Best Digital Voice Recorder of 2020
The compact Sony ICD-UX560 digital voice recorder packs a punch. High-quality audio, an intuitive operating system, and an easy-to-read display make it an effective and simple tool. The UX560 offers automatic recording templates that ensure the two stereo microphones are correctly tuned for the task at hand. You can quickly set up for a voice memo, meeting, lecture, interview, or record music. You can also set the mic sensitivity and choose to reduce background noises manually. Though the recorder picks up background audio in modes like dictation and interview, we found them less brassy and distracting than in many of the other models. The Sony records in uncompressed WAV files and compressed MP3s. The WAV files (which it labels as LPCM, for linear pulse code modulation) are recorded at a 44.1 kHz sampling rate and a 16-bit rate. This is a standard for quality audio. MP3s save on storage space but are harder to edit. With the option to increase storage to 64GB with a microSD card, you won't need to save much. We also like that you can use the recorder as an MP3 player.
You can slow down the playback for easier transcription. The recorder also offers a T-mark button to bookmark your recordings and an A-B repeat function that lets you loop the playback between two chosen points. You can clean up the audio with filters for a clear voice or effects like pop, rock, jazz, or bass. A USB plug slides out of the UX560, so you're ready to connect to your computer and share your files at all times. The battery life, claimed at over 20 hours for the highest quality audio recording, is relatively short. And, while the audio is impressive, it's a bit below par for professional broadcasting. The device does offer a mini jack input for an external microphone, though, which can improve your recordings. All told, the UX560 is a streamlined recorder to make sure you don't miss a beat and could serve as a backup audio file for production in a pinch.
The Zoom H4N Pro is the most capable and complex recorder we tested. Zoom advertises that it's meant for podcasting, song production, creating audio for film, and recording things like vocals, piano recitals, meetings, and field recordings. Its audio quality is top-notch, taking advantage of two stereo condenser microphones set up in an XY pattern. Zoom claims this creates better sound definition and clarity while reducing stereo separation and phase cancellation. The mics are also adjustable, rotating to capture an area of 120 degrees or to focus on a single audio source at 90 degrees. The difference is noticeable. Two XLR/TRS jacks let you connect external microphones or instruments like a keyboard or guitar, and you can record one source in high-quality stereo, two sound sources in stereo at the same time, or playback up to four tracks while recording two more. The recorder supports 19 different WAV and MP3 file formats (up to 96 kHz/24-bit and 196 Kbps) and offers all the standard features like playback looping and low cut recording, which reduces low frequency sounds like wind. The recorder also varies playback speed between 50% and 150%.
The Zoom does, however, take more knowledge, patience, and training to unlock its potential. It's also big. Though it does come with a handy protective case, you can't just slide into your pocket. Its size, complexity, and short battery life make it more appropriate for recording in your studio or for targeted events. Even in its battery-conserving stamina mode, you only get about 11 hours of recording when going wireless. You can buy a Zoom-specific AC adapter to keep it powered up at the office. And you'll need to buy an SD or SDHC card (ranging from 16 MB to 32 GB). Without one, the internal memory can only record for about 35 seconds. The H4N doesn't come with a USB cord to communicate with your computer. You'll have to buy one. And it's more complicated to find the files on this device than on less complex models we tested. While the H4N only really makes sense for folks who need to produce worthy broadcast audio for their profession or true passion, this thing is pretty fun. Come on; it has a Karaoke function.
The Evistr recorder offers everything you need to record notes and conversations in the field reliably. It's slim, easily tucking away in a pocket or bag, and has an effective stereo microphone that Evistr claims offers dynamic noise canceling. We noticed background noise in our coffee shop test more than in some of the top-tier options, but it isn't overly distracting. In quiet environments, the recordings shine. Unfortunately, there is no external microphone jack to extend or improve your audio. The default recording quality is 1536 Kbps in an uncompressed WAV format comparable to a 44.1kHz/16-bit file, but it will also record in MP3. The streamlined functions and straightforward, quick-start guide make it easy to use. And it has all the usual playback features, including an A-B repeat function to loop your playback audio and up to ten "T-marks" (bookmarks) as you record. There are also seven equalizer modes to alter the sound of your playback, including rock, pop, classical, and techno. And, yes, you can use it as an MP3 player.
The rechargeable internal battery winds down faster than most. If it dies while you're recording, you may lose data. On the plus side, you can record while you're charging the device. Be careful though, you can also lose data if you activate the sleeper time function, which shuts down the recorder even while you're using it, and you need to press stop at the end of every recording to save it. To stave off disaster, you can set the Evistr to automatically save and start a new one every 30 mins, hour, or two hours. The device has a voice-activated mode (AVR) that automatically starts recording when you cross a predetermined decibel threshold. The user manual warns against relying on it, though, since that setting often misses low decibel tones. The Evistr has a few glitches, but if you're on your game, this handy and reasonably priced little gadget will capture the audio notes you need.
The Tascam DR-05X is a recorder with a musical bent and a strong following in the podcasting and Youtubing world. The audio can be rich and put you right in the middle of the scene when you get it right. Like the Zoom, it records uncompressed WAV files up to 96 kHz/24-bits and compressed MP3 files. There aren't templates that set up just the right recording levels for common scenarios like interviews, dictation, or music recordings. Instead, you can choose the auto level mode so the recorder can adjust to sound levels on its own, or you can choose to adjust the input yourself. You can also apply a low-cut filter to edit out the lowest frequencies and limit sound distortion from loud noises by setting a limiter or peak reduction. If you want to get fancy with features like overdubbing, which lets you record new sounds over a playback track, you'll need the more detailed online reference manual. There is also a jack for an external microphone if you need it and an option to add up to 128GB of memory.
The Tascam offers all of the most common playback features, like the "T" bookmark and A-B looping playback. You can also alter your playback speed or use dictation mode to create transcriptions from your recording easily. Equalizer presets can adjust the playback to optimize the sound of the human voice. And it includes more complex editing features like letting you overdub or layer new audio over old tracks, and punch out a section of your audio and replace it with a new recording. Still, the Tascam doesn't match the number of functions and flexibility offered by the Zoom HN4's with its two XLR/TRS microphone and instrument inputs. And when we tried to adjust the Tascam manually, we didn't always nail it. It takes time to learn. While the audio didn't match the quality captured by those fancy HN4 microphones, it is impressive in its own right. This is a great option for a producer on a tighter budget.
The Olympus WS-853 is a fairly compact recorder with reasonable sound quality and all the basic functions you need, including an external microphone jack and a built-in speaker. And we love that it comes with a carrying case. The operating system offers pre-set scenes optimized for typical recording scenarios like telephone recording and conference. It also has an intelligent auto mode that adjusts the recording level based on the volume of the incoming sounds. Adjustable playback speed makes it easy to navigate your recordings quickly. But where it really shines is in storage and battery life. Not because it has so much more than any of the other options tested, but because it records in highly compressed MP3 files at 8 Kbps. These files are tiny, so they don't take up much space or battery power. You can also add a microSD card to increase memory capacity up to 32 GB.
Unfortunately, audio files at this level of compression are not pleasant to listen to (though you can choose a bit rate up to 128 Kbps if you don't need the battery to last as long). And this device is not that pleasant to use. The operating system is not intuitive, and the included manual is overwhelming. Honestly, the box is more informative, as is the downloadable manual. This recorder may be the right choice for you if you want the longest-lasting battery and maximum storage to backup hours of notes at important meetings or lectures.
Inexpensive and tiny with a lot of internal storage space, the Aiworth recorder is impressive at its price point. The audio is pretty darn good, though it can sound tinny at times, and it records WAV files at 1536 Kbps. It also offers all of the standard recorder functions, including the ability to accept an external microphone, which could improve your audio quality. We also really appreciate that you can set a password if you need to protect your interviews. A voice activation function will automatically turn the recorder on when sound levels cross a certain threshold, though the manual warns that you may miss low decibel sounds in this setting. You can also choose to set an auto-record at a certain time every day or every workday to make sure you don't forget to capture a standing meeting. The Aiworth also will loop or slow down your playback, which is helpful if you have a lot of information to sort through, or you need to catch a quote. If you need to unwind after a long day, it will even serve as an MP3 player.
You do have to be careful to hit stop when you want to save your recording and remember to save it immediately when your battery is low. Otherwise, you may lose your audio. You can record while you charge the device, though, and the Aiworth claims a longer battery life than the other inexpensive options we tested. It's hard to say for sure, though, since so many factors (e.g., recording quality) affect battery life. This device isn't the most intuitive, and the included directions aren't that clear or comprehensive. And it doesn't seem to offer a bookmarking function, one of our favorite ways to keep track of important topics. Still, if this is the recorder you can afford, it will do its job of helping you take notes.
The Sony PX370 offers essential recording features with good battery life at reasonable audio quality levels. While the Olympus will last longer when recording 8 Kbps MP3 files, the PX370 last longer for more reasonable 128 Kbps recordings. It also has automatic recording adjustments that work to capture a speaker from across the room or table. Otherwise, you can choose between preset recording settings for voice notes, meetings, interviews, or lectures. The PX370 helps you sort through your notes with a T-track bookmark button and looping playback. You can also adjust speed and reduce background noise. To improve memory, you can add a microSD card to increase storage to as much as 32 gigs.
The Sony PX370 records in mono instead of stereo, meaning it only uses one microphone instead of two. This matters because we hear with two ears, making stereo recordings sound more authentic to us. As a result, the PX370's audio quality is inherently behind the field, and it only records in MP3 files up to 192 Kbps. You can try to improve audio by attaching an external mic. The operating instructions that come in the box are fairly helpful, but using this device can feel a little overwhelming, with lots of little digital corners where functions are hiding. You'll get the hang of it with time, though. If you just want reliable battery life to record meetings to make sure you don't miss an important point, this will do the trick.
We had some trouble getting the Aomago model to function correctly. Given the other great options we've covered in this review, we suggest you don't choose this one. It's easy enough to record audio in one of six preset recording modes, but they are cryptic in how they are named—for example, Fine REC / SP, Long VOR, or HQ VOR—and the manual gives you very little information about each. We did learn that HQ means it records in 128 Kbps, SP indicates 64 Kbps, and LP means 32 Kbps. These low bit rates indicate lower quality recordings. The device does offer looping playback and seven equalizer modes to alter your audio, and it serves as an MP3 player.
It's very compact and light, so much so that it's a bit awkward to hold and operate. It is also more challenging to navigate than many of the other options. The claimed battery life is relatively short, around 20 hours. When the battery is down to one or no bars, you should recharge it right away as functions may start to shut down. You can set a sleeper time to save battery life in 10-minute increments. Careful, though, when you hit a sleep time limit, the device will shut down even if you're in the middle of a recording. There is also a long lag between when you hit record and when it starts recording. Wait for the number count to begin before you start talking. Oh, and we couldn't get the files to download.
Why You Should Trust Us
Lead tester Clark Tate is a freelance journalist, often recording interviews, settings, or conferences. While she uses smartphone apps on occasion, she prefers dedicated audio recorders for their superior sound quality, and so she doesn't have to splinter her phone's battery power. She is also building a podcast and appreciates the importance of capturing good audio now more than ever before.
To test these recorders, we set up five scenarios. For the first two, we sat in the office and read the poem "Sea Fever" by John Masefield twice in front of each recorder. The first time with no background noise, and the second time with a TV show playing in the background to mimic conversation. Next, we set the recorders up in a semi-circle around an interviewee with music and background noise to mimic a coffee shop setting. Then, we recorded a three-person meeting. Finally, we used an Olympus telephone pickup microphone to conduct a phone interview with each device. Then we downloaded all the files, noting how difficult it was to do so and played them back to back to compare audio quality and specs like memory storage and battery life.
Analysis and Test Results
From recording your thoughts at a moment's notice to capturing a piano recital in all its glory, a digital voice recorder, like a camera, is an extension of your memory. It's a great way to memorialize the soundscapes of your life. Read on to find the perfect tool to capture all the beautiful and bizarre sounds that surround you.
Audio quality varies widely across these devices, so it's important to consider how you'll use your recordings. If you just want to leave yourself voice memos or record meetings for your personal notes, you don't need to go crazy here. If you want to record in a setting with lots of background noise, use the audio in a presentation, pull together a podcast, or produce music, you'll benefit from the highest quality recordings.
Our tests found that the Zoom H4N, Tascam DR-05x, and the Sony UX560 have the highest quality audio recordings using their internal microphones. Of these, the Zoom and Tascam options are commonly used to produce music or audio for videos and podcasts. Their internal microphones are clearly superior to the rest of the field, with the Zoom's standing out for their crossed XY configuration and their ability to rotate to take in a field of 90 or 120 degrees depending on your needs. The Sony option's stereo microphones are more modest, but the unit is also more portable and easier to use. It serves as an excellent backup option for production needs.
The downside to the exceptional audio quality of the Zoom and Tascam is that they have far fewer preset recording formats. While the Sony UX560 lets you choose between meeting, dictation, or conference recording modes, you have to rely on generalized auto recording modes on the Zoom and Tascam. Or adjust the recording settings on your own, which takes time to perfect. Digital voice recorders are a lot like DSL cameras; if you do figure out how to wield these powerful tools, you'll be well rewarded.
Of the rest, the Evistr offers the most impressive audio, with the Olympus, Sony PX370, Aiworth, and Amago trailing progressively further behind.
Most of the recorders we tested also accept external microphones, which can be of higher quality or placed more favorably (e.g., on an interviewee's lapel) to capture better audio. Only the Zoom option provides two connection types, the more common mini jack and the more secure and higher quality XLR input. You can also plug electric instruments directly into the Zoom, making it the best option for serious musicians. The Tascam DR-05X, Olympus, Amago, Aiworth, and the two Sony recorders all have mini jack stereo microphone inputs. The Evistr does not support an external mic.
Along with your microphone's quality, the file formats available on your recording device also affect the audio quality and how versatile your files will be. You can record audio files in a compressed format like an MP3 or an uncompressed format like WAV. Compressing a file saves space but results in less refined audio that is more limiting if you want to edit it. To capture the highest quality audio, you'll want a recorder that captures audio in WAV, which you can compress into an MP3 after editing. WAV files of 1536 Kbps or a 44.1 kHz sample rate at 16-bit are standard high-quality files. The Sony UX560, Zoom, Tascam, and Evistr all record at this level.
Playback and Editing Features
Of the recorders geared towards note taking and interviews, the T-mark, or bookmark, function, A-B playback loops, and variable playback speeds do the most to help you sort through your audio files. Equalizing features are also nice and can help you hear your recordings more clearly. All of the recorders in the test provide most of these basic functions. However, we couldn't find any bookmarking functions on the Aiworth or Aomago options.
The music and production-oriented Zoom H4N and Tascam recorders are another story altogether. Of the two, the H4N gives you more options, partially due to the sheer number of its inputs, three, and its ability to playback four tracks while recording two more. You can add effects that sound like Fender guitars, play a song and karaoke over it, and cut out a portion of the track with the punch in/out function. The Tascam's features are dialed back a bit with fewer inputs and playback channels available at a time.
The Zoom and Tascam options are behemoths in this category. Both require you to carry a bag to tote them around for any length of time. Because of their musical and pro podcasting leanings, it is far easier to imagine them hanging out in an office, studio, or with the sound crew at a concert.
The rest are all pretty darn compact, with the tiniest being the Evistr, Aiworth, and Amago. All would fit easily into your pant pocket (yes, even the typically undersized woman's pant pocket). The Sony UX560 is a bit broader, but still exceedingly thin. Its size would never keep you from grabbing it just in case. The Olympus and Sony PX370 are thicker, usually requiring a jacket pocket or a bag.
Power and Battery Life
Two factors have a big impact on battery life in digital voice recorders; battery type and which audio recording quality level you choose. The Sony UX560, Evistr, Aiworth, and Aomago have built-in rechargeable batteries to thank for their svelte size. These digital voice recorders all charge via USB cord, with the exception of the UX560. It has a clever pop-out USB port, so you never have to worry about being caught without your charger.
These options are great from a portability perspective, and you don't have to worry about buying batteries, but it doesn't make for the best battery life. You can't expect much more than 20 hours of recording time with these. The Aiworth does claim nearly 50 hours for low quality, 32 Kbps, recordings, but most folks prefer higher quality levels.
The best battery power comes from the two smaller recorders with removable batteries, the Olympus and the Sony PX370. The Olympus offers incredibly long battery life for its lowest-quality recordings, claiming up to 110 hours of recording time in the 8 Kbps setting. (That's if you use alkaline dry cell batteries instead of the rechargeable batteries that come with the device. With the rechargeable batteries, they claim about 74 hours.) The audio recorded at this bit rate is not pleasant to listen to, particularly if you have any background noise to contend with. Still, it will serve if you just want to make sure you don't miss anything in a lecture or meeting.
The PX370 is a better option if you want long battery life at a reasonable audio quality. Sony claims about 55 hours of recordings at a 192 Kbps bit rate. It's not stellar sound quality, but it works.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the two more powerful recorders don't last that long on their batteries alone, with the Zoom performing more poorly than the Tascam. Expect to have extra batteries on hand for these two options, and plan on purchasing Zoom's AC adapter to keep the H4N plugged in whenever possible.
There is internal storage and there is external storage. All of these recorders have the former, the Zoom, Tascam, Olympus, both Sony options, and the Aiworth also accommodate the latter if you purchase SD or microSD cards separately.
While the Sony UX560 offers only 4GB of internal storage, it accommodates microSD cards from 4 to 64 GB, making it a great option if you use your recorder often. In contrast, the Olympus offers 8GB of internal storage but maxes about at 32GB with a microSD card. The Sony PX370 has 4 GB internally and accepts a microSD card up to 32 GB.
Of the studio recorders, the Tascam offers more gigs of memory. Neither the Zoom nor the Tascam have any internal storage to speak of, so you need to pick up a card straight away. The Zoom works with SD cards from 16 MB to 32 GB. So you'll have to download your files more often than you would with the Tascam, which works with microSD cards from 2 to an amazing 128 GB.
The Evistr gives you 16GB of integrated storage. The Aomago and Aiworth offer 8 GB each.
Ease of Sharing Files
Almost all of these recorders make it easy to download and share files. The Evistr, Aiworth, and Aomago all come with USB cords to charge their batteries and communicate with your computer. All you have to do is open the external file to play your WAV or MP3 file with the exception of the Aomago. We couldn't figure out how to get those files to play and don't recommend the device.
The two Sony options and Olympus recorders have internal USB connections. You just have to slide them out to download your files. It doesn't get easier than that. Of them, the UX560 is our favorite since it's internal operating system makes it so easy to organize your files in the first place.
The Tascam and Zoom make it a little more complicated, but only because they don't come with the necessary USB connections included. We borrowed one from the other recorders to download files easily from the Tascam. The Zoom has a different USB port, so you'll need to buy the cord separately or have the appropriate SD card reader.
We hope this article has helped you understand what you're looking for in a digital voice recorder and which models meet your needs. Best of luck in your digital note-taking or producing pursuits.
— Clark Tate