Most people associate handheld recorders with journalists swarming for sound bites from an athlete or students recording an important lecture. Perhaps you imagine a doctor dictating notes on a patient or a lawyer recording a meeting with a client. Maybe you think of a songwriter recording melodies or a writer brainstorming for a story. Whether you're recording a work meeting or a live performance of a band, a digital voice recorder is an excellent tool for making sure that you never lose a word, idea or melody. It's a valuable tool for the practical and the creative.
Since there are many different recordable situations, the best digital voice recorders are versatile, with features designed for simple to complex recordings. The Olympus LS-100, Zoom H6 and Roland R-26 are excellent examples of digital voice recorders designed to deliver the highest-quality audio in every situation, whether it's close-range dictation or multitrack recordings for a podcast. To learn more, read our articles on digital voice recorders.
In recent years, the smartphone has largely replaced the digital voice recorder as the preferred recording method. It makes sense – you always have your smartphone near you, and it has a microphone capable of recording simple situations as well as a cheap digital voice recorder would. As a result, we considered voice recorders that provide more value than using a smartphone alone would to record audio. This applies to the recording quality, features and formats. Below are the criteria we considered for our digital voice recorder review.
Accurate recordings begin with the microphone's frequency response and the recording format. The best portable recorders have a frequency range from as low as 20Hz to as high as 40kHz. It should be recorded in a linear PCM format with a 16- or 24-bit rate. This is an accurate digital representation of the original analog frequencies. The files will be large but full of detail that includes the nuances of an audio recording.
Next, you should consider the number of tracks that you can record to on each audio file. Multiple tracks allow you to layer and mix sound just as you would in a recording studio. This gives you the most control in complex recording situations like a live performance. Some of the greatest music from bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were recording on four-track machines. The best handheld recorders have up to eight tracks. They are practically portable recording studios.
A digital voice recorder needs to excel at simple situations like dictation, lectures and meetings. This requires features like pre-record and voice activation. The best digital voice recorders also excel at recording musical performances, rehearsals, songwriting sessions and audio for video by syncing with cameras as an upgrade to the existing microphones. This includes features like XLR/TRS inputs and low-cut filters.
You only record something so that you can eventually play it back. This requires file formats for the audio. Some devices include formats like AAC for Macs and WMA for Windows, but the most important formats are WAV and MP3, because these are the universal formats. The WAV format is a lossless format with a quality similar to a CD, while the MP3 is a compressed version, which sacrifices audio quality for storage space.
Variable speed playback is an important feature for transcription because it allows you to slow down or speed up the audio. A looping feature is important for reviewing information repeatedly, and overdubbing allows you to fix mistakes or comment over an existing track.
Storage & Battery Life
Storage capacity ranges from 2GB to 16GB. The amount of storage that each device has depends on the quality and length of the audio files. For example, if you're recording in high-quality 24-bit WAV files, an hour-long recording of a band's live performance will nearly fill up 2GB. As such, your digital voice recorder should give you the option of adding storage through an SDHC or SDXC slot. The SDHC slot allows you to add up to 32GB, while the SDXC slot can add up to 2TB.
Most digital voice recorders use standard AA or AAA batteries and have a battery life from 11 to 37 hours. The best devices use rechargeable batteries so that you don't have to change them so often.
Help & Support
Your digital voice recorder should come with a minimum of a one-year warranty. You should also have no trouble contacting support through phone and email. The best companies provide tutorials, manuals, downloads to update firmware and a FAQs page. Handheld recorders are complicated devices. It's important to get as much help as possible to maximize the features' potential.
It doesn't matter if you're looking for a practical way of recording a speaker at a business conference or for a creative way to write melodies to a new song – a versatile digital voice recorder is an excellent and powerful tool for recording audio. You'll never lose a word, idea or sound bite again.