Review: Tiki USB microphone from Blue
The snail-like Tiki USB microphone from Blue that caught our attention at CES 2012 has now been released. The PC/Mac-friendly, plug-and-play microphone features background noise-cancellation and auto-muting for online comms and a high quality voice/instrument recording mode, too. Gizmag has spent the last few days chatting, recording, listening, testing, and generally getting to know Tiki a little better. Does it live up to its early promise? Read on to find out ...
In the box ...
- Tiki USB microphone
- USB docking cable
- Printed instructions
The packaging is (recyclable) plastic and a good deal bigger than the Tiki within but the black box doubles as a funky protective case for the microphone and extension cable, and the clear part is currently storing my spare guitar strings – so there's no troublesome waste to worry about. Like all Blue models, Tiki is very well made and the cast metal housing simply oozes quality. It has dimensions of 3 x 0.8 x 1.1-inch (76.2 x 20.3 x 27.9 mm) and weighs 1.23 ounces (35 g), and kind of looks like a USB pen drive that's been given the Hanayama treatment.
The Tiki voodoo revealed
At one end of Tiki is a Type A USB plug with exposed contacts and there's a mode selection button at the other. Two opposite-facing custom condenser (cardoid) microphone capsules sit within the grill housing in the middle of the body. A Blackfin DSP processor running at 400 MHz, with onboard cache and outboard system memory (notching up about 400 million operations per second), constantly monitors the input from both capsules and decides which signals to let through to the PC/Mac/laptop, while also applying voice isolation and noise-canceling technologies (co-developed with iZotope). Custom, embedded software optimized for the Blackfin platform utilizes 95-98 percent of processor capacity and 100 percent of system memory.
Tiki proved to be a very snug fit into the USB port on my Windows 7 laptop, and its dedicated USB audio interface codec gives it plug and play functionality with no impact on precious system resources on either Mac or PC systems. Having said that, the instructions do advise checking the audio recording and playback settings of whatever system you're using after the first plug in and I would echo this sage counsel.
My device settings showed Tiki had taken over the default spot for microphone input as expected and had left my speakers as the default output for everything except comms. So when I activated my VOIP client, my system tried to use Tiki as an output speaker. It's an issue caused by the tiny USB audio chip inside Tiki and one that Blue is actively trying to rectify. The company told us that Blue had considered "making a driver to fix this behavior but decided that was more work for the user than just changing the setting the first time."
Tiki has two distinct input modes, Intelligent Speech being the one that loads when the device is plugged into the USB port. A tri-color status LED that's positioned behind the plastic Blue logo on either side of the capsule grill is blue in this mode but turns orange when intelligent auto-mute engages. Intelligent auto-muting softly switches off sonic input when no-one's talking and snaps it back when a voice is detected.
The device benefits from parallel branched operations in intelligent mode, a twin-board layout (processing and signal), and a 16-bit discrete A-D converter. The two audio channels are sampled at 44.1 kHz, it has a frequency response of 40Hz - 20kHz in recording mode and delivers mono audio output to system speakers or headphones at 16-bit, 44.1kHz.
A separate Natural Recording mode that adds presence and proximity to the signal has been optimized for podcasts and music recording at CD quality (although when toying with system settings I did notice a 48kHz DVD quality option also on offer).
A spring steel flap on the opposite end to the USB connection acts as a button for switching modes. There's a plastic spacer behind the flap and a momentary push-button or "tact" switch directly behind that. My review unit did require a good push before the button press was registered but this is not necessarily a bad thing, as it avoids accidental mode switching when space is restricted and all sorts of things might accidentally bump the end of the microphone.
Let the testing begin
While I don't consider myself a VOIP power user, I no longer live in the same country as my family or many of my friends and hardly any of the folks I need to contact for article research, so I do use it every day. Depending on which client I use, I may talk during a call using a telephone handset or my laptop's built-in microphone. Tiki promises to significantly improve on the latter.
I made and received a number of test calls using Blue's USB microphone. Background sounds from elsewhere in the house, the noise from the refreshing desktop fan and all manner of sonic hullabaloo from outside my office window were significantly reduced, but not completely removed. When I actually managed to stop talking for any length of time, the auto mute was very responsive and the otherwise conversation-distracting hi-fi pandemonium, household clatter, barking dogs, and passing cars gently faded away when I wasn't speaking.
Given the amount of work that the Blackfin DSP is doing to cut down on ambient noise, you might be tempted to assume that the voice reproduction would sound over-processed but it was actually reported to be very clear and natural. The processor also runs a special key click reduction algorithm, and applies audio-enhancing EQ and filters to further clarify the signal.
The resumption from auto-mute is not instantaneous but is damn close. My test subjects said that they did notice the very beginning of my resumed speech suffering the tiniest bit of clipping but not painfully so. I also didn't have to talk particularly loud to wake up Tiki from mute, which has been a problem with other auto-mute systems I've tried in the past.
At the conclusion of my VOIP testing, both myself and my test subjects were suitably impressed by Tiki's sound quality and performance when compared to both my handset and my built-in laptop microphone, even with all the software enhancements and effects thrown in when using the latter. While it did cope well with more than one person speaking simultaneously from different points in the room, I would say that the microphone is best suited for picking up sounds from front and back rather than all around, so I would probably seek out other options for calls involving large groups of people.
Recording vocals and instruments au naturel
Blue has a selection of audio tests on the device's product page, but I was particularly keen to hear the results when using the microphone with my acoustic and electric instruments. After a good deal of string picking, reed bending and key punching, I think it's fair to say that Tiki is not going to replace something like the Yeti Pro for studio-like recording quality, but in Natural Recording mode (purple LED) its performance is surprisingly good for something this compact. It's also a fraction of the price, is very portable and offers great all-round sound quality for those occasions when the muse strikes while you're out and about.
Podcasters should find the recording quality offered by Tiki just as pleasing. Any device that minimizes my post recording audio processing is a welcome addition ... especially something I can just throw in my laptop bag without worrying about it taking up too much room.
Rounding things up
Despite its relatively small size, it packs quite a performance punch in both Intelligent Speech and Natural Recording modes. In terms of outward appearance, Tiki is unlike any USB microphone I've ever come across before, but that's no bad thing.
In the opinion of this reviewer, whether you're a mobile worker who uses online communication clients like Skype, iChat or FaceTime just as much as your smartphone, or someone who needs portable quality for podcasts or music recording, Tiki is well worth the cover charge of US$59.99 that's currently quoted on Amazon and Best Buy.
Source: Blue Microphones