We've seen our share of consumer MP3 players with built-in voice and line recording capabilities--but they never seem to offer everything we want in a portable recording device. The Korg MR-1 ($899) handheld audio recorder lives at the opposite end of the spectrum, offering a dedicated portable recording solution with incredible recording flexibility and audio quality.
Measuring 4.75 inches tall by 2.5 inches wide by 0.8 inch deep, the Korg MR-1 has the chunky feel of a first-generation iPod. Five well-spaced buttons dot the mirrored face of the Korg MR-1, providing intuitive control over recording and playback. The left edge of the Korg MR-1 includes jacks for the power adapter and USB 2.0 connection, while the right edge features a multifunction scroll wheel, controls for playback volume, a menu button, and a power switch that doubles as a button hold. On the top edge of the Korg MR-1, above its monochrome 2.2-inch screen, are four crowded 3.5mm jacks that act as a stereo headphone output, stereo line output, and separate left and right recording inputs.
The Korg MR-1 lacks many of the features we've come to expect from competing products, such as built-in microphones, RCA or XLR inputs, or flash memory expansion. Korg's golden feature with the MR-1 (and its bigger brother, the MR-1000) is a trademarked Direct Stream Digital 1-bit high-definition recording technology (documented by Korg in this PDF whitepaper). The gist of Korg's justification for the DSD recording feature (and for the MR-1), is that recordings made using DSD are versatile for stepping down into whatever format you later choose, with minimal loss in audio quality. For audio archivists reluctant to record using today's CD-quality standard of 16-bit/44.1kHz, fearing that the format may become outdated, DSD recordings offer a new recording option that may hold up better over time and meet the demands of bouncing down master recordings to mediums with different audio requirements (DVD, CD, MP3).
Once you get past Korg's DSD recording feature, there's little else the MR-1 can brag about as a portable audio recorder. The Korg MR-1's built-in battery holds a measly 2-hour charge, the internal hard drive caps out at 20GB, the audio input jacks have to be adapted for most microphones or line-input cables, the included microphone feels like an afterthought, and the power adapter is larger than the product it's powering.
However, the Korg MR-1 does have excellent recording format support, supporting several proprietary high-resolution files such as DFF, DSF, and WSD, as well as common file types such as MP3 (192Kbps/44.1kHz) and WAV (up to 24-bit/192Khz). Once your recordings have been transferred to your computer, you can use Korg's included Audiogate audio software (Mac/PC) for converting the files into your desired final format.
It's hard to find fault with Korg's unprecedented recording quality and file format resolution, but the MR-1's poor suitability as a truly mobile device makes it tough to recommend. Rated at 2.5 hours of battery life while recording WAV files, or just 2 hours for DSD file recording, the Korg MR-1 just isn't cut out for the demands of mobile recording. To be fair, running an audio chip at the unprecedented 2.82MHz required to handle DSD audio must require some serious power--but if you can't take it away from a wall socket for more than 2 to 4 hours, then its usefulness is limited as a mobile solution. As of January 2008, Korg is now shipping the MR-1 with an extra external battery pack that doubles the device's recording time. Unfortunately, the external battery pack adds awkward bulk and still places the MR-1's battery life short of the 12 hours boasted by the Sony PCM-D50. To make matters worse, we also found the Korg MR-1's charge time to be painfully long. During our unofficial preliminary testing, it took the Korg MR-1 between 3 to 4 hours to reach full charge using the included power adapter.
The small lavalier condenser microphone included with the Korg MR-1 barely taps into the device's sonic potential. Recordings made using the microphone in both indoor and outdoor situations were riddled with microphonic artifacts caused by movement of the cable, or transference from the surface the microphone was placed on (using the included stand). If you're determined to use the Korg MR-1 for nature or concert recording, expect to shell out some money for a better microphone.
Beyond Korg's innovative DSD recording feature, there's no reason to choose the Korg MR-1 over its less-expensive competition. To Korg's credit, the MR-1 is the least expensive way to capture and transfer recordings at a pristine 1-bit, 2.8MHz resolution; however, audio professionals will likely prefer the rugged construction and standard inputs of the Korg MR-1000.