The Great Portable Digital Audio Recorder Comparison – Which Is Best For You?

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| Posted in Education, Feature, Music Technology

Portable recorders – tiny units packing high-quality condenser mics and recording to SD for on-the-fly recordings – are hardly in short supply these days – pretty much every single manufacturer worth its salt has at least done something within the market. To that end, we thought we’d line them all up and record Caleb playing his guitar all at once, so you could hear the exact differences in sound quality (there’ll shortly be a video of the endeavour up, too). We also played around with each unit to see how easy they were to operate on the fly, and came to a few conclusions. To help you best make your decisions, take a look and a listen to the miscellany of devices we decided to put through the wringer.

ZOOM H1, H2 and H4N

Zoom have long been competitors within the portable recording market, and made a serious impression early on with their just-right balance of affordability and features. For our test we lined up the H1, H2 and H4N.

ZOOM H1 by Robin Heyworth

The H1 is the smallest of the three Zoom models, but perhaps surprisingly, that doesn’t mean it’s in any way lacking in features. You’re still recording at full 24-bit/96kHz for a start – every model in this shoot-out does, in fact – and capturing with X/Y crossed capsules, which give you a wide field of recording coverage. That said, like many of these units there’s the option to plug in your own specific microphone through an input on the side of the unit and there’s a USB 2.0 connection to allow you to transfer information quickly should you be uncomfortable moving data with the included 2GB SD card.

In use, the Zoom H1 is particularly brilliant for no-frills quick recording – hit the record button which sits alone on the front of the unit and point, with auto-levelling working a treat. There are simple options for switching between PCM and MP3 depending on how much you’re looking to record, and happily the battery life is an impressive 10 hours (1xAAA). Its size and almost non-existent weight will be a hit with those looking for the truly portable experience – this is the smallest of the bunch in fact.

ZOOM H2 by Robin Heyworth

The H2 is chunkier, but therefore has more controls to-hand, and is packing a bigger mic array, with dual X/Y stereo mics facing the front and rear hidden behind a sturdy, protective grille. You can use each of these mic pairings individually, or fire up all four at once for 90, 120 and 360 coverage of a room respectively. What’s particularly need is that each of the mics within the two pairs can record to a separate channel, so immediately we’re working with a significantly more advanced piece of kit.

As a nifty bonus, you can also use the Zoom H2 as a USB microphone, which will be good news for those wishing to do light recording work for podcasts etc on a budget.

In use, it’s clear that the H2 is quite a substantial rig, one that would fare particularly well recording stereo images of a group, whether that be provided by a choir or band, thanks to its significant directional options. With handy menu and track-navigation controls on the front, we found it easy to set up and put to work. While the extra microphone capability necessitates a wider unit, it’s by no means heavy either. We also found you can add time-stamp and track-marker information into the recordings too, which is pretty darn helpful when converting to DAW.

ZOOM H4-N by Robin Heyworth

The H4N is described as “Zoom’s most sophisticated handheld recorder to date,” and it’s certainly not lacking in the feature department, housed within a large (still hand-held) and well-machined frame. There’s a single pair of stereo condenser capsules that you can marry up to two extra external microphones, all of which use the high-quality digital preamp to allow some incredibly detailed four-channel recordings. Again, the timestamp and track-marking functions are present on the H4N, and you can get up to 11 hours in total from the unit (admittedly by dropping the quality) and using ‘stamina mode’ to get the longest life out of the 2xAAA batteries.

In use, we got one of the best sounds of the test out of the Zoom H4N – the large LCD display certainly helped in quick setup, recording and track manipulation, and the whole unit just felt that bit more professional, especially with the handy rubber grip that should afford some protection if the unit is dropped, too. Even without the manual it was easy enough to figure out how to action even some of the more advanced features – the menus are very clear to cycle through and operate under a common-sense design. Have a listen here – we think you’ll be suitably impressed.

Roland R-05 and R-09HR

Roland’s offerings are quite similar in design, both packing an Isolated Adaptive Recording Circuit, which the company says is essentially a premium analog circuit designed to work particularly harmoniously with the digital side of the units. You get a high quality sound and low noise, apparently – the recordings certainly seem to confirm that, too.

EDIROL R05 by Robin Heyworth

The R05 (previously branded as an Edirol product, hence the file name here), is equipped with two mics, and has an absolute plethora of unique features. It will auto-level for you, but also recognise when a song has finished and split a recording into individual pieces using its own intelligence. It can speed up and slow down files for practicing too, without changing the pitch of course, and it can even record a WAV and backup MP3 simultaneously. Like the majority of these models, it uses SD cards for storage, and it’s worth noting that this particular unit doesn’t have USB support.

ROLAND R09 by Robin Heyworth

Sleeker, shirt-pocket-sized and protected by a rubber surround, the R09HR is a nifty little fella, packing that same A/D conversion system and a couple of high-grade stereo condenser microphones. USB 2.0 allows it to connect quickly to computer and, if you like, the included Cakewalk audio software, and there’s even a remote control, which is particularly useful if you’re on your own trying to set up recordings and takes of yourself. Nifty.

In use, the sound from the R09 is absolutely top notch. The display screen was particularly clear too, so you could keep an eye on levels without squinting, even from a recording distance. The remote control is a godsend for solo use, and quick buttons for go-to features like reverb on the front of the unit help for quick-starts. It’s got all the functionality of the R05, but the added extras and higher sound quality definitely justify the price.

Tascam DR2D, DR07 and DR-100

Tascam practically invented the portable recording unit, so it’s no surprise that their current efforts in this market are suitably formidable.

TASCAM DR2D by Robin Heyworth

The DR2D is packing newly-designed condenser microphones for a start, and creates low and high quality recordings simultaneously with these as a just-in-case backup. There are internal effects on board including reverb, as well as a limiter, low-cut and an auto-gain function, and there’s even a metronome built in to play along to if necessary. Audio can be looped and speed (but not pitch) altered, and the neat little package is navigated via a particularly easy-to-understand display.

TASCAM DR07 by Robin Heyworth

The DR07 MK II is a great idea, with the same level of functionality and more added besides. Foremost are the adjustable condenser mics, which means you can be recording in either X/Y or AB patterns depending on how you set them. Pivoting the mics is a simple enough idea, but an absolutely brilliant one in practice, allowing you true directional choices while you’re putting your recording together. There’s also peak reduction, which keeps a close eye on your recording integrity as you go, and of course the option to hook up other mics and even power them from the unit. Brilliant.

TASCAM DR-100 by Robin Heyworth

The Tascam DR100 is the big daddy of the family, packing four mics (two uni directional, two omni) and two XLR inputs which can provide 48V power if necessary. It’s certainly not a pocket device, and much more a professional, heavy duty portable setup that I can see serious sound engineers using.

You can create auto and manual track increments, have recording start when sound rises over a certain pre-assigned threshold and edit files quickly and easily thanks to a large number of buttons on the top of the sturdily-built unit. It’s not likely going to be for the customers looking for a bright and breezy affair, but it records incredibly ‘true’ and will be perfect for those who are looking for something a little more heavy duty, especially in scenarios where the unit might take a bit of a tumble.

Marantz PMD661

MARANTZ PMD661 by Robin Heyworth

The PMD661 has been designed with the no-fuss user in mind, but has also been kitted out to take a significant battering from the elements, with its particularly sturdy chassis. There’s a very high quality stereo condenser mic at the front, and the controls have been paired down to make the quickest, easiest recording setups. You get a balanced XLR Mic input with 48V phantom power and a balanced XLR Line Input, unbalanced line in and out and even S/PDIF, so in terms of versatility this model comes out top for the professional who’ll be working with a great many sources. Expensive perhaps, but justifiably so.

Olympus LS-5

OLYMPUS LS-5 by Robin Heyworth

Slim and designed with incredibly pleasing ergonomics, the LS-5 feels particularly comfortable to use, and brings all the controls you’ll need for the averaging recording job to hand on the front panel. The mic is a high-sensitivity capsule that works hard to keep noise down, and is capable of recording to WAV, WMA or MP3 as you need. There are significantly helpful other features too – auto- levelling, low cut, five reverbs and different recording and playback options which allow you to use quick presets for different situations (wide, zoom etc) rather than fiddling with settings all day. There’s even a ‘speed-dial’ button which you can set to call up whichever feature is the most important for your own work, so it truly is a customisable affair.

Conclusion

All of these devices have their own very specific strengths and weaknesses, and each will likely appeal to a very different kind of customer. The sound clips should give you an idea of the different quality levels of the capsules but bear in mind that ‘better’ is a relative term. Some of these capsules – like the Olympus, Zoom H4-n, Tascam DR07 and Roland R09 – work very hard to create a sound that’s almost ready-produced it’s so neat and noise-free. For quick recordings that you want to sound immediately good and slap up online in seconds, I’d argue that those four are particularly worth your attention, and after that it’ll come down to specific control layouts and displays to make a final decision.

The two bigger units, the Tascam DR100 and Marantz, will provide you with a huge amount of detail and raw, transparent sound, so I wouldn’t be using them unless you’re a serious pro-engineer-level type who’ll be happy to spend time working with the files on a desktop afterwards to nail down a just-so playback. Still, for the pro user, they won’t receive any complaints at all, and are capable of creating suitably professional results in the right hands.

If I have favourites, they’re likely the H4N for its exceptional, glossy-quality sound and the Olympus for sheer ease of use. It’ll be up to you to weigh up just how much you’ll be willing to spend, but personally I believe that any of these will do a good job when used for the right application. Try for yourself, and let me know what you think.

About Rob Sandall

Rob Sandall has written 507 post in this blog.

Having spent his life changing strings in guitar shops, writing and editing news and reviews of the latest music gear and gigging in admittedly-short-lived bands, Rob's particular passions lie with all things six-string and the bodger's world of home production. While he is perhaps not hugely rock and roll, his efforts as a biographer of those who are allow him to at least live a little vicariously through them, which is almost as good. Feel free to drop him a line for help, advice, or just to chat, but be warned: he does go on a bit.

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17 Comments

17 Responses to “The Great Portable Digital Audio Recorder Comparison – Which Is Best For You?”

  1. Robin says:

    Because we carried out this experiment in a classroom style – simply got them out of the box and pressed record – some of the levels are not correct. The PMD661 was unfortunately up too loud and has attenuated the signal. So it doesn’t sound great, but it’s good to know that it will still make a good job of it when the levels are completely wrong. We could re-do this recording but a) that would break the rules of the experiment and b) in the field you may not get a 2nd chance, so it’s good to hear what a bad job on this machine sounds like (not too bad). If you would like us to do a more professional recording then email me on robinheyworth@digitalvillage.co.uk and we’ll set the levels properly and post up a better recording.

      

  2. andy butler says:

    Thanks for taking the time.
    I think that’s a bit too rough and ready tho’.

    Please compare

    http://www.wingfieldaudio.com/portable-recorder-sound-samples.html

    sorry for negative comments…maybe it’s interesting to potential buyers:-

    Based on these recordings I don’t see why the Tascam DR-100 and the Marantz PMD 661 are claimed to have any sonic advantage at all. Respectively noisy, and overcompressed. Was that all to do with the price point? :-)

    Generally the “off mic” voice, presumably because the speaker is holding the guitar, does none of the units any favours. Naturalness of voice would normally be a really good test that any potential buyer could appreciate.

    I’ve never heard the Zoom H2 sound that bad before, did you record to mp3 on that? I think that would be the default setting.

    A field recordist would indeed need to get recording fast with minimum setup, but to test without checking that each recorder has the same file format is misleading.

      

  3. After much research I went for the Zoom H4n. I’ve been very impressed with it, very neat, easy to use, versatile and a great sound, although it can chomp the batteries a bit. We used it to record some interviews with celebrities at the Chelsea flower show: http://www.plantadvice.co.uk/garden-advice/podcasts/the-2011-chelsea-flower-show/1

    The day we went to Chelsea was quite windy and I was nervous of picking up wind noise on the microphones, but the foam windshield included with the device actually performed very well.

      

  4. Frank Everett says:

    Thanks for an interesting review. I have been considering one of these machines for a while and it was useful. As these machines are built to be carried around to record anywhere, one test that I would like to have had tried is recording outdoors. Are wind shields available for all the machines and, if so, do they a). work and b). distrort the sound.

      

  5. Daniel Bird says:

    Hi,

    Purely by coincidence i have been looking into buying a portable recorder for a few weeks so i certainly appreciate you taking the time to compare some of the products available on the market.

    I am a resident DJ in and around Blackpool and i want to start recording my sets. I understand the quality of the microphone is not as important because the audio will be coming straight out of the ‘rec’ phono sockets on my mixer but i was hoping for a little bit of advice on what direction i should go in.
    Do all of these units offer the relevant inputs for direct recording?
    The only units i have managed to get my hands on in the past are the i-key handheld and rackmount versions (rm-3 i believe) but found them to not be the best quality and the rm3 actually cut out 10 minutes into a recording.
    Your advice would be appreciated.
    Thanks
    Dan Bird

      

  6. Virtualgeezer says:

    Damn, I was hoping to hear the Yamaha W24 in there. That’s my preferred choice so far. Fancy testing that one out any time soon chaps?

      

  7. Hiran de Silva says:

    I’ve had a Korg MR1 for 3 years. Thinking of getting the new MR2 (as the MR1′s internal battery seems to be struggling). Why is the Korg not in this review Robin? It is the highest quality (1-bit), and most expensive, portable digital recorder at the moment, isn’t it?

      

    • Robin Heyworth says:

      Hi Hiran,

      We only tested the most popular models. Nothing was deliberately left out. If they weren’t in stock, we didn’t test them…

      I believe Rob Sandall is considering doing a professional test with all the units over £200. By the looks of the comments here, he should do this sooner rather than later!

      I’ll give him a nudge :-)

        

  8. Robin Heyworth says:

    Hi all,

    From the top, my responses are:

    We just took the players out of the box and pressed record. I would expect customers to do this and if a manufacturer hasn’t set up the factory setting expecting this, then it’s a bit short sighted. If we had tinkered around with the settings then we wouldn’t be doing a blind test and we could have been accused of setting up the devices with bias. The only foreseeable way of achieving an unbiased article was to simply get them out of their boxes and press record. In truth, the Marantz required some playing around with our simple hit record twice technique didn’t start it recording! We used auto-levels on all the devices that had it, the Marantz did not, so I had to set the levels manually and they seemed fine.

    There was a video to go with it, using a Zoom Q3HD, which would have allowed you to see the experiment was a simple unboxing of all the recorders, placing them all on a table in front of Caleb, pressing record and recording the results. Unfortunately, “technical issues” meant that the video cannot be posted at this time. Rob, who has the video reported it as corrupt (I assume he means it doesn’t work, rather than it captured damning evidence of an unscrupulous act). He’s been on holiday, but I still hope we can get the video posted in some form. The whole point of the experiment was to be open and honest and for us to no effect the results in any way – and for you to witness that on video.

    Many of the devices come with wind-shields and for that don’t you can purchase them as optional extras. If you are looking to get a high quality recording then I would recommend buying a directional shotgun mic with a wind sock (I normally recommend the Rode NTG series with a dead cat wind-shield).

    For recording a DJ set, you don’t need to worry about the quality of the microphones, you will be simply concerned with the A/D conversion and a line input. However, you needn’t worry about this necessarily either, as the majority of professional digital mixers (Pioneer, for example) have a digital output via coaxial SP/DIF. Therefore, I would recommend choosing a recorder that has a digital input as well as a line input.

    You should contact the DV sales team on 01708 771983 or email sales@dvmusic.com for specific enquiries (i.e. recorders with wind-shields included or SP/DIF inputs).

      

  9. Dariunas says:

    I have the H4 (but not the H4n version) but would be interested in the differences between the two units in operation. I know that the H4n has changeable pickup patterns by twisting the on-board X-Y condensers. Worth noting that the H4 and H4ns can also be used as USB soundcards via ASIO (or DX/MME etc.) drivers if needed…

      

  10. Ross says:

    The Zoom H4n gets my vote for sound quality – which is my priority (ease of use can be learnt, but the sound quality will always stay the same). Yet the supposed ‘high end’ mics sound very noisy or over-compressed. The H4n appears to have a nice natural ‘airiness’ which the others don’t quite match up to. Thanks for this comparison, it has severely helped my portable recorder decision!

      

  11. Dariunas says:

    This is an excellent article. I’m sure a lot of people will find it useful. Looks like the Marantz PMD661 got a bum deal! I was about to flag it on the SoundCloud but looks like it was all addressed here. Would be good to update the main body of the article though.

    I’ve recommended some people starting out with recorders to look at this article, but they won’t all check the comments and/or notice the waveforms, just thinking it sounds bad…

    Still; a very, VERY useful article. I use the first generation H4 and the H4n sounds as good as I expect. For me, they represent the best price to performance point.

      

  12. I own a Zoom H2 – carry it everywhere irrespective of where I’m going – and it saved my bacon more than a few times when collecting foley or doing quick ‘n dirty ADR for my uni course! Its ability to do line recording from its input was also very useful.

    However do bear in mind that (and this is from my own testing and other users’ feedback on unofficial Zoom Owners Forums) a couple of key characteristics of the internals:

    1) the gain adjustment (-10dB, 0dB, +10dB) is performed AFTER digitisation. There’s nothing you can do about this except stand further back and watch the gains… If you’re at a venue recording loud sound, no amount of gain reduction will help an already-clipped digital signal.

    2) Even though the H2 can *record* to 24bit audio files, there’s absolutely no point. Again, the nature of its ADC and signal path design results in audio files that have an identical noisefloor and effective quality as 16/44.1 files… Except they’ll be twice as large in size. This has been deduced from user testing and A/B comparison of sample recordings. Just recording in 16/44.1 and get more on your SDHC!

    (Brucie Bonus) 3) The supplied foam windsock from Zoom is AWFUL, I bought a small Rycote Softie from Solid State Sound and it makes a HUGE difference to the H2′s ability to record outdoors. Field recordings ruined by an errant gust of wind? A thing of the past! And make sure you get the silicon cover for it, it will protect both its plastic fascia AND curb the awful handling noise should you decide to do all your recordings handheld (it has a tripod mount on its base, great for a mini tripod, and comes with a mic-style handgrip… even though it’s side address).

    Having just pointed out some of its flaws, please don’t dismiss the H2 as a device not worthy of consideration. Considering it’s still a very decently priced device – and produces excellent quality recordings given the right conditions – you should definitely consider it. It’s even been used to produce VERY respectable ambisonic (read: surround) recordings in comparative tests by people who really know surround – see http://www.radio.uqam.ca/ambisonic/comparative_recording.html for details (and audio clips).

    I regularly use my H2 for all kinds of stuff and once you’ve learnt how to get a good sound out of it, it’s a brill piece of kit. :-) I must admit though, I do fancy an H4n now though…

      

  13. Andrew says:

    I run a wedding video business and I was looking for a source detailing the majority of the popular solutions for capturing audio in ‘run and gun’ type scenarios. In that respect, this is a quality article. I’m going to buy two, maybe three Zoom H1s with lapel mics. It’s a far cheaper solution than buying several Sennheiser G3 radio mics!

    On the down side, it would have been useful to finish off with a table that plotted all the features ‘at a glance’. For example, I want 48KHz WAV, external mic jack and I may be interested in Broadcast WAV. I’m not that interested (relatively speaking) in top notch audio quality. Neither am I interested in reverbs, but auto recording levels for novice public speaking is a must. I have enough to worry about driving my camera without wondering what my audio is doing in the grooms pocket. :-)

      

  14. sid says:

    Hi, am an ameature singer and looking for a recorder that will play back an accurate voice recording. what is the maximum I shouold pay and can you ecommend a recorder that will ot be overly expensive yet produce an accurate result? thank you very much …Martin

      

  15. Joshua says:

    Hi Rob and others,

    Thanks for posting this article. I’m busy researching portable audio recorders and am not sure what the best option for me would be. This article is a couple of years old and I wonder if a more suitable product for my needs would have come on the market…

    I’m going to be backpacking around and living in South America next year, and want to get a high quality audio recorder to record my own samples. I plan to use those samples to create music from when I return home. I’m planning on using it to record everything, from water running through a stream to the waves crashing on the shore, to machines cutting things in a factory to people discussing politics at the dinner table – whatever, so I guess I’m looking for something that’s fairly versatile but also compact and strong/sturdy enough to be carted around in a backpack.
    Would something like the H1 be a good buy? Something that picks up a lot of detail with good depth-of-field and accurate reproduction would be nice.

    Thanks in advance,

    Josh

      

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