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 superior audio quality and additional features offered by a digital voice recorder.
After over 75 hours of research, we narrowed the list down to the best digital voice recorders for different circumstances. We evaluated these products 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 you.
This Tascam model performs great, is easy to use and keeps up with the times
The Tascam DR-44WL is an excellent portable digital recorder for most applications, such as business or creative endeavors. It is Wi-Fi enabled and has a companion smartphone app for remote control, making it a little more up-to-date than some other models we tested.
These features not only make the device easier to use in a modern environment, it also creates better file storage opportunities than other models that rely on internal storage.
The Tascam DR-44WL records in CD-quality 16 or 24-bit linear PCM audio using its two high-fidelity condenser microphones. These are adjustable into XY, AB and OTRF positions for varied stereo depth depending on your recording needs.
It supports four-track recording, overdub and punch-in audio, all of which are great features for creative projects, as they allow for more control over the audio layers.
The main downside to the Tascam DR-44WL is that it does not include voice activation or dead air removal.
Best for Pros
Best for Creative Professionals - Zoom H6
Stacked with advanced features, this Zoom recorder is made for creative professionals in mind
The Zoom H6 is a sturdy device that’s hearty enough for travel and versatile enough to make it the best digital recording device for creative professionals like musicians and podcasters.
Of the portable recorders we tested, we found the Zoom H6 the easiest to use for recording professional-quality audio. That doesn’t mean it’s generally easy to use, as it’s not recommended for absolute beginners, but its complex controls and advanced features make it possible for the Zoom recorder to capture exactly the audio you need.
The best feature of the H6 is its interchangeable microphone options. It comes with both an XY and a mid-side microphone, and there are four others available for purchase, all of which are designed for specific audio purposes.
It has 4 XLR inputs and is SDXC compatible up to 128 GB, which is a good thing since the Zoom H6 only has 2 GB of built-in storage.
- Read our Zoom H4n Pro review
Best Budget Recorder
This budget option from Olympus covers all the essentials
The Olympus VN-541PC is a simple, affordable digital voice recorder. It’s a good option for students because of its compact design and budget-friendly price. It isn’t nearly as impressive as most other digital voice recorders we tested, as its single microphone only records between 40Hz and 13kHz, which is not the full range of human hearing.
It doesn’t necessarily need to capture great quality, as the Olympus device is mostly meant for note taking and references rather than recording audio clips for media.
Though it is a basic recorder, the Olympus VN-541-PC does have useful features that make it effective and easy to use. It supports one-touch recording and pre-recording. When recording, you can also set the device to specific scene filters, which adjust the microphone settings to suit things like talking or music.
This Olympus recorder stores up to 2,080 hours of audio and connects to a computer through a USB port to export files in WMA format. Overall, it’s a good, inexpensive device, but we found its audio quality is on par with smartphone recordings.
- Read our Olympus VN-541PC review
Best Compact Recorder
This Sony voice recorder is small but mighty
The Sony ICD-UX533 is the smallest portable digital recorder we tested, sizing up to just 1.44 x 3.99 inches. Its compact size makes it a perfect device to carry around with you just in case you need it.
In addition to being small, the Sony recorder is also very easy to use. It isn’t jam packed with features like many of the higher-end devices we tested, so learning how to use it effectively is simple.
It offers five audio formats and a few EQ filters to cater your recording settings for specific circumstances, like lectures or meetings. We appreciated these presets because they don’t require much know-how in order to get usable recordings. It also has pre-record and post-audio options.
The ICD-UX533’s playback options are excellent for transcribing, as you can remove dead air, filter out ambient noise and slow audio. Overall, the Sony ICD-UX533 is a compact, easy-to-use device with useful features, but its sound quality is only slightly better than that of a smartphone app.
Best for Business Pros
This Tascam model is especially good for recording meetings and interviews
The Tascam DR-05 makes it easy to capture high-quality audio in meetings, conferences and interviews. It is a popular device across the web, as its dual microphones capture audio in CD-quality 16 or 24-bit linear PCM. It formats files in WAV, MP3 or BWF, which embeds metadata for use with videos.
The Tascam recorder does not have adjustable microphones and has more limited adjustments and settings than the most complex digital recorders we tested. It does, however, have a level align feature, which acts as a filter to level out uneven audio.
This is a good feature for recordings with multiple speakers, as it balances volumes to even voices out. During playback, the Tascam’s playback speed adjustments don’t change the pitch, which is useful for transcription.
Overall, the Tascam DR-05 is a great recorder for business professionals because it makes it easy to get high-quality recordings of meetings and conferences without having to adjust a lot of settings. It’s easy and effective to use.
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.
Other Important Features to Look For
Beyond audio fidelity, there are myriad other features to consider when choosing a digital voice recorder. When you know what features are available and which ones you need, you have the best chance of finding a quality recorder that fits your budget:
Sound Quality. Most digital voice recorders fall under one of two categories: those meant for amateur or casual users and those made for professionals. If you fall under the former category – say, if you’re a student looking to record your professors’ lectures – a simple lower-end model is more than sufficient. There are plenty of recorders that focus on recording audio over creating high-quality audio files.
However, if you want to record your latest album of guitar songs or your voice acting portfolio, it’s critical you invest in a high-end recorder, as they create better sounding audio files. More expensive recorders are more powerful, have more customization options and sound better during playback.
Battery Life. Smaller voice recorders last about eight hours per charge, depending on what you record and which settings you use. This is more than enough time to record a lecture or a few short audio clips. Most recorders have decent standby capacity as well, so you don’t have to constantly charge them or replace the batteries often.
Storage. For light users, storage isn’t really an issue. However, if you record frequently or capture large, high-quality files, you need a device that has lots of internal storage or supports large SD cards. If you buy a recorder with insufficient storage, you’ll have to constantly delete old files, which is a hassle.
Size & Weight. Some of the recorders we tested are small enough to fit in your backpack, purse or even your front pocket. These small recorders won’t weigh you down should you have to lug them around all the time, and they aren’t conspicuous. However, they are typically lower-end models with fewer features.
Larger recorders are heavier and harder to maneuver, especially if you have microphones plugged into them. Consider how mobile your recorder needs to be and how much storage space you have before you buy.
Ease of Use. Smaller, lower-end recorders are all generally easy to use – spend five or 10 minutes reading their user manuals or tinkering with them, and you can find all the menus and features you’ll probably ever need to use. Higher-end recorders are much more complicated. They have lots more features and usually come with thick user manuals that take quite some time to read. You likely won’t be able to use a professional-quality recorder without first reading a good portion of the manual.
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.