Owning one of the best portable recorders is essential for many types of people, most obviously musicians, and journalists. But they are also invaluable to anyone who needs high-quality recordings of just about anything – from lectures and debates to meetings and interviews.
When they first hit the market in the late-1970s, they looked like shabby little radios and used tiny cassette tapes. The sound quality was average at best and after about an hour you had to remember to flip the tape over to record on the other side.
But all that has changed and portable recorders are now digital. The sound quality couldn’t be better and you can record for hour after hour without any problems.
But which of the many currently available is the Best Portable Recorder? And Why?
Read on and find out…
- Top 10 Best Portable Audio Recorders In 2020 Reviews
- 1 Zoom H1n Handy Recorder
- 2 Yamaha PR7 Pocket Recorder with Overdub Functions
- 3 Zoom H5 Four Track Portable Recorder
- 4 Zoom H6 Six-Track Portable Recorder
- 5 Roland R-05 Studio WAVE/MP3 Recorder
- 6 Sony PCM-M10 Portable Linear PCM Voice Recorder
- 7 TASCAM DR-100mkII 2-Channel Portable Digital Recorder
- 8 TASCAM DR-40 4-Track Portable Digital Recorder
- 9 Zoom H2n Handy Recorder
- 10 Zoom H4N Pro Digital Multitrack Recorder
- Best Portable Audio Recorders Buying Guides
Top 10 Best Portable Audio Recorders In 2020 Reviews
1 Zoom H1n Handy Recorder
The streamlined body with its matte finish and the newly designed protective mic enclosure gives this basic model from Zoom, the H1n, increased portability.
Thanks to it’s compact and rugged design, you can use it to record high-quality sound, just about anywhere. Carry it around in your pocket, chuck it in your backpack, or take it wherever you fancy, without any concerns.
An LCD display, one-touch buttons, and localized menus make the H1n perfect for both entry-level users and professionals. It can be used in so many ways – recording song ideas, audio for film projects, taking down lectures or meetings, podcast interviews, and more. And everything is recorded in exceptional audio quality.
The H1n features an advanced onboard limiter, this enables the user to record without any distortion, up to a sound pressure level of 120 dB. This allows you to record concerts, band practices, or other loud environments without compromising any audio quality.
The Playback Speed Control option, allows you to easily transcribe difficult to understand interviews. Whilst for musicians, the A-B repeat is very helpful when they are learning or rehearsing songs.
An overdub feature gives you the opportunity to add new sounds over existing recordings. The H1n also has settings for auto-record, pre-record, and self-timer.
It features a built-in X/Y stereo microphones that covers a wide area while emphasizing the center of the sound field. This allows users to record crystal clear audio almost anywhere.
It also features tone and slate generators. These make it easy to mark the start and stop points while working with picture, for syncing the audio to video.
Our Rating: (4.4 / 5)
2 Yamaha PR7 Pocket Recorder with Overdub Functions
The POCKETRAK PR7 is the latest in Yamaha’s line of ultra-portable linear PCM recorder. It effortlessly provides high-quality recordings, whenever and wherever you need to make them.
Equipped with its recently developed XY stereo microphone, the PR7 easily captures high-resolution stereo recordings. Whilst also achieving consistent audio quality and a natural sound.
It’s an invaluable tool for any musician, offering essential practice functions including an onboard tuner and metronome. It also performs powerful recording functions, such as overdubbing and marker editing.
All these impressive functions are easily accessed via a simple, intuitive interface. It also features five presets that have been optimized for a variety of applications.
These make recording a rehearsal, a songwriting session, a speaking engagement or making a field recording, even easier with high-quality results.
Our Rating: (3.8 / 5)
3 Zoom H5 Four Track Portable Recorder
Another recorder from Zoom, and there are even more to come, because the company does tend to dominate the portable recorder market.
First, to the layout, the H5’s top panel is a backlit LCD screen that shows the audio recording settings. The lower panel, however, has several buttons, including the usual – record, start, play and fast forward.
Overall it has a sturdy and rugged feel. It features a nice, rubberized finish, giving the recorder a good grip, especially in wet conditions. It also features metal bars that protect the level controls from accidental adjustments.
The microphones are mounted on a shock mounter. This helps in reducing vibrations and thus handling noise.
Different recordings need different microphones, a number of Zoom’s models, including the H5, allow for this. You can choose the best microphone capsule for every situation by utilizing a system of interchangeable input capsules.
The H5 is well-suited for podcasting, broadcasting and electronic newsgathering as well as for recording live concerts and rehearsals. And it records directly to SD and SDHC cards up to 128GB, so storage shouldn’t be an issue.
Featuring two mic/line inputs with XLR/TRS combo connectors, each with selectable phantom power and a -20dB pad. The H5 is designed to handle extremely loud sounds, making it the perfect choice for capturing live rock concerts.
Our Rating: (4.5 / 5)
4 Zoom H6 Six-Track Portable Recorder
Another excellent offering from Zoom, this time the H6.
It comes packaged with everything you need to create amazing audio recordings. This includes a XYH-6 X/Y mic capsule, a MSH-6 MS mic capsule, a 2 GB SD card, 4 AA batteries, Cubase LE Software, a Windscreen, USB Cable, its Case, and the operation manual.
But why two capsules? Like the Zoom H5, the H6 also uses a system of interchangeable input capsules so you can choose the best capsule for any applications. Think of it like changing a microphone to record a different instrument. It comes supplied with a stereo X/Y capsule and a stereo MS (mid-side) capsule.
As well as having the choice of capsules, you can also change the angle of capture. This allows you to modify the directional range of the audio recording.
Weighing in at around 10 pounds, the recorder is lightweight and can be easily carried to anywhere you need to record audio.
Unlike most portable recorders which offer stereo tracks, the H6 allows six tracks of multi-recording. That means you can actually layer multiple sounds on it, so you can create snapshots of song ideas, not only with for example a guitar and voice but also add a stereo drum machine, a bass, or keyboards on the other tracks.
Allowing for the six, not usual stereo inputs, it comes with four mic/line inputs with XLR/TRS combo connectors, each one with dedicated volume control, selectable phantom power, and a -20dB pad.
Another notable feature is the ability to decrease the handling noise. This is a feature which was absent in the previous Zoom models.
Our Rating: (4.6 / 5)
5 Roland R-05 Studio WAVE/MP3 Recorder
Roland R-05 is a very easy to use portable audio recorder endowed with excellent sound qualities. It has become the favorite of many musicians, journalists, and, students.
The reason for this is because of how simple and intuitive it is to use. Its simplistic design is excellent and allows the user to easily use any of its functions, it isn’t quite plug and play, but it’s very close.
The Roland R-05 is perfect for anyone who needs to leave a memo while away from the office, or to capture an amazing song idea in an instant.
For recording, you can use the built-in stereo mic, or any external mic you choose via the external input.
As for musicians, the device features a number of useful features for practicing. These include loop playback, tempo adjustment without changing the pitch, auto song split and auto record start.
All in all an excellent portable recorder.
Our Rating: (4.6 / 5)
6 Sony PCM-M10 Portable Linear PCM Voice Recorder
The Sony PCM-M10 is a portable audio recorder with outstanding features and excellent performance.
Its equipped with electrets condenser stereo microphones, is capable of sampling rates up to 96 kHz/24-bit, features a memory stick micro slot, and a 4GB internal flash memory.
The high-speed USB port is great for easily downloading and uploading recorded files, in either MP3 or WAV format. These files can be transferred to, or from, any Windows PC or Macintosh computers.
In terms of style, the Sony PCM-M10 is very attractive, with a rugged and durable body. It’s very compact, fitting into the palm of your hand, which makes it great for field recording.
Our Rating: (4.1 / 5)
7 TASCAM DR-100mkII 2-Channel Portable Digital Recorder
The DR-100 MkII, is a rugged little audio recorder with an attractive and professional look. It offers high-end recording functionalities, for sound engineers and musicians who demand a lot from their portable audio recorders.
It features four built-in microphones comprising two omnidirectional and two cardioid, a S/PDIF digital input for directly inputting a digital signal, locking connectors so everything stays in place, and balanced line ins for less hum on your signals.
The DR-100 MkII comes in a rugged anodized Aluminum body so it’s great for use in any conditions. And has two batteries enabling users to record audio for a longer length of time than on recorders with a single battery.
It’s packaged with the following accessories; soft case, windsock, wireless remote control, power Li-ion battery, USB connection cable, Coin cell battery for affirming remote control operation and lots more.
Our Rating: (4 / 5)
8 TASCAM DR-40 4-Track Portable Digital Recorder
Here’s another great recorder from Tascam. This incredibly affordable 4 –track recorder provides the user, with everything that’s needed to capture high-quality audio, at any time in any environment.
It’s superb for effortlessly recording live music, simply connect the main feed from the mixing board to the DR-40 and then use of the built-in microphones to capture the band and audience sound in the room.
To record with video, you just connect your shotgun microphone to one of the inputs and activate the phantom power if it’s a condenser shotgun mic. Once done, high-quality audio and video recordings are virtually guaranteed.
The DR-40 includes a built-in limiter, dual mode recording, and automatic level adjustment, all of which should ensure your recordings are as clean and professional as possible.
And, for musicians, you’ll also get a built-in tuner and a reverb, making the DR-40 not only a great recorder but also an excellent songwriting tool.
Our Rating: (4.7 / 5)
9 Zoom H2n Handy Recorder
The H2n is a far simpler design than many of the recorders featured in this roundup. One example of this is that it features instant boot up. This is great for news catchers, allowing instant recording whenever needed, with no need to wait for your recorder to boot, as you miss the first 30 seconds of an important announcement.
Layout wise, the bottom panel features an LCD screen, that’s used to select settings, such as Auto Gain and Lo-Cut. The screen also includes supplementary features such as metronome, playback speed adjustment and the ability to set loop ends. All these features make the H2n an excellent choice for musicians.
Other handy features for the musician include onboard effects, including compression/limiting and low-cut filtering, plus a chromatic tuner.
It has five built-in microphones, yes five! And four recording modes including stereo Mid-Side (MS), stereo X/Y, and both 2-channel and 4-channel surround. The Analog-type microphone gain knob can be used to easily adjust the gain setting of the recorder.
This recorder is even smaller and more compact than the other recorders featured and can easily fit into the palm of your hand.
The Auto Gain, Auto-record, and Pre-record features, as well as the Data Recovery function, are unique to this recorder. So if any of those features are high on your want list, then this is the best portable recorder for you.
It runs on two AA alkaline or NiMH rechargeable batteries and has up to 20 hours of battery life, for far longer recording sessions, than most of its competitors.
Yet another unique feature, is that the Zoom H2n is the only handheld recorder, which is perfect for the creation of 360-degree, spatial audio VR audio files. These are native to the Google JUMP Virtual Reality Platform and are fully compatible with YouTube.
Its USB port allows these files to be imported into your computer editing software such as the WaveLab LE, where you can cut out the noise and enhance the quality of the audio.
As if that isn’t enough, you can even use the H2n as a 2-in/2-out digital audio interface or as a USB microphone.
Our Rating: (4.4 / 5)
10 Zoom H4N Pro Digital Multitrack Recorder
We’ll start with the layout. The H4N’s top panel features a 1.9 inch LCD backlit display that is used to display whatever recording options have been selected.
It features three buttons to choose from the three input modes respectively, these are MTR, stereo, and the 4CH. The panel also contains the control buttons – recording, play, fast forward and reverse.
For the best quality sound recording, you can mount it on a tripod or even on your camera. Handheld recording is not recommended, because it can easily record the handing noise.
Weighing in at around 300 grams, this recorder is easy to carry just about anywhere. The new rubberized, ergonomic body also makes it ideal for use in the field along with a camera.
It’s capable of handling sound pressure levels up to 140 dB, so is great for recording everything from ear-splitting heavy metal to bass-heavy EDM.
And as with a number of other Zoom models, the angles of the stereo microphones can be changed to modify the directional range of the audio recording, so you get exactly the right amount of the band your recording.
Allowing pristine stereo or four-channel recording, at sampling rates up to 24-bit/96 kHz. But, the Boot time of around 30 seconds, is a little longer than most.
It features a 0.125-inch stereo line out, which allows you to connect your Zoom H4n Pro to your DSLR as long as your camera has an external microphone input. This provides you with high-quality audio that is also time coded. It also has a port to plug in your headphones.
Our Rating: (4.5 / 5)
Best Portable Audio Recorders Buying Guides
It’s important to carefully consider exactly where and for what, you will be using your portable recorder. This will make choosing the right one a lot easier.
All the recorders we’ve covered will deliver on sound quality, what separates them is the features, choosing the features you need and ignoring the ones you don’t will quickly create a short list of the best portable recorders for you.
Microphones polar patterns
There are two polar patterns featured on the portable recorders we have featured today, cardioid and omnidirectional.
Cardioid is a heart-shaped pattern, which is where it got its name. It captures the sound directly in front of it, then less of the sound, as you move away from that position. Cardioid patterns capture very little from the sides and nothing from the rear of the microphone.
This pattern makes it superb for capturing a single sound, such as a vocalist singing into it, without picking up all the other sounds which are happening around it.
An omnidirectional microphone pattern captures everything that is happening around it. It’s a 360-degree microphone. Therefore if you put it in the center of a room full of people, it would capture the sound of everyone talking, wherever they were in the room.
This is obviously superb for capturing ambiance, and meetings. But can also be used to capture band rehearsals. Simply place the microphone in the center of the room, with all the musicians positioned around and pointing towards it.
There are two microphone configurations commonly used on portable recorders. These are the XY and the MS.
The XY configuration features two cardioid microphones that are angled between 90 and 135 degrees from each other. They then work together to capture a wide stereo image.
The other configuration is the Mid Side or MS. This comes with a cardioid mic that faces the source directly while another bidirectional mic faces left and right. These then work together to produce a wide stereo picture, but they create a very different sonic picture to the XY configuration.
Neither is better than the other, it depends on the application as to which one will produce the best results. If you’re new to recording, experiment with them on different sources and then see which configuration you personally prefer, for various applications.
The storage capacity is also an important consideration when buying a portable recorder.
This again will depend on where and what you want to record. If for example, you intend going on safari for a week to record the sounds of nature, you will need lots of storage, however, if your only recording a night class once a week, storage is obviously much less important.
Battery life is very similar to storage options. If you are going off grid it’s very important, however, if you only intend to record podcast audio while you’re near a power source, then it isn’t really much of a concern.
All the portable recorders featured in this roundup are excellent, and as stated the difference in actual audio quality is a lot less than you imagine. Some of the models costing a lot more than others may have slightly better sound quality and higher sampling rates, but in real-world terms, you’ll hardly notice any sonic difference.
What does set them apart are the features. The manufacturers are obviously trying to sell their products so they package them in attractive formats, which will suit most people. But, some are better for a musician than others, while some are excellent for news reporters.
The features of every model listed detail this, so simply look for the one that best suits your needs in whatever price bracket you choose and the choice of the best portable recorder will be revealed.
That said, there has to be a winner, our top three pics were the Zoom H6, the Roland R-05, and the Tascam DR-40 4-Track Portable Recorder. With the Roland R-05 being the overall winner because it’s affordable, user-friendly and offers very high-quality audio.