What does a portable digital recorder have in common with a farm-fresh egg? You can use an egg to glaze an apple pie, cook a Denver omelet or to make fresh gnocchi. Likewise, you can use a portable digital recorder to capture live music, record the sound in a video shoot or to create a podcast in the field. Just like eggs, portable digital recorders are used by all kinds of different people to do different things. Sadly, you cannot incubate a portable digital recorder and hatch a baby chicken.
Portable digital recorders have become widely popular, and there is a slew of different models on the market—some of which look almost identical to one another. It’s become really difficult to tell the difference between them. This article will help you understand the little details that differentiate the available options, so you can find the one that suits your needs perfectly. B&H InDepth also has a non-model-specific guide that explains various features, inputs, outputs and settings in the Portable Digital Recorders Buying Guide.
There are several features that most of these recorders share. Most of them can record in different resolutions, from high-quality 24-bit/96kHz WAV files to compressed MP3s. All of them are compatible with both Windows and Mac computers and are small enough for handheld use. However, there are some features you may assume every recorder has, when in fact they do not.
The recorders are presented in reverse alphabetical order, with dedicated feature charts for each of the manufacturers. You can use the charts to quickly find the features you need. For example, if you want to mount a recorder to the shoe of a camera with an adapter or a multi-function ball head, you can scan the tables for models that feature tripod mounts. Accessories are suggested for every model as well, including crucially important fluffy windscreens, which are required to create clean recordings outdoors.
The Zoom H1 is an ultra-compact, candy-bar-sized recorder. Even though it’s small in size, it comes with great sounding stereo microphones, and features a mini mic/line input for external sound sources. The H1 was designed to be easy to use, with a single Record button on its face, and hardware controls for every setting. It runs on a single AA battery, and includes a 2GB microSD card (it’s compatible with microSDHC cards up to 32GB). There are fluffy windscreens available for the H1 from K-Tek, WindTech and Rycote.
The Zoom H2n builds on the popularity of the original H2. It can record in surround, be used as a USB mic, and has a built-in tuner and metronome. The H2n ups the ante by adding an additional mic and the ability to record in Mid-Side mode (for complete info on this feature, check out this B&H InDepth review). The H2n also has a built-in speaker, a backlit display, ergonomic design and a dial to control input levels. The Zoom APH-2n accessory package is available separately and includes an AC adapter, remote, case, windscreen and more. K-Tek makes a fluffy windscreen specifically for the H2n.
The Zoom H4n is the first portable digital recorder in this article that features XLR inputs. The H4n is a popular choice for recording the sound in both HDSLR video shoots and for live music, thanks to its ability to record four channels simultaneously, two from the built-in stereo X/Y mics, and two from inputs. In addition to the combo XLR inputs, there is also a 3.5mm stereo mic input. The H4n can supply condenser mics with phantom power, has Hi-Z inputs for guitar and bass, built-in effects, variable-speed playback, and can act as a USB audio interface. Zoom also makes a remote control for extra flexibility.
The H4n has a wide variety of available accessories. Petrol and Porta Brace both make compatible Cordura utility cases for it. Fluffy windscreens are available from K-Tek and Rycote. For connection to HDSLR camera microphone inputs, Sescom and Whirlwind make 25dB attenuator cables with 1/8” stereo headphone taps; allowing you to monitor as you record.
The Tascam DR-05 appeals to musicians on a budget. The built-in fixed omnidirectional stereo mics can handle recording loud sounds (the mics won’t overload in a loud rehearsal room), and the unit has a handy instrument tuner. DR-05 users often praise its extra long battery life and ease of use. An AC adapter and an external battery pack are both available separately.
The Tascam DR-07mkII is also known for being easy to use and having exceptionally long battery life. Its built-in stereo cardioid microphones can be adjusted to record in two positions: X/Y or A/B. The A/B position gives you a wider stereo field, which is beneficial for recording music. The X/Y position has a tighter stereo field, and is useful for general purpose recording. An AC adapter and an external battery pack are both available separately.
The Tascam DR-40 is a standout recorder with its two locking combo XLR inputs, phantom power and simultaneous four track recording. You can record with its two inputs and its adjustable stereo cardioid mics at the same time, or you can create a duplicate “safety” version of two tracks internally at a lower input level setting. This way, if you get a spike in volume and your main recording distorts, the second copy that you’re recording internally will still be viable. An AC adapter, external battery pack, and a wired remote are all available separately. The Petrol PS615 Cordura case can provide protection between recordings.
The Tascam DR-100mkII features four built-in microphones; two cardioid and two omnidirectional. Additionally, two locking XLR inputs with low-noise preamplifiers provide 3 levels of gain staging and 48V of switchable Phantom power. The DR-100mkII also features 3.5mm jacks for line input, line output, and an S/PDIF input. A switchable limiter protects your tracks from clipping. The Petrol PS615 Cordura case fits the DR-100mkII as well.
The Sony PCM M10 (available in both black and red) is a compact recorder with rugged build quality, high fidelity sound and impressive battery life. The intuitive interface packs a lot of perks into an ultra-compact form factor, including resolution up to 24-bit/96kHz and 4GB of internal memory. Sony makes a carrying case called the CKSM10 that has built-in speakers and a custom fluffy windscreen called the ADPCM2 for outdoor recording.
The Roland R-05 is a well-made, compact recorder in a sturdy aluminum body with features that benefit musicians and new users. A reverb effect is built-in, which helps sweeten the sound for singers and instrumentalists. The R-05 has a “rehearsal” function, which automatically adjusts the recording levels for inexperienced users. There’s a bunch of accessories available for the R-05, such as the OP-R05S silicone case, the PSB6U AC adapter, a custom Rycote fluffy windscreen and the OP-MSA1 microphone stand adapter (which is a useful accessory for any portable digital recorder with a 1/4" tripod thread).
The Roland R-26 features two pairs of built-in stereo mics; one set is omnidirectional, the other set is X/Y. It has a pair of combo XLR and 1/4" TRS inputs that can accept line-level signals, connect external microphones and even supply Phantom power. There is a 3.5mm stereo mic input as well. The R-26 is capable of recording six channels of audio simultaneously, so you can utilize the dual combo XLR inputs and the four built-in mics at the same time. It can also be used as a USB audio interface on a computer for recording music and voice-overs. The OP-R26CW accessory kit is available separately and includes a case, shoulder strap and a fluffy windscreen. Porta Brace also makes a dedicated case for R-26.
The Olympus LS-12 is a very compact PCM recorder, featuring 2GB of internal flash memory, a microSD slot and USB connectivity. It has fixed stereo microphones as well as 3.5mm stereo mic and line inputs. It also features convenient functions for musicians, including metronome, tuner, overdub and pre-recording.
The Olympus LS-14 shares all the LS-12’s features, but increases the internal flash memory to 4GB. The LS-14 also adds an omnidirectional microphone between the stereo pair. The extra mic improves the low-frequency response of your recordings. The LS-14 includes a clip stand and a carrying case.
The Olympus LS-100 is capable of more than you’d ever expect from a handheld recorder. It can create multi-track sessions with up to 999 tracks and edit up to 8 tracks simultaneously. The LS-100 can handle a maximum sound pressure level of 140dB, which is approximately that of a jet engine up close! The two integrated condenser mics have independent level controls. There are also 2 XLR combo jacks with Phantom power available to connect your own mics. The LS-100 has a 4GB of internal memory and an SD Card slot capable of adding up to 64GB more. Olympus makes a wireless remote control for starting, stopping or pausing your recordings.
The Nagra SD looks a lot like a decibel meter, but it’s actually a very powerful recording machine. Tracking to separately available SD cards, it has no capacity limit. It can support the full line of Nagra clip-on mics, which range from omnidirectional in mono to cardioid in stereo, but none are included. The Nagra SD runs on two AA batteries and will last up to 10 hours. It has 3.5mm jacks for stereo mic in, stereo line in and stereo line out, and includes a 3.5mm to XLR cable for connecting an external dynamic microphone.
The Marantz PMD620 MKII is a sturdy, compact portable digital recorder that’s surprisingly lightweight (about four ounces). It has large, tactile buttons and a bright OLED screen. More than anything, this updated version of the PMD620 provides data security, including a device passcode and password-protected file encryption. This is an ideal set of features for any professional who records sensitive or confidential audio, e.g. doctors, lawyers, court reporters, etc. It has some handy transcription features too. You can highlight a segment of a recording and copy it into a new, separate file with the press of a button. Accessories available for the PMD620 MKII include the MM-50 fluffy windscreen, the RC600 wired remote control and the Micro Recorder Pack zippered case.
The Marantz PMD661 MKII has also been updated from its inaugural model to include data security features. It’s a well-rounded digital recorder that’s small enough for handheld use, yet packs enough professional features to make it suitable for field recording. Its XLR inputs are switchable between mic and line level, and can provide mics with 48 volts of phantom power. A coaxial S/PDIF output enables you to patch recordings out digitally. A large OLED screen, its backlit Record button and a pair of 10-segment LED meters allow you to operate the recorder with ease. Rycote makes a fluffy windscreen for the PMD661 MKII, and Marantz makes a wired remote control and dedicated carrying case.
The Korg MR 2 is the only handheld portable digital recorder that can record sound using 1-bit Direct Stream Digital (DSD) formats. It enables you to capture sound at 64 times the sampling rate of a standard compact disc. In addition to being able to create these audiophile-pleasing high-resolution recordings, the MR 2 can also record everything from 24-bit/96kHz WAV files to compressed MP3s. One of the benefits of recording 1-bit DSD files (aside from the fidelity) is that you can convert them into any other format with the included AudioGate software. The built-in X/Y stereo mic can be rotated 210 degrees (so you can point it at the sound source), and an instrument tuner is included to make life a little easier for musicians.
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