Popular Audio Recorder Guide with Input Noise Specifications
Cost versus Performance
When you are starting out in audio recording, you will have quite a range of audio recorders and microphones to choose from, and they vary in price greatly. We are often asked which recorder we recommend for our products. In this article, we will discuss the differences and guide you towards the products that suit your needs.
If you are a professional that uses audio equipment everyday for your job or business, then by all means you should be looking for the best built, best featured, best specified gear that will perform without issues. The best recording gear is very expensive, and will generally perform well with higher quality microphones. Most people will fall into the prosumer level looking for something good enough to meet their project needs. The seasoned professional will also find a need for smaller equipment from time to time. This is where some digging into the specifications and features are necessary to make smart decisions in order to find the best cost/performance ratio. Lower cost recorders are generally made using lower cost parts and often suffer from noisy input amplifiers, so the noise becomes distracting or plain unusable when the gain is turned up. If you are recording nature sounds or low level sounds, you will quickly find that most microphones and recorders are designed for recording loud music. Recording low level sounds is a difficult task that usually needs very low noise equipment to produce quality results. In general, unless you are recording thunderstorms, waterfalls, or really loud animals, you will need a condenser microphone with less then a 16dBA noise floor. Many professionals use microphones with a noise floor of 8-10dBA. The lower the noise, the better you will be able to record quiet sounds, such as bird choruses or distant voices. The lower the noise of a microphone equates to higher prices. This is also true with audio recorders. Many field recordists have used external, low noise preamps connected to a lower cost recorder to fit within their budget. In general, you should look for a recorder with an Equivalent Input Noise (EIN) less than -120dBA, but less than -128dBA would be better for some lower output microphones. Wildtronics is unique, in that they offer models of microphones with extremely low noise, built-in preamplifiers that will work very well with low cost recorders, within the -100dBA to -120dBA EIN range. This can be very helpful to lower your overall cost and keep your equipment very light and portable. Learn more about using low cost recorders in our article here.
Common features of audio recorders
In the past, you had to be concerned if recorders were 16 or 24 bit, and what the dynamic range was. All modern recorders have 24 bit digital recording. All modern recorders also have at least 90dB dynamic range that will work very well as long as you record at -10 to -15dB levels. A few expensive recorders will have as much as 110 to 120dB dynamic range, which is very helpful, allowing you to record at -30 to - 40dB levels to assure you won't clip if any louder sounds are picked up. The use of limiters in recording devices is rarely recommended. It is better to capture raw sounds and later edit them with computer software, which gives you much more control over your final output. Some of the less expensive recorders often use smaller, less expensive capacitors in their circuits that could decrease their low frequency response. But, for the most part, all modern recorders have a pretty flat frequency response. The expensive recorders have better features, faster limiters, better switches and displays, but you don't always need all those features. The type of input connectors are an important consideration. XLR connectors have been the industry standard for microphones. XLR microphones offer a balanced output that can have very long cables between them and the recording device, and they can be powered from phantom power provided by the recorder. 3.5 mm connectors are more common on consumer products, cameras, and low cost recorders, and most can power microphones by what is called Plug-in-Power (PIP). Plug-in-Power has never been a standard, so voltages vary between devices from 1.5-5 volts, which can greatly change the performance of the microphone connected. Many recorders only offer XLR inputs or only 3.5mm inputs, so it is important to know what type of microphone your will be using before purchasing a recorder. In general, you will want a recorder with XLR connectors unless you are using a preamplifier or an amplified microphone like some models available from Wildtronics. The reason is not that 3.5mm inputs are bad, but they are often used on equipment with noisier inputs that require preamplifiers to obtain professional recordings. One good thing about 3.5mm recorders are that they cost much less, are smaller, lighter, and the battery life is 10-20 times longer than XLR based recorders. Sunlight readable displays are important when you are recording outdoors. Usually monochromatic LCD or color LED displays are far better in regard to being readable in sunlight.
Table of input noise, cost, and features of popular audio recorders
Below is a table we compiled comparing many popular audio recorders people are using today. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but we focused on lower cost, newer units that would be of interest to many of our customers. It is the lower cost products that are the most difficult to compare. Listed is the manufacturer, model name, cost (as of February 2016), EIN, what type of input connectors (XLR, 3.5mm or both), number of input channels, and some notes. Also included is whether an external preamplifier is recommended for best performance. We always recommend using any of the Wildtronics Amplified microphone models because they can connect to any device that you currently use or will use in the future. The Wldtronics amplifiers will greatly improve the quality of recordings made when using inexpensive recorders and offer direct headphone outputs. We added the known Plug-in-Power (PIP) voltage and impedance, which will impact the noise of an attached PIP microphone. In general, the higher the PIP voltage and impedance the lower the noise of a PIP microphone. Note, that the chart lists cameras, DSLR's, and even smart phones. Smart phones and cameras are often very limited as recorders, but with a preamp they can provide good results. Recorders with more than 2 channels are highlighted, in green, for those interested in using the innovative Wildtronics Mono-Stereo Parabolic Microphone which has three separate outputs. It should be noted that the Wildtronics Amplified Mono-Stereo Parabolic Microphone has a built-in mixer, so you can use a two channel, 3.5mm input recorder. Model names highlighted in yellow are the recorders we recommend the most due to their good price/performance ratio. The Tascam DR-05 is the favored unit to work with all of the Wildtronics Amplified microphone models because it is very low cost, performs very well, and has a sunlight readable display. We recommend using the Sony PCM-M10 recorder if you are using PIP microphones, like the Wildtronics Micro Mic PIP. The Sony unit has the perfect PIP voltage, impedance, and a decent low noise input for use with low noise PIP microphones.
|Manufacturer||Model Name||Price USD||EIN A-weighted||XLR||3.5mm||Line Input||Need Pre Amp||# Channel||PIP||Notes:|
|Sound Devices||700 series||>2700||-133dB||X||X||2-8||Popular, expensive, and often the professional's choice.|
|*Wildtronics*||*Pro Amp/ SAAM*||~||-129dB||Preamp Inside Amplified Units for Reference|
|Fostex||FR-2LE||600||-129dB||X||2||Older unit, an updated model should be available soon.|
|Zoom||F8||999||-127dB||X||X||8||May be the best sub $1000 recorder.|
|Tascam||DR-680 MKII||600||-127dB||X||X||8||Best cost/performance 8 channel recorder. Battery hog.|
|Tascam||DR-701D||600||-126dB||X||X||X||4||Excellent 4 channel multi use recorder.|
|Sony||PCM-D100||800||-126dB||X||X||2||Pricey and no XLR inputs.|
|Marantz||PMD661||600||-125dB||X||2||Older unit, newer models are better.|
|Olympus||LS-100||330||-125dB||X||X||X||w/3.5mm||2||Only -114dBA EIN on 3.5mm input.|
|Sony||PCM-M10||245||-122dB||X||X||2||3V/4.9K||Best choice for PIP microphones.|
|Olympus||LS-10, LS-11, LS-14||200||-121dB||X||X||2||LS-14 has user complaints of not being as good as the older models.|
|Zoom||H6||329||-120dB||X||X||X||w/3.5mm||6||2.4V/2K||Display not sunlight readable, but otherwise good cost/performance.|
|Zoom||H5||270||-120dB||X||X||X||4||Lowest cost 4 channel.|
|Tascam||DR-70D||337||-120dB||X||4||Best when paired with a DSLR camera.|
|Tascam||DR-100 MKII||300||-120dB||X||2||Decent 2 channel recorder.|
|Tascam||DR-05||99||-109dB||X||X||X||2||2.2V/2.2K||Most recommended with Wildtronics Amplified microphones.|
|Tascam||DR-40||155||-107dB||X||X||2||Only recommended for high level audio inputs.|
|Zoom||H4N||250||-107dB||X||X||2||Considered to have noisy inputs.|
|Zoom||H1||99||-108dB||X||X||X||2||Extremely small and light.|
|?||Video Cameras||~||?||X||X||2||1.5-3V||Preamps recommended for best performance.|
|?||DSLR Cameras||~||?||X||X||2||2-5V||Some need external recorders for best performance.|
|?||Cell Phones||~||?||X||X||2||1.5-3V||Need special cable or adapter.|
Using video cameras, DSLR's, and smart phones as an audio recorder
There are advantages and disadvantages to connecting an external microphone to video cameras, DSLR's, and smart phones. The advantage is external microphones can work far better than the internal ones, you won't need any external audio recorder, and this method can be very low cost. You should be aware of the shortcomings of using these devices. All of these devices give less control over your audio than a dedicated audio recorder. Some may not even have a way to change the gain, using only automatic gain inside the device. Some cameras and smart phones can be very noisy, and not adequate for producing professional results. We recommend using a preamplifier, like the ones included in the Wildtronics Amplified or SAAM microphones on these devices for best results. Use the amplified microphone level output and not the line output from the Wildtronics Amplified microphones on these devices. You will only need 10-20dB of gain, but it is better to get that gain from a low noise preamp. Wildtronics sells a special smart phone adapter cable that will allow you to connect an external 3.5mm microphone to most newer smart phones. Using smart phones can actually work quite well with a preamplier, you just have to be careful with the gain settings. We tested some apps that work well. iRig Recorder free works good. Use the settings, analog input, input level -15db, output level +15db. Field Recorder App, by Pfitzinger Voice Design, gives more control and a really nice level meter. Turn the boost off or turn the gain down when using the apps, and use the external preamp to control the gain for best results. It is a very common technique to use an external audio recorder with a sync output going to the microphone input of a video or DSLR camera. This way you get the control of a dedicated audio recorder and can easily sync in the external audio with your video during editing. If your audio recorder doesn't have a controllable level line output, you can use the headphone output and adjust the volume so that it won't be clipping the camera's microphone input.