January 22, 2019 Technology

Product Note: Olympus DS-9500 Handheld Dictation Machine

By Jeffrey Allen
Courtesy of Olympus

Courtesy of Olympus

I have used handheld dictation machines going back to the dark ages. Over that time, I have tried numerous brands, configurations, and features, including full-sized cassettes, mini-cassettes, micro-cassettes, and, in the last several years, digital memory devices. I have tried hard-wired and wireless dictation machines that used a variety of control systems and found them of varying degrees of utility. After going through this experience, I concluded that using anything but a dictating recorder designed specifically for professional use was simply not worth the frustration and lost time, and that the features and convenience of the top-end dictation machines justified their extra cost for anyone doing a serious amount of dictation.

Ultimately, I decided that the two top devices came from Olympus and Philips, and I stopped using other brands. I have used the top-of-the-line Philips or Olympus devices for the last decade or so. During this time, I have regularly upgraded to the top end of one or the other line and, during the process, I have written product reviews of most of them. As the designs of these two brands changed from time to time, I found one or the other a bit more comfortable to hold. The difference, however, has never proven significant. Historically, however, the Olympus has played better with the Mac OS. As I prefer Mac to Windows machines, I have generally preferred the Olympus equipment. I had hoped to make this review a comparison of the newest Olympus top-end device, the DS-9500, and the Philips PSP2000 SpeechAir; however, I was unable to secure a Philips device in time for this review. Accordingly, I will limit my comments to the evaluation of the Olympus DS-9500. I do want to express my gratitude to the folks at Olympus and one of their dealers, Executive Communication Systems, for making hardware, software, and information available to me for this review.

Maybe because I am old-school and learned to dictate using a machine with a slide switch to control the recording and correction process, I have never found a machine without a slide switch to work well for me. I consider the slide switch one of the features required for a professional dictation machine. To be sure, you can find other machines lacking that switch that their manufacturers might like you to think of as professional dictation equipment; but I recommend you eschew those claims and look to equipment with a slide switch if you plan on doing a lot of dictation. If you just want a recorder to record meetings or lectures and do not plan on using it for serious dictation, you don’t need that slide switch and can buy a machine that does not have one. As a general rule, the slide-switch devices will prove costlier than an equally capable recorder that lacks such a switch.

The DS-9500 is a small package with a lot of power. It comes with a convenient flip-top case that you can drop in a briefcase or clip to the outside of a briefcase or on a belt. It provides substantial protection for the DS-9500 while still leaving the primary controls easily accessible. As the recorder comes with a plastic housing, having and using the case makes good sense, notwithstanding the fact that Olympus designed the case on the device itself to survive a 1.5-meter (4.9-foot) fall. I did not actually test that claim intentionally, but it did get knocked off my desk and fell to the floor without damage. In fairness, it was less than three feet, the device was in the included carrying case, and the floor was carpeted, so it did not really test the 4.9-foot claim; but the device was completely undamaged by the incident.

The recorder charges through a USB cable while in its protective case or through a docking port if you take it out of the case. You can connect it to your computer to upload files through the docking port or using a simple USB cable.

After charging the recorder, setup is very easy. Press the Menu button on the front of the device and then use the directional keys to navigate around the various menu screens and make the appropriate selection. One of the screens you will find in that process allows you to set up a WiFi connection. The DS-9500 is fully WiFi compatible and will let you transfer files via WiFi through e-mail to others so that you no longer need to dock it or connect it by a USB cable (although you still can use those methods if you choose).

The DS-9500 measures 4.75” x 1.96” x 0.73” and weighs in at 4.1 ounces (including the battery). Although it is somewhat larger than earlier models that I have used, it fits nicely in the hand and easily in your pocket. It plays well with Windows 7, 8, and 10 and the Mac OS X (10.10–10.13). The Olympus website does not mention compatibility with Mac OS X version 10.14 (Mojave), but I have 10.14.2 on my computer and it worked fine. Respecting the included software, however, the website does mention that some features may not work. Olympus has apparently not completed work on updating its software for the MAC OS X version 10.14. I did not encounter any problems with the software other than on installation, however. I was able to fix the installation issue by removing a secondary program called “Sonority” from my computer. Don’t worry, you do not need that program, and it will not work with the DS-9500. Restart the computer and the DSS software should work fine. That was my experience.

The recorder will create DSS/DSS Pro/WAV and MP3 files. It draws its power from an included 1350 mAh lithium-ion battery. The DS-9500 comes with 2 GB of built-in memory and will accept SD and SDHC cards with up to 32 GB for additional storage. The recorder lists for $599.99. As the dictation device is high-end and you can find many excellent general-purpose recorders for less, I encourage you to work out a trial and approval period prior to investing to ensure that you are satisfied with it and that you can use it comfortably. If you do not dictate a lot, I consider a top-end dictation device a minor luxury. If you do dictate a lot and do so in various locations, I consider it more of a necessity. Not every vendor carries the device, so, depending on your location, you may want to deal with a provider online. I have worked with several successfully.

Of course, the DS-9500 has a slide switch to control recording, and it works like almost every other one I have used: slide up to record, back to the neutral position to stop, down to play back and down further to rewind so that you can playback, re-record, or correct your dictation. You can choose how far back the recorder goes by holding the rewind position for more or less time. The menu controls, settings, new files, etc., can be accessed from buttons that reside on the front panel of the DS-9500 (see image above). They work well and allow ready access to all the controls you need or want. Learning to operate the DS-9500 proved easy and intuitive (it was not that much different from previous Olympus models I have used).

The DS-9500 also plays well with Dragon Naturally Speaking and Dragon for Mac speech recognition/transcription software, as its predecessors have for several years. While the recorder does come with two high-quality, low-noise, omni-directional microphones designed to reduce the effect of ambient noise and triple-layer pop filters to reduce wind noise, if you plan to use the recording with one of the Dragon products, my standard advice remains in play: The quieter the environment in which you record, the fewer the mistakes you get from Dragon. While I cannot state this with certainty, anecdotally I believe that the same is true if you send your files to a human transcriptionist (albeit to a lesser extent). The DS-9500 allows you to use an external microphone; I did not try that feature, so I don’t know whether you can improve the sound attenuation that way.

The microphones come with three settings that let you narrow or broaden the directional pickup to accommodate use for dictation or general recording, such as a conference. Additionally, you have the ability to further “tune” the microphone to deal with the ambient noise by using the microphone “sense” setting. While you would not want to use this feature for dictation, the device does have a voice-activated recording setting that you can use when recording lectures, conferences, or meetings.

Nothing is ever perfect, and I do have one issue with the DS-9500. It has a small speaker, and the volume on playback is quite low by my standards. While I can hear it well enough in a quiet environment, the noisier the environment, the more difficulty I have hearing it clearly. Fortunately for me, the device also has an earphone jack, and I can easily solve the problem with a wired earphone.

All-in-all, I like the DS-9500 a lot and have no problem recommending it to you for use in conjunction with a Mac, a Windows machine, a human transcriptionist, or Dragon voice-recognition software.

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Jeffrey Allen is the principal in the Graves & Allen law firm in Oakland, California, where he has practiced since 1973. He is active in the ABA (particularly in the GPSolo and Senior Lawyers Divisions), the California State Bar Association and the Alameda County Bar Association. A frequent speaker on technology topics, he is Editor-in-Chief of GPSolo magazine and GPSolo eReport. He serves as an editor and the technology columnist for Experience Magazine and has served on the Board of Editors of the ABA Journal. He also serves on the ABA’s Standing Committee on Information Technology. Recently, he coauthored (with Ashley Hallene) Technology Solutions for Today's Lawyer and iPad for Lawyers: The Tools You Need at Your Fingertips. In addition to being licensed as an attorney in California, he has been admitted as a Solicitor of the Supreme Court of England and Wales. He teaches at California State University of the East Bay. He may be reached at jallenlawtek@aol.com.