nagra Ares-MII on a CD showing small size 

The recorder is small, and fits easily into the hand. There is a large illuminated screen on the front showing the current status, record level and file name. The screen is easily readable in most outdoor locations apart from when sunlight is falling directly onto it. A standard four-way arrangement of buttons with a central menu button allow the menu system to be invoked, and some more front panel buttons facilitate selecting menu items. On the left-hand side are slide switches to start recording and to enable the AGC or not.

Nagra have designed the control structure well in that recording can be started when the machine is on from the slide-switch on the left, and manual record level is adjusted using the left and right buttons either side of the blue one on the front. The menu system is not needed to start or stop recording, and the sto precording button is a different button from the start recording. This all makes the recorder easier to use in the field and avoids the easy mistake of pressing the record button twice - in some solid state recorders the record function is a toggle so the impatient record-button jabber cancels the record instruction with the second press.

Overall recording parameters are set from the menu system, such as sampling rate and compression,

sidescomposite image showing right-hand side (top) and left-hand side (bottom)

top

Input connectors are on top, catering for both line-in at a high level and mic in at a lower level. The headphone socket is on the right-hand side, along with line-out, volume control and the mini-USB jack which is used to transfer the recordings to a PC. When connected, the recorder appears as a mass storage device just like a USB memory stick or external hard drive would, no proprietary software needs to be loaded. 

Features

The machine starts up quickly (about 5 seconds) and has a good mix of features for the wildlife sound recordist. The input is via a 3.5mm unbalanced jack, though Nagra can supply an adaptor cable to XLRs. The mic preamps have a low enough noise to work well with capacitor mics of the type typically used by wildife sound recordists, like the Sennheiser ME series. A low frequency rolloff can be set to improve resistance to wind noise. A three-second preroll buffer can be set, which is invaluable to wildlife recordists to capture the start of a call.

Data is transferred off the machine via the mini-USB connector on the side - when connected to a PC it acts as removeable storage of 2Gb capacity containing the recordings.

Like many solid-state recorders the Nagra is menu driven, the display looks like a OLED type, which has good visibility except in bright sunlight. However, the operational controls are button-accessible once the machine has been set up using the menu system.

No P48 power is available so a separate phantom powering unit would be needed for P48 mics, and the plug-in-power is switchable which is nice. The provided mic which plugs on top of the machine takes plug-in power but being able to switch the plug-in-power off to take DC off the input means that 3.5mm extension leads do not give a scratchy connection if moved slightly. Three plug-in microphones are available, distiguishable by the colour of the band t the base. The regular mic has a red band, a high quality stereo cardiod mic has a green band and the mono omni has a cyan band.  

Sampling rates can be set to 44.1kHz, 48kHz at bit-depths of 16 bits in WAV format. There is a range of MP3 modes at sampling rates from 8 to 48kHz.

Recordings

The first recording shows the Nagra used with a Sennheiser ME66/K6 combination, which is an attractive match for the Nagra.


Whitethroat, ME66/K6 to Nagra.


Reed Warbler, plug-in stereo mic (green) recorder on LF filtering mode, foam windshield.


Simultaneous recording of above using a ME66 with Rycote Softie, mic LPF on, and HiMD recorder.

The sedge warbler recordings indicate that the ME66 has the edge over the stereo cardioid mic in handling low signal levels,  which is reasonable given the cost. However, the Nagra recorder performs well. The Nagra and the HiMD mic preamps have a lower noise floor than both microphones here, and the wind was very low (<3mph) so no significant hiss was audible from the wind in foliage.

Technical Measurements

Settings - Microphone input, max gain pad 0dB sampling rate 44.1kHz Source impedance 150Ω  Software ver 3.20 machine S/N 2070002A 1077

Sensitivity

Minimum input for 0dBFS = -50dBu  (micpre gain set to 19dB)

Minimum input for 0dBFS = -65dBu  (micpre gain set to 34dB)

Noise

Ein = -115dBu (unweighted, 22kHz BW, micpre gain set to 19dB)

Ein (A) = -118dBu (A weighted, 20kHz BW, , micpre gain set to 19dB)

Ein = -116dBu (unweighted, 22kHz BW, micpre gain set to 34dB)

Ein (A) = -119dBu (A weighted, 20kHz BW, , micpre gain set to 34dB)

The small difference in Ein between the different preamp gain settings is not significant - it is less than the margin of experimental error of about ± 2dB

Overload (Mic input, 1000Hz tone)

At a preamp gain setting of 34dB Vmax = 7.2mVrms 

At a preamp gain setting of 19dB Vmax = 38mVrms 

Dimensions 

(W x H x D),  125 x 53 x 22mm (without ext mic)

Weight  excl batteries 200g

Current drain

160mA recording (from battery, 2x1.5V)

Conclusion

An excellent little recorder for sound recordists who do not require P48 power or balanced inputs, the Nagra has a good noise performance and operational convenience. Wildife sound recordists would probably best leave the mic preamp in the low-gain 19dB setting to maximize headroom. The non-removeable storage means recordings need to be transferred to a PC after the recorder is full.

Review date: May 2008

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1 according to the manual, the user has control of two preset gain settings in addition to the main record level setting. The mic preamp gain is called BST (Boost), and appears to be a hardware setting of the first stage with two settings, 19dB and 34dB of gain. This is what I changed in the tests. There is a second gain control called the PGA (Programmable Gain Amplifier) which acts just before the A/D converter. This is presettable in 3dB steps from 0dB to 24dB. The main record level in the DGA, or Digital Gain Adjustment, and this is what you control in the field. I left the PGA set to 12dB in all tests. Nagra indicate that this can be set to compensate for different mic sensitivities to allow the record level control (termed modulometer in Nagra-speak) to indicate true SPL if the mic sensitivity is known.

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