A portable audio recorder, or digital voice recorder is a handheld microphone that records and stores audio files. Stereo capsules allow you to record high quality sound from a distance, ideal if you're recording live music, or capturing audio for a film.
We reviewed the top 4 best portable recorders, ranging in price from just $30 to $270.
BEST PORTABLE RECORDER: TASCAM VS ZOOM VS YEMENREN
*Yemenren does not specify the exact sampling rate, but in a Q&A confirmed that it does not record 24-bit, 48KHz
Here's our list of the best portable recorders, going from lowest to highest price:
If you’re looking for a handy way to record lectures, meetings, or music demos, the Yemenren Digital Voice Recorder is pretty incredible for the price. Featuring 3 omnidirectional mics, the device specializes in capturing far away voices and sounds.
Everything about this device was made for convenience. It comes with a rechargeable battery, 8GB of internal memory, and built-in speakers that are actually quite loud. It even features voice-activated recording, and timed recording modes, which I haven’t seen any of the more expensive models.
The Yemenren is mainly for users who want to record voice/demos, and play it back straight from the device. Listening to the actual WAV file, it’s clear this is not professional quality. The sound is better than what you’ll get from a cell phone, but still pretty muffled and noisey.
I would also be cautious to use this for field recordings, or capturing the sound on a film set. The volume meters are a bit delayed, so you don’t always have an accurate idea how hot your mic is.
The device also lacks a gain knob, instead opting for a click wheel on the side. Pushing this and other buttons can result in “click” sounds in your final recording, however. So for the best results, you want to set the gain and leave it alone.
2. TASCAM DR05
At around $100, this is the lowest price you can pay for fully professional digital audio recorder -- Something you can use for field recordings, interviews, and live music recordings.
First and foremost, the mics are a significant upgrade from the Yemenren with less noise and a broader frequency range. It records as high as 24-bit, 96kHz, which is better than most users will need. It has an accurate gain meter, smoother controls, and even a 1/8" input for an external mic.
The build quality is cheap. If I only had $100 to spend, I would opt for the Zoom H1 instead; which is virtually identical to the Tascam DR05, but a little more durable.
The DR05 uses SD cards for storage, and AA batteries for power. While this can seem like a disadvantage compared to the Yemeren, which has built-in storage and a rechargeable battery, it’s actually much better for professional use. You can always keep extra SD cards and batteries in your backpack, whereas it’s much harder to recharge or unload memory on-the-go.
3. ZOOM H4N PRO
The Zoom H4N is the original hero of the portable recorder market, beloved by musicians and indie filmmakers alike. It features slightly improved sound quality compared to the DR05/H1, and a few additional features:
- 2 XLR Inputs - You can plug in up to 2 external mics; great for filmmakers who need to plug in a boom mic, or podcasters who want to use a broadcast mic. You can even record through the built-in mics simultaneously, allowing up to 4 tracks at once, although it all gets mixed down to a stereo track.
- Audio Interface - Record straight to your favorite DAW (Logic or ProTools) with the H4N acting as an audio interface.
- Stronger Build - Made out of strong materials with a thick rubber coating.
- Better Display - It’s much easier to read the gain levels, and simply to change settings/navigate between menus.
The only real downside is the extra price. You have to question whether the above listed features are worth an extra $100 considering the sound quality is about the same. Personally I would say yes.
For one, you’ll likely get more years of use out of it, thanks to the stronger build. Secondly, the larger size and smoother controls makes it more of a charm to use. Something you’ll be grateful for if you use it regularly.
Also important to note: While the H4N advertises that it records up to 4 tracks, it mixes everything down to a stereo file. So you won’t be able to change levels later.
4. ZOOM H5
A redesign of the H4, the Zoom H5 has one major advantage: It actually records 4 channels simultaneously. I personally use this as my go-to for live shows, since I can get a stereo feed from the soundboard, and capture the room from the built-in mics. Later, dropping everything into ProTools, I can edit each track individually.
Besides true 4-track recording, the H5 has a few more advantages. It features actual knobs for the gain, which is much nicer than the H4N’s buttons.
Again, the key downside is price. Unless you’re explicitly looking for 4-track recording, or interchangeable capsules, I would opt for the Zoom H4N or H1 instead.
If you're recording music or film audio, and want a portable audio that will stand the test of time, the H4N is easily the best option (or the H5 if you want 4 independent channels). If you want something inexpensive that can capture decent audio, the Yemenren is a good move, although I would be cautious about it's longterm usefulness.