The Best Portable Digital Audio Recorders - Handheld

Portable digital recorders

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From interviews, to podcasts, to recording live concerts, rehearsals, field recordings, sound design, you name it: portable audio recorders have been a staple piece of gear for people who want to create good quality recordings on the fly. Mobile phone recordings just won't cut it as the audio can be unreliable and distorted especially during loud concerts or rehearsals.

Beyond simple convenience, each portable recorder is built differently and the ones that made it into the top list for this 2019 update represent the best in the market. The gear list sees the ongoing dominance of Zoom in the handheld digital recorder market though new entries from Tascam and Sony round out the list in the lowest and highest price, respectively.

The Best Portable Digital Audio Recorders

TASCAM DR-05X

86
GEARANK

86 out of 100. Incorporating 80+ ratings and reviews.

Street Price: 

$120
TASCAM DR-05X Stereo Handheld Recorder

The DR-05X takes the place of the now-discontinued DR-05 which was featured in the previous update of this guide. The DR-05X has improvements in software, hardware and build quality over its predecessor with better storage options, a newly designed microphone and better battery life.

Features

  • Inputs: 1/8" (3.5mm) Stereo Mini jack - Unbalanced, Plug-in Power
  • Outputs: 1/8" (3.5mm) Stereo Mini jack (Unbalanced)
  • Built-in Mic: Dual Omnidirectional Stereo
  • Recording / Playback Format: WAV,MP3
  • Storage capacity:microSD card (64MB to 3GB), microSDHC card (4GB to 32GB), microSDXC card (up to 128GB)
  • Power Requirements: 2 AA Batteries, USB bus power, AC 100 to 240V (optional AC Adapter)
  • Battery Life: approx. 17.5 hours
  • Weight: 4.1 oz.
  • Dimensions: 2.4" (W) × 5.55" (H) × 1.02" (D)

Pros

Users report excellent audio quality with great stereo imaging. Reviewers noted a great binaural effect when using headphones. Many users who engage in sound design, field recording, and ambient recording use the DR-05X exclusively though the unit is also capable of handling high SPL sources like concerts.

Cons

Omnidirectional mics pick up a lot of sound and may not be good in noisy environments when you're looking to record a specific sound source. Reports also exist of radio interference; a problem carried over from the previous iteration.

Overall

For general recording of sounds in a room or an environment, the Tascam DR-05X is a great, affordable piece of gear that offers good sound quality for the price. If you're looking to record specific sound sources while excluding background noise then you need to look for a different portable audio recorder with a directional mic instead.

Zoom H2N

90
GEARANK

90 out of 100. Incorporating 1750+ ratings and reviews.

Street Price: 

$170

The Zoom H2N looks more like a microphone than a recorder. It can capture different wide-range areas with its 5 built-in microphones and 4 recording modes by turning its dial control. This unit includes effects such as compression, limiting and low cut filtering. Its XY built in microphone allows two matched unidirectional microphones at a 90 degree angle to capture stereo recording. The MS (Mid-side) microphone is based on the mid-side technique where one microphone acts as a center channel, while the two "side" microphones creates ambience either adding or subtracting sound waves. Using both the XY and MS microphone helps record audio from different directions.

Features

  • Inputs: 1 Line/mic in 1/8" stereo jack (with plug-in power)
  • Outputs: 1 Line/headphone out 1/8" stereo jack
  • Built-in Mic: Directional (XY, MS mid mics); Bidirectional (MS mic), 2-channel surround and 4-channel surround
  • Recording / Playback Format: WAV,MP3
  • Storage capacity: Comes with 2GB microSD; Expandable to 32GB
  • Power Requirements: 2 AA batteries, USB (Optional AC adapter)
  • Battery Life: 20 hours
  • Weight: 4.59oz.
  • Dimensions: 2.67" (W) x 4.48" (H) x 1.68" (D)

Pros

This recorder is successfully used in a wide variety of ways which is a testament to it's flexibility. Its internal microphone and preamps provide clean and crisp audio quality, and it is quite lightweight. Users consistently praise its longer battery life compared to similar Zoom products. The compressor and limiter features are very handy in preventing sound peaks from clipping. A lot of users commend the ease of use of its rotation switch for different microphone patterns. They also mention hearing meaningful differences of its 4 different microphone patterns for recording.

Cons

Some say the microphone is too sensitive that it picks up unwanted external noises such as winds and breezes - this is common issue with many types of mics and you need a windscreen if you are recording in windy environments. Others also mention its build isn't sturdy enough since it's made with a plastic casing - it has a battery door that can break when not handled carefully.

Overall

If you want a customizable recorder for professional recording, this is a good choice. Its versatility and flexibility make it a good investment for the long-run.

Zoom H4N Pro

90
GEARANK

90 out of 100. Incorporating 1850+ ratings and reviews.

Street Price: 

$220

The H4N lets you record four tracks simultaneously (2 stereo or 1 stereo plus 2 mono) and includes overdub and punch-in features. You can also use it in plain stereo mode as well with its XY microphone configuration. Four channel recordings can be mixed down to mono or stereo with independent control over each track level and panning. It also provides audio effects and processing including a compressor, limiter and reverb. In addition to this the unit can also be used as a 2-in/2-out USB audio interface.

Features

  • Inputs: 2 XLR/TRS combo jack, Stereo 1/8 plug-in power mic input
  • Outputs: 1 Line/Headphone out 1/8" stereo jack
  • Built-in Mic: XY Stereo
  • Recording / Playback Format:WAV, BWF, MP3
  • Simultaneous Recording / Playback 4 channels (2 stereo or 1 stereo plus 2 mono)
  • Storage capacity: Comes with 2GB microSD card; Expandable to 32 GB
  • Power Requirements: 2 AA batteries (IEC R6)
  • Battery Life: 6-10 hours
  • Weight: 10.37 oz.
  • Dimensions: 2.87"(W) x 6.19(H) x 1.46"(D)

Pros

Many reviewers continue to praise its phenomenal quality. It's very handy with multi-track recording because of its 4 channels (including X/Y stereo microphone and 2 XLR/TRS combo inputs), which is useful for capturing room ambience and in field recordings. The preamps of its XLR inputs have been well received in customer reviews. It also has phantom power that is used to power external condenser microphones. The sound quality of its built-in microphone is well liked and provides a natural stereo sound reputed to be as good as using studio microphones. It also has a menu that is straightforward and easy to operate.

Cons

Minor issues users have come across include having a lower battery life compared to other recorders and a slow boot time when turning it on.

Overall

For its price, this recorder is a good investment if you want a flexible unit with multiple features useful in live settings.

Zoom H5

91
GEARANK

91 out of 100. Incorporating 950+ ratings and reviews.

Street Price: 

$280
Zoom H5

The Zoom H5 comes with an interchangeable XY microphone capsule that can be swapped out for other mics and input modules that are sold separately by Zoom. Similar to the H4N, it provides four-track recording, two mic/line inputs (XLR/TRS), and phantom power. The unit can also be used as a 4-in/2-out USB audio interface. It has a 15 hour run time and transport controls on the front. Other built-in features include a metronome and a tuner.

Features

  • Inputs: 2 XLR/TRS combo jacks, Stereo Mic/Line 1/8" jack with plug-in power
  • Outputs: 1 Line out 1/8” stereo jack,1 Headphone out 1/8” stereo jack, built in speaker
  • Built-in Mic: XY Stereo capsule included
  • Recording / Playback Format: WAV (BWF-compliant), MP3
  • Simultaneous Recording / Playback 4 channel (2 stereo)
  • Storage capacity: Comes with 2GB microSD; Expandable to 32GB
  • Power Requirements: 2 AA batteries, USB (Optional AC adapter)
  • Battery Life: 15 hours
  • Weight: 6.21 oz
  • Dimensions: 2.63"(W) × 5.32"(H) × 1.66"(D)

Pros

Users compliment this recorder's build, interface, and layout of controls. Its immaculate X/Y microphones provide clear and crisp sound quality with low noise. One of the improved features includes the addition of manual dials which make adjusting gain input easy to do on-the-fly. It is flexible and practical for both editing and simultaneous 4-track recording. The wide ranging frequency response is another quality that is praised by many users, particularly the capture of low end sounds. It does a good job of picking up sounds from a specific direction with minimal bleeding from other sources. An example of this is in a live setting where some users said it could record the performance at a long distance without too much noise from the audience.

Cons

Several reviewers have claimed the battery life wasn't long enough. The XLR outputs don't have locks so you have to be careful not to pull the plugs out while recording. One user pointed out that it doesn't work well with humid weather, and that it's best to invest in a case.

Overall

If you want a flexible unit with enough inputs for external microphones and a recorder that does simultaneous multi-tracking, then this is a great option for you.

Zoom H6

94
GEARANK

94 out of 100. Incorporating 1350+ ratings and reviews.

Street Price: 

$330

At time of publication this was the highest rated handheld digital recorder.

The Zoom H6 is one of most versatile handheld recorders so far produced. It comes with two interchangeable microphone capsules, XY and Mid-Side as standard and there are a range of other optional capsule types available from Zoom as well. It also comes with 4 XLR/TRS combo input jacks allowing you to record up to 6 tracks simultaneously and has its own dB pad for recording loud sources. The recorder can also be used as a class compliant 6-in/2-out USB audio interface.

It has some interesting features: Pre-record takes the previously recorded two seconds and adds it to the beginning of the new recording. Backup makes two simultaneous recordings with the second recording using 12dB less gain in case the main recording distorts or clips.

Features

  • Inputs: 4 XLR / TRS combo jacks , Stereo Mic/Line 1/8" jack with plug-in power
  • Outputs: 1 Line out 1/8" stereo mini jack, 1 Headphone out 1/8" stereo mini jack
  • Built-in Mic: XY Stereo and Mid-Side capsules included
  • Recording / Playback Format: WAV, MP3
  • Simultaneous Recording / Playback 6 channels (3 stereo)
  • Storage capacity: Comes with 2GB microSD; Expandable to 128GB)
  • Power Requirements: 4 AA batteries (Alkaline or NiMH), USB (Optional AC adapter)
  • Battery Life: 20 hours
  • Weight:Main unit: 9.88 oz, XYH-6: 4.59 oz, MSH-6: 3 oz
  • Dimensions: Main unit: 3.06" (W) x 6.01" (H) x 1.88" (D), XYH-6: 3.1" (W) x 2.37"(H) x 1.78" (D), MSH-6: 2.28" (W) x 2.66" (H) x 1.66"(D)

Pros

Despite having multiple features, this recorder isn't too overwhelming to use. Many reviewers are impressed by its 6 track simultaneous recording feature and the fact that it can be used as a USB audio interface. A lot of them mention the X/Y mic capsule and the Mid-Side mic capsule provide excellent quality recordings. It boots up fast while turning it on. Many users point out it has a more professional feel and is easier to use compared to its predecessors. It is very reliable when recording both in indoor and outdoor settings. It's also very handy for recording a whole band using separate microphone inputs.

Former Electronic Musician senior editor Geary Yelton said in his review, "Simply put, the H6 is a remarkable piece of machinery. If you’ve ever wished for a 6-track recorder you could slip into your coat pocket, especially one as versatile as the H6, technology has finally caught up with your desires."

Cons

On the downside, the inability of the rotary gain knobs to lock in place means you have to be careful not to change the settings accidentally. Some users say they wish it had a better file management system.

Overall

This recorder is an excellent choice for anyone who needs the extended multi-tracking facilities. It is highly recommended for professional use.

Sony PCM-D100

89
GEARANK

89 out of 100. Incorporating 150+ ratings and reviews.

Street Price: 

$775
Sony PCMD100 Portable High Resolution Audio Recorder - Handheld

The Sony PCM-D100 is a top-of-the-line handheld field recorder that captures in hi-resolution audio in compressed and uncompressed formats. With a pair of high quality electret Condenser Microphones, the PCM-D100 captures audio with great accuracy.

Features

  • Inputs: 1 x 1/8", 1 x Toslink (S/PDIF)
  • Outputs:1 x 1/8", 1 x Toslink (S/PDIF), 1 x 1/8"
  • Built-in Mic: Adjustable XY Stereo
  • Recording / Playback Format: linear PCM (192 / 176.4 / 96 / 88.2 / 48 / 44.1kHz), DSD (2.8224MHz), or MP3 (320/128 kbps)
  • Storage capacity: 32gb Internal, Supports SD, SD HC, SD XC, Memory Stick Pro Duo, Memory Stick Pro-HG Duo
  • Power Requirements: 4 x AA Batteries
  • Battery Life: Up to 25 hrs
  • Weight: 13.76oz.
  • Dimensions: 2.84" (W) x 6.17" (H) x 1.29" (D)

Pros

Users note that the audio captured is linear and distortion-free no matter how loud the sound source is. The build quality is top notch and users felt confident taking it on the road. For sound design and field recordings, many users felt that the PCM-D100 was the best they've ever tried.

Cons

The DSD file format this unit can use offers stunning resolution but compatibility issues with the format troubled some users. USB2.0 slows down file transfers and several users wished there were faster transfer options. A few feel the price is a bit too steep.

Overall

The Sony PCM-D100 is a clear winner for absolute audio quality if it's within your budget (and you will need a big one). If you're looking for economical solutions, there are better choices.

Things To Consider When Buying A Portable Handheld Recorder

  • Uses

    Handheld recorders are very convenient to use in many settings such as live performance venues, rehearsals and even for recording outdoor ambience. You can use them as stand-alone recorders or to capture high-quality audio with your video recordings. They are also used by podcasters for location recording.

  • Microphones and Polar Patterns

    Microphone polar patterns determine how much sound they capture from different directions. Some digital recorders have a built-in omnidirectional microphone that captures all the surrounding sounds from all directions. Some have bi-directional microphones that capture two opposing directions. Others have a unidirectional built-in microphone that only captures sound from a single direction. For example, if you're recording a singer/guitarist and don't want ambient noise then you'll need one with uni-directional mics. A bidirectional mic will allow you to pick up audience sounds and the performer.

  • Microphone Configurations - XY, MS and AB

    Most recorders have a built-in XY configuration. The XY set-up comprises two cardioid microphones angled at between 90 and 135 degrees positioned at the same point to produce a stereo image. This configuration shows the center of the two microphones panned left and right facing directly at the sound source. Sound arrives at nearly the same time reducing phase problems. Another type of configuration is the MS (mid-side) set-up. This includes a cardioid microphone (mid) that faces directly at the source while having a bi-directional microphone (side) that faces left and right. The “mid” picks up the sounds from the source while the “side” picks up sounds from the side. The AB set-up is another optional microphone configuration. This type includes two cardioid or omni-directional microphones, spaced a few inches apart from each other and panned in left/right.

  • Storage Features

    Storage capacity should be taken into consideration when looking for a recorder. They are expandable so check which type of storage the one you want uses and you can buy larger amounts of memory for longer recording times. Looking into the types of formats it can record determines whether it can support WAV, MP3 or even both.

  • Batteries

    It is important to know how long the batteries will last when recording to prevent loss of data in the event of power running out. Knowing the type of batteries you need, whether they be rechargeable or replaceable. Check whether you need to keep purchasing batteries or if you can use a USB or AC Adapter for charging.

  • Connections

    Having the right amount of inputs and outputs also depends on how you are going to make use of the recorder. Having a USB connector to store your files in your PC is needed for editing and storing purposes too. For convenience, some recorders have separate headphone outputs and line outputs. Some digital recorders act as audio interfaces as well.

  • Other Features

    There are some portable recorders out there with more than the typical 2 stereo channels. Some of them also provide multi-tracking features in which external microphones can be utilized in addition to the built in microphones. Mid-range priced recorders often have XLR/TS Line inputs for plugging in external dynamic or condenser mics. Extra features that are optional may include effects such as compression, reverb, and EQ. Some include a metronome and playback tempo change function.

Best Portable Recorder Selection Methodology

This guide was first published on April 7, 2017 written by Denise Azucena and the latest major update was published on December 19, 2019 written by Raphael Pulgar.

We looked at all highly rated handheld digital audio recorders that are sold by major American retailers and short-listed the top 15 for detailed analysis. We then examined information from over 9,500 sources, which included retail store feedback, expert reviews, forum posts and more. We then processed the data via the Gearank Algorithm to generate the scores out of 100 that we used to narrow down the list to just the highest rated options above. Finally we provided important information, specifications and summary reports of noteworthy pros and cons for each of the recorders that we recommended above. For more information about our methods see How Gearank Works.

Comments

Allo Friends, thanks for your

Allo Friends, thanks for your analysis, very helpful. I am looking for an audio player that give play back the recording of private seminar information without going via internet. I want to listen, and take notes on a keyboard. Thank you very much for recommending me something!

Our recommendations are

Our recommendations are primarily based on music production uses so we can't really help you with that - maybe one of the readers here will have an answer for you.

I am curious why on your

I am curious why on your updated 2018 list you did not include the TASCAM DR-100mkIII as one of your options?

It was on our short-list

It was on our short-list however its ratings weren't high enough for us to include it in the recommended list above.

You can see its ratings in the Music Gear Database: TASCAM DR-100mkIII.

There are other much better

There are other much better such as the Sony PCM-D100, PCM-D50 or ICD-SX750D

The PCM-D50 and ICD-SX750D

The PCM-D50 and ICD-SX750D might be quite good but they're no longer widely available so they didn't qualify for this guide.

The Sony PCM-D100 was on our short-list, however its ratings aren't high enough for us to recommend it - you can see its rating here.

UPDATE: The Sony PCM-D100 now

UPDATE: The Sony PCM-D100 now has higher ratings compared to most other options and it was added to the recommended list above for our December 2019 update.

The Roland R-26 was on our

The Roland R-26 was on our short-list but didn't quite rate high enough to make it into our recommendations - it was very close though and you can see it's Gearank rating in the Music Gear Database.

Q.

Q.
Greetings.
"I am totally blind. Does any of those recorders have some voice guidance built in?"
So they can be accessible for us as a blind community.
Example.
(Olympus LS 100)

:d

I have 2 questions. Can I

I have 2 questions. Can I overdub multiple guitar and bass parts one at a time? Can I plug the handheld recorder directly into monitors?

All of the multitrack

All of the multitrack recorders above, the ones that list the number of Simultaneous Recording/Playback channels, allow you to record additional parts.

All of the ones that have a line out listed in the specifications will drive powered studio monitors.

Today we removed the Roland R

Today we removed the Roland R-05 Wave/MP3 Recorder from out recommended list above due to it no longer being available from several major music gear retailers.

If you would like to read what we said about it, then you'll find it at: Roland R-05 Meta-Review.

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