Hunting for the best digital voice recorder? We researched the market before buying the top 13 options to test side-by-side. Then we started recording, capturing audio notes in the car, bird songs, guitar practice, interviews, and controlled test scenarios. We compared microphone and audio quality, battery life, file sharing, ease of use, and playback editing features. Below, we share how each of these voice recorders shines and falters. Whether you want to record your classes or create world-class podcasts, our comprehensive review will help you find the best digital voice recorder for your needs and budget.
Memory: 4 GB Internal, MicroSD 4 to 32GB | Audio Files: WAV and MP3
REASONS TO BUY
Impressive audio quality
Straightforward operating system
Can serve as an MP3 player
REASONS TO AVOID
Less than stellar battery life
Not production-worthy audio
Our favorite overall digital voice recorder is the compact Sony ICDUX570. This effective, simple tool features an easy-to-read display and intuitive operating system. We appreciate its automatic recording templates that ensure the two stereo microphones work well for the task at hand, be that a voice memo, music recording, meeting, or lecture. You can also set mic sensitivity levels and 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 several other models. The Sony records in uncompressed WAV files (which it labels as LPCM, for linear pulse code modulation) at a 44.1 kHz sampling rate and a 16-bit rate. It also records in compressed MP3s, which saves on storage space. You'll have plenty though, with a microSD card you can store up to 32 gigabytes (GB).
The recorder offers a T-mark button to bookmark important moments in your recordings and an A-B repeat function to loop the playback between two chosen points. You can also slow playback for easier transcription. You can also clean or jazz up the audio with integrated filters. A USB plug slides out of the Sony ICDUX570, enabling you to share your files at all times. The battery life claimed at over 20 hours for the highest quality audio recording, is relatively short for this type of recorder. And, while the audio is easy to understand, it's below par for professional broadcasting. The device does offer a mini-jack for an external microphone, which can improve your recordings. All told, the ICDUX570 will take your notes for you and could serve as a backup for production audio in a pinch.
WAV versus MP3 and Sampling and Bit Rates
WAV versus MP3 — Uncompressed WAV files store more data. MP3s save on storage space but are harder to edit. If you're recording audio to create a song or podcast, you probably want to do it in WAV. If you're a photographer, think of WAV files as RAW image files, and MP3s as JPEGs. The latter already have less resolution, so you can't do as much to edit them.
The quality of WAV files depends on their sampling and bit rates. Higher rates record more audio snapshots per second and provide more nuanced detail, and they create higher-quality recordings. They also require more storage space. Most audio experts recommend recording at least a 48.2 kHz sampling rate and 24-bit rate. Then you can bounce down to lower rates to save data in the release. If you want to dive deeper, Transom is a wonderful resource.
Memory: SD Card up to 32GB | Audio Files: WAV and MP3
REASONS TO BUY
High audio quality
6-track audio recording
Two standard XLR/TRS inputs
Easy to access gain adjustments
REASONS TO AVOID
Limited battery power
The Zoom H5 is a popular audio recorder in the radio and podcasting world. It also includes tripod and camera mounting threads to integrate into a filmmaker's setup. Its audio quality is top-notch, taking advantage of an integrated and detachable XY microphone with a shock mount to reduce handling noise. You can also buy accessory options like an attachable shotgun microphone or an extra two XLR/TRS mics or external line inputs. The H5 comes with two XLR/TRS inputs already, so if you spring for the extra two and choose to record optional backup tracks, you can capture six tracks at the same time. The real benefit that the H5 offers over the Zoom H4n Pro is that each of three optional microphones (the integrated XY and the two inputs at the bottom of the housing) has easily accessible knobs to control their gain, which controls the amplitude and thus the volume of the microphone's signal. It's a critical element to make sure you nail your levels, which is kind of like focusing a camera. The H5 also helps you capture great audio tape by allowing you to compress or limit your levels or add a low-cut filter to remove bass sounds like humming building sounds.
A hold function keeps the device locked so you don't accidentally start or stop recording in the field, which is a big benefit on chaotic field days. On the downside, the H5 is expensive, and total overkill if all you want to do is a basic interview for print journalism or to record a class or meeting. It's also a hungry, hungry battery-eating hippo. You will actually need to carry a full battery pack around to use this thing, and you'll need to purchase SD or SDHC cards to serve as memory for the device. But there's a reason it's an industry standard — plug in your headphones and a shotgun mic to one of those XLR/TRS ports, keep your levels around -12 Bfs, and you're good to go.
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 Evistr claims that its effective stereo microphone offers dynamic noise canceling. We did notice background noise in our coffee shop test, 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 compressed MP3 files. 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. 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 file every 30 mins, an 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 Recorder 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.
Memory: MicroSDHC 4 to 32 GB, MicroSDXC 64 GB to 1 TB | Audio Files: WAV
REASONS TO BUY
F3 app for remote control
Headphone port to monitor audio
Line out for camera or other gear
Tripod threads and mounting bars
Amplitude control and high pass filter
REASONS TO AVOID
No integrated microphone
One of the shinest new toys in the audio world is this compact little powerhouse from Zoom, the Zoom F3. Its main selling point is that it records in 32-bit float WAV format. Since most recorders use 24-bit, this device collects more data, giving you much more control over the volume of your final product. Perhaps the bigger deal is that Zoom claims that is impossible to clip your audio files while using it. Clipping happens when an unexpectedly loud event blows up your levels, say when someone slams a door during a sedate interview. We tested this device at picking up whispers and saw success that borders on spycraft. Then we took it to the gym, recording random convos and background pop music amid slamming weight machines. It handled the scene beautifully. It's also impressively compact and is easy to attach to your gear or your clothes with included tripod threads and mounting bars.
Of course, part of the F3's portability is owed to its lack of an integrated microphone, so you have to buy one separately to use it. That adds quite a bit of cash to its already hefty price tag. Since 32-bit float technology records such a large volume range, the advertising around the F3 emphasizes your ability to hit record and not worry about your levels. For reference, recorders like the Zoom H5 require constant monitoring to get good tape. While we found the F3 remarkably independent in most circumstances, we ran into feedback at higher sampling rates at the gym. So we definitely recommend making use of the F3's monitoring headphone port and its nifty remote-control app (F3 Control). All told, we were blown away by the richness and texture of the soundscapes this little device can create.
Memory: SD Card 16MB to 32GB | Audio Files: WAV and MP3
REASONS TO BUY
Spatial audio mode
Large mic gain dial
REASONS TO AVOID
Overkill for many applications
The Zoom H2n brings a lot to the table. Underneath the mesh screen, there are five microphones. Two form an X/Y configuration. The others cover the mid-sides. As a result, the H2n truly shines with an ability to record in surround sound. It actually differentiates between sounds coming from up, down, and all around you. In four-channel mode, it produces two individual tracks per recording meant to be routed to each side of a stereo system or each ear of a pair of headphones. If you have the equipment, software, and know-how, this model is fully capable of recording spatial audio to be used for fully-immersive VR videos. With such a complicated premise, we are pleasantly surprised that the buttons, dials, and switches are large, well-label, and easy to use. A dial on the top of the cover allows you to quickly select between four recording modes, which range from mid-side stereo up to that four channels surround sound.
If you're looking for basic functions to record college lectures, meetings, or job interviews, you probably don't need the complex capabilities of the H2n. Though it offers the most basic digital voice recorder capabilities, it might be more recorder than you need. This model is also bulky and heavy, and it is not meant to be stored in a pocket or purse. The user interface is easy to use once you learn it, but it's far from modern. Compared to the newest, simplest, pocket-sized models, the H2n feels like a bit of a dinosaur. It's also limited to its five internal microphones; there are no inputs for additional mics. Complaints aside, the Zoom H2n is the way to go for recording 360-degree spatial audio for VR video creators.
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 scenarios like telephone recordings and conferences. 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. Where the WS-853 really shines, however, is in storage and battery life. It achieves its (claimed) 110 hours of battery life by recording in highly compressed MP3 files at 8 KBps. These files are tiny, so they don't take up much space or juice. You can also add a microSD card to increase memory capacity up to 32 GB.
Unsurprisingly, audio files at this compression level are not inspiring 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). On top of that, this device isn't that user-friendly. The operating system is not intuitive, and the included manual is overwhelming. Honestly, the box is more informative, as is the downloadable manual. The Olympus WS-853 is best for those who need the longest-lasting battery life and maximum storage to back up hours of notes at important meetings or lectures.
Why You Should Trust Us
We designed a series of objective tests to help us uncover the strengths and weaknesses of these digital voice recorders. Most users — from students recording lectures to professional musicians and podcasters recording field sessions — will care most about the audio quality of their recordings. To test this metric, we set up five specific tests that replicate real-world situations.
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 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. By the end of our extensive testing period, these digital voice recorders underwent 143 individual tests to help us parse out the very best models on the market.
We break down our overall score into six key metrics:
Audio Quality (30% of overall score weighting)
Convenience (20% weighting)
Battery Life (15% weighting)
Memory (15% weighting)
Playback and Editing (10% weighting)
File Sharing (10% weighting)
We chose Lead Tester Clark Tate and Review Editor Ross Patton to head up our testing. Clark is a freelance podcast producer and journalist who graduated from the audio track of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies at the Maine College of Art & Design. Clark has worked extensively with the Zoom H5 for her podcasting projects. During his tenure with GearLab, Ross has tested hundreds of tech products, from headsets to drones. Aside from the time he's spent in the lab, Ross grew up with a music studio in his house and has been immersed in the audio world his entire 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.
Before purchasing a digital voice recorder, it is important to consider how you plan on using it. If you're looking for basic recording functions for lectures and conversations, there's no reason to buy a more expensive model than the EVISTR Recorder. If you aren't concerned about audio quality and simply need to record hours of audio without worrying about storage capacity or battery life, the Olympus WS-853 is a good option.
Considering its internal memory and wide range of functionality, the Sony ICDUX570 is reasonably priced. Our two favorite Zoom models, the F3 and H5, are both relatively expensive, but their audio quality and capabilities are professional-grade.
Since this review ranges from casual voice recorders to professional-grade tools, their audio quality varies widely. So it's important to consider how you'll use your recordings. If you'll just be leaving yourself voice memos or recording meetings for 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 higher-quality recordings.
In our tests, the Zoom F3,H5, H4n Pro, and H2n, and Tascam DR-07X produce the highest quality audio recordings. Of these, we tested all but the F3 using their internal microphones. The F3 doesn't have any, so we paired it with a high-quality Rode NTG5 shotgun mic, resulting in stellar sound recordings. That's a pro and con of this device, you'll need to purchase an additional microphone to use it, but then you can choose the microphone you want. Though you'll have to stick with one that's compatible with an XLR/TRS port since that's all it has.
All of these devices are commonly used to produce music or audio for videos and podcasts. The H4n Pro and H5 microphones are permanently mounted in the crossed XY configuration, which allows them to take in a field of 90 or 120 degrees. The DR-07X's microphones can pivot to be used in either XY or AB positions, the latter of which works well for recording bands or capturing room sounds.
The Zoom H2n has five individual microphones. Two are positioned in the XY configuration, while the other three are in a mid-side arrangement that helps to map sounds spatially. When recording in four-channel mode, this model uses all five microphones to create two multi-directional files, each of which is meant to be transmitted to different speakers. If you have the software and the equipment, this model can be used to create audio files for fully-immersive virtual reality experiences.
The downside to the exceptional audio quality of the Zoom F3, H5, H4n Pro, H2n, and the Tascam DR-07X is that they require more of a learning curve and skill development than the simpler models do.
Just behind the top-tier models in terms of quality are the Sony ICDUX570 and the Zoom H1n. Both of these models are geared more toward recording conversations than music or accompanying a video camera. The Sony ICDUX570 lets you choose between meeting, dictation, or conference recording modes, while the Zoom H1n has features such as automatic gain and a volume limiter that take the guesswork out of settings.
To get the most out of your recorder, make a test file and listen to the playback to make sure your sound levels work. Many of them also let you monitor your audio in real time with headphones, a microphone, or your computer to make sure there is no feedback or distortion. And be sure to back up your files as often as possible and in several locations.
Most of the digital voice recorders we tested accept external microphones, which can be higher quality than the internal mics or can be placed to capture better audio (e.g., on an interviewee's lapel). Only the Zoom H4n Pro provides two connection types — a more common mini jack and the more secure and higher quality XLR input.
You can also plug electric instruments directly into the H5 and H4n Pro, making them good options for serious musicians. The Tascam DR-07X, Olympus WS-853, Amago Voice Activated, Aiworth Voice Activated Recorder, Zoom H1n, Zoom H2n and the two Sony recorders — the ICDUX570 and PX370 Mono — all have mini jack stereo microphone inputs. The Evistr Recorder is one of the few models we tested that does not support an external mic.
Along with your microphone's quality, the file formats available on your recording device affect your audio quality and versatility. 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 does not allow for as much editing. 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 a minimum for high-quality files.
The Sony ICDUX570, Tascam DR-07X, Evistr Recorder, and all of the Zoom models record at this level.
Compared to the other pocket-sized models we tested, the Zoom H5, H4n Pro, the H2n, and Tascam DR-07X are behemoths. Because they're best suited to professional video, music, or podcasting production, most professionals set up a recording kit with a dedicated bag to haul them around. You can use them, but they're cumbersome, and they're also the most complicated to use. That said, if you want the quality, you will figure out a way to use them.
The Zoom F3 and H1n occupy a middle ground. Both are smaller than traditional professional equipment and larger than their more casual counterparts. While both have more features than the smallest recorders, they are also easier to use than the other professional-grade models, and quite a bit easier to cart around. The F3 has a tripod mount (as do the H5 and H4n Pro) and two mounting bars. It's compact enough that many practitioners carry it on their wrist or strap it to a boom. That's one of the reasons we love it. Likewise, the H1n is small enough to tuck into a bag or a purse for on-the-go recording and recording.
The rest are all pretty darn compact. The tiniest models are the Evistr Recorder, Aiworth Voice Activated, and Amago Voice Activated recorders. These three models fit easily into a pocket (yes, even a typically undersized woman's pant pocket). The Sony ICDUX570 is a bit broader but still exceptionally thin. Its size would never keep you from carrying it. The Olympus WS-853 and Sony PX370 Mono are thicker and often require a jacket pocket or a bag to carry them.
Several factors have an outsized impact on the battery life of digital voice recorders. Two of the biggest are what type of battery you use and the quality of your audio recording.
The Sony ICDUX570, Evistr Recorder, Aiworth Voice Activated Recorder, and Aomago Voice Activated Recorder all charge via USB cord, except for the ICDUX570. It has a clever pop-out USB port, so you never have to worry about being caught without your charger. These recorders have those built-in rechargeable batteries to thank for their svelte size.
They are great from a portability perspective — and you don't have to worry about buying batteries. But built-in batteries don't make for the best battery life. You can't expect much more than 20 hours of recording time with these models. The Aiworth Voice Activated Recorder claims it can record nearly 50 hours of low-quality audio at 32 KBps. But most folks will prefer higher-quality audio.
The best battery power is available in the two smaller recorders with removable batteries — the Olympus WS-853 and the Sony PX370. The Olympus model 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, the manufacturer claims about 74 hours.) It's worth noting that the audio recorded at this bit rate is not good, particularly if you have background noise to contend with. Still, it works to record a lecture or meeting.
The Sony 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. And it's rare to need more than 55 hours of audio in a go.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the more powerful recorders don't last long on their batteries alone, with the Zoom F3,H5, H4n Pro, and H1n performing the worst in this test. The Zoom H2n and Tascam DR-07X last significantly longer, but it would be wise to invest in an auxiliary power source, or a stack of batteries if you plan on running any of these models for an extended period of time.
Phantom Power — When you use these more powerful recorders with accessories, like microphones, you also have to consider phantom power, which is when an accessory device draws power from the recorders themselves. Often you can control whether or not you allow this in the recorder's settings.
Some of these devices offer, internal storage, some offer external storage, and a few offer both. The Olympus WS-853 and the Sony ICDUX570 and PX370 have internal memory, but also offer a microSD slot for expansion.
While the Sony ICDUX570 and PX370 offer only 4GB of internal storage, they accommodate microSD cards from 4 to 32 GB, making them a great option if you use your recorder often. Similarly, the Olympus WS-853 offers 8GB of internal storage and uses microSD cards up to 32 GB.
Of the professional-level recorders, none offer internal memory storage, so picking up a top-ranked microSD card is a must straight away. The Zoom H5, H4n Pro, H2n, and H1n work with microSD cards from 16 MB to 32 GB. So you'll have to download your files more often than you would with the Tascam model, which works with microSD cards from 2 GB up to 128 GB. The Zoom F3 accommodates MicroSDHC and MicroSDXCcards with storage up to an astonishing 1 terabyte!
The Evistr Recorder provides up to 32GB of integrated storage, while the Aomago and Aiworth recorders offer 8 GB each.
Playback and Editing
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 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 Voice Activated or Aomago Voice Activated recorders.
The production-oriented Zoom F3, H5, H4n Pro and Tascam DR-07X recorders are another story altogether. Of these two models, the H4n Pro gives you more playback and editing options. This recorder has three inputs and allows you 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 DR-07X features are dialed back a bit.
You can sort through and playback files using the Zoom H2n, but you certainly will not be able to recognize the intricacies of surround sound recordings from its basic speaker. In order to edit and utilize these files, you'll need to upload them to a computer and use the appropriate software. The Zoom F3 and H5 also work best with external editing tools.
Almost all of these digital voice recorders make it easy to download and share files. The Zoom devices, Evistr, Aiworth, and Aomago recorders come with USB cords to charge their batteries and communicate with your computer. The F3 is an exception. It uses a USC cord. All you have to do is open the external file to play or edit your WAV or MP3 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 Sony ICDUX570 and PX370 and the Olympus WS-853 recorders have internal USB connections. You just have to slide them out to download your files — it doesn't get any easier than that. Of them, the ICDUX570 is our favorite since its internal operating system makes it so easy to organize your files in the first place.
We designed this article to help you better understand what goes into selecting the best digital voice recorder for your next project. Whether you need a professional-level device for podcast production or simply are tired of jotting down notes during meetings, we've tested a model to suit your needs. Best of luck in your digital sound recording pursuits.
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