Sunday, July 14, 2019

Audio Recorders July 2019

It's been some time since I have updated my digital recorder comparison. Though much has changed in the meantime, I have continued to recommend the Olympus LS-10 and LS-11 (basically the same unit), alongside the Sony PCM-M10. But none of these models have been on the market for years.

It's time to reconsider! So read on for my updated recorder comparison table.


Background

I classify recorders by size, as either pocket (less than 200 cubic cm), hand (200 to 500 cubic cm), tripod (500 to 1000), and shoulder (over 1000). This last category I won't consider in this article, but you can read my reports on the Zoom F8 starting at the Field Recording landing page. This is also where anyone who wants more information on microphones and related topics should start reading.

When solid state recorders first entered the market, they were targetted to audio professionals. But most models are now marketed to musicians who want to record band practice, podcasters, students taking notes in class, and amateur film-makers who want better sound than their cameras provide. None of these potential customers need the highest quality pre-amps, and so companies have learned they can compromise on audio quality, expand their feature sets, and appeal to a wider market.

For example, Olympus once offered the excellent metal-body LS-10 and LS-11 units, both of which I own. (There's also the obscure LS-5, which is practically the same.) Then they shifted to manufacturing a line that included the plastic LS-12. These were less dependable; my unit failed quickly. Then they released the LS-P4 and LS-P1, which have relatively poor sound. But what do I mean by "poor"?



Sound Quality

This article targets field recordists. We need the best possible sound reproduction, in particular a low noise floor. Of all the possible performance metrics, I consider the Equivalent Input Noise (EIN) as the most relevant. The EIN indicates the noise level of the pre-amp, as a value below zero dBu. In the table, I've provided the positive quotient. So the larger the number, the quieter the pre-amps.

For these measurements I rely on the good work of Raimund Specht at Avisoft Bioacoustics. Those units not measured can be assumed to be significantly poorer, as confirmed by users.

To be clear, it is over-simplistic to consider the EIN in isolation. If your microphone is noisier than the pre-amp, then improving the EIN won't help your recordings. In addition, this value will change based on how the pre-amp is gain-staged. It is worth experimenting with your recorder to find the optimal settings. This is especially true if your unit has a switch to change sensitivity from low to high. Do not assume one or the other is better until you test.

Nonetheless, I have found that EIN is a good indicator of performance. It agrees with my practical experience of using various recorders. Your mileage will vary, but I have a hard time using a model with an EIN worse than -120 dBu.



Features

With the exception of the MixerFace, all of the recorders in this list have built-in microphones. However, I recommend you always use external mics. This way you can reduce handling noise, get the mics closer to the source for hotter signal, experiment with positioning, and improve overall quality. Since I never use built-in mics, the quality of these does not effect how I evaluate a unit.

In this day and age, there are very few features that differentiate units. High-pass filters, pre-record buffers, and digital limiters are now standard. All recorders support 24-bit recording with sampling rates up to 96 kHz. Thus, of the many features that might be compared, I have highlighted only two.

The first feature is the type and amount of storage. This includes built-in RAM, SD cards, and microSD cards. I dislike the latter as being too small and fiddly to effectively use in the field, but you might not mind. (Good luck swapping them with gloves on!)

While all the units can run off some sort of DC adapter, the table indicates the mobile power options. I much prefer recorders that take standard AA batteries. I have a large supply of these in high-capacity rechargeable form. In a pinch, disposable AA cells are available worldwide in even the most obscure locations. Whereas built-in Li-Ion batteries are not only wasteful, but represent a point of failure if you are venturing far from wall power. Yes, you can bring along portable battery banks, but that's more weight and bother. It seems to rather defeat the purpose of using a small recorder.

I will not attempt to evaluate ergonomics, even though this is one of the more important aspects of using a recorder. You should try to get some hand-on time with a device before committing to it. I very much prefer solid dials for recording levels, as opposed to those units where you need to press buttons multiple times to achieve the same ends. It is critical to have a strong confirmation of when you are in recording mode, plus a visible indicator of input overload. Small icons on screens are nowhere near as functional as bright LEDs.



Conclusion

The table makes it clear why I continue to recommend discontinued recorders. In the pocket size there are no contemporary models that are as quiet as the older Olympus and Sony units. If you wish the versatility of standard batteries, a good choice might be the Roland R-07, even if this is marketed to mobile phone users.

In the handheld category, the Tascam DR-100 Mk III stands out. This recorder can use standard batteries, has both PIP and XLR inputs, and includes a dual safety track recording feature. I find this so useful on the Zoom F-8. If I had to buy another recorder, this would be my choice.

If you don't need built-in mics or PIP, you should take a good look at the MixerFace R4R from CEntrance. It's optimised for use as a recording interface, working with desktop and phone operating systems, and as such has high impedance inputs for instruments. So it's possibly easier to describe as an audio interface that, as a bonus, can be used as a capable field recorder. It's good to see a fresh approach in this market! Unfortunately, I do regularly use electret mics that require PIP. It's a real shame they overlooked this feature, though suitable XLR adapters do exist.

Disclaimer: I am not associated with any manufacturer mentioned here, and have received no merchandise or other payment for my unsolicited opinions. I am open to reviewing gear, but will make it clear when any exchange of goods or services has been conducted.

Download the PDF version of the table.

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3 comments:

robin said...

The PDF file has been updated to include eight recorders in the tripod category, between 500 and 1000 cubic cm in volume. I hope you find this useful!

robin said...

Updated again (13 August 2019) to include image of the tripod category. Minor text alterations.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for putting this article together.

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