Portable Audio Recorders, $149–$199:
A Comparison Test
In the past decade, portable audio recorders have proliferated widely among musicians at all levels. Professionals use them to record rehearsals and performances when they lack access to a “house” recording setup or professional recording engineer. Amateur performers use them frequently for concerts and practice sessions. Teachers and students use them often in lessons to get a more objective take on the progress made in practicing and preparing audition recordings. Parents use them to send audio clips of their children’s performances to friends and family—compared to video, they’re a more private, less bandwidth-hungry way to share.
Although I own some midlevel digital recording gear—decent-quality condenser microphones of various patterns, mike stands, an external fast hard drive, and a dedicated computer-audio interface—most of the time I prefer using portable audio recorders. The larger arrays of equipment can sound great, but typically require 90 minutes of setup time and someone to monitor the gear during recording. A portable audio recorder makes setup easy and convenient—place it on a stand or tripod in a reasonably good-sounding spot, set the gain, and in two or three minutes you’re ready to record.
Recently, when the memory card in my 11-year-old Tascam DR-1 gave up the ghost, I decided to see what sort of recorders are available these days in the U.S. in the popular price range of $149–$199. Logging onto the popular online store B&H Photo–Video–Pro Audio (bhphotovideo.com), I sorted by price and bought five new models: the Philips DVT7500 VoiceTracer ($149), the Olympus LS-P4 ($169), the Tascam DR-40X ($169), the Zoom H2n ($169), and the Roland R-07 ($199). (Prices shown are those from B&H; however, prices vary widely among online retailers, so it pays to shop around.) Knowing that most of these recorders require an SD or microSD memory card, I also bought a Transcend microSD card with SD adapter or sleeve. Part of the reason I purchased from B&H is their generous 30-day return policy—I intended to keep only one of these recorders, and the microSD card.
Unboxing and First Impressions
Unboxing the Roland R-07 revealed the sort of presentation found with a high-end smartphone or tablet. The R-07 has a more industrial/modern look than the other recorders tested, with an attractive shroud over its red-trimmed mikes, which are recessed into the top. Except for the cover of the LCD display, which seems susceptible to scratches and abrasion, the case is made of high-quality plastics that look and feel good, and the buttons and switchgear have a nice feel and layout—easy to press or use without feeling flimsy, and giving positive tactile feedback when engaged. The R-07 can be easily held in and operated with the same hand. An 8GB Kingston class 4 microSD card and two AA Energizer batteries were included—nice to see name-brand, quality peripherals.
The Philips DVT7500 VoiceTracer’s box included many accessories: a foam mike windscreen, a carrying case, an external XLR mike adapter and tripod mounting sleeve, and a USB data/charging cable. This was the only model tested that has a color screen and an internal battery, and the casework is a pleasant mixture of seemingly good-quality plastics and polished metallic-looking surfaces—my only initial worry was of stage lighting reflecting off the shiny trim. The quality of buttons and switchgear seemed mid-pack. After 90 minutes of charging while hooked up to my laptop, the Philips showed a full battery charge and was ready for use.
The Tascam DR-40X is noticeably bigger in all dimensions than the other recorders tested. Part of the reason is that it’s the only one with built-in XLR inputs and phantom power, for plugging in external condenser mikes. Even the built-in mike capsules are larger than those in the other recorders, and can be swung outward from a tight x/y stereo to a wide a/b stereo pattern, for greater flexibility in recording ensembles of various sizes. Three alkaline AA batteries are included. Compared with the other recorders, I was let down by the DR-40X’s comparatively cheap-feeling mishmash of matte- and mottled-finish plastics, switches, and buttons—even the screen’s backlighting was disappointingly uneven.
Set upright on a tripod, the Zoom H2n’s distinctive shape and large, black metal screen over its mikes make it look, from a distance, like a large-diaphragm microphone. Its design differs markedly from the others: only one button on the front (Record), along with a large backlit LCD screen. All other controls are on the sides or the top, with fewer buttons than the other recorders. The H2n has four available mike patterns, for flexibility in different recording situations. At the early stages of this comparison, the only negative for me was that the shiny black plastic that covers this recorder’s lower half seemed a garish attempt at a polished-ebony look.
As with the Tascam, my first impression of the Olympus LS-P4 was of its size, but at the opposite end of the scale. The LS-P4 is just one-third to one-half the size of the other recorders tested—the names of its game are compactness, convenience, and lightness. The Olympus runs on a single rechargeable nickel metal hydride (NiMH) AAA battery (included), and while its buttons are small, they weren’t too fiddly to operate, with a positive click sound and feel. The LS-P4’s tiny case is made from good-quality plastic and metallic-looking materials. A USB male connector slides out of the bottom of the recorder—you can literally plug the entire recorder into your computer, like a very large flash drive. The only other provided part was a round plastic connector that adapts the nonstandard mounting threads on the LS-P4’s bottom to the standard thread found on most camera tripods.
Recording Sound Quality and Ease of Use
To get repeatable results for these tests, we used a small grand piano equipped with an electronic player-piano system, and placed each recorder in the same location: on a tripod, a few inches from the piano’s prop stick and the curve of its rim, and, whenever possible, with the mike at the same height and angle. Piano Perfect (pianoperfectllc.com), a Steinway dealer near Columbus, Georgia, graciously provided us with a Steinway model M grand with a Spirio player-piano system. We recorded uncompressed 16-bit/44.1kHz (i.e., CD resolution), stereo WAV files, and then a 128kbps MP3 file, to hear how much fidelity was lost by compressing to a much smaller (and easy to e-mail) file type. The material recorded included a short jazz ballad by Bill Evans and part of a Scarlatti keyboard sonata played by Vladimir Horowitz, to get some different tonal qualities from the piano. Here are our rankings, from last to first:
The three-mike–equipped Philips DVT7500 VoiceTracer ($149) was troublesome from the start. You’re provided a quick-start guide in the box, but the full manual is available only online, so it took several minutes just to figure out how to access the main menu. Although the color screen is more attractive than the backlit LCDs of the other recorders, when it isn’t illuminated it’s hard to tell if the Philips is powered on at all. The DVT7500 has no tripod mount; the only mount is on the accessory XLR mike sleeve that slides over the entire recorder and adds a lot of bulk. After reading the manual, adjusting the mike gain and level controls, and even performing a factory reset, I could never get an undistorted recording of the close-miked piano. The recording had a very unsatisfying monophonic character, and higher frequencies were all but missing. Switching from two- to three-mike recording added more upper-bass presence. To its credit, the Philips has a built-in speaker that’s quite clear, to test that you’re actually recording without having to don headphones, as well as a class-leading 16GB of internal memory in addition to external microSD storage. I also prefer a built-in battery to remembering to bring a fresh set of AAs or AAAs along with me, and the Philips was the only recorder tested that has one.
Pros: lots of included features and accessories, built-in battery, huge internal storage
Cons: music recording quality unacceptable, no tripod mount on main unit
Third Place (tie)
The Tascam DR-40X Linear PCM Recorder ($169) was a study in contradictions. Despite its mid-pack ranking, it may be the best choice for some users. On the positive side, the Tascam’s overall sound was probably the most detailed and faithful re-creation of the actual piano sound. Changing from the narrow x/y mike pattern to the wide a/b is accomplished by simply swinging the mikes outward, accompanied by the Tascam posing a question onscreen as to whether you want to swap the left and right channels to reflect the new mike positions—very smart. Getting a good center aural image is a little tricky in x/y mode, as it can be when using professional-quality gear; a/b was more forgiving, and produced a more enveloping stereo sound. The Tascam is the only model tested that has built-in XLR inputs for external mikes, with up to 48V of phantom power. For additional flexibility, the external XLR inputs and the internal mikes can be used simultaneously to make four-track recordings.
But there are many things about the Tascam I didn’t like. The mike level is adjusted by clicking a ± switch on the side, which will make quick changes of level during live performances difficult—and audible. Since there’s no internal memory, you need an SD card that’s compatible with the DR-40X (see the Tascam website for a list of verified compatible cards). The one I bought wasn’t, so I ended up reformatting the card provided in the Roland to be able to record anything. The Tascam’s display is harder to see at an angle than the other recorders’ displays, and I just couldn’t get past its cheap-feeling buttons, less-than-intuitive controls layout, and, especially, the low-quality plastics of which it’s made—it doesn’t look like a product designed or built in the 21st century.
Pros: best sound quality, built-in XLR jacks, changeable mike positions
Cons: cheap feel, barely adequate display, no internal memory, recording-level adjustment switch
I was at first pretty excited by the Roland R-07 High Resolution Audio Recorder ($199). It looks great, the buttons felt good, and I really liked the modern features. These include a Rehearsal function that listens to your music for a specified period, then sets an ideal recording level without using compression or a limiter. And the R-07 has Bluetooth connectivity, so you can listen via wireless headphones for convenient monitoring. But the Roland’s trump card was definitely the R-07 Remote phone app. In just two minutes, I was able to download the app to my iPhone (an Android version is available), read a very brief tutorial in the app, and pair my phone to the recorder. I could then control the R-07’s record and playback functions, levels, and other common functions from 10, 20, even 30 feet away. This is perfect for controlling the recording interface from the audience or backstage without having to touch a recorder that’s onstage.
I found two downsides to the Roland: First, the recording input is a ± rocker switch, which, compared with a knob or wheel, is harder to adjust silently or significantly during recording. More important, although it was the costliest recorder tested, the Roland’s recording quality didn’t quite measure up to those of the Tascam, Zoom, or Olympus. Although it imparted a pleasant, warmish tone quality to the recorded sound, it lacked detail, and the recorded soundstage was pretty small compared with what I heard with my own ears. With a modest improvement in mike performance, the R-07 could have scored much higher.
Pros: modern design, Bluetooth remote-control app, 8GB microSD card included
Cons: average sound quality, small display, recording-level adjustment switch
I remember being intrigued by the compactness and attention to detail of certain Olympus cameras, the product category for which the company is most famous, and they’ve applied the same philosophy to the Olympus LS-P4 Linear PCM Recorder ($169). Like the Philips, the Olympus has a three-mike array: a directional a/b pair, and a center omnidirectional mike, the latter with better-specified low-frequency sensitivity than directional patterns. My recordings bore that out, the two-mike recording being detailed but a little thin in the lows. Once the third, omni mike was added, the missing low-frequency presence was immediately apparent, and now somewhat overemphasized. In addition to the typical WAV and MP3 file formats, the Olympus is the only recorder of the five capable of recording in FLAC, the free lossless audio codec that can record CD-quality audio using only half the data of a typical WAV file.
Convenience features include 8GB of built-in memory, a microSD card slot, an included rechargeable battery, and the built-in USB male connector mentioned earlier. In terms of setup and operation, you have the option of having the recorder talk you through various menu options and confirm your selections, with voice prompts instead of relying on the LCD screen alone. As with the Roland and Tascam, recording levels are adjusted via buttons instead of knobs, a tradeoff due to the Olympus’s tiny size. A Bluetooth app is available for remote recording from your phone, but unlike with the Roland’s app, I had trouble getting it to work. The LS-P4’s biggest design flaw is the round plastic tripod adapter that screws into its bottom. I had trouble using it with two different types of mounting systems that connect the recorder to a tripod’s shoe: in one case, the adapter was too loose; in the other, the adapter was almost too tight to remove.
Pros: good sound from a tiny recorder, 8GB internal memory, onboard speaker, NiMH battery
Cons: awkward tripod adapter and USB connector, gain switch, incomplete paper manual, app problems
After I’d made just one recording with the Zoom H2n Handy Recorder ($169) and gotten over how different its controls are from those on the other recorders, the Zoom’s controls became my favorite interface to use. Adjustments are handled by a single menu button and, next to it, a combination up/down switch that can also be pushed in, like a button, to make a selection after scrolling. The power and the mike-gain controls (thankfully, the latter is a knob, not a switch) are also located on the same side of the recorder. I loved the simplicity of the front-mounted Record button: Press once and you’re rolling, press again to stop recording, and press a third time to start a new track—simple and intuitive. Who needs a Stop button?
Zoom touts its four microphone recording modes: front-mounted x/y; M-S (mid-side), which uses a front and a rear mike oriented in a figure-8 pattern; a two-channel mode that mixes all mike arrays into a stereo track; and a four-channel mode that separates the mike feeds into individual tracks. This degree of situational flexibility is reminiscent of expensive, multi-pattern professional condenser mikes. Playing back my recordings, I was at first shocked by the x/y result: there was a ton of room resonance! I’m used to a more direct sound from a piano close-miked with an x/y pattern. Since the recording was made not in a fine concert hall but in a big, boxy room with too many hard surfaces, it captured a lot of sound I didn’t necessarily want to hear. Switching to the M-S pattern gave a result more like I expected to hear when placing the mikes this close to the piano: a realistic, more close-up soundstage with some center fill—the sensation that most of the sound is coming from between the two speakers—and a somewhat midrangey tonal quality with a little bit of detail.
Minor quibbles include the lack of internal memory (SD cards only, not included), a lack of low-bass presence in the recordings, and the annoying need to reset the gain between microphone recording modes because the optimal gain level for each mode is different, or isn’t equalized by the Zoom’s internal firmware.
Pros: multiple recording-mike modes produce a choice of sounds, simple interface, good manual
Cons: different gain levels for x/y and M-S mike arrays, poor low-frequency performance, no internal memory
In the $149–$199 price range there’s no perfect portable audio recorder, but my hours of comparing showed me that each of these five models has unique strengths and weaknesses. Given that the target buyers for most recorders in this price range are consumers and hobbyists, I tended to favor models that were heavy on convenience features—for example, that had either built-in memories or the increasingly popular microSD card formats, over more professional/prosumer-geared SD cards. Ease of operation definitely helped the ranking of the Roland and Olympus, and solidified the Zoom’s position. It’s also obvious that the reliable implementation of Bluetooth and app-based recording controls is something that should become standard on all such devices.
Dr. Owen Lovell, Piano Buyer’s Piano Review Editor, is Assistant Professor of Music at Georgia College. He can be reached at [email protected].