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Finding the perfect digital voice recorder

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 digital audio recorder for work or play can be a challenge. There's a dizzying array of digital 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 digital audio recorders: The priciest and most feature-rich of the pack, professional-grade 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 out of these powerful (and often pricey) 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 multi-tracking 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 recorders: For between $75 to $150 or so, you can get 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 audio 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 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 useable digital voice recorders that meet most of the basic needs of average users who simply want to get something recorded. Digital voice recorders in this range tend to have minimal to no extra features, limited file format support and lower recording quality than pricier models. They make up for this by being relatively easy to use and notably less pricy. For those with basic needs, that could be a trade-off worth making.

Making sure you find the right digital 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 that the best guidance often comes from the opinions of experienced users.

To come up with our recommendations for the best digital voice recorders for different uses and users, we pore over hundreds of user reviews across popular consumer sites while also factoring in opinions from professional reviewers. We look to those to find feedback on how digital voice recorders perform, of course, but also on how easy they are to master and how much bang for the buck they deliver. Using that data, we single out the ones that sing out as the very best, but also name some alternatives that are worth considering, at least in some situations.

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