What the best digital voice recorder has

  • Good sound quality. Powerful, adjustable microphones should be built into the voice recorder, with additional jacks for an external mic and headphones.
  • A USB hookup. It seems pretty basic -- obviously, most users will want a way to transfer recordings to their computers -- but some cheap digital voice recorders (notably Sony's) lack a USB port.
  • Ample recording capacity. Both of our top picks include 4 GB of built-in flash memory -- enough to record three hours' worth of lectures every week for a whole semester before it's full, TheWirecutter.com's Seamus Bellamy points out. Over-$50 digital voice recorders often include a microSD memory card slot, as well, so you can add even more storage. Under-$50 budget recorders usually omit that feature.
  • Long battery life. Using lower-quality audio formats prolongs battery life, though digital voice recorders should ideally be able to function for at least several hours at their highest-quality setting before running out of battery power.
  • Quick startup. One-touch record buttons and speedy startup (a few seconds or less) mean you won't have to wait around or fumble with menus when it's time to record.
  • Helpful navigating features. You should be able to bookmark specific spots in your recordings, skip forward and backward easily, and adjust the playback speed.
  • Easy-to-use interface. The physical buttons and menu system should be intuitive and easy to operate. The most complex of voice recorders aren't always the best choices, depending on your needs.

Know before you go

Can you just record with your smartphone? Yes, though not with the best results, reviews say. In a head-to-head test against eight digital voice recorders at TheWirecutter.com, an iPhone 6 performed poorly in most situations. Only in the noisiest test (at a busy mall food court) did the iPhone record well, thanks to its extra noise cancellation.

What kind of sound quality do you need? Our top pick costs only $80, but it records remarkably good audio in tests -- even good enough for podcasting, says a former sound engineer who tests it. For half the price, you can get a cheaper digital voice recorder that's fine for recording class lectures and the like. While they are not covered in this report, for professional broadcasts or music recording, look to pro-grade recorders. However, these can cost over a hundred dollars, and some are priced much higher than that, making them overkill for business or personal use.

Headphones help. Even the best digital voice recorders can't pack much power into their tiny built-in speakers. When you're playing back your recordings, try headphones -- everything will sound much better.

Where will you be using the digital voice recorder? A good cheap digital voice recorder will do fine in a typical classroom or conference room. But for extra-challenging situations -- a noisy restaurant, for example, or the windy outdoors -- consider a step-up model with a more powerful microphone and better noise reduction.

Do you need to pay more for a backlit screen? Even if you plan to record in low-light settings -- a dimly lit lecture hall, for example -- physical buttons will let you do the basics (power up, record and stop) by touch alone. However, if you'll need to delve into the menu in the dark, a backlit screen is essential.

What are your battery needs? All of the digital voice recorders in this report use one or two AAA batteries. Our top pick runs on an included, rechargeable AAA battery; you can recharge the recorder via USB, which can save you money on batteries if you record heavily.

What recording/playback formats do you need? WAV files are lossless and uncompressed, for the very best audio quality -- but they take up a lot of memory space. MP3, AAC and WMA files gobble less storage space, and they're fine for most needs. Note that WMA (Windows Media Audio) files won't play automatically on Mac computers; Mac users will need to download a free WMA player such as VideoLAN.