Portable audio recorders are more handy and useful than many would assume. On-the-go is a synonymous phrase with our world as a whole and anything that isn’t convenient is written off as inefficient. If you’re looking for the best portable audio and music recorders, we drank a bunch of coffee and read as many reviews as we could to search high and low for the best of the best. There are quite a few variations of models out there to check out. I like to film most concerts and live shows I go to and my video camera audio typically isn’t feasible (even my DSLR), so I like to bring a portable audio recorder with me to capture a higher quality music track with. I then go into my video software editor and sync up the tracks and boom, a beautiful moment of some of my favorite groups are stored away forever!
What is a portable audio recorder?
A portable audio recorder is a small device that’s meant for on-the-go or handheld recording of audio of any kind — music, sounds effects, rehearsals, interviews, lectures, conversations, live shows, thoughts — you name it, you can record it. As opposed to traditional voice recorders, portable audio recorders offer some better audio quality (semi-pro and even professionals at times use these), more advanced types of microphone builds, additional features, extra memory space, and much more.
In our best multitrack recorders guide, we learned there are numerous types of recorders out there in the music and recording equipment world. But what about some smaller, convenient solutions for those who are on-the-go or travel frequently? In terms of portability, the models focused on in this article are great for recording merely anything you may think of while you’re roaming the world, in the field or even around the house.
We know some who use their portable audio recorders for band rehearsals to listen over later as well as when they have some music ideas and they shamelessly hum it into the mic for some future reference. No shame here — you never know when that golden tune is going to come to you! I’ve even used it to record some thoughts I needed to get out or practice talking to my old boss for a raise (no joke — practice makes perfect, right?). And yes, technically we can use our smart devices and even though there are some voice recording apps out there in the world, nothing beats a higher-quality portable audio recorder, especially if you’re going to be using that audio in post-production later on.
How to choose your handheld recorder
It’s a bit straight forward for picking the best portable recorder and when it comes to your needs it is dependent on a few factors that are subjective depending on the person. Some recorders out there may have jam-packed features that might be a bit overkill for you — maybe you’re just looking for a simple device to record audio with no pizzazz? Or maybe some of you are looking for some XLR inputs, filters, or noise cancellation technologies that are only available in higher models? Here’s the list to take into consideration when shopping.
- Your budget – Some of these are relatively affordable, although if you want some of the best, they usually run between $100 to $200.
- How many tracks? Some record one, two or up to four tracks at a time. If you’re recording just a voice or one large piece of audio, don’t worry too much about having a bunch of channels — it’ll be a waste of money for you if you don’t intend on using the other channels.
- What is your intended use? Are you recording some sound FX out in the field to use for songs, interviews, or films later on? You may want to focus on resolution. What about just simple voice memos, band rehearsals, or other uses that don’t necessarily call for tip-top quality? This can allow you to sacrifice some of the price to save some money if quality isn’t necessarily going to be relevant. Are you interviewing individuals for a documentary or informational purposes and need to use the audio in post-production after finalizing the video? How about just an interview to write down later? Catch our drift here — “the best” won’t necessarily mean super high-priced depending on your use.
- How much memory? This is pretty straight forward — some accept microSD and SDHC cards while others do not. Pay attention to how much memory the recorder you’re looking at can support inside of the recorder as it’s important to keep in mind how much audio you can store on your device at a time. If yours supports external memory, most are fine with any size of a microSD card, although others have some large internal memory capacities which is quite convenient as well.
- Extra features you’re looking for – Many of these are surprisingly powerful considering their overall size. LCD screens, filters, effects, playback in slow-mo, etc. Who knows, maybe you want it all? Or perhaps you just want to record some simple audio with features that increase the price drastically?
- An internal or external mic? There are benefits to both and some models (mostly zoom) come with interchangeable mic configurations that can be detached at the top. Others are merely built-in so you don’t have to worry about the extra pieces. There are benefits to both, and the more advanced you are in your use, the more concerned you’ll be with having some ability to tweak the mic configs.
- Accessories needed – Carrying bags, popper stoppers, tripods, or windscreens. Some only use a tripod/mount with theirs, but the others may be useful to you as well. Some of the models we list come in bundles around the net and we’ll provide if we found any to help save some cash. This will only be important if you’re using the audio for your actual project.
Our top 10 best portable recorders
The following is our list of the best portable recorders available today. Be sure to take the above list into consideration when shopping, and please let us know which model you end up going with in the comments.
Who else should start off our list with a recorder? Zoom electronics is one of the leaders in the market and for good reason. The H1 is one of their most popular recorders because of the cheaper price of around $100 retail. So it’s easy on the wallet and at the same time offers the essential features of a portable recorder: A white and black colored model, a stereo X/Y mic configuration which is great for quality, broadcast WAV files (up to 96 kHz \ 24-bit) and MP3’s to 320 kbps, USB 2.0 port, and a built-in reference speaker.
It’s compatible with microSD cards (comes with a 2 GB card) and is battery-powered (AA). Most users of the H1 praise it for audio quality which is why we have it first; for that price and solid audio quality you really can’t complain, unless of course you’re looking for some extra features that are only offered with higher models. Grab the Zoom H1 recorder if you’re looking for a basic yet solid sounding quality for a low price. It’s one of our favorites.
Yamaha Pocketrak PR7
Up next we have one of our favorite brands in the market, Yamaha with their Pocketrak model. It provides the same audio quality of 24-bit / 96 kHz recording as other heavy-hitters out there. You get a mic and line input but a different spin here is the dynamics and high-pass filter control. What I like about this as well is the carrying case that comes along with it — I would prefer to use that as opposed to merely sticking the recorder in my pocket bare.
I’ve heard of a lot of people use this particularly for live music recording and what not, but it’ll work with just about any use. A con some may say is that it’s a bit larger in size as compared to the H1, so if you’re looking for some covert and mini types of situations you should stick with the H1. All in all, the Yamaha Pocketrak PR7 is an amazing recorder for a cheap price, not to mention the decent case you get in the package, too.
Another Zoom recorder here. It’s around the $200 range and the H4N has so many positive reviews on Amazon it’d be hard not to include another Zoom model. In fact, it’s the best-selling portable studio recorder on Amazon right now. You get the same X/Y mic configuration (most of the Zooms have this) for excellent quality, a four-channel digital recording, and a built-in preamp for an even more powerful recording. What’s most impressive with this and why the price starts to go up is the inclusion of a LCD screen (the H4N is 1.9″) which we love because it helps with navigation and getting the whole thing up and running. Soundonsound’s Zoom H4n review loves this recorder.
The sound quality is superb with the standard at the 24-bit / 96 kHz resolution. You get around 4 hours of battery life which is in our opinion mediocre, although there is a stamina mode which ups it to 11 (albeit at lower sound quality). It is battery operated though, so to bypass this just carry some extra AA with you and switch them out when you need be. Grab this if you can afford to go a bit higher than the previous models listed. The Zoom H4N portable recorder is rated #1 on a lot of websites for a reason.
One of Zoom’s biggest competitors, Tascam recorders, makes its debut in our list and it isn’t the last time you’ll hear of them. This particular model is one of their most budget-friendly and is very powerful in terms of features. We get different mic configuration here, with the DR-05 having an omnidirectional microphone (as seen in the photo, basically the opposite of Zoom’s X/Y. It helps with gathering the entire surround sound). Another feature is the LCD screen on the front to navigate through your sounds. Some other nifty features which aren’t completely necessary but are included is a speed playback without changing pitch ability, you can loop and repeat sounds and also get an EQ setting called chromatic tuner.
It’s AA battery operated (like most of these) and can connect via USB or AC adapter. You lastly can use a microSD card (2 GB included) to store your sounds on. This is typically around the same price as the H1 so give a big look at the Tascam DR-05 recorder if you want an alternative to the popular models (or whichever is listed as cheaper at the moment). It also comes with a nice little stand (as seen in the photo) which can come in handy considering a lot of people dislike the way some of these recorders stand up on their own on a desk or other surface you may be near so you don’t have to worry about holding all day and night.
Here’s a model by Olympus we just couldn’t ignore. It’s equipped with a mic system called the “Tresmic three” which is at the top of the unit that includes two directional microphones in combination with an omnidirectional microphone in the middle to help record lower bass ranges. The sound quality is excellent and sound isolation is key here. The typical sound rate at 24-bit / 96 kHz and you can also playback your sounds via a speaker built-in to the unit. What’s different with this one is the internal 4 GB so you can get away with not having an SD card, although it does have a slot for that as well just in case.
Note that the battery life of this is stated to be 46 hours but I’d cut that in half to be on the safe side, which is still absurdly long compared to others. Grab the Olympus LS-14 handheld recorder if it seems like it’ll fit your needs.
A surprising brand here considering Roland is usually associated with music equipment, but this portable recorder is quite solid. The R-05 gives us our approved 24-bit / 96 kHz recording quality, an external input in case you’d like to go that route and you can record in MP3s or WAVs. Another highlight of this which stands out to us is the metal exterior. It’s rugged and very reliable, so if you’re concerned with stability and want a recorder that won’t break easily (and that you may drop, it happens to the best of us!) this is one of the best. There’s also a built-in mounting tripod socket if you want to set it down next to you to free up your hands.
It doesn’t have any built-in memory but you’re fine with a microSD card. It picks up a lot of surround noise so a concert probably isn’t ideal for this, but other than that the Roland R-05 recorder is a solid choice if you’re looking for stability as well as a device with a built-in microphone as opposed to one with a mic configuration that can get a bit annoying at times.
Here’s another appearance by Tascam with a 4-track recorder this time. Multi-track may be your thing if you feel like it, otherwise it’s still a solid handheld recorder for most. What’s nice about this are the XLR and TRS balanced mic/line inputs which also gives you phantom power. This is basically a mini audio interface combined with a microphone (+4db). You can also switch the microphone position between X/Y and A/B (test them both to see which is best for you, there are benefits to both but it ultimately matters which sounds best to you and the environment you’ll be in). The LCD on the front is a plus too, helping you navigation and check the levels of your sound.
Around a 15-hour battery life with AA batteries, there’s a USB cable and some extra effects you can add to your sounds (reverb, EQ and level align). Grab the Tascam DR-40 recorder if you want one of the best in terms of giving you everything and more. Not recommended if you don’t plan on using the four-track function, effects or XLR inputs. Studiodaily’s DR-40 recorder review calls it “HOT” (that’s good, right?).
Sony‘s most popular handheld recorder is this one and it has a lot of essential features we love. The microphone(s) are built-in and they’re condenser (omnidirectional) but there’s also an external mic input (3.5 mm). 4 GB internal memory is always a plus and it’s got around a 16-hour (AA battery) life. High-quality WAV and MP3 files, USB connectivity, and support of microSDHC cards up to 64 GB.
Playback is a bit iffy on this with the speaker being pretty low in volume, but if you use your computer to transfer the files and listen there you’re fine. Stated to be great for live music and you can use a sensitivity reduction feature on the recorder for high decibel settings. The Sony PCM-M10 recorder is a great model worth looking at.
This is one of our favorite Zoom recorders and although we already have a few of their “H” models in this list we had to throw this in there. It’s pretty much in the upper tier in terms of price but this thing has more features than we can count. Let’s list as many as we can: Four-track recording, interchangeable mic capsules (sold separately), two mic/line inputs (XLR/TRS), microSD cards up to 32 GB, phantom power, 15 hour run time, transport controls on the front, high quality LCD screen, built-in processing with filters and an auto-record function. Huge run-on sentence there, but it’s hard not to with the Zoom H5 handheld recorder.
This one of the best out there if your budget is a big one. Check out our Zoom H5 portable recorder review for more info.
Last but not least is another Tascam model but this thing is a beast. As to not get repetitive with the typical features most of these have, a standout of the DR-100mkII is the dual battery system which gives us some of the longest recording time we could find. It’s got an excellent aluminium construction that’s very rugged and stable. Even more convenience is the included accessories: 2 GB SD card, Li-ion battery, USB cable, soft case (wish it was hard), wind sock (like a windscreen but it fits over the mic, like a sock!), and a wireless remote control.
It’s only two-channels but we’ll take it since the audio quality is quite high with the two sets of microphones included (both cardioid and omnidirectional pickup). This is great for saving money with the included package — the quality and extra features set it a part from a lot of competitors. Give the Tascam DR-100mkII a hard look if you want a jam-packed handheld recorder.