Handheld Audio Recorders (Q&A, share experiences)

There’s already some discussion about this on the field recording thread, but I feel like a lof ot that is getting lost, plus not everybody might be interested in one of these to do field recording.
So I think it’s time to create a new thread for it.

Let me start by sharing my experience with the

Zoom H5

which seems one of the most popular recorders.

I’ve had it for several years now, use(d) it constantly for both field recording and to record jams and live performances (well, when we were still performing live that is).
In general I’d say it’s decent value for its money, but I never used anything else (except an H1 from the same maker… but that’s a different thing altogether).

Ler’s start with

the good things

What I do like about this recorder is that it feels very solid, and that it has actual volum wheels. One thing I really don’t like is having to use buttons to adjust volume. The wheels are a bit hard to turn, which is both good and bad. You can’t really adjust volume without creating handling noise.
Recording quality is decent I think, to be more specific, it’s ok as long as the signals are loud enough or your mics are very sensitive. If you are trying to record very subtle sounds with the stock mic, then you might be disappointed. The preamps are pretty noisy!
The menu is well structured and it has lots of handy features. Most of which I’ve never used. It does have plugin power, which is great because I have a pair of USI mics. Also it can record 4 channels at the same time, so you can for example record both the line out from the mixer and the room sound during a jam or live gig (they will be back I’m sure!)
Just like other Zoom recorders in this class (eg. the H6) you can swap mic capsules. But I haven’t tried any of those.

And now…

the bad

One thing I saw coming is that the rubbery finish on the plastic shell is now turning into a sticky mess. Why does everybody insist on using this kind of finish? It’s horrible! If anybody has a tip on how to deal with that, please let me know.
More things that can be annoying:
Again, the preamps are very noisy if you use the buil-in mic.
When you line-level audio through the line input you still have to use the volume wheel to adjust gain and the range is really bad. Basically you have to find the sweet spot between 1 and 1.5 (it goes up to 10). You can of coruse use the combo jack inputs (channels 1 and 2) on the bottom, which have a -20db pad. But I often have to use stereo mini jacks, and so the LR line input is much more convenient to me. Also getting inputs 1 and 2 to be on the same level can be a bit fiddly (you have two wheels to do that for each channel separately, which of course makes sense in many cases)

If you also have an H5 and want to add something to this, please do so!

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I recommend you to find used Sony PCM D-50. Great sound quality (some guys use it as portable hifi player with music in wav), great case , and all the UX/UI is solid and pro. After about 7 years of owning still work without any issues and have the same price. I dont think that anyone can say the some words about zoom things:)

I had this happen to me as well. wound up taking apart the H5 and scrubbing the hell out of the outer shell with iso alcohol. you need to remove the finish entirely to get rid of that feeling, but it does work. some other liquid might be more efficient than iso at removing it as well, but it was all I had at the time.

Yes 99% or above ISO Alcohol is very good for sticky residues left from labels etc and at this strength it evaporates cleanly so it’s ok to use with electronics. Always best to test a small area first to make sure. Using a dropper bottle for essential oil or similar is useful for controlling small amounts around electronics.

I’ve used the H5 for almost 5 years now in 4 wildly different contexts.
1. field recordings with either the built-in mics or binaural mics plugged into the stereo in
absolutely amazing for this.
2. 2-way interviews (EV RE-50), collecting ambi (AT shotgun), and tracking narration (various condensers) for audio journalism
excellent for this, esp for smoothly adjusting the input gain. it’s a tiny bit noisy but still great. at work this is what we send producers out into the field with.
3. recording live shows (RIP) that I was mixing
decent…what always killed me is that it’s very finicky to get the two line input gains aligned for accurate stereo image. my workaround was to send it a test tone, get it close, and then trim in the DAW later.
4. master output of my modular setup or small mixer, as an always-on recorder
the aforementioned stereo image thing killed me, so I started going into the stereo input. problem is, that doesn’t have enough headroom, so I had some great jams ruined by clipping!

so I switched to a Tascam DR-40x for #4. The gain control is in software so I can have accurate stereo with plenty of headroom. also doubles as a nice headphone amp!

Lastly, I used the Zoom H3-VR for a project where we left it rolling for hours in a room as people came and went. the results sounded amazing, and with the software you can actually “focus” the sound. would love to utilize this more in a post-pandemic future.

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So, I have a Sony PCM D-50, but I’ve onticed the occasional “pop” in recordings when I let it sit and record for a long time (like ambiances). Looking at the waveform, it’s just a couple or three samples at full volume, even when everything else in the recording is anywhere between 24dB and 18dB.

Has anyone else seeen this?

Otherwise, yes, it’s a great recorder.

I just saved enough to buy a Sony PCM-D100, which was an utterly extravagant purchase for me for field recording (in part because of my frustration with the pops in Sony PCM D-50 recordings), and I’m loving it.

It’s hard to recommend because of it’s price unless you’re really serious about the form factor, quality, and you’re OK with a lack of XLR inputs. But I love it, and it’s my go-to now.

This model, and another from Sony (probably the D-100) comes up really often when people recommend the best small portable audio recorder. The other one is of course the Sound Devices MixPre-6, but that is of course a bit of a different league.
If I had to go back I would definitely get the Sony. While it does not have XLR inputs, I never really used the ones on the Zoom anyway.

I guess I’ll have to do that one day as well. Dismantling the whole thing is a bit scary though.

Good point!

Now that you mention it… that does happen with the Zoom H5 as well! It’s just a couple of samples, same thing you have with the D-50.

Headroom is an interesting subject on the zoom recorders. For all the recorders I have: H1n, H5 & H6, if you go below 20% (or 2/10) volume level, the attenuation is digital, meaning you don’t gain headroom; it still clips, but the recording is quieter. The most frustrating part of this is that the clipping indicator doesn’t trigger (since the master level remains below 0db). Secondly the H5 has a 20db pad, but it’s implemented in software, so with that in place, if you set the level below 40% you are in digital attenuation territory. The h6 has an actually 20db pad in hardware. This means you can record in 24bit, set the volume to 2/10 (or above) and trust the vu meter/clipping indicator. I usually put the limiter (studio mode) on and set my levels to peak just above -12db (where the limiter kicks in). This can be a balancing act between external levels and the device itself but it has worked reasonably for me.

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(Just rambling, if you’re looking for reviews, skip to next messages)

Sony PCM-D50 was my dream for years after listening and trying out stuff extensively, seemed like it had the combination of very good inputs (decent headroom, low self noise, etc.), much better than average built in mics, respectable general build quality and UI for any sensible price or size. The PCM-D100 seemed even more so after I realized that D50 is no longer available. Just no XLR inputs and only file transfer via USB, so doesn’t act as an emergency audio interface / computer recorder like eg. the Zooms do.

Ultimately got neither - first fell into the trap of getting something cheap that left too much wanting (Zoom H2n, never could gel with it too well - sort of did everything I wanted in some way, but always just a bit too noisy or bit too low headroom or whatever, which kind of spoiled the fun for me), and then upgrading straight to something that has everything and the kitchen sink - compact non-handheld device with XLR inputs, superb preamps, USB audio capability et cetera et cetera.

However, I’m still quite intrigued by the Sonys, so interested in case there are more personal experiences. The D50/D100 have always been getting good reviews everywhere, and a lot of people like the old M10 as a pocket go-everywhere recorder, but how about the other ones?

I’ve used a Tascam DR-40 for about 5 years and it’s an ok option for someone looking for something slightly better than bottom tier recorders.

Pros: movable internal mics for x/y or extra wide stereo image; easy to use and clear menu structure; combo 1/4" + XLR jacks, and plug in power mics (haven’t used this feature); can record 4 tracks simultaneously including a doubled, attenuated version of the main stereo pair to save clipped recordings.

Cons: the internal preamps have a high noise floor which is not great for recording ambiences; highly susceptible to handling noise and all controls, including mic gain, are click-y digital buttons; the 1/4" inputs seem to introduce some distortion before actually clipping on hot signals in a not so pleasant way (i.e. not great for recording modular stuff via line in).

I would like to upgrade to something with quieter preamps but since I want something highly mobile I’m not sure I want to go with a complete modular set-up like with a MixPre or similar alternative. Definitely following other’s experiences with interest.

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My main recorder is a Sound Devices MixPre-3 (the original version) and it’s maybe the audio equipment purchase I’ve been most unconditionally happy with. I use it mostly for really straightforward field recording of nature sounds and it’s finally allowed me to capture the really quiet, subtle sounds I love without noise.

Pros:
Amazing preamps that introduce almost no noise even with very quiet sound sources.
Super solidly built - I never worry about damaging it putting it on rocks or throwing it in a backpack.
Clear interface that makes setting levels easy. It’s quick to get going but has lots of well thought out options under the surface.
Seems to handle pretty well in cold weather

Cons:
Eats through batteries very quickly (though rechargables fare a lot better).
No TRS in - I’d like to use it to record music when my laptop is tied up and I don’t want to fuss around with complicated routing and TRS would help with that.
Headphone jack is less clean than the preamps so for quiet sounds it can feel like there’s a bit more noise than will end up in the final recording.
No built in mic - not really what it’s made for but it would sometimes be nice for a quick recording where quality is less of a concern.

I’ve also got a Roland R-26. I got it before the MixPre. It’s pretty good but definitely struggles with very quiet sounds (hence the MixPre). Not as rugged as the MixPre but still feels solid and is really flexible and uses a lot less power. Also handles well in the cold though the screen struggles in prolonged sessions well below freezing. The case is needed to attach the windshield but is super loud itself.

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Sony PCM M10 user here.

Small - I mean really small - fairly high quality sound. Decent built in mics with decent gain levels although fixed and a little narrower stereo field than some other options. Has a good limiter which is really useful.

Size limits the amount of features, no xlr inputs for instance, only 3.5mm stereo, and the level controls can fiddly due to size. Accurate monitoring can also be a little tricky, what with the small display.

For those who would accept these shortcomings as a trade off for reasonably high quality and an incredibly small package then I’d highly recommend it.
I’m more of an opportunistic recorder than a planner so suits my needs perfectly, although perhaps for something really involved or specific I’d look at using something with more options.
No longer in production unfortunately but worth keeping your eyes peeled.

I’d be interested to hear of any recommendations for decent stereo mics with 3.5mm jack connectors, if anyone knows of any.

Those channels are XLR / 1/4-inch TRS Inputs.

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I also have a PCM D100 and love it. i would definitely like it to have mic inputs but the built in ones are pretty great.

What I like even more on the machine, even if it may seem strange, is the line input. It just has really nice converters which make it a wonderful tool for recording full tracks (if you record to stereo) or digitizing tape with it.

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My M10 has that too but I’ve not explored using it. Assuming similar quality conversion as the D100, will have a go.

I have a Sony PCM-M10 which has earned back its cost many times over.

  • brilliant with Microphone Madness Sennheiser MKE-2 mics (when they offered them) via plug-in power (3V i think).
  • perfect via line-in from MixPre-D and a good mic. Both last a long time on batteries.
  • built-in mics are very quiet but haven’t wide stereo image.
  • can turn off all lights for stealthy recordings.
  • have captured some wonderful recordings with an Audio-Technica BP-4025 mic.
  • dropped it once from a 1st floor window, it fell on asphalt and lived, still works.

Liked it so much I bought another one new when they announced they’ve been discontinued. If you can find one in great condition, there’s no point in hesitating.

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I teach a 3-week long session on field recording (for ethnographers) at the uni here, and as part of that students who already own a field recorder bring it in and we do comparative recordings of the same things (a solo musician in a room, an urban soundscape) and then listen back to hear and see the strengths/weaknesses of various units. But we also assess the usability/reliability of the recorders. It’s one thing to nerd out about specs and “raw sound quality,” but if you lose half of the recordings since you’re using the device in complicated fieldwork scenarios and accidentally fail to start (or prematurely stop) your recording, or if it regularly runs out of batteries mid-recording, then that’s a bigger problem.

Our conclusions were a bit like this:

  • Sound Devices MixPre with external mics: best for “sheer sound quality” (the preamps are really good and the AD stages good too), doubles as a very handy USB audio interface for computers, best sounding headphone output of any portable recorder, and the only “weather proof” option that can handle humidity or extreme cold. Cons: battery life is bad unless you bring an Anker (or similar) pack with you, “not portable enough” for some situations, no built-in mics.

  • Tascam DR100-mkiii: we felt this was a “good compromise” in many ways, the directional mics are smoother sounding than zoom mics, the preamps can be pretty quiet with external mics too (while not as smooth as the Sound Devices, they sound pretty good), battery life is ok but not superb (I get 9 hours with the built-in battery and a pair of eneloops), price is very good. Cons: the menu interface and button layout can be maddening to use, the omni mics don’t sound very good (ok for interviews but that’s about it), the placement/direction of the 2 cardioid mics is puzzling and suboptimal (it’s not a coincident pair, it’s not XY, and not far enough to be a spaced pair), can’t act as USB interface (if that matters to you).

  • Sony PCM-D100: has slightly nicer sounding internal mics than the Tascams, better mic positioning than the tascams, longer battery life. Cons: no mic inputs makes it less flexible, doesn’t act as USB interface (if that matters to you), comparatively expensive (if not on sale).

  • Zoom H2n, H4n: cheap and flexible options, most straightforward user interface (great for those “oh no I should be recording this!” moments), 9+ hours record time, line inputs are fine, acts as a USB interface too, cheap. Cons: very noisy preamps ( not ideal for recording quiet sounds or foley/sound design things), mic sound quality lower than Tascam or external mics, less ruggedly built than Tascam/SD. Also, we’ve heard more reliability problems with Zooms in general than other brands—but that could be just because there are more of them out there.

  • Tascam DR40x: similar price to Zooms but mic sound quality was a bit better; one student really liked the interface of it and found it preferable to the Zoom h4 they used to have. Cons: clearly sounded inferior on an acoustic instrument recording to the DR100 and D100 that we compared it to, battery life was worse than Sonys and DR100-mkiii.

Other notes: students were split on interface/usability stuff; two clearly liked the Tascams more than the others, three liked the Zooms more than the others, one was particularly keen on their Sony. The moral here is that, if you have a chance to get your hands on one, try it out.

We didn’t get to compare the Sony PCM-D50 or larger Zooms, and the Sony M10 was already out of production so we didn’t consider it in the mix.

I myself use both a DR100-mkiii (for quick setup recordings, throw in a bag during a trip, interviews, all my ethnographic field research work) and a SoundDevices MixPre6 (original version) with a variety of external mics for location acoustic instrument recording and for all my synthesis recording too.

Anyways, perhaps some of the notes will be helpful to others!

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I would add that the Sony D100 and D50, both of which have been my portable workhorses have stereo line in on a TRS. If you can get your mics into that via adaptors etc—self-powered stereo mics on up to a 500 series lunchbox with custom cable to get down to that little TRS are things I’ve used— it works great. Obviously more clunky though for some of that.

The key feature on the D series for me is the limiter, which is pretty amazing and has saved many a live recording that should have been trashed when the levels were off and I wasn’t able to monitor it directly (ie I was performing).

I use the DSD recording for archive and for source when doing cassette duplication.

My next solo bass release, Upstairs at Vitek’s, was recorded with D100 onboard mic at a live show.

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The MixPre-3 doesn’t have combo inputs though it looks like the MixPre-6 does. Do you mean that they would accept 1/4-inch TRS with an adapter?

Sorry I’ve just realize that Mixpre-3 has no 1/4-inch TRS on those XLR plugs like Mixpre-6 does.

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