Sound. It’s more important than most people realize. Just try watching TV or a movie with the sound off – or barely audible. Talk about a frustrating experience! But you already know the importance of sound, or you wouldn’t be here, reading this article. You know that sound matters and what you are looking for is the best way to record quality audio for whatever project you may be working on. You may be a musician recording jams on the go, a filmmaker trying to get good audio tracks for your project, a student taping a class to review later, or even a concertgoer who loves to make their own memories.
If sound matters to you, audio recording devices are a necessity and portable audio recorders are the ultimate piece of equipment that you need to carry with you at all times. Everyone and anyone can record sound today. We’ve all got smartphones in our pockets that can record sound at the touch of a few onscreen buttons. But what about the quality of the sound? How good is the microphone on your device?
How much storage capacity does it have (that is not already filled with apps, songs, pictures, games, etc? Can it record more than one track? Can it connect to a good external source like a boom mic? How long will the battery last whilst recording? The answer to these questions is pretty disappointing to anyone who takes sound seriously. That’s where a portable digital audio recorder enters into the picture.
These devices are small, portable, have relatively long battery life, offer multiple input sources, record multiple tracks and, most importantly, record sound quality fit for broadcast or professional recording. So it’s time to put away your smartphone and start looking at the toys the big boys play with. There are many different portable recorders on the market and each has its own pros and cons.
Some are specifically designed to be able to handle music whilst others are better at voice or general recording. TASCAM and ZOOM are the big players in the market, and both sell a range of portable recorders for you to choose from. We’ve taken a look at what the market has to offer and here are 10 of the best:
TD;LR - Best Portable Recorder:
- TASCAM DR-40 4-Track Portable Digital Recorder
- Zoom H6 Six-Track Portable Recorder
- Tascam Portable Digital Recorder
- TASCAM DR-05 Portable Digital Recorder
- Zoom H1 Digital Recorder
- Tascam DR-40 Digital Audio Recorder
- TASCAM DR-60DmkII DSLR Audio Recorder
- Zoom H4n Pro 4-Channel Handy Recorder
- Zoom H2n Handy Portable Digital Audio Recorder
- TASCAM DR-100mkIII Digital Recorder
1. TASCAM DR-40 4-Track Portable Digital Recorder
The TASCAM DR-40 4 Track Portable is larger than some of its competitors - for good reason: this portable device boasts the added features of two locking XLR/jack combo sockets which enables the DR-40 to utilise not only the internal microphone but external microphones as well as other audio sources. Although larger in size, the DR-40 is still small enough to carry in your pocket and use with one hand, although it would have to be a very big hand to wrap around this product.
The DR-40 uses 3 AA size batteries and this puts out 24 to 48 volts of phantom power that are required by condenser microphones. It has a battery life span of 15 hours.
Each of the microphones capsules of the DR-40 can move independently of each other, this gives the TASCAM the added feature of being able to adjust from Y/Z or A/B which allows for wide stereo sound field. The sound quality is good and the DR-40 deals with noise well, and has very good stereo imaging.
The TASCAM DR-40 offers four distinct modes. This enables standard dual/mono as well as Dual, Four-Channel and Overdub modes. Of all of these modes the Overdub one stands out.
A great feature of the TASCAM is that any of these modes are easily selected using the dedicated Rec Mode button in fact, the menu lists and quick access buttons make operating the TASCAM a breeze. Establishing a USB connection is also fast and easy.
This is one of the better priced recorders on the market and offers a host of features. It also has simple to use menus and a good battery life. If you don’t need a smaller device that can fit into your shirt pocket then the TASCAM D-40 4 Track Digital Portable Recorder is one well worth the buy.
2. Zoom H6 Six-Track Portable Recorder
This device is extremely popular with creative professionals as one of the best digital voice recorders on the market. The Zoom H6 6 Track Portable Recorder, weighing in at less than 10 ounces, is one of the smallest portable devices and is easy to carry around and has a good feel to it making it perfect for the journalist on the move.
The Zoom H6 boasts 6-track simultaneous recording and features 2 interchangeable microphones for great flexibility. This one has the ability to track 6 channels simultaneously and offers 4 XLR/TRS inputs for external mics. Not only does the Zoom come with standard stereo X/Y but also features mid/side capsules. Add a shotgun capsule to that and you get a total of 6 combo inputs.
Although you will have easy and fast control over the Zoom, you might need to take some time to set it up before you begin using your device as it is not as easy to navigate as some of its competitors. In saying that it does offer a detailed menu and allows for fast control over your gain and pads.
One of the greatest features, although not a new one, is the fact that the Zoom H6 has pre-record and backup record functions. It also gives you a 2 second buffer which helps if you press the record button a second too late to capture the audio you need.
The Zoom H6 uses 4 AAA batteries for a total operating time of more than 20 hours. It has excellent storage capacity giving you three options of SD (16MB to 2GB), SDHC (4GB to 32GB) and SDXC (64GB to 128GB).
If you are looking for a recorder to capture a wide target or environmental ambiance, then this is the one for you. It is lightweight and fits snugly in your hand. The Zoom H6 6-Track would be a great asset to solo artists for recording their live performances.
3. Tascam Portable Digital Recorder
If you are looking for a portable digital recorder and do not have a huge budget then this is the recorder you will need as it does not come with a huge price tag. Although TASCAM is more widely known to musicians, it is also perfectly suitable for journalists to do interviews with.
For musicians though, the Tascam is optimized for recording the lulls and swells of music and will automatically set the gain while recording your track - and its Peak Reduction function will allow you to record those soft, delicate moments and rocket through to roaring, emotional, powerful stuff without pegging the needle in the red. The result: a nice, balanced recording without dips or blowouts.
There’s also a low-cut filter which has three pre-sets to help reduce noise. This one offers up to 24bit, 96kHz stereo audio.
This is a small digital recorder that is easy to carry around and simple to use, pop it in your pocket and you are ready for anything from an impromptu voice recording to a jamming session. It may not have all the jam packed features of other digital recorders but it does the job none-the-less.
The TASCAM comes with a 4GB MicroSD card and mini USB cable to let you connect easily to your computer.
This is definitely the portable recorder for you if you are on a budget. It is not as feature packed as some of the other types on the market but it has enough in it to give you great quality sound and good looks, and you get it at a great price to boot.
4. TASCAM DR-05 Portable Digital Recorder
One of the best music recorders, the TASCAM DR-05 is a lightweight compact recorder that is perfect for use by musicians, professional journalists or the average Joe.
The TASCAM DR-05 offers easy to use features and keeps button presses to a minimum. This one offers built-in features like stereo condenser microphones, and an intuitive user interface, however you do not get the functionality of overdubbing.
The DR-05 operates rates of up to 24-bit/96 kHz in WAV Files and up to 320kbps in MP3 files depending on your requirements.
One of the best features of the TASCAM DR-05 is the Peak Reduction feature which when used in conjunction with built-in limiter ensures that you will never distort that perfect live recording.
It allows for capturing both loud noises as well as low volume subtle performances. It comes with an integrated speaker and 3.5mm headphone jack to enable you to monitor your recordings and ensure that they are perfect.
The TASCAM DR-05 comes with a large LCD screen and offers one handed functionality that enables quick and easy operation.
All in all, the TASCAM-05 is a great handheld portable recorder. It is small and easy to carry around and use and has a lot of recording headroom. It is fantastic for recording live shows and other music, it also fits into the category of best digital voice recorder which is great if you are a business professional.
5. Zoom H1 Digital Recorder
The ZOOM H1 is one of the most affordable, compact and versatile hand held digital recording device around, giving it the ‘best buy’ status. It is essentially a small pocket recorder which is great for meetings, lectures or even live concerts.
The zoom audio recorder can cover a wide area recording while still picking up the core audio with clarity. It has two in-built X/Y microphones positioned at a 90 degree angle which provides excellent stereo recording. The ZOOM also offers a 3.5mm input for external mics if you have them.
The ZOOM H1 uses only 1 AA battery with a continual recording life of up to 10 hours. It records directly to SD or SDHC cards with up to 32GB storage capacity.
The ZOOM H1 was the fantastic ability to mount onto DSLR cameras, music stands and tripods. Another great feature is the external buttons that save you from having to go into the menu to change settings.
All in all if you are looking for a good, handheld recorder that is versatile and small enough to go anywhere you found it in the ZOOM H1 Digital Recorder. It is not the most robust of recorders so you would need to take care of it, but if that is not an issue you can obtain some brilliant sounding audio.
6. Tascam DR-40 Digital Audio Recorder
The TASCAM DR-40 Digital Recorder device is a robust, flexible and great portable audio recorder that is perfect for any audio tech and should be included in any toolbox.
The DR-40 Digital Recorder has two combo XLR 1/4-inch pro audio jacks. It also features a 1/8-inch jack for headphones or line out.
The TASCAM is designed for short bursts of recording and syncs perfectly but for long periods you will encounter drift every 30 minutes or so between camera and audio on long shoots. This is obviously not a problem when recording music though.
The DR-40 Audio Recorder features two built-in high quality mics that can be moved to an X or a Y configuration. It comes standard with a USB Port for easy transfer of files from your audio recorder to your computer.
If you are looking for excellent sound quality and flexibility then this recorder is great. It is great for recording music and other audio and although it loses sync on the longer shoots you can bypass this by cutting the “dead air” on the audio to sync with the camera again. Excellent buy and should be in every professionals toolkit.
7. TASCAM DR-60DmkII DSLR Audio Recorder
The TASCOM DR-60 is light yet sturdy and feels good in your hands. It also has the added advantage of having handles which protect the controls and also allow you to connect it to a strap to hang around your neck if need be (Strap not included in package).
The DR-60DMKII has mic preamps up to 64dB internal gain which is perfect if you like using dynamic microphones.
The DR-60 DMKII has the ability to tape up to 4 tracks simultaneously, allowing for various different microphone inputs. Using SD/SDHC card (up to 32GB) in Mono, Stereo, Dual Mono and Dual Stereo as well as 4 channel to store your sound. This recorder has an unbalanced 3.5mm stereo output to connect to your camcorder.
Another great feature of this recorder is that it has power options - you can run it on 4 AAA batteries, an optional battery pack or an AC Adaptor.
Taping live music or shooting video the TASCAM DR-60 DMKII is simple to do. The tripod socket beneath and tripod bolt above allows for easy connection your video recorder equipment and it is great as a guitar recorder. The DR60 DMKII gives excellent sound quality and plenty of gain for soft instruments. The DR-60 DMKII is best used on a tripod and not held in your palm, but if that is your thing then this is a great recorder.
8. Zoom H4n Pro 4-Channel Handy Recorder
The Pro4 Audio Digital is Zoom recorders next step up from the original and much loved H4 and they are remarkably similar at first glance. The Zoom Pro is considered one of the best field recorders on the market. The H4n PRO r fits into your hand easily, the screen is clear and the back light bright. The PRO is slightly heavier than its predecessor and the body is now black and rubberised.
The H4n PRO retains all the versatility of the H4n, with major improvements to the microphone preamps which will draw new users and encourage old users to upgrade.
One of the downsides of the PRO is that it does not come with accessories, however if you are upgrading from the H4n then all the accessories will fit the PRO as well so it is not a big issue.
The PRO has good recording capacity on either SD or SDHC cards up to 32GB, it comes with the same X/Y mics and two XLR/TRS inputs and the XLR points are now lockable, a great improvement from the H4n.
If you loved the H4n then the new Zoom H4n PRO 4-Channel Handy Portable Recorder is the next logical step you need to take. With its improved preamps and low noise floor levels it is sure to replace the H4n as the most popular on the market.
9. Zoom H2n Handy Portable Digital Audio Recorder
The H2n is a very versatile portable device that can be used for any kind of audio recording as well as being jam packed full of great features.
This portable recorder boasts 5 built-in microphones, more than any other recorder and this allows you 4 selectable recording patterns. This is one of the most flexible recorders on the market giving you options between traditional stereo, 2-channel surround, 4-channel surround and mid side stereo mode.
The H2n has an amazing storage capacity allowing you to capture up to 50 hours of WAV or 555 hours of stereo 128Kbps MP3 files. It also offers 20 hours of continuous recording using only 2AAA batteries.
The ZOOM H2n comes with a wired remote control which reduces handling noise and gives you the cleanest audio possible.
A really great feature is a data recovery function, so even if your batteries run out, it will automatically restore your data the next time you turn the recorder on.
The Zoom H2n is a very compact device fitting comfortably into the palm or your hand and allowing you to take it anywhere at any time.
If you are looking for a recorder that is affordable and feature packed then look no further than the Zoom H2n. It is easy to handle and all the mic settings are very straight forward and simple to operate. Easy to as a regular mic and great in the field.
10. TASCAM DR-100mkIII Digital Recorder
This is one of the best TASCAM recorders on the market. The standout feature on the digital recorder is the dual battery system which gives one of the longest recording times available for any audio recorders. It is compact and versatile and its construction is rugged and stable. Unlike some of the other Digital Recorders on this list the DR-100MKIII comes with added accessories such as a USB cable, windsock and a wireless remote control to name a few.
The TASCAM DR-100 is only a 2 channel recorder but the audio quality still remains high. This recorder is capable of recording 192 kHz/24-bit which is the highest-common standard resolution. The DR-100 MKIII can record up to 128GB to a SDXC card.
The DR-100MKIII also features dual inputs via its Amphenol XRL/Combo jacks with switchable phantom power.
It comes with a large LCD Screen and a fully comprehensive menu that is easily navigated using the Jog Wheel.
This TASCAM recorder also gives you the great feature of Dual Recording Mode, so it will simultaneously capture a lower level safety track while you record at the highest levels you wish. It also gives added protection against spikes in noise levels during recording.
If you are looking for a Digital Recorder that has great sound, is rugged and versatile and comes packed with features then the TASCAM DR-100 MKIII is the one you are looking for. It also has the longest recording times which makes it a great field recorder. The fact that it comes with accessories makes it one of the best value for your money on the market.
Buyers Guide Questions
What is a Portable Recorder?
Digital Portable Recorders are the replacement for your digital devices such as smartphones – and for older technologies such as Dictaphones or Cassettes. These devices are designed to record any audio, including voice, music, and sound effects without the need to carry around the heavy reel-to-reel recorders of yesteryear – or the bulky, expensive portable field recorders that sound techs had to use in the past.
Designed to be handheld, digital recorders are usually very compact and come with a minimum of two microphones with good range and sensitivity, suitable for capturing hi-fidelity stereo or mono sound. If that’s not good enough you can plug in most other mics or audio sources using the supplied line-in connectors. There is a range of different recorders that offer different capacities, battery life, clarity, and the ability to connect with other devices.
Most of these handheld portable devices accept standard storage devices such as SD, micro SD, or even SDXC cards, making it quick and easy to swap out cards in the field and give yourself virtually unlimited storage capacity (or as much as you can afford to buy cards for). Most run on standard AA or AAA batteries and some do come with alternative power sources such as AC adaptors.
What is a Portable Recorder used for?
A portable recorder does one thing – but it does it well. It records broadcast or recording quality sound. This sound may be destined for the ambient soundtrack of a movie or documentary. It may be a recording of an important speech or interview. It may be the jamming session that grows into your band’s chart-topping single. The type of sound recorded depends on the needs of the person using it.
Because it is small and compact, a portable recorder is easy to carry around and adds value to any professional person in the field, on the move, out of the office. Journalists, documentary filmmakers, sound effects artists, musicians, educators, and even students can find a use for one.
Writing down information in meetings and lectures can be distracting and prevent full participation in the discussion. This is where the digital portable recorder comes into its own for dictation, or to record legal or business proceedings. In fact, dictating notes is one of the most popular uses for digital voice recorders. Then there are the students that do not want to miss a word said in lectures.
Writers and journalists are never without their handy portable digital recorder as when an idea strikes they know they have to get it recorded or it could be lost. For journalists who are often having to give accurate quotations in their articles, this is an invaluable piece of equipment.
They can be a boon for the disabled – especially for the visually impaired, who can use them with tasks that they may be difficult for a person who has limited or no sight. This will enable them to read messages you need to leave for them or just simply give instructions on tasks needed to be done.
Musicians are one of the main users of digital handheld portable recorders. These handy devices are used to record jamming sessions, rehearsals, and live shows. They allow the musician to connect with their computers using USB cables and use their software to do mixing and editing. It would seem essential that any musician would need to have one of these devices in their arsenal of equipment.
Then, of course, there is an audio entertainer that likes to do podcasts and upload to the internet. These digital audio devices are easy to edit and upload to the internet in digital format. This would include people who like to make their own recordings of live music concerts they attend or live shows. It is not always easy to do with your standard smartphone or tablet and the clarity of sound is often poor when using these devices. A good handheld portable recorder does the job without any problem.
The higher end recorders are used by professionals in recording studios, at concerts or for sound on video shoots. Each person will have a different need for their device, and each device has qualities that would endear them to different people.
How do I Choose the Best Portable Recorder?
When you are trying to decide which portable recorder is right for you there are many different issues to take into consideration. Are you looking to record mainly music, voice or general sound such as sound effects? You will have to decide what the most important feature that you will need when acquiring this type of device.
Here are some things to think about:
- Size: do you need to use the recorder whilst physically mobile (walking around)? If so then you should make sure it fits comfortably in your hand – or that it comes with a carry strap. Remember though that smaller size might mean you have to compromise in some other areas – e.g. less battery capacity, less robust, less capable microphones, etc.
- Storage capacity: are you going to record long sessions (long lectures, meetings, concerts, etc.)? If so then you need a device that can take the larger capacity storage cards – there’s nothing more irritating than having to change a card in the middle of a recording session and there’s also a good chance that if you have to do so you will lose that all important quote, fact or piece of musical brilliance. It’s also important to check how easy it is to replace a card – your director/band / interview subject will not be impressed if you spend a long time fiddling with your device and generally slowing up proceedings.
- Battery life: the same applies here as for storage capacity – though basically, the longest possible battery life is always desirable. There’s a limit to how many spare batteries you can carry around with you. If you want to work in a studio or fixed location then a device that has an AC adapter and can work from the mains is a distinct advantage.
- Microphones: the quality of the built-in microphones determines the quality of the default recording. What is their field arc of coverage? Is it adjustable? What gain levels do the mics offer? Are they suited for omnidirectional capture (all voices in a meeting room) or focussed stereo recording? How often are you going to use the built-in mic or will you rather use external mics connected using line-in? Tech specs are also not going to help you understand how the microphones perform. This is best researched by browsing/searching support sites (rather than reviews) where real users of the recorders discuss their experiences and problems. If, for example, musicians complain but documentary sound techs don’t then you know which purpose the mics are best suited for!
Of course, the tech specs only tell half of the story. There’s also the user experience (how easy is it to change settings, is the menu system simple and logical?) and the finished product judged by the user’s need.
If you are a musician then you would be looking for the best music recorder that you can get. Some recorders do better with voice and do not pick up the nuances needed to be a good handheld music recorder. Musicians require a device that can cope with a variety of situations, be recording both vocal and instrumental. Most musicians require something that they can record their band at rehearsals or at live gigs. A good guitar recorder would need something with an X/Y microphone configuration as this results in good focused stereo quality recordings.
If you are looking for a voice recorder for meetings or lectures then you will look for one that records the clearest, most “true to life” audio in all directions (it needs a good omnidirectional mic). In this category, you can look at the TASCAM DR-40 vs Zoom H4n recorders as they arguably fit into the best voice recorder category. When looking for one of these handheld recorders there are a number of features that are essential. You will need something that is lightweight, easy to carry, and robust. In other words, easy to carry around in your pocket. It should have easy to use controls and a good backlit screen to enable a great user interface.
The other major consideration is the budget. If you are a professional and your livelihood depends on having the best quality then the budget is not an issue. However, if you are a musician looking to start out in the industry and need a home studio, you can look at the lower budgeted handheld devices to get you started. Prices of portable recorders can vary from very low end to extremely high-end devices with loads of features and accessories. So depending on your requirements you need not buy the most expensive handheld portable recorder to get a great quality audio recording.
When looking for the best portable recorder for you take your time to do research on all of the recorders available for your needs. If you are looking for a certain brand such as TASCAM or ZOOM research which one is best for the type of recording you need, you can go to their websites for more information.
Best Portable Recorders
This is a very debatable topic as each portable recorder has its own pros and cons. We have listed above some of the options from Zoom and TASCAM and each of these are great in their own way. The best portable digital recorder for you would depend on your own needs and requirements. What are you going to use the recorder for? Are you a journalist on the go who needs a recorder that can record clearly in the field and is always in your pocket for those unexpected interviews? Are you a videographer who is looking for a portable recorder that will allow you to attach it to your video recording equipment?
There are plenty of reviews out there that will compare the TASCAM DR-05 vs ZOOM H1 and list the similarities and differences between these two recorders, but ultimately the choice is yours and you need to take the time to consider what it is you need in a recorder that will determine which one is the best. Are you looking for the best digital voice recorder, best digital music recorder, or simply an all-rounder that you can use for any situation?
The last criteria, of course, is budget? The higher end recorders with all the bells and whistles are generally used by professionals to capture audio clips. Then there are the lower budget recorders that are not as fancy or intricate but still do the job adequately. Again it is what you are looking for that counts. We looked at various different criteria and came up with three top options according to each.
if you are a professional audio tech, a journalist or a musician you simply cannot be without a good portable audio recorder in your tool kit. It is also a necessity for any professional businessman or student who needs accurate clear recordings of meetings, lectures or legal proceedings. For the man on the street that loves to make their own recordings of live concerts, this is a much better option than trying to use your smartphone or tablet, clear audio that you can edit, will go a long way to ensure you document your memories.If you liked our article on digital recorders, please share and comment below what your favorite product is.