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

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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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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.