Saturday, March 07, 2015

Portable Audio Recorders 2015/2016 Update

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
--------------------   ----  ----  ----  ---  ---  ---  ---
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

Avisoft Bioacoustics
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.



Anonymous said...

just wanted to say thanks for updating this. I often look in to see if these recorders have gotten any quieter. Unfortunately most haven't :)

robin said...

Well, some brands have improved. The Zoom H6 is a lot quieter than their previous recorders, which were horrendous. The Tascam DR-100 MkII is quieter than their other hand-held models. But there is still room for improvement.

Anonymous said...

It would be interesting to see how the Tascam DR100 mk2 shapes up with these other recorders.

robin said...

The DR100 Mk2 is there on the chart. Apparently it has better pre-amps than previous small Tascam recorders. But it has no PIP and the 3.5mm input is line only. So it doesn't support electret mics, as are commonly used. Also it has a fixed -6dB limiter that you cannot disable. These are some odd design decisions.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this 2015 update !!!
Was there a con for the Roland R-05 not being in the test ?
Despite a very poor built I enjoyed my Edirol R-09. But it was stolen and I have to buy a new Pocket recorder. Rignt now I am looking at the PCM-M10 (even if the design is not too recent). Still thinking...
Your reviews and the comments are helpfull.

Anonymous said...

By the way this capcha is dreadfull !
We are dealing with sound here. Did you think that some people could be sight deficient ? I had to ask for assistance :-(

robin said...

Unfortunately that is provided by Blogger, the host I use. I agree that an audio option should ALWAYS be available. Sorry for the inconvenience, but I was flooded with spam before turning on that option.

robin said...

I believe I removed the Roland R-5, along with many other models that were on my longer chart previously, since it is no longer available in Europe. It was a decent recorder with good input noise specs. I think you can find them for half-price on sell-out in the USA.

Hans J Albertsson said...

What about the tascam dr-680mkII?

Is that even in the running?

Featurewise it would fit my needs perfectly.

robin said...

The first model was plagued with circuit board problems and bad isolation, resulting in noise when using phantom power. That's why I didn't even include it in the list. The Mk II apparently has these improvements: better mic pres, can use SDXC cards, dual recording function (at two levels to prevent overs... great feature!), and extended battery life. I presume these were a cover to fix the fundamental issues, since Tascam would be unlikely to go to the bother otherwise. But as I know no-one who has used one I can do no more than parrot the press release.

Anonymous said...

Hi Robin! Thnx for donig this! I like your reviews very much, all of them.

...but I need your help now, please. I can't decide which recorder to buy and I never had one before. I need something portable, one of those pocket sized recorders, which i'd use for recording ambients and fx for my music //sample manipulations. I'm planing to use only internal mics, for now i guess. So, I was thinking to buy either the LS-11 or LS-3. What do you think?

robin said...

The newer Olympus recorders do not have the same build quality (more plastic) or preamp quality (more noise) of the LS-10/11. However they are cheaper. I have not used the newer models for any critical recording and have not done extensive side-to-side comparisons. All I know is, when I came to buy another recorder recently I sourced a used LS-11 and am perfectly happy with that.

Anonymous said...

Thnx for answering! I'm pretty sure i'm gonna buy the LS-11. The only reason why i even consider buying the LS-3 was its tiny size (and the pre-record function). I found on this site a direct comparison files between the LS-5 and the LS-3:
For its size the LS-3 is really great little beast! But the LS-5 sounds more interesting, more alive and more real ...even with its infamous hi-freq bump and low roll off.

Unknown said...

I found a friend who sale me his used FR2-LE for 250euro, edirol r-44 for 350euro and FOSTEX FR2 for 250euro all in good condition.I choose the the big FR2 because i believe its a good deal than the others,what do you think?give me your advice.All this for short films and documentaries.

robin said...

Wow, that's some friend! Those are all good prices. For my purposes the R-44 would not be quiet enough. But for your work very quiet pre-amps may be less important than the usability. For instance, there's an optional timecode module for the FR2 and that might be going cheap if you can find it at all! Otherwise, the FR-2 I know little about, since it was already discontinued when I bought my FR-2LE.

Really, your application is different enough from my usage that I am not the best person to advise. If you can try them out, see which works best for you. Technique and microphones will be more important in the long run.

billy bob said...

Hello, Thank you for all your articles!!

if you had about 100 to 150/200eu to spend, would you try to find a used ls-3, or ls-5 or sonyM10+mic? Or would you even consider the H1 or yamaha PR7 (+mic?)?
Uses will be from nature recording to occasionnal very loud and bass heavy music festivals, to casual voice recording and wind instrument rehearsing/comping? I know i'm asking for the moon here :) You have pretty much sold me on the ls, but i'm wondering if the ls-3 suffers from bass rolloff (since it has the bass omni mic) and another question is the SPL of the Yamaha PR7 and ls-3/5/11, if you have any information...
Thank you in advance for your advice :)

Liza May said...

I record interviews in noisy settings; sometimes conference speakers, also with much ambient noise (including voices.) You seem to recommend the Olympus LS 11 over the newer LS 12 and 14, although your table appears to show that these are better. My apologies if I'm missing something that should be obvious. I hope you, or a forum member, can help. I'm looking to purchase a recorder within the next few days. (I'll mention that I'd considered the LS 100, despite it's huge price, but am not, now, because of your great review here - huge thank yous!)

robin said...

The LS-12 and 14 are physically larger and have plastic build, compared to the former metal casings. They also have slightly worse pre-amps. One thing they do offer is a handy automatic recording setting.

The best way to overcome ambient noise is with good microphone choice and technique. Getting the mic close to your source and excluding other sounds will do much to improve the clarity of an interview. If using the built-in mics, I recommend some sort of hand-held stand/monopod so you can hold the recorder directly at the speaker's mouth.

robin said...

Billy, sorry for the delay in responding. Your message was lost in my spam folder. I have no experience with the Yamaha. Of the others the bass rolloff is really not a big issue even if it exists. In most cases one *wants* to roll off the bass.

On that budget you are not going to find a used M10 and also a decent microphone. If you want quiet inputs, that leaves the Olympus recorders.

Billy Bob said...

Thanks Robin,
well, I found a used M10 "like new" on amazon for 160 eu.
I'll get it and get a decent mic later, condenser maybe.

robin said...

I have just updated this article with three recorders that also force some changes in my opinions.

Liza May said...

Thank you so much for this article, and your updates to it. Your collection here, and your comments, remain the most comprehensive and thoughtful reference available. Thanks so much.

mo said...

Hi, what do you think of the new Tascam DR-100 MKIII? Apparently Tascam have made a significant improvement in preamp quality over the previous DR-100 recorders.

robin said...

I haven't used it nor run across anyone using it yet. Most people I know are now happy with what they have, so there is not the same urge to spend on new gear.

robin said...

Given the interest here, I have written about the most recent Tascam recorder:

Anonymous said...

Nice and useful blog!
Do you have an idea about the Equivalent Input Noise (EIN) and dynamic range at max. gain for the new Zoom 4HnPro? It has the same preamps and AD/DA converters than the H5 (and H6). Since the new Tascam DR100MK3 is on the market now, the MK2 is a cheaper than ever, so it will be nice to know if still is better than the Zoom H4nPro that is US$100 cheaper or if the H5, at US$20 more is the best option.
Best regards

Gennadij said...

Good stuff here, thanks for that! I'm thinking about upgrading my ancient md & diy binaural electrets set. Wondering if Roland cs-10em omnis and some budget recorder woulb be better? I had R05, sold it. I didn't like it any better than md...

robin said...

MD in the version without compression actually had excellent sound. The single-chip converters for 16 bits were generally better than the ones we have, even now, for 24 bits. That said, the recorders I have examined are far more convenient than MD.

robin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

What do you think of new Zoom F6?
Quite small, quite capable, good power options.

robin said...

The Zoom F6 certainly looks interesting, but I have not tried one. Despite its size, I would consider it to be in a different class of recorders, one that is designed less for the pocket and more as part of a larger rig.

The most recent smaller recorder I wrote about is already four years old! This segment of the market seems to have died off.

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