Some of my most popular posts on this blog have concerned digital audio recorders. Between 2008 and 2010 companies released a steady stream of new models, utilising 24-bit A/D and SD card storage. These recorders were a godsend to those of us interested in field recording, since now we had access to smaller, more efficient, and less expensive units. It is no coincidence that field recording has flourished in the last five to seven years. This is enabling technology.
Most of the new recorders were targeted at the high SPL regime of band practice, live music, or interviews. Their microphone pre-amps were designed to withstand high signal level without distortion, but tended to be relatively noisy at low input levels.
My goal was to determine which models were fit for field recording. I bought several and borrowed others. I read extensively across all available information sources, some of which I list at the end of this post. Ultimately I made a choice perfect for my own practice, the Olympus LS-5 (or LS-11, or LS-10, all variants on fundamentally the same recorder). My detailed articles and comparison tables enabled others with different priorities to make their own decisions.
I've been rather silent on this topic in the last few years, for the simple reason that there have been no outstanding break-through in this area. Nonetheless, recent discussions on social media make this a good time to update my comparison table. I'll also pull together a list of historical articles, since they contain much information that is still useful.
My table sorts affordable recorders in order of increasing size. I've estimated the volume in cubic mm by multiplying the linear dimensions. Mass in grams is listed alongside the retail price. For this table I've switched from dollars to Euro, taken from German store Thomann. Defunct models have been omitted, although you might still find them on the secondary market.
The list is divided into three categories. Pocket recorders are less than 200 cubic mm, hence small enough to carry with you at all times. None of these are large enough to accommodate XLR sockets, instead providing a 3.5mm stereo input with plug-in power (PIP), perfect for powering small electret microphones. They also include built-in microphones, sometimes of surprisingly good quality.
Hand recorders are too big for any but the largest pockets, but are nonetheless still lightweight. All have built-in microphones and most have XLR connections, so you can hook up studio mics that require up to 48V. (Though there's no guarantee a portable recorder can provide that much juice.)
The largest recorders are carried slung over the shoulder, generally in their own protective bag. All have XLR jacks but none have built-in microphones suitable for recording (some have slate mics).
The Sound Devices 702 is included as a baseline for comparison. It goes without saying that anyone who doesn't mind the size (and has the cash) should simply buy this excellent machine.
The final column is in many ways the most important. This indicates the absolute value of the Equivalent Input Noise (EIN) in dBU, A-weighted. The higher the number the better. While this figure is not definitive (no single number could be), it is an incredibly handy indication of pre-amp quality.
EIN depends on the gain structure and input socket used. The best-possible value for each recorder has been noted. I am entirely indebted to Avisoft Bioacoustics for these measurements.
POCKET VOL MASS EURO XLR PIP MIC EIN -------------------- ---- ---- ---- --- --- --- --- Olympus LS-7 / 3 72 90 160 - + + 118 Olympus LS-11 139 165 200 - + + 122 Sony PCM-M10 161 187 177 - + + 122 Marantz PMD620 MkII 164 170 300 - + + 112 Olympus LS-12 165 170 155 - + + 120 Olympus LS-14 165 170 185 - + + 120 HAND VOL MASS EURO XLR PIP MIC EIN -------------------- ---- ---- ---- --- --- --- --- Sony PCM-D100 369 395 680 - + + 127 Olympus LS-100 378 280 345 + + + 125 Tascam DR-40 380 213 177 + - + 107 Samson Zoom H4n 382 280 222 + + + 107 Tascam DR-100 II 428 290 290 + - + 119 SHOULDER VOL MASS EURO XLR PIP MIC EIN -------------------- ---- ---- ---- --- --- --- --- Marantz PMD661 MkII 552 410 570 + - + 125 Roland R-26 605 370 400 + + + 124 Samson Zoom H6 741 410 410 + + + 120? Tascam DR-60D MkII 965 510 200 + + - 120 Tascam DR-70D 995 625 300 + + - 120 SD 702 1176 1000 2800 + - - 130 Zoom F-8 1346 960 1000 + - - 127 Zoom F-4 1346 1030 700 + - - 127 Fostex FR-2LE 1550 907 444 + - - 129 Edirol R-44 1753 1300 850 + - + 113 Tascam DR-680 MKII 1919 1200 600 + - - 129 Tascam HD-P2 3276 900 790 + - - 127
It's amazing to see how Olympus dominate the pocket recorder category. No-one else makes a device as small as the LS-3 (known as the LS-7 in the USA) that still has high quality inputs. For a bit more money one can move up to the Olympus LS-11 which has excellent pre-amps, so long as you use the low sensitivity setting. It's also well-built and easy to use. The PIP is known for being more consistent and better-performing than other brands.
The Sony PCM-M10 has excellent noise figures but poor stereo imaging from the built-in mics. This is not surprising, since these are two omnis placed close together. I recommended this model only if you will be using external microphones. The Marantz unit is the most expensive in this category, despite serious operational issues and poor pre-amps.
For some strange reasons, no-one makes a decent hand-sized recorder. Olympus dropped the ball with the LS-100. It uses a proprietary battery, which is a serious black mark, in my opinion. The excellent EIN results are only attained through the XLR inputs; the stereo PIP recording is poor quality. Plus, it is ugly as sin.
Sony's most recent model, the PCM-D100, is both terribly expensive and lacks XLR inputs. Most people expect them in that price range and form factor. The omission is inexplicable.
While the smaller Zoom recorders have improved, their pre-amps are still not competitive if you are using them for field recording and other low signal applications. The larger Zoom H6 has a spec of 120 dBu, but this does not seem to be confirmed by actual use.
With the DR-100, Tascam have finally released a decent recorder, though noise is 3dB higher than the LS-11. The MkII version adds digital inputs and a line-level option, which shows they are listening to recordists. Unfortunately the cool dual recording feature, available on cheaper units, is missing. But the deal killer is the omission of 3.5mm inputs. We could work around this by using a phantom to PIP adapter, but this is inconvenient and adds points of failure.
Turning to the larger units, I was long happy with the Fostex FR-2LE, a David to the SD 702 Goliath. It's one-sixth the price and recordings sound just as good, though it has nowhere near the functionality and build of a Sound Devices recorder. However the recent arrival of the Zoom F-4 and F-8 have rocked the market. Now you can purchase a multichannel recorder with amazing preamps and a slew of features, for a fraction of the price of the "big boys".
What would be my ideal pocket recorder? Start with the Olympus LS-11. Retain the metal build and easy operation, but increase the robustness of certain switches. Increase the PIP output to a full 5V, so that external microphones would benefit further. Add an analogue-stage limiter. Add a pre-record buffer. Increase start-up speed. Perhaps augment with Tascam's cool dual record function. Done.
And what about a hand-sized recorder? One could start with the form factor and features of the Tascam DR-40. But it would need an incredible improvement to the mic pre-amps (at least 15dB EIN). Add a 3.5mm stereo input with full 5V PIP. The DR-40 is already a four-channel recorder, so with this addition it could be used with four external mics, as opposed to relying on the two internal capsules. This would be a huge increase in functionality. Finally, instead of surface-mount connectors, weld the XLR inputs to the chassis. Done.
Are we likely to see any of these improvements? I am pessimistic. Companies that target the home recording market prefer to chase wizz-bang features over improvements to pre-amps. With their latest unit, Sony have demonstrated that they are off in la-la land. Olympus have apparently just discontinued their best recorder, the LS-11.
But some perspective is in order. Nothing is stopping us from getting out there and making great recordings with what we already have. Good technique and practised listening are just as important as our tools.
Nonetheless, I will continue to monitor the improvements manufacturers make to these intriguing devices.
Included here for convenience, in chronological order, are my previous articles on this subject, containing much more detail.
Summary of Portable Digital Audio Recorders from late 2009, data updated through 2012.
Which Portable Digital Audio Recorder?
Choosing An Audio Recorder For Ultimate Sound Quality
Sony PCM-M10 versus Olympus LS-10 / LS-11 compares my two favourite small units and spawned one of my most popular threads.
Revisiting the Sony PCM-M10 versus Olympus LS-10 / LS-11 Discussion has over 60 comments!
Sony PCM-M10 and Olympus LS-10 Sound Examples
In response to many questions I also wrote a three part article on Microphones For Portable Recorders:
Part 1: Rationale
Part 2: Microphone Types and Powering
Part 3: How To Choose?
Zoom F8: Overview and Features
Zoom F8: Firmware Suggestions
Zoom F8: Powering the recorder
Zoom F8: Comparing power methods
Zoom F4/F8 feature comparison
Proposals for a Zoom F8 Pro
The Wildlife Sound Recording Society
Nature Recordist news group
phonography news group
micbuilders news group
September 2016: Added Zoom F-4, Zoom F-8, and Tascam DR-680. Added "newer article" section. Updated comments on larger recorders.