In this post I will address some of those concerns and articulate my thoughts in a different way.
To start, here is a quick comparison of the Olympus LS-11 versus the Sony PCM-M10. For more details see the previous article.
* internal memory: 8GB / 4GB
* build quality: excellent / very good
* wind shields provided: YES / NO
* mono recording option: YES / NO
* interface: excellent / needs work
* form factor: smaller, lighter / wider, heavier
* sound-activated recording: YES / NO
* pre-record buffer: NO / YES
* cross-memory recording feature: NO / YES
* compatibility with pro input level (+4dBV): NO / YES
* mic pre-amp: bass roll-off built in / no such issue
* mics: cardioid (higher self-noise, good sound stage) / omni (lower self-noise, poor sound stage)
In summary: The Sony has the most uncompromising sound quality and low-noise mics that are better for ambiance. The Olympus has the better build quality and usability, with mics that are better for most common uses, including interviews and solo musicians. That's why I have both, actually. The Olympus gets used for interviews and the Sony for external mic recordings where ultimate fidelity is a requirement.
Let's get some perspective: both of these devices are amazing! The bottom line is that you will be happy with either unless your requirements are very specific. The flip-side of this is that neither can possibly compete with professional recorders many times larger in size and many times harder on your pocket-book. If you need phantom power, XLR inputs, time-code etc. you are looking in the wrong place. But if you want to:
* record your band practising
* capture day-to-day sounds around you
* document a meeting
* do some street interviews
...then these are great tools.
Just look at some of the comments from the last article. "I am an ornithologist working in a tropical rainforest..." "I'm an aspiring opera singer and I'd be using the machine to record my practice sessions..." These devices have many applications. Some of the recordings I made with these made it into my Masters thesis composition. I can assure you that the sound quality in no way impeded my progress with the adjudicating panel!
So, yes, these can be professional tools when used within their limitations. And what are these? The microphones, mostly. If you want better recordings then get better microphones. If you need to capture a bird song in the distance they you need a parabolic reflector. If you are tracking video then put a shotgun on a boom and target the speaker. If you are doing street interviews get a solid dynamic that can take rain and a bonk on the head. If you want ambiance then find the mic with the lowest noise floor you can.
It is all about mics. And the microphones can cost many times the price of the recorder. And then you will need cable adapters, stands, wind shields and maybe an external power supply. Pretty soon the recorder is the least of your concerns. At this point getting a diploma in audio engineering starts looking like a pretty good upgrade to your equipment!
This is why I cannot offer any definitive advice to people looking for a recorder and microphone combination to use in a specific context. This depends on budget, degree of knowledge required on the part of the recordist and the specifics of the recording situation, none of which I can easily assimilate into a Yes or No answer. I have experience with my gear in my situations with my knowledge base. This is unlikely to directly transfer to you. Still, I do my best!
Regarding the Wingfield audio samples
One of the previous respondents referenced the Wingfield site and their comparison audio files. Despite the care they took in setting up the recording sessions (and the tasty cello playing) there are two problems with comparing recorders based on what you hear on their site.
First, you are listening to compressed MP3 files, and not even that high a bit rate. If I had to use mp3s I would prefer 320kbps to 192kbps. But I wouldn't use MP3s, since these have the very obvious effect of removing difference. Recordings will inevitably sound more similar than they would in their original uncompressed format. I can understand that they do this for bandwidth reasons, but I wish they provided the full suite of recordings for download in uncompressed PCM files, possibly using a third-party site like archive.org.
The second issue is that these recordings will tell you more about the quality of the built-in mics than the capabilities of the recorders themselves. As I have already said, the microphones are the weak link in the chain; none have stellar frequency ranges or flat responses. Thus these recordings only act as a rough-and-ready indicator of the great sound (compared to previously technologies in this price range) that all of these recorders manage. Unfortunately I don't judge them as useful for any other purpose.
Conclusion and Further Reading
For a quick overview you can read my article Capturing Sound For Video, which outlines the usual upgrade path, from built-in mics up to a professional rig. I also have a summary of Interview Microphones. Other good resources include the Nature Recordists and Phonography Yahoo groups.
Let's continue this useful discussion below. Share any particular successes you've had with these recorders and specific mic combinations. And if this has been useful to you, saved you time or bother, then please donate a small amount using the button in the sidebar. Thank you!