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The Telex M-560 Super-Directional USB Digital Microphone

Pat Fauquet

Washington Apple Pi Journal, reprint information

Early in the life of the Macintosh computer family the people at Apple began including a microphone with most Macintoshes. Children in schools loved the ones included with the LC line. Small circular disks on long cords made great items to swing and dangle in the never-ending search for things to use to drive teachers crazy. Few software programs included software for recording speech and music so most of the microphones ended up in boxes of tangled cables.

The later addition of the triangle shaped PlainTalk did little more than give home and school users another piece of computer junk to add to their mounting piles of cables, dead mice and soiled mouse pads. Although microphones were great for recording system sounds and adding voice to multimedia projects, daily use of the computer microphone was very limited. A few people began using voice recognition to control their computers. A few more began using the microphones for computer based telephones. However, the general public saw little use for their microphones and most were lost.

In recent months speech recognition got a big boost on the Macintosh platform with the release of IBM's ViaVoice software. People now had a reason to talk to their computers, and the computers even began to respond by turning the users voice into written text.

The microphones shipping with ViaVoice required an audio-in port on the computer, and the new iBooks are lacking the port. Speech recognition users became tied to their computer by a headset and cord. Some users complain of headaches from the pressure of the head bands on headsets and others disliked having to use the computer's processor to convert the analog signal of the their microphone to the digital one required by the program.

Then USB microphones entered the picture. Imagine a microphone that could sit on your desk. Imagine one that could sort out your voice from the myriad of other noises present in a home school or work environment. Imagine one that captured your voice digitally to speed voice recognition.

The Telex Super-Directional USB Digital Microphone was developed to fill those needs. The microphone is housed at the end of a tube approximately one foot long. At the far end is a c-shaped hinge attached to an oval stand that is about six inches long. Made of high-grade plastic, the user does not have to fear breaking the microphone if he accidentally knocks it around, and that is a distinct possibility. Although not easy to tip. The whole microphone is a bit light for desktop stability. I am tempted to pry off the bottom plate to add a few lead fishing weights or sand to make the base a bit more substantial.

The hinge allows the microphone tip to be adjusted to a wide variety of heights and this is important if the only free space on your desk happens to be the top of the monitor, printer or scanner. The hinge can also be used as a handle if you feel the need to lean back in your chair and hold onto the mike.

As a frequent user of IBM ViaVoice, I was looking for a microphone that did not always have to clamp to my head. I wanted a microphone that did not leave me with wires across my arms and lap.

I thought the Telex USB microphone would be a very convenient addition to the headset mike, but the reality of voice recognition software is that the user must re-train the software for each microphone used, and the dictionary of unusual words is built for each individual microphone that you use. So, if you plan to use the Telex microphone to supplement a headset, be prepared to do a lot of extra training.

Speech recognition with a Telex USB microphone, in a quiet room, is equal to that of the microphone headset supplied with ViaVoice. However, in a noisy setting it seems to have more trouble discerning which sounds were made by the dictator and which were ambient background noise. In a room with moderate background noise, the Telex USB microphone beat the performance of the headset.

Although having the microphone on the desk instead of on your head sounds like a nice feature, I had difficulty finding the optimal place to set it. The small included manual suggests having the head 12 to 24 inches from your mouth. That meant having it sit on one of the pull-out extension tables of my very old executive desk, placing it between the keyboard and the monitor or at the end of the keyboard. Those areas are pretty well taken up. My track ball belongs on the right extension, reference books and notes take up the left extension and placing the microphone in front of the keyboard blocked my view of the monitor. Keeping it at the end of the keyboard on the left meant reaching over it or knocking it over as I grabbed papers from the printer. Keeping it on the right side was little better as that is where I keep my mouse and drawing tablet. I thought about suspending it from the ceiling, but that area contains the ceiling fan and lights. One to two feet is certainly a short distance on a computer desk! After two feet, the microphone seemed to have a great deal more difficulty picking up enough of my voice for optimal recognition. Leaning back in my chair or turning to read a passage from a book often took me out of this optimal range for recognition.

The microphone includes a six-foot cord. Once again, in theory that is a sufficient length. In practice, I like to keep my hub at the far corner of my desk, on the right side. The best place for the microphone is on the left, so I had one more cable to add to the tangle of cords and there is not really enough length to be able to comfortably route it behind the monitor, CD holders etc. to keep it from being snagged on other things in its path. In contrast, there is almost 10 feet of cord attached to the headset and the length is further offset because I do not feel the need to try to run the cable around and behind other objects on my desk.

In the end, I often end up with the microphone cradled in my lap with my legs crossed to help anchor it, or I found myself holding it as I dictated into it. Neither method was helpful for long sessions when I needed to refer to manuals and papers.

Another use I found for the mike was in the production of short QuickTime instructional videos being captured from the desktop. It is outstanding for this activity. The microphone captures the speaker's voice with the best clarity of any microphone I have used in its price category. Having the microphone on a stand prevents the annoying scratching noises that are frequently captured when holding a conventional computer microphone. It is easier to use and set up than most stand mikes in its cost family. It is excellent for capturing the voices of two people who might be interacting in an instructional video. Its only drawback is the lack of weight in the base of the stand.

Setting up the Telex USB microphone to work with the Mac is very easy. Plug in the USB cord, go to the Sound control panel or the control strip and choose USB audio for the sound input choice. There are no drivers to install or electrical cords to plug in. It just works.

The microphone ships in a formed plastic bubble package, made to be placed on a peg. The manufacturer's suggested retail price is $69.99. This price seems high since the first edition of ViaVoice which performs only voice recognition into a speech pad application ships with a conventional microphone headset for $79.00. The new Via Voice Enhanced Edition which allows the voice command of your computer and speech recognition into a selected list of applications and ships with a digital USB headset lists for $139.00

The included User Manual would be easy to miss as it is slipped between the two layers of card stock that are printed with advertising. The packaging indicates that it is a product for Windows 98 computers. The manual inside is written for PC users. Nothing indicates it will work with a Macintosh. A trip to Telex web site, http://www.computeraudio.telex.com mentions that the microphone will also work with the Macintosh and has a link to a downloadable . pdf version of the manual. Unfortunately, the screen prints inside the manual are poorly re-sized and are difficult to read on the screen. Printing them out on a postscript laser printer yielded equally poor results. The site also shows the Telex H-531 USB Digital Headworn Microphone which will work with the Macintosh. This microphone might be a better answer for iBook users who want a microphone for voice recognition to keep in their computer bag, However, it lacks a speaker and so the user must rely on the iBook's built in speaker. This is definitely a missing feature since voice recognition software relies on auditory messages to let you know what is going on.

I looked for a booth from Telex at the New York MacWorld in July. Unfortunately, they were not in attendance. I was also unable to find any vendors who were showing the Telex microphones. The company has been around for over 60 years and makes a many PC voice and audio solutions. This is apparently their first venture into the Macintosh marketplace. They have a few things to learn about marketing to Mac owners.

The Telex M-560 Super-Directional USB Digital Microphone is good for voice recognition. Although it beats the microphone included in IBM ViaVoice in several settings, it is not a clear winner. The product is well-made, but the base is little too lightly weighted. It is a clear winner in recording voice into QuickTime movies, but is more expensive than a product of its caliber might be expected to be priced. If you hate headsets, it is clearly a product to consider. If you need a microphone to leave at home on your desk, it fills the bill. If you are buying the microphone to do voice recognition on the road, you might be just as happy with the microphone included in either edition of ViaVoice.

Technical Specifications:

Compliant with USB General and Audio Class specifications
Plug & Play - All drivers are included in Mac OS 9.0.4
Supports 8- and 16-bit formatting stream
Variable sampling rate controlled by host for 8, 11, 22 kHz
Isochronous, high-speed device
Gain range: -24dB to +30dB