Capturing that crucial moment -- whether it's an important interview quote, a college lecture you're going to be quizzed on later, or that new song your band just worked out at practice -- is hard to do without a reliable digital voice recorder. But finding the right voice recorder, whatever your purpose, can be a challenge. There's a dizzying array of voice recorders out there, each with its own special features and unique strengths and weaknesses. The most common digital voice recorder types can be broken down into three categories.
Pro-level audio recorders. The priciest and most feature-rich of the pack, professional-grade digital audio recorders typically run a few hundred dollars and up. They're most commonly used by audiophiles and enthusiasts with very specific high-end sound-quality and function needs. Musicians, sound recordists for films, and podcasters are among the kinds of users who find the biggest benefit in these powerful (and often pricey) audio recorder models.
Digital recorders at this price point and function range often have several adjustable microphones, additional inputs to attach external microphones or line-in devices, included multitracking software, attachable stands, on-board track layering and other unique extras. While these features and level of performance can be essential for professional applications, they can represent overkill for typical users.
Mid-range voice recorders. For between $75 and $150 or so, you can get some of the best of both worlds, assuming you don't need all of the extra functions of the top-tier pro devices. Many mid-range digital voice recorders are equipped with powerful mics that still get great sound; a decent -- albeit smaller -- range of extra features; and a more portable, user-friendly design than their tech-heavy brethren. These audio recorders tend to be good choices for recording music performances and practices, speeches and presentations, and interviews.
Cheap digital voice recorders. In the $30 to $75 range you can find pared-down but very usable digital voice recorders that meet most of the basic needs of average users who simply want to get something recorded. Voice recorders in this range tend to have minimal to no extra features, limited file format support and lower recording quality than pricier models (most only host a single mic). They make up for this by being relatively easy to use and notably less pricey. For those with basic needs -- recording classroom lectures or taking personal notes on the fly, for example -- that could be a trade-off that's worth making.
It's true that many smartphones can conveniently fill the role of a bare-bones digital voice recorder, but that doesn't mean dedicated recorders at this price range are obsolete. As Bryan Gardiner of TheWirecutter.com notes, even low-end dedicated voice recorders will typically outperform cellphones (and their meager microphones), and offer much more flexibility.
Making sure you find the right voice recorder to suit your needs and your budget means you have to put some serious thought into what you plan to use it for. Expert reviews can be a big help, but finding those for many current digital voice recorders is a challenge. That means the best guidance often comes from the opinions of experienced users, which can be found in abundance at user review sites such as Amazon.com.
To produce our recommendations for top choices among digital voice recorders for different budgets and uses, our editors pore over hundreds of user reviews, while also factoring in any observations from professional reviewers. We look to those to learn how digital voice recorders perform, of course, but also how easy they are to master and how much bang for the buck they deliver. Using that feedback, we name the best picks as well as some alternatives worth considering.