ETS has emerged as a leader in professional audio and video baluns. Their products can be found on national tours and Broadway alike, primarily used in the distribution of utility audio and video feeds over twisted part Category 5 networks. They make several units designed to meet the needs of this niche industry, along with other balun systems.
However, taking a step back from the pro-audio realm, they have released two smart and simple products that take into consideration the powerful smart phone in your pocket. Most of us have used our phones at some point to record audio – either audio as part of a video recording or just straight audio to capture the moment. No doubt, while it’s nice to be able to do, the audio recordings never sound very good. Thin and washed out, but you can chalk it up to the fact that it’s really a phone.
ETS has managed to bridge the recording/phone gap by introducing the affordable PA921 audio balun. It’s a super simple device that adapts a female XLR jack to a 3.5mm TRRS plug. This plug connects directly to your smartphone’s headphone jack. It has a slim connector allowing it to work with most phone cases without a problem. Once it’s plugged in, any phone app that has the ability to record audio will use the XLR-connected microphone of your choice as its source. Clearly, this will greatly increase the fidelity of any recording from a video to an interview. I particularly like its universality, in that it will work with any app that can record.
Since the PA21 is just a cable balun, results will vary depending on the complexity of the app you’re using. For instance, there is no gain control in the PA921 and many simple recording apps don’t offer that functionality, so different mics will act somewhat differently in terms of recording level.
While the PA921 is not an iPhone-only app, ETS makes it clear that they can only guarantee high fidelity recordings on an iPhone, wisely pointing out that the iPhone started as a music/fidelity centric iPod device originally, and that it has hung onto this focus on quality audio, whereas other smart phones were developed as phones and don’t share this same focus on audio quality.
The second device in this series is the PA922. The PA922 is similar to the PA921, except that it adds a Y cable that has a female 3.5mm jack, which allows you to connect your pair of headphones at the same time as you have your microphone connected to the XLR jack. This allows you to listen and monitor what you’re recording. It’s really impressive to be able to have a quality microphone and a pair of headphones connected to your wee little iPhone at the same time.
Included in the purchase of the PA922 is a download code for the required StudioMini App from the Apple AppStore. By default, the iPhone mutes any audio output when a microphone is connected in an aim to eliminate the potential for feedback. With the StudioMini App, you can override this setting, which allows audio to pass through to the headphone jack of your PA922 balun.
The StudioMini App (which is made by a third party and a full fledged recording app in its own right) also includes a thorough and simple four-track recording interface, allowing you to do basic multitrack recording right on your phone. You can save songs and adjust mix levels and then when you’re done, you can export the mix as a .WAV or .AAC file, sharing it either via email or iTunes File Sharing. You can also import a track directly from iTunes, which allow you to import a click track or other backing track to record to. This StudioMini App only works on an Apple iPhone and the headphone listening system only works with the StudioMini App. You can, however, use the PA922 microphone input with any other App or phone, just like the PA921; you just lose the listen ability.
Both of these baluns are small, simple, and easy to use devices that greatly extend the audio recording functionality of your smartphone. If you have an iPhone, I’d definitely spend the extra money on the PA922 so you can accurately monitor your recording, but the PA921 lets you make accurate recordings on any smart phone. I’m seriously considering adding the PA922 to my bag of tricks as there are plenty of times I just need to do a simple, yet professional quality recording and would love to be able to do it on my phone.