In an evermore mobile world, where everything needs to be done on the go…
Portable field recorders are becoming an essential tool for the musician, sound designer or filmmaker.
But these devices are fairly recent and gained popularity with the launch of the Zoom H4 back in 2006.
It’s pretty safe to say Zoom H Series recorders are nowadays considered some of the best devices and an authority in the field.
However, they now have some serious competition.
So whether you need to:
- Record your lectures or classes
- Record your band’s rehearsal or concerts
- Record nature’s sounds
- Record folleys/sound effects
Well, you actually can do it with portable and affordable field recorders.
So stick around if you want to learn more about these useful little devices; and if you want to actually find out which one is the best for your needs.
Sounds good? Then let’s go!
What is a Portable Field Recorder?
Before we actually look at the best models out there, let’s quickly define what a portable field recorder is, and who it is aimed at.
In this post I’ll be covering “handheld” recorder WITH built-in microphones, although all the model in the list below can accept external mics.
Generally, professionals in the recording industry agree on the following. A portable field recorder has:
- One or several microphones – it is supposed to record sound, isn’t it?
- A storage system – usually some sort of memory card
- A screen – so you can monitor what you’re recording
- A small form-factor – portable recorders are often referred to as “handheld” recorders
What it is used for
Of course, “the possibilities are endless!“, but mainly, people use portable recorders for these 3 applications:
But here are the main ones:
- Music – whether it’s concerts, your band’s rehearsal or to actually record a studio track with mics plugged into XLRs, portable recorders are widely used in the music industry.
- Journalism – journalists/reporters often have to quickly be able to take their recorder out and have it ready to record in a matter of seconds. And for that, nothing beats a portable recorder. Take it out, press record, done!
- On-Field sound capture/Sound design – A lot of these devices are used to record outside sounds, and for sound design (Folley’s for example)
- As On-Camera Mics – Since most portable recorders can be mounted on a camera, a lot of people actually use them that way.
Sampling Rate/Audio Bit Depth
Sampling rate refers to how many times a soundwave is sampled. Essentially, the more the better.
Each frequency needs to be sampled twice, so if our hearing range lies between 20Hz and 20Khz, a sampling rate of 40Khz is enough.
There are 4 different sampling rates used when recording, each one for a specific situation. Remember not all recorders are able to record in the higher sampling rates. These are:
- 44.1kHz – the absolute standard in professional audio recording not meant to be synced with video
- 48kHz – the standard for video music/sound
- 96Khz – entering real “Hi-Res” you’ll want to use this sample rate if you’re recording folleys, or ambiances. Essentially anyting related to sound-design. And although it will be reduced back to 48kHz but recording at a higher rate in the first place will help avoid high end aliasing for example, which is very real when recording high end sounds, such as brass, cymbals or anything of the likes.
- 192kHz – This very high rate is almost only used by sound designers who need to have enough footroom (more than the one provided by 96kHz) for their samples to be comfortably processed and manipulated. Keep in mind you need a very powerful system to handle such recordings.
The standard for music recordings has been set to 44.1Khz for practical reasons.
That being said, some portable recorders record at much higher rates, sometimes up to 192Khz.
And the truth is that the higher the sampling rate the better the quality of the recording.
As for bit depth, it basically determines how “good” the sample will sound.
Again, the higher the bit depth, the better. Industry standard is set at 24bits.
For an in-depth look at digital audio, check out this article:
The Key Features of a Portable Field Recorder
Before choosing your portable recorder, a good idea is to know what you are actually looking for, and what you need…
Which is why I made a list of the most important features portable recorders offer:
- The microphone polar pattern – usually XY Stereo, some recorders offer swappable microphone capsule.
- The XLR in (track) count – very important if you want to plug extra mics into your recorder.
- The battery life, and the powering options – being able to record 20 hours straight on AA bateries is good, being able to switch over to a battery without any hiccup mid-recording is even better
- Storage Capacity – 99% of portable recorders store their recordings on SD Cards. The problem is that some recorders have a capacity limit e.g. some recorders only accept up to 32 GB cards, while other models have no limit.
- Recording Formats (sound quality) – As we saw previously, the sampling rate and bit depth determine the quality of the recording sound, so pay attention to that detail when looking for a recorder.
So now onto the list of best field recorder.
1. Zoom H1n
Honestly, it would be pretty crazy not to put the Zoom H1n in first position of this list.
If you’ve ever had to use a decent recorder other than your smartphone, you probably know the Zoom H1. It’s the second most sold recorder of their “H” line.
The reason for its success was:
- Its price – it was sold under $100
- Its sound quality – it sounded good for just about any application
- Its size – it was really small and was usable with one hand only
- Its versatility – you can use it mounted on a tripod, on a camera, on the gorund or even boomed
Well, this new version is as good as its predecessor, with a bunch of added features, while maintaining the same insanely low price.
Here are the most important new features:
- An improved sound – Zoom did improve the overall sound of the built-in XY stereo mics
- Most controls have moved from the sides to the front – which makes them more easily accessible
- Gain adjustment is now a dial – as opposed to an impractical switch on the old version
Now, about this last point, it seems a significant part of users actually dislike the dial, because if you keep your device in a pocket while recording, you run the risk of accidentally changing the gain mid-recording.
As a matter of fact, this recorder is SO popular that most videomakers, sound designers or musicians have one, ON TOP of their more high-end gear.
Check out this video that shows various ways of using your Zoom H1, which you can also use with your H1n:
It’s really hard to beat the Zoom H1n under the $100 mark and most people in the industry agree it’s a no-brainer if you’re on a budget. Check it out:
Also check out the H1n’s direct competitor, the Tascam DR-05x, which has a much better battery life:
2. Zoom H2n
So the Zoom H1n might be just fine for basic applications, but what if you need something that offers more control on how you’re recording?
Well then the Zoom H2n might just be what you need.
The main difference between the H2n and the H1n is the microphones themselves:
While the H1n only has 2 non-adjustable microphones, the H2n has no less than 5 microphones:
- 2 in the front – for XY Stereo recording
- 3 in the back – 1 facing backwards, 2 positioned on the sides
Together, these mics allow for recording in various polar patterns:
- X/Y – which is the simplest and most versatile way to record in stereo
- Mid-Side – for a flexible, adjustable stereo recording
- 2 Channel surround – which is also called “spatial” audio and used to be compatible with the Google Jump VR Platform. It’s basically the audio equivalent to 360° video.
- 4 Channel Surround – which uses 4 of the 5 built-in mics at the same time in order to create a 4 channel recording
On top of the various polar pattern available, the Zoom H2n also offers 2 features meant to help you record more efficiently:
- Pre-Record – essentially, the H2n is recording constantly, meaning if you ever happen to press the record button 1 second too late, you’ll still have the part of the recording you missed safely stored and “pre-recorded”.
- Auto-record/Auto-Stop – you can set a certain volume level at which the Zoom H2n will automatically start recording once it detects it. Similarly, once the in level drops below a level you personnaly set beforehand, the recording stops.
Finally, you can use it as an audio-interface, whether its to use it as a USB mic or just to use it with your DAW.
All in all, and considering its price, a very high-value, extremely versatile little recorder. Check it out:
3. Zoom H4n Pro
When it first came out back in 2004, the Zoom H4 was a true little revolution on the segment of digital recorders for these reasons:
- It was the first 4-track recorder – at a time where digital recorder could only record 2 tracks simultaneously
- It was cheap for its capabilities – priced at around $300, absolutely no other recorder could claim to have such a great sound quality at this price-point
- It was the first digital recorder to work as an audio interface too – a pretty big deal at the time
Building on this success, Zoom released 5 years later — in 2009 — what would become THEIR most sold product ever, the H4n
It’s especially popular among musicians who want to record themselves or concerts, thanks to features such as:
- Ability to record in the loudest environments – the Zoom H4N Pro can record distortion-free up to 140 dB
- 4-channel recording option – you can combine the XY built-in mics with 2 external inputs
- Swiveling microphones – you can “swivel” the microphones to change the recording area from 90° to 120°
- Built-in guitar/bass tuner – very practical if you play either. Just plug your guitar or bass and tune it.
- 50 Built-in effects – that’s right, you can add effects to your recording live.
- Sold with Steinberg’s Cubase LE and WaveLab LE licenses – which is a major advantage if you don’t have a “real” DAW already.
Compared to the models we’ve seen so far, the biggest difference might be the 2 XLR inputs, a pretty big deal since it means you can plug in external condenser mics that require phantom power.
Finally, Zoom launched one more iteration in 2016: the H4n Pro, which improved the following characteristics of the regular H4n, while keeping the previously shown features:
- A lower noise floor – going from -88 dB for the regular H4n to -92 dB for the Pro version, this is a significant gain in internal noises, but most of all it indicates a VERY good internal pre-amp, an important factor if you’re going to use the H4n Pro with an external mic.
- A higher gain
- An improved screen – not to be overlooked, especially when recording outdoor out in the sun
- A better pre-amp – hich makes the H4n Pro popular for podcasts since it can handle dynamic microphones very well with very low sound
Check it out:
4. Tascam DR-40x
Here’s the thing: I initially wanted to put the Tascam DR-40x on the same spot as the Zoom H4n Pro.
And indeed, they are very similar in many aspects:
- They’re about the same size
- They’re in the same price range
- They can both record 4 channels simultaneously
So in what exactly do they differ? Well, mainly, their purpose.
The H4n Pro is very popular among musicians and podcasters for reasons we’ve covered earlier.
The Tascam DR-40X however is most popular among people who need to record a line-in as well as videomakers.
Why? For these reasons:
- It handles BWF (Broadcast Wave Format) – the advantage of this format is that handles metadata e.g. if you press the “mark” button on the DR-40X while recording, you set a timestamp that is automatically recognized by audio and video editing software such as Final Cut Pro or Pro Tools.
- Dual function/Safety track – this features basically records a second, lower-volume copy track so that you can pick bits from it in case the first one hits picks and is distorted.
- A built-in tone generator – for easy audio/video syncing
One more difference – a big one actually, is the microphones on the DR-40X.
While the H4n’s can only swivel from 90° to 120°, the DR-40X can actually fully “open” so as to go from an XY recording pattern, to an AB pattern.
Pretty cool, huh? Check it out:
5. Sony PCM D-10
Sony’s portable field recorders line is pretty small, with only 3 models available: one entry-level recorder and 2 high end ones.
The Sony PCM D-10 belongs to a new category noawadays refered to as the “prosumer” category…
Somewhere between the consumer and professional grade devices.
In other words it’s aimed at either amateurs that still want high quality recordings, or at professionals that don’t want/can’t break the bank.
Now, the reason I chose to include it in this list is because Sony’s high end portable recorders are – for some reason – used for a very specific niche: nature sounds recording.
As for all the recorder we’ve seen so far, I like to actually show what exactly makes a devicer better suited for a particular application rather than another.
So let’s see:
- Among the highest quality built-in mics – just like its higher end counterpart which we’ll cover further down , the D-10 has some of the best sounding mic of any portable recorder currently available.
- 2 XLR inputs – contrary to the D100, this model actually has XLR inputs so you can plug in external mics
- A lot of physical controls – compared to most portable recorders, the Sony D-10 has more knobs and switches, which a lot of people prefer over virtual controls.
Check it out:
6. Zoom H5/H6
Zoom’s top of the line portable recorders — the H5 and H6 — are actually very similar, with only a handful of differences, which is why I decided to both give them the same spot on this list.
First of all — and these are probably the 2 most important features of these recorders compared to all the models we’ve seen so far — these recorders both have:
- XLR inputs – 2 for the H5, 4 for the H6 so you can actually plug in external mics that require phantom power e.g. condenser mics
- Detachable microphone capsules – there are 6 mic capsules available that cover almost all polar patterns and applications
Ok, so the XLR/TRS combo inputs count is obviously an important factor and if you’re planning – for example – on recording a full drumkit or a band…
Then obviously having twice the inputs might be a decisive factor.
Now, as for the detachable mic capsule, this is what makes both these recorders so versatile:
Zoom offers 5 different mic capsules, one of them not being a microphone, but actually an additional 2 XLR/TRS combo inputs. Here is the list:
- X/Y capsule – this is the standard capsule that comes with the Zoom H5 and H6.
- MidSide capsule – which allows you to record a stereo image as well as to edit it/change its width afterwards. Particularly useful for videomaking.
- Shotgun capsule – for all your highly directional/hypercardioid needs (like on-camera recording for example) this is the perfect microphone.
- MidSide Stereo shotgun capsule – this is a pretty cool one. It’s actually both a hypercardioid shotgun mic and a mid-side one, meaning you can for example record somebody speaking but then still mix in the desired amount of ambient noise. Pretty sweet, huh?
- Double XLR/TRS combo – one of the capsule is an extra 2 XLR/TRS combo inputs, so you can add more microphones to your setup, bringing the XLR count to 4 on the H5 and 6 on the H6.
Keep in mind these are both recorders priced UNDER the $300 mark, so yes, it is an insane value.
Now, some build details might also influence your choice between these 2 recorders:
- The H5 has a large metal bar protecting the gain knobs – they’re very effective to keep you from accidentally changing the gain level mid-recording. The H6 doesn’t have these bars.
- Only the main XLR inputs can provide phantom power to external condenser mics. The XLR capsule DOESN’T provide phantom power, neither on the H5 nor the H6.
- The form factor is different – the screen on the H6 is slightly angled, meaning it’s easier to look at if the recorder is closerto your eye level – e.g. mounted on a DSLR camera. The H5‘s screen is flat, which is more comfortable when looking down at the device for example.
Check them out:
7. Tascam DR100-mkIII
The Tascam DR100-mkIII is Tascam’s top of the range handheld recorder.
It’s also the first “very hi-res” recorder on this list, being able to record up to 192kHz.
Remember I talked about sample rate earlier in this article, saying some recorders record up to this precise rate? Well, the Tascam DR100-mkIII is one of them.
Ok so, being that the human ear roughly hear frequencies up to 20Khz, why would you need to record almost 10 times these frequencies?
Well, think of it as shooting a video in 1000 frames per second: your eyes can’t see it, but if you ever need/want to slow the hell out of it…
Well, you can.
And this is essentially the same principle for very high sample rate, such as 192kHz.
Now, practically speaking, people who do record in very high sample rates are sound engineers, generally for mastering application, where you need some headroom (or better – some footroom).
In other words, the situations where you “need” to record at 192kHz are pretty rare.
BUT if you need to, or even if you just want to experiment recording at a very high sampling rate, well you can with the DR100-mkIII.
And not only can you do it, but you can do it without going broke after buying it.
Check it out:
8. Sony PCM D-100
So here we are, the most expensive handheld portable field recorder currently available on the market.
But beyond its price tag, why is the Sony PCM D-100 considered by so many as the ultimate pocket field recorder ?
So apart from the usual “great build quality and excellent sound”, there a few (actually a bunch of) features that truly make the Sony PCM-100 stand above the rest of the portable records. These are:
- DSD compatibility – it’s virtualy the only recorder on the market to be able to record on Direct Stream Digital format, considered by many as the ultimate high-res audiophile format.
- LPCM & MP3 recording – which allows you to record in both these formats AT THE SAME TIME, meaning if you want to share a recording through WhatsApp or by email quickly and don’t need a high quality file you can send the MP3 version but still have the LPCM version to work on.
- Internal storage/memory card smart recording – if you run out of storage space on either one of these, the PCM D-100 will automatically and seamlessly switch to the other without interupting the recording.
- Proprietary Digital Limiter – one of the 2 converters per channel always records at -12dB, so if the input level is too high it automatically switches to the other converter.
- Signal/Noise 100dB setting– perfect for recording quieter environments, this feature eliminate almost all internal sounds of the PCM D-100, also thanks to its new pre-amps.
So these are just a few of the helpful features on Sony’s top of the line portable recorder.
Now, this recorder is not perfect and its biggest flaw is probably that it doesn’t have any XLR input. So forget about plugging in an external mic or phantom power.
Moreover, the PCM D-100 cannot be used as an audio interface.
But if you weren’t planning on using external mics anyway and are just looking for the best sounding portable recorder, the Sony PCM-100 is without a single doubt the best choice out there. Check it out:
And for our last pick…
9. Shure MV88 iOS Mic
Although I could probably write a whole post about smartphone mics…
I still wanted to include one in this post, because there are some models that are simply as good as the ones on the recorders we’ve seen so far.
And although Zoom have a couple good options in this area…
The Shure MV88 is actually the clear winner.
Now, don’t be fooled: this is a professional grade microphone. As a matter of fact it is more expensive than the Zoom H1n, if that’s any indicator.
Here are some of the most important features it offers:
- Recordings up to 48kHz – meaning you can record sound for video production
- Adjustable direction – you can flip the mic up to 90° in order to adjust the pick up direction. Handy if you’ll be using it on a filming rig, for example.
- 2 powerful apps – one for video and the other for audio. They come with various presets such as band, voice, acoustic and more. On top of that the polar patters and gain are fully customizable, as well as an EQ for more precise tweakings.
Obviously you’ll be limited by the (most likely) mediocre pre-amps of your phone…
BUT all reviews and videos show an actually very good sounding microphone, which should realistically be enough for most people using their smartphone to shoot.
All in all a versatile, powerful iOS microphone.
Check out this video to see how you could use it on portable filming rig:
Check it out:
And That’s It
So there it is, the 9 Best Portable Field Recorders currently available. Hopefully with all this information you’ll now be able to find yours.
See you next time!