Sunday, May 01, 2022

Portable Audio Recorders Summary 2022

It's three years on from my last audio recorder summary (July 2019) and so time to update my comparison table. This time it's quite compact, largely due to vendors streamlining their offerings. Please download the PDF. I've included columns for those characteristics I find most useful to distinguish between recorders. YMMV, but it should be a helpful starting point.

Once upon a time... could buy excellent small recorders. For "everyday carry" I like a pocket-sized unit that has good audio quality. The excellent metal-body Olympus LS-11 and Sony M-10 once served this purpose. In fact, I would still recommend that you buy these models, if you can possibly find a like-new unit on the secondary market. Why? These recorders have:

  • plug-in power, to support compact and inexpensive electret microphones
  • rechargeable AA or AAA batteries, so you are never without power
  • simple interfaces with all the features you need
  • good pre-amps with an EIN of -122 dBu

Nothing similar is being made today. Current pocket recorders are too noisy. The next largest recorder with similar sound, the Zoom H4n, is already too big to fit this niche. This sucks.

What people use instead

You need to step up to significantly larger units to get improved quality. Many people use the Zoom H5 and H6 because... Zoom's marketing works. But despite being studded with feature, these recorders have pre-amps no better than the tiny units just mentioned. (In fact, they are noisier!) 

Indeed, my main motivation in writing this article is to help people on public forums who are disappointed by the field recordings they make with the H-series recorders.

To be clear, you only need the quietest pre-amps if you are recording quiet sounds. For band practice or recording a lecture, almost any recorder is good enough. 

Despite the fact I've spent much time compiling numbers for the chart, my advice to people wanting a quiet recording is not to run out and buy a new recorder. Instead...

Learn gain-staging

If the recorder has a sensitivity switch, which setting sounds better? How high should you set the inputs? Some recorders actually sound better with very low levels on the unit, as these can be boosted in post-production. If you ask the unit itself to boost the levels, by switching to "high sensitivity", the quality of the amplifier becomes a big factor in the noise floor. Experiment in a controlled environment. Learn the gain-staging on your unit. 

The recent popularity of 32-bit recorders have encouraged a "set and forget" mentality to recording levels. This might indeed benefit you, if you have one of the units on the list with an EIN of -128 dBu. But don't be misled into thinking that this is a free pass to good recordings. 

Get microphones

A good pre-amp needs to be paired with appropriate microphones. I universally use external microphones. Why?

  • external mics are almost always of better quality than built-in mics on a recorder
  • you can place the mics where you want them: closer to your source to get a better signal, further apart for a wider stereo field
  • you eliminate the most common source of handling noise
  • you can get different mics (polar patterns, transducer types, etc.) for different purposes
Parenthetically, I should address the rage for the Sony PCM-D100. Personally I've never understood the extent of interest in this unit. Yes, it has quiet pre-amps, but it is the largest recorder made that doesn't have XLR inputs, so the use of appropriate external microphones is seriously limited. Plus it was darned expensive prior to its recent discontinuation. If you are already committing to carrying a larger recorder, there are multichannel models with excellent sound that are less expensive than the D100.

Consider all noise sources

Microphones and pre-amps aren't the only noisy components. 

Mount your recorder to reduce handling noise. Even if it's "hand-held", you generally shouldn't be holding it while recording. If you must, then some sort of small monopod or selfie stick that can dampen resonances might be a good idea. 

Choose cables and tripods to reduce squeaks, creeks, and other unwanted sounds from the mix. Tie up excess cable runs. 

Consider your own clothing and movement. Rustling of fabric and jangling of zippers can interfere with recording while in motion. It's actually quite a discipline to make a record a soundwalk. Even your breathing and stomach sounds might be recorded!

Back to numbers

I have yet to explain the Equivalent Input Noise (EIN) that's listed in the table. This integrated measure takes into account both amplifier self-noise and the sensitivity of the pre-amps. The RANE Tech Note series has an excellent article, Selecting Mic Preamps that you should read for details. In particular, Table 3 is very useful. 

For small units I prefer an EIN of -120 dBu or better. For professional recordings, I'd be looking at -128 dBu. I can hear a difference of about 2 units, so an 8 unit jump is very significant. That's why I have a Zoom F8 among my other recorders. Unlike their H-series, the F-series are made for professional use. 

Money may not buy you love, but it can get you better pre-amps. And that's what you most need in a recorder for quiet sources. 

Further resources are available on my Field Recording landing page. Please comment below.



Anonymous said...

Hi Robin
Nice article ab all these little gadgets we love, and more noice-free and reliable thy better I guess. I have used H4n, H5 and H6 (started with H4 and got the only recording of Antarctic petrels on Xeno-Canto with the internal mics!) but for different reasons I have now turned into 32-bit as the preferred option. I have the F4 as well through work and a great recorder, but slot 1 has a failure on the lock and needs to be forced down with lid. H6 broke headphone socket in field and has stopped working completely, sent H5 back to Antarctica and managed to get 24Hrs of Snow Petrel in colony on AAs only. Also great success in 79N in Svalbard as a drop-kit leaving it for hours with the birds. BUT some of the recordings will fail due to peaking and that is easily saved with my F6 and Mixpre3 II with 32-bit float. Start a fresh I would go for F3 with good mics!
Good luck with ur work!
Stein, Norway

Stein Nilsen said...


Ulf Elman said...

How about Tascam Portacapture X8, I didn't see it in your list. It seems to be avaliable at €489 now, so it would fit the price range anyway.

robin said...

PDF updated on 2 May 2022 with two recorders. Info rearranged for clarity. Number of XLR inputs now specified.

robin said...

For completeness, yes, I should add that Tascam model. There's always one more!

Post a Comment