the perfect 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 $70 or less, you can get a great digital voice recorder that will nicely
fill the bill for business and personal use.
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.
In the $30 to $50 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 price range tend to
have minimal to no extra features, limited file format support and lower
recording quality than more expensive models (most only have a single mic).
They make up for this by being relatively easy to use and notably less costly.
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 Wirecutter notes, "The
comparatively poor sound quality of their recordings may grate on you if you
need to listen for extended periods of time -- say, for transcribing." Even
low-end dedicated voice recorders will typically outperform cellphones (and
their meager microphones), and offer much more flexibility.
The Best Voice Recorder
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-UX560 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-UX560 (sometimes also sold as the Sony ICD-UX560BLK) is a great voice recorder
for tackling everything from crowded lecture halls to quiet one-on-one
The Sony ICD-UX560 triumphs in Wirecutter's seven-recorder test. "It recorded the most intelligible audio of all the
recorders we tested and offers the most useful collection of features: It's
rechargeable via USB; it has a legible, backlit screen; and its menu system is
the easiest to navigate," testers say. "The UX560 is also the
slimmest recorder we tested -- at 0.43 inch thick it can easily fit in a shirt
or pants pocket."
The ICD-UX560 placed either first or second in every single
scenario -- big lecture hall, loud coffee shop and dictation in a quiet room.
It's 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-UX560 on,
record/pause, stop, play and fine-tune settings. The menu gives you more
choices -- recording format, audio quality, scene selection and more -- and the
backlit screen proves easy to see. Its built-in 4 GB of flash memory holds 39
hours of MP3 recordings, 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, as well as recharge the built-in lithium-ion battery. A
3-minute "quick charge" gives you 1 hour of recording time. Fully
charged, the battery soldiers on for 27 hours.
Slimmer and lighter than cheaper digital voice recorders,
the Sony ICD-UX533 measures 4 by 1.4 by 0.4 inches and weighs 1.8 ounces. It
includes 1/8-inch mini microphone and mini headphone jacks, in addition to its
built-in speaker and stereo mic.
4.5 stars or higher at sites such as Best Buy, Amazon and B&H Photo.
Other digital voice recorders in this price neighborhood lag
behind the Sony according to feedback, but the (Est. $65) might be worth considering. It's Wirecutter's runner-up pick in testing. It has some pluses -- the Olympus includes double
the built-in storage (8 GB) and quadruple the battery life (110 hours), though
it requires two AAA batteries -- and two rechargeable NiMH batteries are
included. On the down side, audio quality is worse than the Sony's, its menu is
harder to navigate and the screen isn't backlit, so forget about fiddling with
menus in the dark. User feedback, while a notch below the UX560 is still pretty
strong (4.4 stars at both Amazon and Best Buy, for example), but we did see
several complaints that the built-in speaker's volume is so weak that it's
doesn't have to mean low performance
Money might not be an object to some, but plenty of folks would like to
spend a little less for a digital voice recorder, or they could care less about
some of the features found in pricier units (let alone the learning curve
needed to master those). If that describes you, the (Est. $40) is a basic
but solid voice recorder for note-taking and capturing class lectures.
For less than $50, this Sony digital voice recorder includes all of the necessities:
Headphone jack, 4 GB flash memory (and a micro SD slot for adding additional
storage), one-touch record, battery level indicator and a slide-out USB
connector. It runs on two AAA batteries (included), and it's the usual
shirt-pocketable size (about 4.5 by 1.5 by 0.8 inches and 2.6 ounces).
It's not totally bare bones, either. Four "scene" settings let
you choose Music, Meeting, Interview or Dictation, 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. Recording and playback are MP3-only.
However, those concerns don't matter to most owners. Among cheap digital
voice recorders, the Sony ICD-PX370 earns the most consistently high marks from
users: 4.3 out of 5 stars at Amazon with about 50 reviews posted, and 4.6 stars
at Best Buy with about 140 reviews posted. Satisfied users say it gets the job
done at a reasonable price, recording class lectures, interviews, etc. quite
Olympus's budget entry, the (Est. $50),
is nearly identical to the Sony ICD-PX370 as far as specs go. However, the Sony
gets better owner reviews (we saw several complaints about the Olympus's sound
quality, speaker volume and terrible instructions) and sells for a bit less,
Can you go cheaper? Sure – but be careful. For example, Sony's
cheapest voice recorder, the (Est. $25), omits
one very important detail. It has no USB port. That means there's no reasonable
way to save your recordings onto your computer. And that prompts a big "You're
kidding!" from Amazon shoppers, with many voicing frustration and
disappointment over that omission.
Expert & 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, Wirecutter's seven-recorder shootout 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, Best Buy and B&H Photo. Using that feedback, we name the best picks as well
as some alternatives worth considering.