Portable Audio Recorders: Buyer’s Guide




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If you are one of those considering how to capture high-quality live audio, you might consider buying a portable recorder. However, because there are so many models available it’s not easy to choose. There are very well-known companies which are specialized in making these devices for recording music and speech. We have singled out some of the best products from the most renowned companies in the audio world and we are pretty much confident that at least one of the models listed below will meet your needs.

Before entering a store or researching through a webshop, you will need to consider what you need a recorder for. Of course, the essential fact is “how much money are you willing to spend” or in other words “what is your budget”? If your needs do not go beyond recording some not-so-important content once a month, such as an audio recording of your idea or just a reminder, then you can finish that job with just a regular smartphone. But if you want high quality, clear stereo recording or even 360 degrees 3D sound, then you have to opt for some of the following field recorders. And these portable recorders aren’t just restricted to be used for meetings or outdoors either, they can also be used to record direct from a mixing console.

Lets take a look at the first of these to find out the best field recorder taking into consideration, cost and functionality.

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Tascam DR-40X   (* value pick)

Unlike the DR-60, the Tascam DR-40X is a little more affordable portable recorder and seems a bit more compact. At first glance, the DR-40X looks very similar to its ancestor. It is very well built and has two condenser mics at the top of it. These onboard mics can be rotated easily. Its display is clear and has very good contrast which is useful when comes to complex lighting situations. Its menu is quite easy to navigate.

The switchable low cut, high-pass filter, (40 Hz, 80 Hz, 120 Hz) will assist you to reduce environmental low-frequency noise in your recordings. It can be powered with 3 AA batteries that or with the Micro USB interface. With a USB 2.0 connection, you’ll be able to record your session directly to your computer. It is compatible with both, Mac and Win operating systems. You can also use this connection for file transfer from the SD card since DR-40X supports SD and SDXC cards up to 128 gb. You will be able to record in dual mode, which offers you two separate recordings to be stored. It also can offer you with a chromatic tuner if you are one of the musicians who like to check their tune-up periodically. It also make for an excellent portable podcast recorder so that you can continue to work on the move or while travelling. You may be interested in my post on the Tascam DR-05 vs Zoom H2n.

The DR-40X is equipped with 2 Neutrik input jacks in which you can plug in an external mic via XLR inputs or line sources and which can supply +24 or +48 V phantom power. It features recording options like Mono, Stereo, Dual, 4CH, and Overdub. If used as a stand-alone, it can record 4 tracks simultaneously up to 96 kHz / 24-bit, but it can record only 44.1 kHz / 48 kHz in stereo. With the option of four track recording, this is one of the best handheld recorders around at the moment.

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Zoom H6 Multitrack Recorder – (* quality pick)

If you want to capture great audio, this portable digital recorder could be the perfect investment. Whoever owns the Zoom H6 will say it is a fantastic device. The Zoom H6 Handheld Recorder gives you everything you need to record top-quality audio, no matter the conditions and environment .

The Zoom H6 is among the best of the stand alone recorders in this list and the audio quality is outstanding. You’ll be able to hear the tiniest detail in your recording very clearly. And second, it has 6 tracks available for multitrack recording! How awesome is that!? You can host a podcast with 5 guests and each of them could have their own dedicated mic. It is very well built, lightweight, and looks very solid and gives that feeling of a high-quality product. It has a 2.0-inch full-color LCD (320 x 240 pixels) panel as its main display.

It features amazing flexibility such as being able to use multiple built in microphones that can be plugged to the device via a dedicated connection. Similar to its competition, it is able to record high-quality 24-bit/96kHz audio directly to SD, SDHC, and SDXC cards up to 128GB in WAV or MP3 formats. But there is a slight difference, you’ll need 4 AA batteries for this beast, and with them, it has a great battery life be able to record audio for up to 20hrs.

In my humble opinion, this is the best audio recorder at the moment. I love everything about the Zoom H6, from its amazing ability to be attached to any camera, to its impressive sound quality for voice recording and ideal for film making too. Some DLSR cameras can have pretty decent audio, but the quality is usually no where near dedicated recording devices. It is also important to get the microphone as close to the sound source as much as possible, which is why this is such a great piece of gear for film makers.

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Zoom H3 VR 360 

You’re probably heard of Cisco right? Guess what, the well-known company called Zoom was founded by Cisco’s lead engineer back in 2011 and now, Zoom is one of the leaders in audio/video communication companies and have a number of portable audio recorders on the market.

The Zoom H3-VR Handy Audio Recorder is a small portable audio recorder with a built-in Ambisonics microphone array with 4 mic capsules that offers unbelievable 360° audio capturing. You can’t even imagine how useful this device could be. It can be used in many applications for professional audio purposes. On the other hand, you don’t have to be an audio engineer to notice the incredible difference in sound quality between this and other budget digital recorders. This recorder can record in Ambisonics, stereo binaural, or standard stereo mode. It can easily be used in the studio or outdoors. It is also the ideal device if you want to record the sound of nature, in the forests or fields due to the 360 degree feature..

The H3-VR supports recording live audio at up to 24-bit / 96 kHz. With this portable device, you will be able to export your Ambisonics recordings as stereo, binaural, or 5.1 audio files. For this purpose, you’ll need additional software, the Zoom Ambisonics Player. The software is free and is available for both, Win and Mac users. Simple buttons on the front panel like home, play/pause, forward, back, and the menu provides navigation with ease. All in all, menu buttons on this gadget will provide you with effective configuration settings and operation control.

A limiter, which is a built-in feature, will guarantee you clean recordings without clipping. There is also an adjustable low cut/high pass filter with which you’ll be able to control low frequencies rumble.

If you decide to buy this great recorder you’ll be able to stream audio via a USB cable to your computer or iOS device, or you can just record to the microSD, SDHC, SDXC card. This card is not included by the way in the standard package. But the good news is that it is supplied with a foam windscreen, a dual mount adapter (allows you to mount the H3-VR to your VR camera), and two AA batteries. You can power H3-VR with these two AA batteries or a regular USB cable connection. It has good battery life and is good to know that with AA lithium batteries you can record up to 24hr.

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Tascam DR-60 DMKII Portable 

The first thing you notice about the Tascam DR-60 DMKII is its unusual design. Many people, especially those who are not familiar with audio/video equipment, when they see it attached to the camera are surprised and actually do not know what it is.

However, this multi-track field recorder can be an excellent addition for your DSLR camera. You will be able to capture up to 4 tracks of high-quality digital audio. Unlike the previous model, it will provide you with less noise and higher gain preamps. Some people complained about poor battery life. Yet that fact can be ignored since it has some amazing features such as a peak reduction limiter, and auto level to deliver a clean, noiseless recording.

This recorder has built-in level modes and signal processing which can assist you to improve the overall audio quality of your recording. The feature that is called automatic level control provides you with an automatic increasing or decreasing volume when the sound source level is too low or too loud. You’ll also be able to use a built-in limiter which will compress the audio signal before it reaches the point of clipping. A low-cut (high-pass) filter, which can be set at 40 Hz, 80 Hz, or 120 Hz will help you reduce low frequency rumble as well as wind noise.

Equipped with switchable phantom power (24V or 48V), this allows you to power up external mics such as dynamic or condenser models via XLR inputs. The DR-60 DmkII is able to record directly to SD and SDHC cards up to 32 gb (not included in purchase). One downside of this device is that it requires 4 AA batteries with which you’ll be able to record up to 5 hr of material, only.

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Zoom H1n Audio Recorder

The Zoom H1n is an upgrade of H1 and the very first thing you may notice on Zoom H1n Handy Recorder unlike its rivals, is its price. #ad However, do not doubt that you will lack the quality of the audio recording (at least the spec indicates that: 96kHz/48kHz/44.1kHz at 16-bit or 24-bit). It may be found in 4 colors: gray, blue, black and white. It is a popular model and Zoom have sold many units of this litte recorder, and like any other product, it has its advantages and its disadvantages. You may like it or not, but there are a few facts which can help you make the decision to buy or not.

Its size can be characterized as an advantage, it is small, easy to transport, hold and easy to use. The built-in mics have an impressive stereo ability which is crucial for recording environmental sounds without picking extra noise. Control buttons and has a user friendly interface which makes it perfect for beginners and not overly complicated. Due to it’s mini size, it would make for an ideal recorder for doing interviews.

It requires an SD or SDHC card up to 32 gb for storing recordings, and has a decent battery life with 2 AAA batteries for powering it up to 10 hrs. Unlike the batteries, the SD card is not included in the package. A 32 gb SD/SDHC should be more than enough storage space, since with it you’ll be able to record up to 15 hours of highest quality audio 96 kHz/24-bit or up to 555 hours in compressed mp3 format (128 kbps).

In the rehearsal room, H1n will be inevitably a tool that has a great signal to noise ratio. Even the softest and loudest sounds will can be recorded with clarity. It also features a limiter and a low cut filter to help make your sound clean and distortion-free. The H1n also has a built-in speaker with which you can listen to your recordings on the go. It has a dedicated control for setting the gain on the incoming signal, which is of great importance for dynamic environments. All in all, a great digital audio recorder.

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Zoom H4n PRO Digital Multitrack (* top pick)

It is pretty clear why Zoom is one of the leaders in their field. You are going to love the Zoom H4n Recorder. You’ll be able to record high-quality audio at any location with professional level quality! The Zoom range of recording devices has definitely set the standard if we are talking about portable devices, but now, Zoom is proving its leadership one more time with the help of the H4n Pro recorder.

The XY microphones, natural-sound preamps and ultra-low noise can let you record anything with an exceptional dose of reality. With its ergonomically shaped rubber body and lockable XLR inputs / TRS connectors, the H4n Pro is excellent for recording audio on a movie set, church services, podcasts or concerts. It has four recording modes and you can switch from stereo to 4-channel mode and then have the ability to record extra realistic ambient sound in real-time, including its additional recording and dubbing capabilities.

Extra studio effects turn this recorder into a very serious versatile handheld multi-channel recorder. Pick from a family of effects such as a compressor, limiter, reverb, delay, modulation, a low-cut filter etc. This awesome compact recording studio also comes with Cubase LE8 + Wavelab LE8 software designed for both Win and Mac computers. These features make it an excellent device for songwriters on the go. It is also great capturing sound from individual instruments, such as guitar, piano or even for a band practice.

It has a pretty decent battery life and you can power the Zoom H4n Pro with the 2 AA batteries which are included in purchase and can keep it recording up to 10 hours, or plug it into a wall outlet with an AD-14 AC adapter (not included). You’ll be able to store your recorded audio on your SD/SDHC card (max 32 gb). Note that SD/SDHC/SDXC media cards are usually not included in the purchase(unless otherwise specified). Additionally, you can use the H4n Pro as USB 2.0 audio interface at up to 48 kHz. At 44.1 kHz. The dedicated USB interface can also provide you with fast file transfer and firmware updates.

To check the latest price of the Zoom H4n on Amazon, click here


Other honourable mentions are the Sony PCM D10 pocket sized recorder and the Olympus VP10 digital voice recorder.

I hope that I have provided the details you need to choose the best portable recorder for your needs. Be sure that whichever you buy from the above you will not go wrong. One thing is for sure, all of them will provide you incredible audio recording quality, for music or speech, indoors and outdoors.

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