Film & TV

The Best Portable Digital Audio Recorders

Whether you’re a filmmaker, student or musician, if you’re looking to record high-quality sound on the go, you need a digital audio recorder.

Below, we explore the different types of digital audio recorder, popular brands and, most importantly, the best portable digital audio recorders currently on the market to help you make an informed decision and ensure not just good but the best sound quality.

What Are the Best Digital Audio Recorders?

When purchasing an audio recorder, there are dozens of features to take into consideration, however, at the end of the day, you should be looking to buy a recorder that provides you with excellent recordings, which means top-notch sound quality, and that is portable and easy-to-use.

Better still, you should strive to find all of this wrapped up in a not-too-costly bow, so you have a device that is not only superb but also doesn’t cost the world. With that said, be aware that, with audio and every other type of tech for that matter, quality comes at a price and, sometimes, spending is essential.

Below, explore some of the best digital audio recording devices currently on the market.

Best Low-cost Recorder: Olympus VN-541PC

Perfect for students or beginners, the Olympus VN-541PC is suitable for those looking to record interviews, such as journalism students, as well as budding musicians recording while learning, for instance.

The device is lightweight and the interface incredibly easy-to-use, including one-touch recording which means you don’t have to fumble around with a host of buttons before you can get things rolling.

It also features a noise-cancelling filter which helps to remove some but not all background noise.

With this affordable device, you can also ‘select the scene’, including memo, talk, music and LP, which alter the microphone’s EQ to ensure you get the best sound quality for your situation, which offers some flexibility.

Features:

  • User-friendly interface
  • Compact and lightweight (67g)
  • 4GB built-in memory
  • 1,570 hours of recording time
  • Ideal for beginners

With this device being incredibly affordable and specially designed for students, the microphone isn’t the most powerful; its frequency ranges from 40Hz and 13kHz and is just one step up from a smartphone.

Best Digital Voice Recorder: Sony ICD-UX533

Offering both affordability and excellent voice recording capability, the Sony ICD-UX533 voice recorder, like the Olympus VN-541PC, is a fantastic choice for students and beginners but offers better sound quality.

The one-touch interface is straightforward to use and understand, and the device itself is sleek and contemporary. With this device, you get to choose from five audio recording formats: LPCM 44.1kHz/16-bit, MP3 192kbps, MP3 128kbps, MP3 48kbps (mono) and MP3 8kbps (mono), which gives you plenty of control over the quality.

The battery life is up to 30 hours, above average, and the noise reduction filter is effective.

Features:

  • Affordable and competitive
  • Multiple recording formats
  • User-friendly interface
  • Reasonable sound quality
  • Extended battery life

This nifty voice recorder doesn’t have any pitfalls, providing you’re purchasing it for what it’s intended for: reasonable-quality voice recording.

The slow-down and playback features make transcribing hassle-free, too. The sound quality is a couple of steps up from a smartphone, but certainly not of a professional level.


Best for Beginners: Sony ICD-PX333

Despite being a little heavier than the slightly more expensive Sony ICD-UX533, as well as being powered by two AA batteries, the Sony ICD-UX333 not only looks great but delivers good-quality recordings, too.

Ideal for beginners, this device comes with 4GB internal memory and a memory card slot which means you can expand the memory space considerably, too.

You can also optimize the settings with a ‘scene selection’ features in which you can choose from music, meeting, interview and dictation to get the most out of the device. You can also ‘bookmark’ moments in your recording to make playback and transcription easier.

Features:

  • Affordable and competitive
  • Good-quality sound recording
  • 300mW front speaker for playback
  • Noise reduction for better quality
  • ‘Track mark’ for transcription

Overall, if you’re a beginner or a student seeking good-quality voice recordings and have a tight budget, the Sony ICD-PX333 is an efficient choice that, despite its downfalls, delivers to a reasonable standard.


Best Professional Recorder: TASCAM DR-100MKII

Ideal for both musicians and filmmakers, the TASCAM DR-100MKII not only provides professional-quality audio but does so at a fraction of the cost of other professional-grade audio recorders.

What makes the DR-100MKII stand out is its easy-to-use interface; typically, professional recording devices boast an abundance of complicated buttons and features, but there’s none of that here.

Features surround this device as, if you turn to the back, there are controls for mic gain, phantom power and a limiter.

This recorder also benefits from minimal, if any, radio frequency interference (RFI).

The versatile input options include XLR, coaxial and unbalanced analog which means you have complete control when recording. The TASCAM DR-100MKII includes omnidirectional and cardioid mics help you to achieve excellent sound quality.

Features:

  • Professional-grade sound quality
  • MP3 and WAV file recording and playback
  • Uses an SD or SDHC memory card
  • Multiple inputs for complete control
  • Supports sampling frequencies 96/48/44.1 kHz

While you can charge this recorder by plugging it into your computer via the USB port, it also comes with a dual-battery setup which includes rechargeable Li-Ion and AA backup for long-lasting recording capability.


Best for Filmmakers: TASCAM DR-05

If you’re an independent filmmaker or film student seeking professional-quality audio for a fraction of the cost, look no further than the TASCAM DR-05.

This sturdy-build audio recorder captures very high-quality sound in the mid-to-high frequencies, which ensures your sound is clear and multifaceted. TASCAM specializes in professional-grade audio equipment, and it doesn’t disappoint with this device; we would even go as far to say that the interface is one of the easiest currently on the professional market.

The clear interface makes it effortless to record quickly and efficiently. As well as recording at 96kHz 24-bit, this device also comes with a roster of enticing features, including a chromatic tuner, variable speed playback, and self-timer recording.

Features:

  • Professional-grade sound quality
  • Records up to 24-Bit/96 kHz
  • Uses MicroSD and MicroSDHC cards
  • Integrated stereo microphones
  • Lightweight, sturdy design

Another highlight of the TASCAM DR-05 is its Peak Reduction mode, which allows you to set the recording levels, which it will automatically bring down if there are unexpected bursts of loud sound.

There are better, bulkier recorders for filmmakers available, but none that boast anything near to the bargain price of the DR-05.


Best for Musicians: Sony PCM-M10

Perhaps not the cheapest audio recorder for musicians out there but certainly one of the best for sound quality, the Sony PCM-M10 recorder borrows from Sony’s pricier models such as the PCMD1 for a competitive device suited to even the most seasoned musicians.

The design is robust and the interface very easy-to-use, and while Sony has cut costs by placing the microphones inside the case, which means you can’t move them, the sound quality, which can record at 24‑bit/96 kHz – suitable for a live concert or rehearsal – remains balanced.

This recorder comes with 4GB internal memory, but that can be expanded to 20GB using a 16GB MicroSD.

Features:

  • Professional-grade sound quality
  • Built-in stereo microphone
  • 4B internal memory
  • Digital pitch and key control
  • Long battery life (AA batteries)

There are more powerful devices out there; however, the Sony PCM-M10 should be well-suited to most musicians and offers quality, professional-grade audio recording at a competitive price in a compact, lightweight design.


What is a Digital Audio Recorder?

Also referred to a portable audio recorder, a digital audio recorder is a small piece of sound recording equipment that can be easily transported and carried on the go to capture high-quality hand-held recordings.

You may have seen audio recorders used during interviews – typically, a journalist will record an interview using a portable sound recorder and then transcribe – or write-out – the recording at a later stage in a script-like format that they can then use to piece together an article.

Recording an interview is much easier than scribbling or typing out notes the entire time, but there are still some journalists that still like to write notes while interviewing as it is widely considered less “intrusive” – some people find having an audio recorder present daunting, less personable and uncomfortable.

Similarly, portable recorders are frequently used to record music and rehearsals – as well as film actor auditions – as well as to capture dialogue in video and film, and even as a creative tool which users, such as writers, use to record ideas as they arise.

You’ve most likely seen many a Hollywood film, such as Superman, featuring hard-hitting journalists and authors using hand-held sound recording devices.

Popular Digital Audio Recorder Brands

As with every type of tech, there are dozens of ‘leading’ brands out there selling low to high-range audio recorders and everything in between; some are household names while others are specialists, which means you may not have heard of them unless you’re a homegrown sound or music fanatic.

Below, we look at some of the best digital audio recorder brands currently leading the way.

Olympus

With almost 100 years to its name, Olympus is, without a doubt, a household name; however, it’s the brand’s camera equipment that has been leading its popularity. But did you know that Olympus is also a maker of hospital equipment, industrial equipment and, thankfully for us, top-notch audio recording equipment? That includes voice-to-text dictation equipment that will cover all your transcription needs. Olympus audio recording capabilities sit best with high-quality music recorders, such as the popular LS-100, and high-end audio recorders – most of which come equipped with a stereo-sound microphone, heaps of space, and smartphone capability.

Sony

Another household name with just 70 years’ behind it, Sony is one of the largest technology brands in the world and what’s one of its best-selling types of products? Audio equipment and audio recorders. Sony is the brand “for music lovers”. For instance, the Sony ICD-SX2000 recorder is widely considered one of the best on-the-go recording devices for musicians. However, Sony also boasts a selection of affordable recorders suitable for meetings and note-taking. With Sony, you can start small and, as you get more serious about your craft, bump up your device accordingly.

TASCAM

Here is one of those ‘specialist’ audio brands. It may have only been around for less than 50 years, but TASCAM is one of the world’s leading audio companies. Its devices are suitable for hobbyists and professionals alike and its range spans from mobile recording through computer audio and DSLR sound recording through to mixing, mastering and microphones. Unlike almost every other audio brand out there, most of TASCAM’s handheld recorders come with directional microphones which ensure a crisp and, ultimately, professional recording.

Roland

Another late-comer with just 45 years under its belt, Roland has taken advantage of and, often, fronted developments in sound technology; it’s another specialist audio company specializing in musical instruments, production equipment, and audio recording devices. However, in our eyes, Roland is for the serious musician or sound professional seeking top-quality equipment and recording. It doesn’t play around with ‘accessible’ devices but instead focuses its attention on high-end, high-standard devices. Even simpler devices such as the Roland R-05 recorder come with enhanced sound quality and features.

Differences Compared to Voice Recorders

While a voice recorder is a type of audio recorder, it is not the same thing.

Typically, voice recorders have reduced features, and while recording usable sound, the sound isn’t always of professional quality.

For instance, if you just want a device that you can use to record ideas or test dialogue, a voice recorder is perfectly fine; however, if you want to produce sound for video or film, you’re going to need much more power. That’s where portable audio recorders come in.

Most digital audio recorders have an array of professional features that allow it to go above and beyond when recording audio – professionals often choose portable recorders over voice recorders as it gives them a much better-quality recording. Audio recorders also come with additional features such as more memory space, different microphone builds, and many others. Also, increasingly, more audio devices are popping up that have adapters for smartphones, as well as using phone apps, for all-in-one recording on the go.

The most attractive characteristic of a portable recorder is just that – it is easy-to-carry and, therefore, portable, which makes it ideal for those recording on the go. Also, portable audio recorders are, typically, much cheaper than advanced sound recording systems, as well as being adaptable – you can connect most hand-held recorders to lavalier microphones, for instance, which allows for better sound quality. In this article, we explore the different types of recorder best suited to a variety of sectors and experience levels, including students, musicians, filmmakers and those seeking a backup recorder.

How to Position a Digital Audio Recorder

Positioning a digital audio recorder is all about finding the ‘sweet spot’ so you’re getting high-quality sound free of noise and that you can easily tweak during post-production.

  • To begin, turn your input up and position your audio recorder so when you’re not talking the audio meters are activated.
  • Then, adjust the levels up, so the meters are active when you’re not talking and then back down, so there is no movement when you’re not talking, which means you have minimal noise. When you speak or are making a sound, you want the frequency to peak at -12, which is loud but not too loud while also not being too quiet, which means the audio levels will only need to be brought up slightly during post-production.
  • Your noise should be around -50 to -60, which is very quiet.
  • You must also consider your environment; position your microphone far enough away from surrounding noise (e.g. your computer monitor) to ensure your recording doesn’t pick-up any hiss for a clear, professional audio.

For a video tutorial for how to position a digital audio recorder, see the below vidoe from Ray Ortega.

What to consider when buying a digital audio recorder

If you’re unsure of what type of audio recording device you need, pay attention.

There are hundreds of devices out there, however, like with any tech, it’s essential that you consider what characteristics and features are critical to how you’ll be using the device and what you hope to achieve with your recordings.

Firstly, consider whether it’s a digital audio recorder you need or whether you can get reasonable results using your smartphone. Some smartphones, such as the iPhone 4S and onwards, include text-to-speech dictation which may suffice if you’re recording short clips. But if you need something a little more, let’s say, heavy duty, then you’re making the correct decision investing in a professional recording device, which will come with a host of useful features.

When choosing your device, consider how much battery life your device should have. Is it practical for you to carry spare batteries or do you need something you can charge up daily? Typically, most mid-range audio recording products have a battery life of 48 hours upwards which should suffice.

Other key elements to look for include the device’s interface – is it easy to record, pause, stop and playback? – and any additional features that will make the recording and, where necessary, transcribing process as easy as possible.

For instance, some devices come with voice activation and allow you to change up the playback speed, as well as having track-marking which helps you to identify key moments in the conversation that you may want to refer to while transcribing to speed up transcription.

With the basics out the way, more than anything else, you should be looking at the device’s sound quality and whether the recording you’re capturing is suitable for use in whichever way you want to use it. For instance, some high-end devices come with high-quality directional microphones that produce a sound similar to that of a recording studio, which means you can use the audio for music, television and, quite possibly, even film.

However, stick to your budget and live within your means; if you’re just looking to record an interview that you’re going to transcribe, a low to mid-range recorder is more than suitable. If you want to use the sound for the screen, you should spend a little more.

You should also consider how much audio you’re looking to record at any one time and purchase a device with a reasonable amount of memory or memory expansion slots so you can add an SD card.

Unsure what ‘sound quality’ means and clueless about audio formats? Lifehacker can help.

If you’re recording on-the-go, size and weight are both considerations when choosing a suitable device. A standard voice recorder weighs in at just a few ounces and will easily fit in your pocket while a more comprehensive device can weight four or five times that and require a large case for easy carrying. Whichever you choose, make sure you have a suitable protective case to prevent damage.

If you’re planning to transcribe your recording, don’t make the mistake of thinking that recorders come with transcription capability. Instead, you will need to use a transcription software such as Dragon Naturally Speaking for Windows for efficient transcription. There is a variety of software available.

Would you prefer to transcribe manually but are unsure how? See Chron’s useful step-by-step guide.

In Summary

When purchasing an audio recorder, look for both affordability and sound quality, as well as ease of use. Ensure you can easily charge your device and, ideally, insert an SD card to increase memory. You should have a battery life of at least 24 hours, or around that, and numerous inputs for headphones, USB cables and so on. For the best sound quality, choose a recorder with a stereo microphone.

Richard Hammond

I am the founder of 9Mousai and am deeply interested in creativity and what inspires it. My main passions are writing, film and music but I have huge respect for the arts. I'm also an animal lover and have a little cat called Winston and enjoy the occasional whiskey.

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