Portable Audio Recorders

2011-02-01: Although I haven't been updating this page for the past few years, I did recently buy a new recorder, the Zoom H1, which I love. I've added it to the bottom of the list.

Making high-quality audio recordings in the field used to be a very specialized activity. Originally there were the 'portable' reel-to-reel recorders made by Nagra et al., used by movie professionals. Then in the 1980s, the Walkman revolution brought us palm-sized cassette recorders with relatively high quality, at least given the limitations of cassette tape. But the launch of recording portable DAT players in the 1990s opened the possibility for true professional-quality field recordings, and early machines such as Sony's TCD-D3 were hugely popular with live music fans capturing their favorite performers.

It seemed, however, that miniaturizing the helical-scan technology of video recorders into a palm-sized device (which is what the portable DATs did) was a bridge too far in portable electronics, and the DAT recorders were plagued with short lifespans and chewed-up tapes. The MiniDisc was a kind of stop-gap -- recording onto magneto-optical discs that permitted very small, low-power, relatively cheap recorders, but with limited recording time, and obligatory data compression that put off some professional users. It took another 10 years for flash memory and digital processing to come to the state where fully-digital solid-state recorders became feasible. This, however, is the technology we have been waiting for: small size, large recording capacity, digital format (including uncompressed), and no moving parts, hence no mechanical noise.

As part of our research into environmental sound recognition and personal audio life logs, we have tried several of these devices, and kept track of others. This page aims to bring together the information we have found about these devices to serve as a reference for other researchers interested in such devices.

Machines mentioned:

Devices that have been suggested for addition: Sound Devices (702, 722, 744) and Fostex FR2, FR-2LE.

For serious field recording you will likely want to use an external microphone. For devices without a mic-in but only line-level input (the Neuros and the iRiver below), you'll need a separate mic preamp. I've actually used the Sony Minidisc recorder just as a mic preamp for the Neuros - it's small and light, and it has good battery life and no noise problems - but it's a strange solution. Amazingly, though, special-purpose battery-powered mic preamps are in the same price range. You can find a few suggestions at's mic preamps page.

An interesting new kind of device recently announced is the iKey Plus, a mic/line preamp and MP3 encoder that connects directly to a USB mass storage device to write audio files (uncompressed or in MP3) in real time to, e.g., an iPod or other portable memory device. At $279 MSRP, however, it's clearly aiming at a specialized market.

Sony MZ-R900

[pic of MD player]

This was the first recorder we bought to do field recordings. Nice 8 hour+ battery life, but limited recording capacity on a MiniDisc, and clumsy transfer of recordings onto the computer. I actually assumed it would have digital in AND out, but because of copyright holders' concerns, the low-end MD players allowed digital input (i.e. you could record from digital sources) but not output (no way to get audio out of it except as analog).

We bought this along with some high-quality Core Sound Binaural Mics back in 2001 to start doing some field recordings, but never used it very much. Poor integration with the computer was the biggest drawback. We have used its (excellent, low-power) mic preamps as a front-end for recordings on other devices, though.

Neuros HD Audio Computer

This was an exciting device launched not long after the iPod, with a similar set of basic specs (hard-disk based playback of MP3 files) but with lots of extra features - including high-quality recording from the built-in mic or external line in. Although the device wasn't as compact as its competitors, it was small enough to be worn on a belt pouch, and the rechargable could record for 8+ hours. We eventually got two of these, and still use them for high-quality in-the-field recordings. Recording is either direct to MP3, or to uncompressed CD-quality WAV files. Audio circuitry is apparently very good.

Sadly the market wasn't ready when it was launched, then the product quickly got overtaken by cuter, smaller devices from Taiwan, Korea and Japan. Neuros no longer market this device, and have moved on to other multimedia products.

Neuros seem to be removing links to this product, but we have captured the original Neuros Audio product description page and their revised USB2.0 version.

[pic of Neuros]

iRiver iFP-799T

[pic of iRiver]

The explosion in portable MP3 music players has led to many devices with a huge range of features. iRiver has created many exciting products; in 2004, this was one of their high-end players, which just happened to include a microphone, and the ability to record for more than 12 hours on a single rechargable AA battery. Barely larger than the battery, this device is very conveniently worn on a belt clip or slung around the neck. Its 1GB memory can hold over 40 hours of mono MP3 recordings at a reasonable quality, and it can record higher-quality stero MP3s via a line-in that can just about handle microphones without a pre-amp. These devices, or their successors, sell for little more than $100. However, there is no recording to uncompressed WAV files (only to MP3) and the audio quality is not top-notch.

We've made many hundreds of hours of personal audio recordings on these devices over the past year or so. The long battery life, fast and convenient transfer to computers (a Mac Powerbook for the most part), and small size/weight have made it a very practical personal audio recorder.

iRiver H10

This is iRiver's hard disk recorder - likely similar in usefulness and quality to the iFP-799, but with a much larger memory of 5-20 GB (because it uses a hard disk rather than flash memory), and correspondingly non-silent operation, greater weight, and shorter battery life (also, an internal rechargable battery, which makes it impossible to swap batteries in the field). However, we haven't tried one of these, so I don't know. I mention it here for completeness.

iaudio X5/M3

iaudio are competitors to iRiver for small, cheap, feature-packed audio devices. The iaudio X5 is 20GB hard disk player with built-in mic, line-in recording, WAV format recording, built-in rechargable battery, and color display. The iaudio M3 is similar but without the color display. They both have a double-life battery option, but it's not clear what the recording time is (they quote only playback, which is typically much longer).

Marantz PMD-660

Marantz was one of the first companies to realize the potential for solid-state recorders to replace tape-based field recorders. As an upgrade to their professional MiniDisc recorder, the PMD-650, they released the PMD-670 in mid-2003 as a direct-to-flash recorder able to interface to profession XLR-based microphones, at a "competitive" price of under $1000. Since then, they have released the PMD-660 as a cheaper, smaller version available for under $500. Claimed 4 hour battery life on 4xAA cells. We haven't tried one, but it looks like a nice, professional-level product.

[pic of Marantz]

Edirol R-09

[pic of Edirol]

After the brief appearance of the groundbreaking R-01, Edirol released a smaller, better palmtop stereo flash-memory recorder, the R-09. It has built-in stereo microphones, high quality audio specs (24 bit, 48 kHz), and comes from a music technology company (Edirol, owned by Roland).

We've had one of these since 2007, and it's been a great workhorse. High-capacity Lithium AA batteries give more than 10 hours continuous recording. I've made more than 50 hours of recordings with no hitches, and the sound quality is great.

M-Audio MicroTrack 24/96

This is a new device -- not generally available as of mid 2005 -- that aims at the same musician/hobbyist recorder market as the Edirol -- but smaller and slicker-looking. It has a builty-in rechargable battery with "about 3 hours" recording life, and nice recording-level-meter graphics. It comes from M-Audio who have a good reputation in terms of high-quality good-value computer audio gear.

[pic of MicroTrack]

Sony PCM-D1

[pic of PCM-D1]

The fall 2005 AES show was in New York and I had the chance to spend an hour or so on the exhibit floor. As it happened, Sony was launching their new solid-state recorder, the PCM-D1 (not to be confused with the PCM-D1, Sony's 1977 original Digital Audio add-on to the then-nascent VCRs). The PCM-D1 is a lovely device - palm-sized but substantial and solid, and, it would seem, built without any compromise. It can record to built-in memory and/or a memory stick (up to 8GB total), and it includes a crossed-pair of very high quality microphones. If it wasn't about $2000, I'm sure we'd all rush out to get one.

Samson Zoom H4

The latest portable flash recorder undercuts the Edirol R-09 in price and comes with loads of extra features - it can act as a 4-track recorder (recording 2 tracks at a time, but in sync) and as a USB audio interface for a computer. Reviews comparing it to the R-09 get quite heated at times; the R-09 is praised for its sturdier construction, smaller size, and better ease-of-use, but the quality of the recordings seems to be very much comparable (and very good).

[pic of Zoom H4]

Zoom H1 Handy Recorder

[pic of Zoom H1]

Our Edirol R-09 has been working very well for me, but when the new, low-cost Zoom H1 was released at the end of last summer, I couldn't resist. Its functionality is much like the R-09, but at $99 it's less than half the price. It's my new favorite device; it's clearly bare-bones, and the plastic casing feels more like a toy than a piece of professional equipment, but it works really well -- recording to WAV (up to 24 bit/96 kHz) and MP3 (48..320 kbps), with a very easy-to-use interface. Plus it allegedly gets up to 10 hours of recording on a single (mine has already recorded over 5 hours on the battery that came in the pack), and it has "crossed-pair" built-in mics for vivid stereo imaging. It also accepts external mics (via a stereo 1/8" minijack). Although some people have complained of defective devices that run down batteries very quickly, mine is perfect and I recommend it very highly.

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