The top performers in our review are the Olympus LS-100, the Gold Award winner; the Zoom H6, the Silver Award winner; and the Roland R-26, the Bronze Award winner. Here's more on choosing a digital voice recorder to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of 10 recorders.
Handheld recorders have long been associated with A-level students recording lectures and journalists swarming around athletes for sound bites after a game. Perhaps you think of a physician dictating notes on a patient or a lawyer recording a meeting with a client. However, digital recorders aren't just for recording the voice anymore. These types of simple recordings can be easily achieved with a smartphone. The best digital voice recorders offer more than just a microphone and a digital format.
The best portable recorders are designed for songwriters and musicians. These devices have multi-track recording, built-in tuners and metronomes. They come with XLR/TRS inputs for connecting external microphones and guitars. Some are even designed with video production features with high fidelity microphones fit for a Foley artist – someone who captures sound effects for videos. So whether you're capturing a business meeting or guitar riffs in a hotel room, a digital voice recorder is an excellent way to make sure that you never lose a word, idea or melody. It's a valuable tool for both the practical and the creative.
If you're only recording simple dictations, where the quality of the recording isn't a major concern, then you're better off using your smartphone. Smartphones are equipped with microphones capable of recording audio that is as good as you'd get with most digital voice recorders under $99. With an app, you can dictate your thoughts and record lectures. You can adjust the playback speed and adjust the EQ levels. Smartphones even have the added advantage of easy sharing. Not only can you immediately send a recorded audio file to anyone via text, you can upload it to the internet, a feature lacking in most digital voice recorders.
However, if you're concerned with the quality of your recordings, then you need a digital voice recorder that records in linear PCM audio at a rate of 16 or 24 bits. The recordings you can achieve with a multitrack linear PCM portable recorder is miles ahead of what you'd record using a smartphone. To learn more, read our articles on digital voice recorders.
There are many recording situations to consider when recording audio. Will you be holding the microphone close to your mouth? Will you place it on a table or desk? Will you be recording business meetings where multiple voices are recorded and depth is needed? How loud is the background noise? Are you recording instruments? Since there are so many aspects to consider, the best digital voice recorders need to be versatile, allowing you to record both simple and complex situations.
The best recordings begin and end with the microphone. We evaluated the frequency range of the best microphone, as some portable recorders come with multiple microphones. The best handheld recorders have a frequency range that begins at 20Hz, which is the lowest perceivable note for humans, and reaches as high as 40kHz, which is far beyond the 20kHz ceiling of human hearing. While frequency range doesn't necessarily indicate that it will record accurately, it does provide some indication of the microphone's sensitivity. The microphone should record audio in a linear PCM format at a 24-bit rate, because this creates an accurate digital representation of the original analog frequencies.
The next recording performance feature that we evaluated was the tracks. Lower-end digital voice recorders and smartphones typically only record to one track that has two channels – left and right. Multiple tracks allows you to layer and mix sound just as you would in a recording studio, giving you the most control in complex recording situations like a live performance. Consider this – some of the greatest music from bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were recorded on four-track machines. The best handheld recorders have up to eight tracks. These devices are literally recording studios that you can hold in your hand and take anywhere.
Since a digital voice recorder needs to excel at every recording scenario, we evaluated whether or not each device had the features and quality necessary for dictations, lectures, meetings and musical performances. For simple situations like dictation and lectures, the portable recorder needs to have features like pre-record and voice activation. For complicated scenarios, the device needs to features like Audio/Video syncing and XLR/TRS inputs. Audio/Video syncing allows the device to communicate with video cameras to record in sync with recorded video. XLR/TRS inputs allow you to connect external microphones and musical instruments.
The playback option is the audio file that computers and music players need in order to play the recorded audio through a speaker. Not every audio file is created equal. Some devices include formats like AAC for Macs and WMA for Windows, but the most important formats are WAV and MP3, because these are universal formats. WAV is a lossless format with a quality similar to a CD. The file is large but contains all the nuances of the analog version. An MP3 is a compressed version of the WAV file. It allows you to store more files but sacrifices the audio quality in the process.
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. However, the biggest differentiator between the playback options of the handheld recorders is dead air removal. When the frequency dips below a specified decibel level, the device automatically skips to when the frequency level perks up again. This is helpful when going through recordings of a lecture or meeting where there are many pauses between the voices.
Top Ten Reviews seeks, whenever possible, to evaluate all products and services in hands-on tests that simulate as closely as possible the experiences of a typical consumer. We obtained the units in our comparison either on loan from the companies or through retail purchase. The manufacturers had no input or influence over our test methodology, nor was the methodology provided to any of them in more detail than is available through reading our reviews. Results of our evaluations were not provided to the companies in advance of publication.
After carefully considering the recording performance and the playback options, you should consider additional features like storage, battery life and the support offered by the manufacturer.
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. Rechargeable batteries are also more environmentally friendly.
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.
The Olympus LS-100, Zoom H6 and Roland R-26 clearly proved to be the best digital voice recorders, because they come with high-end microphones capable of recording in all types of situations and offer the most comprehensive lists of playback options available. With multiple tracks and XLR inputs, these devices are recording studios that you can fit in your pocket. Whether you're recording close-range dictations or capturing guitar riffs, they give you the tools to get it done.
If you're looking for an affordable digital voice recorder, you should consider the Zoom H4n or the Yamaha Pocketrak PR7. The H4n costs less than $200 and comes with many of the features you'd find with $300 to $400 recorders, like XLR/TRS inputs for external microphones and guitars. The PR7 is the best handheld recorder under $100. While it doesn't have XLR/TRS inputs, it's fitted with excellent microphones set in the XY position, which provides great stereo imaging to your recordings.
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.