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 personal
thoughts you want to capture before they fade from your mind -- is hard to do
without a reliable digital voice recorder. At the high end of the market, you
can find professional-grade models that are suitable for broadcasters or
podcasters, for musicians looking to capture their performances, and for
similar users and uses. However, these can run into the hundreds of dollars and
are overkill for most. As such they are beyond the scope of this report. But,
for $80 or less, you can get a great digital voice recorder that will nicely
fill the bill for business and personal use.
Types of Digital Voice Recorders
Best Digital Voice Recorders
For between $50 and $80 or so, you can get a digital voice recorder that's equipped with powerful mics that capture great sound quality and offer a useful range of extra features. These are suitable for dictation, capturing interviews and lectures, and recording meetings.
Cheap Digital Voice Recorders
In the $30 to $40 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 -- taking personal notes on the fly, for example -- they can nicely fill the bill.
about using a smartphone?
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 Seamus Bellamy of TheWirecutter.com notes, "You
can use a smartphone to collect understandable audio, but the poor sound
quality will grate on you if you plan on listening to it for an extended period
of time (raise your hand if you love phone meetings)." Even low-end
dedicated voice recorders will typically outperform cellphones (and their
meager microphones), and offer much more flexibility.
Finding The Best Digital Voice Recorders
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, their lineup of useful features,
if there are any durability or user support concerns, and how much bang for the
buck they deliver.
ICD-UX533 digital voice recorder hits the sweet spot
If you're in the market for a high-quality digital voice
recorder but don't need all of the high-tech extras that tend to hike up the
price of some devices, there are some great options that can deliver top-notch
recording quality without completely emptying your wallet. In this category,
the (Est. $80) emerges as the clear top choice. Reviews tell us that
the ICD-UX533 is a great voice recorder for tackling everything from crowded
lecture halls to quiet one-on-one interviews.
The Sony ICD-UX533 triumphs in TheWirecutter.com's eight-recorder test. "It recorded the most intelligible and truest-to-life
sound clips of all the recorders we tested," Bellamy says, placing either
first or second in every single scenario -- big lecture hall, smaller college
classroom, soundproof boardroom, busy cafe, noisy mall food court, public park
and quiet home office -- in two rounds of testing.
In testing, other voice recorders at this price produce
sound that's hollow and phone-call-like, or a mixed-up jumble of background
noise. But audio from the Sony ICD-UX533 would actually work great even for a
podcast, TheWirecutter.com listening panelist (and former sound engineer)
Lauren Dragan says. Even in the mall food court, "the external noise is
there," she said, "but it almost sounds like added walla from a radio documentary."
This Sony voice recorder is easy to use, reviews say, with all
of the handy features most users will want. Physical buttons on the front let
you power the ICD-UX533 on (it's ready to record in three seconds),
record/pause, stop and play. A menu button gives you more choices -- recording
format, audio quality, scene selection, mic sensitivity and more -- and the
backlit 1-by-1-inch LCD screen proves easy to see, even in bright sunlight. Its
built-in 4 GB of flash memory "is enough to record three hour-long
lectures a week for a whole semester before you would need to empty it,"
Bellamy says, and you can add a microSD card for more storage.
A slide-out USB connector makes it easy to transfer files to
your PC or Mac. You can recharge the included NiMH AAA battery via that
connection when the recorder is connected to a computer, or via a USB AC
adapter (not included). A USB cable for situations where plugging the recorder
directly into a computer or laptop is difficult (for example, tight clearances)
Slimmer and lighter than cheaper digital voice recorders,
the Sony ICD-UX533 measures 4.3 by 1.6 by 0.6 inches and weighs 2 ounces. It
includes 1/8-inch mini microphone and mini headphone jacks and a set of stereo
headphones, in addition to its built-in speaker and stereo mic.
between 4.3 and 4.5 stars at sites such as BestBuy.com, Amazon.com, Staples.com
and BHPhotoVideo.com. When owners do complain, it's often because they say
Sony's customer service and tech support aren't helpful.
Other brands of digital voice recorders lag behind Sony in
this price range. In fact, Sony's two step-down models -- the (Est. $60) and (Est. $50) -- wind up
being the Sony ICD-UX533's closest competition in reviews.
The ICD-PX440 lacks a rechargeable battery. It uses two AAA
alkaline batteries instead, making it a little thicker and heavier than the top
pick. It also records and plays only MP3 files (the ICD-UX533 is compatible
with MP3, WMA, AAC and WAV formats).
The cheaper ICD-PX333 omits the backlit screen -- so it's
impossible to navigate menus in the dark -- and its glossy screen is hard to
see in bright sunlight, too. It also slashes stereo recording and playback
(it's mono-only). Even so, it finishes second only to the UX533 in TheWirecutter.com's listening tests, "beating out
competitors costing twice as much." It's TheWirecutter.com's runner-up pick, and a very popular owner favorite at every retail website we
doesn't have to mean low performance
Money might not be an object to some, but plenty of folks either can't
afford pro- or mid-level digital voice recorders, or they could care less about
all the high-end features piled into these pricier units. For those who prefer
to pass on the extra frills and don't have the patience often needed to master
more complex digital voice recorders, the (Est. $40) is a solid
voice recorder for note-taking and capturing class lectures.
For half the price of our top pick, this Olympus digital voice recorder
includes all of the basics: Headphone and microphone jacks, 4 GB flash memory,
one-touch record, battery level indicator and an included micro USB cable. It
runs on two AAA batteries, and it's the usual shirt-pocketable size (about 4.3
by 1.5 by 0.8 inches and 2.4 ounces).
It's not totally bare bones, either. Four "scene" settings let
you choose Memo, Talk, Music or LP (Long Play), and the recorder optimizes
itself automatically. You can also manually adjust the noise cancellation and playback
speed, and bookmark specific spots in your recording.
There are some downsides, however. It's mono-only, and the screen isn't
backlit. File support is limited to WMA (Windows Media Audio); Mac users will
need to download a free WMA player such as VideoLAN.
You can't add a microSD card for extra storage. The speaker isn't great, some
owners say (headphones help a lot).
However, most of those concerns don't matter to most owners. Among cheap
digital voice recorders, the Olympus VN-541PC earns the most consistently high
marks from users: 4 out of 5 stars at Amazon.com and 4.1 stars at BestBuy.com, for
example, both with about 30 reviews posted. Satisfied users say it gets the job
done at a reasonable price, recording class lectures, interviews, etc. quite
TheWirecutter.com doesn't test this model specifically -- but it does
test a couple of pricier Olympus digital voice recorders, and they simply can't
match Sony's recording quality. "Sony recorders universally produced higher-fidelity
recordings than their Olympus counterparts did," Bellamy writes.
However -- and this is a big however -- Sony's cheap versions omit one
very important detail. They have no USB ports. That means there's no reasonable
way to save your recordings onto your computer. And that prompts a big
"You're kidding!" from Amazon.com shoppers. For example, a whopping
15 percent slap the lowest one-star rating on the (Est. $30) digital voice recorder, mostly because it lacks a USB port.
& User Review Sources
To make sure your digital voice recorder suits your needs and your
budget, 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 -- in fact, Bellamy's eight-recorder shootout at TheWirecutter.com is the only up-to-date professional test we found.
That means the best guidance often comes from the opinions of experienced
users, which can be found in abundance at sites such as Amazon.com, BestBuy.com, Staples.com and BHPhotoVideo.com. Using that feedback, we name
the best picks as well as some alternatives worth considering.