Decent battery life
Makes good lecture recordings
Cons: Cosmetic durability
Must have a stereo headphone adapter to use headphones
No USB interface
I used the Olympus VN-5000 digital voice recorder since the late summer of 2009. The VN-5000 replaced a portable cassette recorder that I used, a GE 3-5362, and there has been a significant improvement in audio quality in the lectures that I record, especially the lack of motor noise and a more sensitive microphone. The VN-5000 is an entry-level digital voice recorder, so it lacks a USB connector or titling capabilities, which can be found on higher-end voice recorders (usually at a $10-$20 price premium). If you do not mind the real-time dubbing of your recordings to a computer, a USB feature will not matter and you save money.
The layout is modeled after music players, making it slightly easier for me to operate as the controls are not on the side of the recorder. There is button feedback, in the form of beeps, which can be switched off in the menu. The recordings made on the VN-5000 are assigned to one of the four folders and identified by a time and day stamp (accessible when pressing [DISP/MENU]. The LCD display is easy to see and has an indicator light that shows the recorder's current mode (red for recording, amber for indexing/other mode, green for playback). To turn the recorder off, you have to engage the [HOLD] switch, which is rather quirky but easy to get used to--otherwise, the recorder will standby (sleep) in an hour, if none of the controls are pressed.
The VN-5000 has three recording modes in descending order for quality: HQ, SP, and LP. HQ is recommended as encoding quality noticeably degrades and the voice recorder's 512MB flash memory can hold about 20 hours. Since the recorder lacks USB, I recommend dubbing the material to another recorder (i.e. a computer) and free up space on the 5000.
HQ: 20 Hours, 5 Minutes (frequency range: 200Hz-7900Hz)
SP: 53 Hours, 40 Minutes (frequency range: 300Hz-4700Hz)
LP: 300 Hours, 30 Minutes (frequency range: 300Hz-2900Hz)
The recorder also has selectable microphone sensitivity: high for lectures, low for dictation. The internal microphone is quite sensitive for lectures with soft-spoken instructors, but if the levels are too low, the 5000 has a (monaural) microphone jack for more flexible recording. When recording, the LCD display shows an eight bar level, though it is not calibrated and I assume the recording is overdriven when all eight bars are maintained on (not flashing).
VCVA is a voice-activation mode, where you can set the recorder's VCVA trigger level (15-step trigger sensitivity setting). You can also program the 5000 for timer recording, where you set the time and duration to record.
Plays loud and clear from the internal speaker and does have a provision for earphones. The earphone jack is where I have a concern for, as it requires an adapter to use with stereo headphones--which may be at an extra cost. When dubbing, set the volume level low (at 5 or 10), as there is no line-level output.
As noted in the transport controls section, navigation and playback is straightforward. A recording is stored in one of the four "folders", each has a track number with a time and date stamp, and can be indexed up to ten times during playback. The recording can also be played back in three speeds for convenience: regular speed, 1.5x fast speed (maintains pitch), and 0.25x slow speed (also maintains pitch). You can also move the file to another folder by first playing the selected recording, holding [DISP/MENU] for at least a second, and choosing what folder to dump the file onto. The track number will change and each folder has a capacity of 100 recordings.
There is also an alarm playback function, which you can program the 5000 to sound an alarm tone at a selected time (everyday) and then plays a file when a button is pressed and the [HOLD] switch disengaged. It's of dubious use to me.
The upper-right corner of the LCD display shows the status of the two "AAA"-size batteries.
The recorder is supplied with two alkaline batteries, but I use my rechargeable Ni-MH batteries, which has a shorter capacity than the alkalines. Unfortunately, my rechargeable Ni-MH batteries are very close to wearing out, so they're not a good indicator to go by (I get about 12 hours of recording/playback out of one pair, the other pair at about 8 hours, at a volume level of 5 when dubbing to a computer using an audio patch cable).
From the specs listed in the manual: Alkaline at 39 hours, Ni-MH at 22 hours.
The recorder's body and LCD lens cover is easily scratched, as most plastic devices are. The silver paint rubs off quite easily, but that is all cosmetic. The battery door has a flexible retainer to keep the door with the recorder, but the tabs molded on the door to hold the retainer in place looks fragile and may break off. In the terms of the reliability of the components, I have not had a failure, though that is the benefit of a solid-state recorder.
Should I buy it?
If it's at a good price, why not? The recording quality is significantly better than any tape-based, non-digital format, not to mention more reliable. The downside is that if you pick up the VN-5000 or any other non-USB-based digital voice recorder, you have to dub the material in real time to another format (i.e. connect the 5000 to an audio patch cord and connect it to a computer's line-in/microphone jack, record and create an MP3/FLAC/etc. file using software), though personally, I do not mind that, but if you need USB in a voice recorder, expect to pay $10-$20 more (new) for that convenience.
So you say, "My DAP/MP3 player can record lectures too." I tried that route with my Samsung YP-T7J, which is better suited for dictation rather than lectures and frankly, I wasn't satisfied with the high-pitched buzzing noise that developed over time, ruining the audio quality of the files. You can also get attachments for some popular music players, but those tend to cost double the price of this recorder and is not nearly as convenient to operate (though, when talking about audio quality in certain events, it is a possible route to follow).
For the same price of a new microcassette or cassette recorder (or within the range of those), you can pick up a 5000 and not have to worry about carrying tapes, flipping those tapes over in the middle of class, or have motor noise dominate the recording. For this added convenience, the Olympus VN-5000 is a safe and an excellent choice.
*Note on similar non-USB Olympus recorders: So what is the difference between this VN-5000 compared to something truly entry-level from the same company, the VN-100, and the model with a bump in internal memory, the VN-6000?
The VN-100 is actually the entry-level model. Instead of 512MB of memory used in the VN-5000, the VN-100 is 128MB, giving about 75 hours in SP recording mode (there is no HQ mode on the VN-100). There are no assignable folders (you work with one), no menu function, no selectable microphone sensitivity, no indexing, no voice activation feature, no alarm function. Other than what it lacks, it has the same essential features as the 5000. On the upside, the case is not painted, it has a white plastic housing and devoid of shiny trim. It sells for a bit cheaper than the 5000.
The VN-6000 is the step-up model in the company's non-USB category with identical features to the VN-5000, but the difference is double in memory capacity (1 GB) and the case painted in a darker color. It sells for a bit more than the 5000.