With smartphones capable of recording interviews and lectures, digital voice recorders aren’t nearly as common, or even as necessary, as they once were. Why spend a significant amount of money on a device that does what your smartphone already can for free or with a cheap app?
Of course, the answer to that question depends on what you intend on recording and how often you need to record lectures, meetings, interviews and other events. If you’re just looking to record a few lectures for school, your smartphone is perfectly capable of handling the task. But if you need to record audio on a daily basis, then you’ll appreciate the better audio quality and additional features offered by a digital voice recorder.
We started by compiling a list of over 25 portable recording devices, ranging in price from $30 to $400. To whittle down the list, we removed sub-models from series. However, we made exceptions for sub-models that have a bigger presence in the market than their main models. For example, the TASCAM DR-05 is one of the most popular portable recording devices on the market, even though the TASCAM DR-44WL is newer, packed with more features and more versatile – and also much more expensive.
After over 75 hours of research, we narrowed the list down to the two best digital voice recorders for each of the three main user categories we highlight based on popularity, user reviews, available features and manufacturer specifications. We then performed head-to-head audio fidelity tests and evaluated how easy each of these finalists is to use, all to find the best digital audio recorder for students, business professionals and creative professionals. To learn more, read our articles on digital voice recorders and other electronics.
Best for Students: Sony ICD-UX 533
Students can’t afford to spend a lot on a recording device they’ll only use to capture their professors’ lectures or their group study discussions. As such, the digital voice recorders in this category are the cheapest. Since they are inexpensive, their audio quality isn’t great, but it doesn’t need to be. It simply needs to capture the speaker’s voice without overwhelming the audio with annoying ambient noises like ruffling papers, students whispering, shuffling backpacks, etc.
Based on a set price range of $40 to $70, available features and online popularity, we narrowed the options down to the two best digital voice recorders for students: the Olympus VN-541PC and the Sony ICD-UX533. Both devices are popular, cheap and easy enough for anyone to use.
To test these two recorders, we simulated a lecture in our lecture-hall-like theater. Our group meetings typically have more than 50 people in attendance with one person delivering a presentation amid the ambient noise, laughter, clapping and questions that generally accompany a gathering. The atmosphere is very much like a classroom. We recorded a few of these meetings by setting the recorders next to each on a desk and comparing the quality of the recorded audio. We also had smaller group discussions to simulate a study group and one-on-one interviews.
When it comes to affordable digital voice recorders for students, there isn’t a better option than the Sony ICD-UX533. This digital voice recorder has been around for years, and it’s one of the most popular handheld recording devices online. In our tests, it handily outperformed the Sony ICD-PX440. While both devices feature two microphones with decent stereo imaging, the ICD-UX533 records at a higher bit rate and has a better noise reduction filter. It’s also the smallest device we tested – at just 1.44 x 3.99 inches, it’s only slightly bigger than most flash drives.
Best for Business Professionals: TASCAM DR-05
Business professionals use digital voice recorders often enough to justify higher-fidelity audio and a more extensive list of features. People in this category use their digital voice recorders to capture press conferences, business conferences, town hall meetings, interviews, depositions, client or patient notes, and more. When you regularly record hours of content, you subsequently have to listen to hours of it. Because of this, the quality of the audio you capture needs to be better than that recorded using student-grade devices. Otherwise, it eventually starts to grate on your ears. In addition, you’re likely able to spend more for that quality.
The two best digital voice recorders for business professionals, based on price, features and popularity, are the Olympus LS-100 and the TASCAM DR-05. We tested these devices in the same way we tested digital voice recorders for students, by recording group meetings, smaller group discussions and one-on-one interviews. In addition, we tested how well their dead-air removal features worked and whether the tool’s results were intelligible. Sometimes dead-air removal cuts too many of the quiet moments, causing the talking parts to transition into each other awkwardly.
The TASCAM DR-05 is one of the most popular portable audio recorders on the market and the best digital voice recorder for business professionals. It’s exceptionally easy to use and records excellent high-end audio at a fraction of the cost of other digital recorders. The OTRF microphone configuration provides great stereo depth for business meetings and conferences. It’s also one of the most popular digital voice recorders on web retailers like Amazon.
Best for Creative Professionals: Zoom H6
The biggest difference between these digital audio recorders and the ones for students and business professionals is their intended purpose – as a creative professional, you are looking to capture front-facing audio. There is an audience for the audio you’re recording, which means you need top-ranked components, including the best microphones and the best digital PCM processors – basically, you need the best everything. This is why these devices cost over $300.
The best portable recorders for creative professionals, based on popularity and available features, are the Zoom H6 and the Roland R-26. Both devices are recording studios you hold in your hands. You can plug in external mics, guitars and additional instruments to record live music. You can also mix tracks together and connect the devices to video cameras and sync audio to film.
We tested these two devices by recording a musician playing several acoustic songs. We also tested the XLR inputs. Further, we captured a series of common natural sounds a Foley artist would record to supplement videos: a flushing toilet, a car driving by and a bunch of sparrows. Both the Roland R-26 and Zoom H6 captured these sounds simultaneously, so they recorded the same sound waves.
These devices don’t mess around. They cost over $300, and the microphones are so sensitive that they require a great deal of technical expertise to record the best audio possible, but the audio quality is on par with professional audio equipment you find in recording studios.
The Zoom H6 is the best digital voice recorder for creative professionals. The six-track recorder’s removable, high-fidelity microphones and four XLR inputs make it exceptionally versatile and a good choice if you record audio that’s meant to be heard. The H6 is the size and weight of a brick, but its solid construction makes it durable enough for traveling and location recordings. For audio professionals – musicians, Foley artists, sound engineers for film, podcasters and more – who record sound for an audience, the Zoom H6 is an ideal choice.
Best Recording App: Evernote
Look, if you’re not sure if a digital voice recorder is worth it, we don’t blame you. There are plenty of adequate recording apps on the market that are free. These apps use your phone’s built-in microphones to capture interviews, lectures, business meetings and other audio you want to record.
Technically speaking, the best smartphones record audio with a 44.1kHZ sampling rate, which puts them on par with CD-quality audio. The microphone setup, which usually consists of one or two small microphones, isn’t ideal for recording a stereo image, but if you’re only worried about recording a speaking voice, such as a professor giving a lecture, then a stereo image isn’t a high-priority.
In addition, smartphones are designed specifically to pick up voices. Many digital voice recorders have exceptionally sensitive microphones that capture your breathing in addition to the speaker’s voice. However, smartphones typically come with double-mic noise-cancelation systems and noise-cutting filters to strip away wind, ambient noises, car engines, street noises and more. In other words, smartphones are actually really good, if not better than many digital voice recorders, at weeding out unnecessary noises so you just hear the voice you want to hear. It’s worth testing out an app on your smartphone before purchasing a portable recording device.
We tested several apps for both Android and iOS devices – Smart Voice Recorder, Easy Voice Recorder, Voice Record Pro, Voice Recorder, Voice Recorder HD and Evernote. The apps generally had the same audio quality. That said, one app has clear advantages on both platforms: Evernote.
Evernote is the best recording app for both iOS and Android, and the competition really isn’t even close. While the audio it records is essentially of the same quality as the other apps we tested, Evernote has extensive note-taking features that none of the other digital audio apps match. You can record lectures and write additional notes next to the audio file, as well as take pictures of whiteboard notes or presentations and attach audio to them. In addition, you can make to-do lists, keep meeting notes and much more. Other apps simply record audio and play it back.
The one downside to Evernote is it does have a subscription feature. The basic version of the app is free, and that includes the recording feature. If you want to expand the capabilities – for example, if you want to share notes with others – you have to subscribe. Most other recording apps are completely free.
Digital Voice Recorders: How Do They Work?
Every sound you’ve ever heard starts with vibrations in the air. These vibrations move through the air like waves, so they are aptly called sound waves. It’s like dropping a pebble into a puddle and watching the ripples move outward from the center. These sound waves move at various speeds, which is why we hear different tones. For example, when you hit the lowest key on a piano, the low A, you create a ripple of sound waves that move up and down at 27.5 cycles per second, which is measured in hertz (Hz). When you hit the highest key, a high F, sound waves ripple out at 4,186 cycles per second.
Analog technology, such as records, captures a representation of these sound waves on physical media, and those waves are replicated when played back through an analog player. While records and record players have become popular again, analog devices aren’t very practical for recording on the fly.
To create a digital representation of a sound wave, a voice recorder picks up the audio with a microphone that converts the sound to an analog electric signal. The analog electric signal runs into an analog-to-digital converter (ADC). The ADC then converts the analog signal into a digital signal using pulse-code modulation or linear pulse-code modulation. In this process, the various points on the sound wave are given numerical values. When put next to each other on a graph, you can see the sound wave. A digital file might contain a lot of data, but you can write it to a hard drive or SD card, both of which can fit thousands of these files.
To play the recorded digital audio file, the reverse happens. The digital signal is converted to an analog electric signal that is sent along a wire connected to a speaker. The signal makes the speaker vibrate, which causes the air to vibrate, recreating the sound waves you originally heard.
Digital Audio Recorders: What Is Audio Fidelity?
Audio fidelity is the overall accuracy of the sound as represented by the digital recording. Audio fidelity of a digital audio recording largely depends on the sampling rate and the bit depth. Since most people hear with two ears, mono and stereo recording can also affect fidelity.
The sampling rate is the number of times per second audio is recorded. It helps to imagine it like a video camera, which generally takes 24 still-frame images each second. When you view those still frames one after the other in quick succession, you see movement. When these auditory samples are played one after another, you hear intelligible sound.
Most digital voice recorders sample audio with a 44.1kHz or 48kHz rate. The highest-fidelity handheld recorders sample as high as 96kHz. However, humans can’t process sampling rates over 50kHz in a meaningful way, so a 96kHz sampling rate is overkill in most situations.
The bit depth is a measure of the bits of information in each sample. For example, audio recorded on a CD has a bit depth of 16-bits per sample, which is the same as most digital voice recorders. The bit depth determines the amplitude of the sound wave. A higher bit depth means there is a greater dynamic value between the loudest part of the sound wave and quietest part of the sound wave. Your smartphone records audio at 8 bits per sample, while the highest-fidelity digital audio recorders have 24-bit depths.
The difference in these recordings is the dynamic potential between loudest sound wave and the quietest sound wave. Imagine recording a roundtable meeting – the person sitting closest to you will sound the loudest, and the person sitting furthest from you will sound the quietest. The bit depth helps interpret how noticeable that volume difference was when you recorded it. As such, it is less important in situations where audio fidelity is not a priority.
In some cases, a lower bit depth with a high-pass filter, which removes unwanted frequencies, is ideal. For example, recording a lecture typically only requires enough fidelity to be able to clearly hear what your professor is saying. In fact, too much fidelity could result in picking up unwanted noise – whispers, chatter, pages being turned, etc.
Mono or Stereo
Handheld digital recorders either record in mono or stereo. Mono recordings are made on one track, typically with one microphone. This means that when you listen to the track with headphones, you hear an equal mix on the left and right side. Digital voice recorders that record in stereo must have two microphones, which means they tend to cost more than mono recorders.
The difference between mono and stereo recording is depth. Stereo sound is more true to life because it is how your ears are designed to hear, similar to how two eyes provide vision depth a single eye cannot. For example, if your professor roams around the classroom during a lecture, with a stereo recorder you can identify where they were in the room at any given time. With a mono recording, you only hear fluctuations in the volume of the professor’s voice as they move away from and closer to the recorder.
Most stereo digital audio recorders have their microphones set up in an XY configuration – the microphone on the right is angled to the left side and vice versa. Some allow you to adjust the directions of the microphones so you can record audio with an AB configuration, where the microphones are parallel, or an ORTF configuration, where the microphones are directed away from each other.
Each microphone configuration creates a different stereo image. The XY configuration records sound with the least depth, as the microphones overlap each other. This emphasizes the middle of the mix and is best for recording a main source head on while picking up others on either side. The AB configuration provides more depth by de-emphasizing the center. For the widest stereo image, the ORTF configuration focuses almost entirely on separating the left and the right microphones with very little overlap.