We've put together a handy guide to help you find the best digital voice recorder for 2020. Now that might sound like something that a smartphone would have replaced by now, but the reality is that there is far more hardware and tech smarts that goes into true quality voice recording that leaves smartphones still catching up.
From stereo microphones with near and wide field capabilities to line-in, line-out and smart auto recording – there's a lot worth paying out for when buying a digital voice recorder. A few choices you may have to make worth thinking about include: are batteries needed or not – some are rechargeable while others use replaceable batteries, the latter meaning you can start recording right away again if you carry spares.
Do you need lots of storage capacity? If so then you might want to look for a recorder that uses microSD cards for expansion. This also covers quality – do you need very high clarity or will lower quality that means more storage be an option?
Auto recording is a big feature that most recorders now offer. This will start on recognizing a voice and pause in silent sections. This means smaller files and less tracking forward over silences when you come to listen back.
It's worth keeping in mind that some recorders don't let you upload the files so you'll either want one that does this via a cable or uses memory cards so you can do it manually. With those few pointers in mind read on to find the best voice recorder for you.
1. Zoom H6: Best voice recorder overall
The Zoom H6 is one of the more expensive voice recorders on this list but that is pricey only relatively – in reality this is well priced when you consider how many pro-grade features this delivers. This is good enough for professionals that want the best quality thanks to the high-fidelity microphones and four XLR/TLS inputs on this six track recorder.
The mic controls are easy enough to use with gain variations tracked and EQ settings variable. You get XY and mid-side microphones with the recorder but there are four other options to buy for specific purposes. Everything is recorded to SD card, up to 128GB, so you can get it at the highest quality without worry about space.
This comes with AAA batteries, making it easy to keep fully powered with a quick swap if needed and you get multiple editing software options to pick from. The downside here is that this can be complicated as it's such a comprehensive device. But for those that want it all, you don't need to look further than the Zoom H6.
- Read our full Zoom 6 review.
2. Olympus WS-852: Best for connectivity and features
The Olympus WS-852 is a feature rich voice recorder that crams in quality and ease of use while keeping the price low. We love the pop-up USB connector that allows you to easily transfer files from the 4GB onboard or 32GB microSD memory.
Sound quality is great thanks to dual microphones and a pop-out stand to keep table vibrations to a minimum. A low cut filter and auto adjustments help to make sure audio is consistently high quality regardless of your location.
Playback at varying speeds, use voice activated recording and even vary the menus and display for simple or complex user interactions as needed. The 110 hour battery powered performance is a real bonus at this price point.
- Read our Olympus WS-852 review.
3. EVISTR Mini Digital Voice Recorder: Best for ease of use
The EVISTR Mini Digital Voice Recorder uses an omnidirectional microphone for wide band recording making it well suited to varying locations and needs. The fact the menus and buttons are minimal help to keep this a very easy to use option for anyone that wants to work quickly and simply.
The memory is onboard and at 16GB you can get up to 560 hours , aka 23 days, worth of audio stored at the lower quality MP3 option. Just expect a few recharges as the battery tops out at 12 hours before needing a charge via USB 2.0 – which is also used to quickly transfer files to PC or Mac. The fact this is priced low yet offers a quality metallic build is just a bonus.
- Read our EVISTR Mini review.
4. Olympus VN-541PC: Best affordable voice recorder
The Olympus VN-541PC is a great affordable voice recorder with lots of features. The built-in microphone and 4GB of storage will get you up to 1,570 hours of recording in WMA format, which is near constant if you keep supplying AAA batteries. Then transfer files using the USB port, or listen directly with the speaker or headphone jack.
One-touch recording is ideal for a hurried start. Modes are a nice feature that let you tailor recording style for Memo, Talk, Music and LP. The background noise cancellation is a particularly nice feature at this price, making it ideal for coffee shop interview, class lectures and more.
- Read our Olympus VN-541PC review.
5. Sony ICD-BX140: Best budget digital voice recorder
The Sony ICD-BX140 is a top pick for a super budget friendly digital voice recorder from a big name reliable brand. For the low price you get a big screen with lots of data, easy to use buttons and a compact design with headphone port for private listening.
You will need to listen on the device though as there's no output option from the 4GB of onboard storage. Quality is decent with a low-cut filter helping cut out wind noise from that mono microphone. The MP3 quality comes in 128 kbps and 192 kbps options with up to 4,175 hours of storage and 28 hours of battery life from the AAA batteries. A great option for anyone on a budget that doesn't mind playback on the device.
- Read our Sony ICD-BX140 review.
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:
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.
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.
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.