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Nagra Ares-ML solid state recorder

Nagra Ares ML with green band Nagra microphone
Nagra Ares ML with green
band Nagra microphone

The Nagra Ares-ML recorder reviewed here is a solid state field recorder, retailing at around £700, recording onto 4Gb 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 solid state recorders.

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

Testing the machine with Nagra's green plug-in microphone and the standard foam windshield showed a much better than average tolerance to wind outdoors. Having the mic plug-in is a nice touch. I have always felt that the inbuilt mics on all-in-one recorders are vulnerable to the machine being dropped, at least in this case it is field-replaceable, and being removable makes the bare machine smaller for those occasions where it will be used with external mics.

It is a moot point whether wildlife sound recordists will be able to get close enough to their subjects for a coincident crossed pair stereo technique to work well. The Ares-ML is targeted to journalists and similar professionals capturing interviews. However, having the mics always at the ready is sometimes the difference between capturing something and recording nothing, and here the excellent performance of the Nagra mic and wind protection is remarkable. i recorded the surf from North Sea in a distinctly chilly 12mph breeze, and while I did make sure to get the machine low down and in the lee of some rocks I was impressed at its resistance to wind blast. My Olympus LS10 with foam wind shielding performed very poorly in the same environment, with a lot of wind blast.

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The Ares ML fits easily into the hand. It has 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. The control structure is very similar to the earlier Nagra Ares-MII. A 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.

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 stop recording 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 with the record-pause function, making it easy to miss a recording.

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 (no P48 power is available). The mic preamps have a low enough noise to work well with capacitor mics of the type typically used by wildlife sound recordists, like the Sennheiser ME series. A low frequency rolloff can be set to improve resistance to wind noise. A one-second preroll buffer can be set, which is invaluable to wildlife recordists to capture the start of a call.

Owners would do well to understand the gain structure[1] of the Ares ML. It is designed to cope with a wide range of microphone sensitivities, each of which can be set up as a 'profile'. However, that does mean several settings need to be got right to use the machine to its best.

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 4Gb 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 clip on 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, distinguishable by the colour of the band at the base. The regular mic has a red band, a high quality stereo cardioid 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 16 to 48kHz.

Recordings

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Melodic blackbird in suburban garden, Nagra green mic with windshield

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North Sea at Southwold, 12 mph breeze, sheltered position, Nagra mic with foam windshield

Technical Measurements

Settings - Microphone input, max gain, sampling rate 44.1kHz Source impedance 150Ω  Software ver 3.25 machine S/N 7000313208327, margin of experimental error of  ± 2dB

Sensitivity

Minimum input for 0dBFS = -65dBu  (micpre gain set to BST 34dB, PGA 12dB)

Minimum input for 0dBFS = -50dBu  (micpre gain set to BST 19dB, PGA 12dB)

Noise

Ein = -117dBu (unweighted, 22kHz BW,  micpre gain set to BST 34dB, PGA 12dB)

Ein (A) = -120dBu (A weighted, 20kHz BW, micpre gain set to BST 34dB, PGA 12dB)

Ein = -116dBu (unweighted, 22kHz BW,  micpre gain set to BST 19dB, PGA 12dB)

Ein (A) = -119dBu (A weighted, 20kHz BW, micpre gain set to BST 19dB, PGA 12dB)

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 = 7mVrms 

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

Dimensions 

(W x H x D),  125 x 53 x 24mm (without ext mic)

Weight  excl batteries 200g

Current drain

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

PiP 2.83V (2.07 loaded with 5k6)

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. The Nagra plug-in microphone and foam wind shielding work better than most all in one recorders, so this machine can work well as an ever-ready recorder. Wildlife 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: April 2010

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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 is 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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