Sunday, 17 June 2012

The Echometer EM3: The machine I love to hate

Ever since I got my hands briefly on a pre-production example of Wildlife Acoustics Echometer 3 (EM3) late last year I have been looking forward to trying one out in the field. This machine has been much discussed by professional bat-workers: a detector with heterodyne, time expansion and frequency division functionality, SD card recording and the ability to display live sonograms on a built-in screen represents a  step forward in bat survey technology. Now that I have had a few months to try one out for real I have two things to say about it:

1. Do I like it? No, I don't.

2. Would I buy one? Hell, yes.

At first sight that doesn't appear to make much sense, so perhaps I should explain...

The Echometer EM3

(Photo copyright, Wildlife Acoustics Inc)

I don't intend to recite the capabilities of the EM3. You can look that up for yourself on the Wildlife Acoustics website and in any case it would take too long. This machine is packed with functionality, and it's packed into a surprisingly small box. So I shall leave you to do your own research and tell you what I think matters.

First of all, the facility to view live sonograms (and oscillograms) is incredibly useful, allowing faster and more conclusive species identification in the field. I have long been a convert to this, having been using an Anabat-PDA combo in the field for several years. However, this has always been a large, cumbersome set-up and one that is clearly a bit of a bodge-up. It's also a bodge-up that costs an outrageous amount of money (but that's the Titley Electronics way of doing business: marry up minimum product to maximum price and factor in poor quality control for good measure!). So having the screen in a more convenient and much cheaper box should appeal to me, right? Actually, in use I found the EM3's display clarity disappointingly poor, compared to the lovely clear picture you get on a PDA screen.

In terms of functionality, the EM3 allows you to record in WAV (normal audio), WAC (Wildlife Acoustics own compressed WAV format) and also ZCA (Anabat) format. Including ZCA is great, as it means that you can use Analook to analyse calls far faster and easier than is possible using any other software. It also means that you can choose to record in a more high-fidelity mode whenever you choose to.

One of the great things about an Anabat is it's flexibility: you can use it as a handheld detector for transect work or as a passive (unattended) monitoring machine. I was expecting the same to be possible with the EM3. It is, but for some unaccountable reason you can only record in ZCA format if you also record in WAV format simultaneously. The inevitable result is that the SD card rapidly fills up with unwanted WAV files, limiting the machine's potential as a passive monitor, as it can only be used for short periods.

Wildlife Acoustics appear to have listened carefully to their customers: the machine has a number of handy and innovative gadgets. For example the ability to tag calls with a site name and user-specified labels. An interesting function is what Wildlife Acoustics have termed "Real Time Expansion" or RTE. Effectively this provides you with a Time Expansion Detector, but without the traditional problem of TE detectors: you listen to what just happened, rather than what is currently happening (TE detectors normally work by recording bat calls and replaying them to you, at around 10 times slower, thus reducing the call frequency so that you can hear it). RTE digitally reduces the gaps between the calls. so that you get the TE functionality with the advantage of continuous monitoring. Clever, though a bit weird in use.

So, why don't I like it? Well, we live in an age when electronic equipment packs more and more into the same box: many mobile phones can do a phenomenal range of tasks. Wildlife Acoustics have tried to do something similar here. But with a bat detector, it's not just about functionality - it's about the human being using it. Picture the scene: it's late at night in the middle of the bat survey season. You're tired, possibly cold and wet and you're doing your fifth survey of the week. You also face the prospect of 3 hours sleep, followed by a dawn survey. In that situation what you need is a simple-to-use and reliable detector: something that will prevent you from accidentally doing something silly and ruining your survey results. For all its cleverness, the EM3 is not as intuitive to use as I would like it to be and 5am in the morning is not time to be digging out the manual.

Now let's consider ergonomics. This may be unfair, given that the EM3's nearest competitor is an Anabat with a PDA clipped to the front, but if you're going to carry a machine in your hand for many hours you want it to FIT in your hand....comfortably. And you want all the controls to be in the right places. With all it's cleverness, the EM3 misses the boat here. It's uncomfortable to hold and awkward to use. Wildlife Acoustics would be well-advised to look at the Bat Box Duet. It's amuch simpler machine, but it's curved to fit the hand, with the frequency wheel placed exactly where your thumb sits and it's built into a solid case that you could probably play football with and still find it fully functional.

Whilst on the subject of ergonomics, the EM3's loudspeaker is poor. It's buried somewhere inside and squirts the sound away from you, instead of towards you, where you need it. With any amount of background noise it can be a struggle to listen to it. Purists will say that you should use headphones with a bat detector, as it allows you to hear and understand a bat call more easily. They're right, but when you're working alone and don't know who else might be walking about, remaining aware of surrounding noise is an important safety factor. Also, our commercial survey team use radios to keep in touch during a survey, which really wouldn't work with headphones.

To tell the truth, I don't really like the EM3: it's uncomfortable to use and hard to listen to; it feels quite cheaply made and potentially vulnerable to damage and it's just a bit too complex to be sure that a dopey, sleep-deprived mind will remember to do everything correctly.

Yet, despite that I keep finding myself taking it out on surveys. That fantastic functionality is addictive and the live sonograms are great. Okay, the screen is naff compared to an Anabat and PDA, but it fits in your pocket and no Anabat is ever going to do that, even before you erect the scaffolding to support the PDA. The bottom line is that Wildlife Acoustics have raised the bar by developing the EM3. And let's not forget that they did it for less than a grand, which is great price for a professional bat detector.

The EM3 is far from perfect and there are many things that niggle me every time I use it, but it's still impressive. Somehow it's wriggled it's way into being an essential part of my bat survey kit and if I'm honest, I'm not sure that I would part with it willingly, though I wouldn't want it to be my only choice of detector.

Wildlife Acoustics:

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