Yes, you already probably have a serviceable voice recorder on your person right now. But if your recording’s quality or length matter, a digital voice recorder will easily beat your phone any day of the week. Handheld or propped on a desk, mid-range digital voice recorders are capable of capturing hundreds of hours of lectures or work meetings without running out of battery. Today’s higher-end recorders deliver mind-boggling audio quality that’s perfectly fit for distribution, podcasters take note. We found the best digital voice recorders for each common use-case.
How We Picked the Best Voice Recorders
Finding the “right” voice recorder is as much about your needs as it is about the unit itself. Students and cub reporters need something different from YouTubers and podcasters. We wanted to find an option that would work for each of the most common scenarios, from basic voice capture to publishing-quality audio.
Amazingly, compared with a decade ago, a handheld voice recorder can now deliver studio-quality audio at prices that aren’t much more than $100. So, we went for recorders that paired quality hardware, like XY-axis condenser microphones, with pro-grade feature customization, like low-cut filters and tone insertion for use with video. For mid-range units geared towards lectures and meetings, we looked for quick-access, pre-set options that let users get the most out of a recording without too much fuss.
We opted for brands with solid reputations among audio pros and amateurs alike, selecting the models that have been shown to get each job done best, as noted in video explainers, user reviews, and general online advice forums. In the end, we selected the best device for each situation that calls for the capabilities of a voice recorder. Want to know more? Find out how we test audio gear.
Best Voice Recorders: Reviews and Recommendations
Best Overall: Sony ICD-UX570
Why It Made the Cut: Letting you pick from a very capable default setting or a slew of customization options, Sony’s ICD-UX570 captures clear and clean audio in a compact, easy-to-operate form.
— Battery Type: Rechargeable lithium ion
— Battery Life: 27 hours max per charge
— Memory: 4 GB, 159 hours max (MP3, 48 kbps mono)
— Recording Format: Linear PCM (WAV) and MP3
— Ports: USB out, 3.5mm mic in, 3.5mm headphone out, micro SD
— Dimensions: 4.31 inches L x 1.43 inches W x 6.13 inches H
— Excellent audio quality
— Customization options for voice, music, and different recording scenarios
— Good memory capacity and battery life
— Thin and compact form
— Potentially confusing interface
Sony’s ICD-UX570 is an upgrade to the much-loved previous model, the UX560. This time around, they slimmed down the size, enlarged the screen, and improved the overall recording quality. Everything else is pretty much the same — and that’s a good thing considering the proven performance of the original, and this one’s cheaper too.
At just four inches long and less than a half-inch thick, Sony’s digital recorder is smaller than your phone, but with 27 hours of operating time on a charge and up to 159 hours of MP3 memory, it packs considerably more recording power than any smartphone/app combo. If that’s not enough memory, the micro SD card slot gives you as much memory as your supply of cards. The UX570 comes with a “scenes” menu, with pre-set levels and sensitivities for different scenarios. Options like Meeting, Lecture, Interview, and so on are pretty self explanatory. You can also manually set the sensitivity levels of the stereo microphones, with low, medium, and high sensitivities (“low” for loud and clear audio, like dictation, and “high” for soft-voiced professors in large lecture halls).
Focused or Wide recording options optimize the mics to either zero-in on the person in front of the device or gather audio from every speaker in the room. While all this customization is great, what makes the UX570 a top pick for even recording newbies is the excellence of its default Auto Voice setting. If you don’t want to futz around with levels, the recorder’s standard operating mode is optimized to pick up the specific frequency of the human voice, canceling out other sounds so you get clear, usable voice recordings with one touch.
While the UX570 performs best as a voice recorder, there are a few music settings, which do an adequate job of capturing all the highs and lows. The optional linear PCM (WAV file) option records audio with extremely high fidelity to the original sounds. Keep in mind though, that this comes at the expense of your recording time. The memory can hold about five hours of LPCM data, as opposed to 150+ hours of the lowest recording quality (bitrate) MP3 recording.
Large, clear buttons on the face let you start, pause, and stop recordings quickly without fumbling, and charging and data transfer comes courtesy of a slide-out USB plug. The display menus offer lots of options, like the customizations mentioned above — great for those who like to fine-tune, but may confuse anyone new to recording devices. That said, the clarity of audio compared to the miniscule size and relatively low price is hard to beat in the voice-recording marketplace.
Best Budget: Sony ICD-BX140
Why It Made the Cut: A low-frills voice recorder at a good price, Sony’s ICD-BX140 provides decent audio quality for those who need basic audio backups.
— Battery Type: Two AAA
— Battery Life: 28 hours max
— Memory: 4 GB, 1,043 hours max (MP3 8 kbps)
— Recording Format: MP3 and HVXC
— Ports: 3.5mm mic in, 3.5mm headphone out
— Dimensions: 1.52 inches L x 0.84 inches W x 4.54 inches H
— Clear buttons and an easy interface
— Incredibly long maximum record time at the lowest bitrate setting
— Sub-$50 price tag
— Lower-quality recordings
— No USB port for transfer to a computer
Obviously, the audio quality of the Sony ICD-BX140 isn’t going to do battle against our top pick, but at nearly half the price, it’s a worthy contender. Perfect for those who need to capture the broad strokes of meetings and lectures, the BX140 is a reliable single-mic (mono) recorder with four gigabytes of memory for long hours of audio capture. At the lowest setting (a low bitrate of 8 kilobits per second) you’ll get a massive 1,000+ hours of recording memory. Just remember that audio isn’t going to be high quality. You still get a respectable 45 hours of memory at the higher quality bitrate of 192 kbps.
Interestingly, you’ll get clearer playback from the BX140’s speaker than from most others. The 28mm speaker on this budget model is nearly twice the size of the built-in speaker on Sony’s UX570. That’s likely because this model doesn’t allow for easy file transfer to your computer. There’s a workaround using a 3.5mm male-to-male audio cable, but most people will opt to play back recordings from the BX140 itself.
Available options let you set mic sensitivity to low or high and you can choose the bitrate which ranges from the super compressed 8 kbps to the fair-quality 192 kbps — a bitrate that’s on par with many downloaded MP3 files out there. It’s not rechargeable, taking two triple-As instead. While it may be less convenient to have to replace the batteries, if you have extras on hand, you’ll never be without juice.
Best for Interviews: Tascam DR-05X
Why It Made the Cut: With its ability to record podcasts and publishing-quality audio, the Tascam DR-05X is an excellent pick for those who want high-end audio at a decent price.
— Battery Type: Two AA batteries
— Battery Life: 17.5 hours max
— Memory: No internal memory supports micro SD cards
— Recording Format: Linear PCM (WAV/BWF) and MP3
— Ports: Micro-B USB out, 3.5mm mic in, 3.5mm headphone out, SD card slot
— Dimensions: 7 inches L x 5 inches W x 2 inches H
— Supreme-quality audio
— Linear PCM recording option for higher quality audio
— Pro-quality condenser mics
— Lots of connectivity options and recording customizations
— In-depth controls aren’t always intuitive
— More expensive
While Sony puts out every piece of tech you can think of, Tascam keeps a laser focus on audio. Their professional equipment has earned a place in the lives of pro musicians, podcasters, and filmmakers — and that quality persists in the Tascam DR-05X. If you’re planning to publish your recordings, such as for a podcast or YouTube, this can provide quality audio at a very reasonable price.
Knowing you’ll likely use it in diverse situations, Tascam provides a convenient quarter-inch screw hole so you can mount your DR-05X on a mic stand or tripod. Plug it into your computer (via micro USB) and you have a quality USB mic at your disposal. You can grab an attenuator cable and use it as an external mic for your DSLR video camera, or even plug in an external mic for more recording customization. For the highest-quality audio, you can opt to record in lossless linear PCM. And since the Tascam will accept 128GB SDXC cards, you can get up to 192 hours of those large, WAV-format recordings on a card.
For interviews, point the dual, omnidirectional condenser mics at your interviewee and hit record. The sensitivity of the DR-05X means it’ll work best on a mount, otherwise, set it on a soft cloth rather than flat on a hard surface that may create a buzz.
There aren’t a ton of presets; just a Dictation setting, meaning you’ll need to input your own settings, such as the format, sampling frequency, levels, mono vs stereo and so on. You could see this as a benefit or fault, depending on whether you like the idea of fine tuning your experience. The unit can also be used as an audio interface unit for your computer, recording right into your audio software. For the price, the Tascam DR-05X is an impressive device, acting more like a professional piece of equipment than a simple voice recorder, and there are plenty of features to satisfy both the casual user and the pro.
Best for Lectures: Olympus WS 852
Why It Made the Cut: With a long battery life, good memory capacity, and simple presets, the Olympus WS 852 is a great pick for recording everything that was said in a lecture hall.
— Battery Type: Two AAA
— Battery Life: 110 hours max
— Memory: 4 GB, 1,040 hours (MP3 8kbps)
— Recording Format: MP3
— Ports: USB out, 3.5mm mic in, 3.5mm headphone out, micro SD
— Dimensions: 4.4 inches L x 0.71 inches W x 1.5 inches H
— Auto mode and presets for easy recording
— Affordable price
— Long battery life
— Built-in USB plug for file transfers
— MP3 format only
— Lower audio quality
As it only records in MP3, at a max bitrate of 128 kbps, the Olympus WS 852 isn’t trying to offer publishing-quality audio. What it does offer is an easy way to record meetings and lectures — situations in which capturing what was said is more important than playback quality. Running on two triple-As, the extra-long battery life (up to 110 hours) means you could potentially get through an entire semester with only one battery swap. And with up to 1,000 hours of memory, you’ll likely never need to erase a file.
Since a reliable lecture hall recorder simply records what the professor is saying with a minimum amount of fuss on your part, we like that the WS 852 comes with a pre-set Conference setting that captures human voices that are farther afield. Of course, if your student days are behind you, Conference mode also works great for recording what goes on in a meeting too.
The slide-out USB plug allows for easy transfer of files to your computer, but since you’re likely not doing much with the files other than listening to them to get your lecture notes, the playback function on the device itself is more important. With a relatively large (20mm) speaker, you’ll be able to playback recordings clearly. If you’re transcribing the important bits, the multi-length forward and reverse skip functions will get you right to the parts of the lecture you want to hear.
The buttons and display are clear and the size is nice and compact. There’s even a Pocket mode, for recording nearby conversations without ever bringing the recorder out into the open.
Best for Singing: Zoom H1n
Why It Made the Cut: Offering plenty of features ideal for recording vocals, the Zoom H1n brings professional audio quality to a compact package.
— Battery Type: Two AAA
— Battery Life: 10 hours
— Memory: No internal memory. Supports micro SD cards.
— Recording Format: Linear PCM (WAV) and MP3
— Ports: Micro USB, 3.5mm mic in, 3.5mm headphone out, micro SD
— Dimensions: 5.4 inches L x 1 inches W x 6.4 inches H
— Excellent audio quality
— Easy to use menus
— Voice-focused functions
— Offers overdubbing capabilities
— Short battery life
Not to be confused with the video conferencing company, Zoom Corp makes recorders that have gathered a rather devoted following among amateur and professionals who deal in audio. Podcasters and videographers are drawn to the company’s combination of high-end hardware and intuitive interfaces. The Zoom H1n is Zoom’s most affordable handheld recorder, replacing their popular H1 with a redesign on the buttons to make it easier to operate. While some of their handheld recorders can get into the $300 range, the sub-$100 H1n capably delivers the high-quality audio capture Zoom is known for.
For singers, you have the option of recording in linear PCM/WAV format. That’s a lossless recording option that stays as true as possible to the original analog sounds coming out of your mouth. Then there’s the overdub feature which is great for recording vocals over existing music tracks. There’s also an auto record function that starts recording once the recorder senses a certain volume, or go for the timer function to set up and get in the zone before recording starts.
Like the higher-end Tascam above, the H1n records directly to SD cards (micro SD in this case) and can support 32 GB SDHC cards. That works out to a little over 15 hours per card at the highest quality setting and over 500 hours at the lowest setting (128 kbps MP3).
You can also plug in an external mic, use the device itself as an audio interface with your computer, or use it as a micro SD card reader, all of which give musicians more audio options. Getting the files on your computer is an easy operation with the micro USB port. You’ll pay more for the H1n than you would for a more standard voice recorder, but this is the pick that will do justice to your vocals.
Things to Consider Before Buying a Voice Recorder
Where You’ll Use It: Your end goal is the biggest factor to consider. If you’re simply capturing the words and meaning of what was said, such as during a lecture or in an interview, audio quality doesn’t matter as much. You can go for a less expensive voice recorder such as our overall-best or budget picks (both from Sony). If you’re planning on publishing the audio you record, such as for a video or podcast, you’ll need a higher-end device. In that case we recommend either the Tascam or the Zoom, above.
Memory Capacity: Modern digital recorders offer either on-board memory, removable SD cards, or both. Higher-end voice recorders tend to record directly onto removable cards (which may come as a surprise when you have to shell out more money beyond the already higher price tag). Units relying on internal memory tend to max out at around four GB (gigabytes). Compare that to a micro SDHD card with 32 GB of memory, or a SDXC card with 128 GB, and you start to see the logic in optimizing for cards.
That said, a massive amount of memory is generally only necessary for high-quality recording. Nearly all voice recorders (and all of our picks) let you select your recording quality. An MP3 recording at a low bitrate will let you capture hundreds of hours using just the on-board 4 GB memory. High-fidelity recording capacity falls in the one- to five-hour range.
Recording Quality of Linear PCM vs. MP3: If you want to publish your audio, you’ll want to go with a voice recorder that offers the option of recording in a linear, uncompressed digital form. This is most commonly referred to as linear PCM or WAV recordings. As a “lossless” format, it means that the analog signal (the sounds) are directly represented digitally. If reproducing your audio for others to hear is not your goal and you’re just trying to get a record of what was said, compressed (MP3) formats deliver intelligible audio using a fraction of the memory.
On-Board Playback: All of the digital voice recorders on our list offer both an on-board speaker and a headphone jack. To keep the units small, the onboard speakers are typically small as well and they generally only offer enough clarity for quick playbacks. To better hear your recordings, you’ll probably want to use a pair of headphones, something you may want to factor in as a possible additional cost and/or extra required equipment.
Q: What are the main applications of voice recorders?
The main applications of voice recorders are capturing audio for students, journalists, content creators, and people in workplace meetings. Students use voice recorders in lecture halls to catch what the instructor says so they can refer back to the lecture for studying. Journalists and writers use voice recorders to capture what is said during an interview. Content creators such as podcasters and videographers use higher-end voice recorders to capture the spoken audio to use in their shows. In the workplace, video recorders are sometimes used to capture the details of in-person meetings.
Q: Why is there a headphone jack on my voice recorder?
You’ll find a headphone jack on your voice recorder to facilitate three functions. The most common is playback. Plugging headphones into the jack will give you a cleaner, clearer playback experience than you’ll hear from the on-board speaker. You’ll likely use the headphone jack to monitor your audio if you decide to use your voice recorder as an audio interface for recording to your computer. Two of our picks above (the Tascam and the Zoom) allow for audio interface functionality. And finally, on lower-end models (like our Sony budget pick above), the headphone jack is the only means of transferring information from the device to a computer.
Q: What’s the difference between a dictaphone and a voice recorder?
The difference between a dictaphone and a voice recorder is a matter of terminology. Dictaphone was a company that manufactured recording devices, starting in the 1880s. Eventually, the term “dictaphone'' evolved to mean any device capable of recording dictation. The term then became most commonly associated with handheld, magnetic tape (cassette) recorders. Now that digital voice recorders have replaced cassette recorders, most people simply refer to dictation devices as digital voice recorders.
Final Thoughts on Voice Recorders
For anyone who needs a high-quality voice recorder, but doesn’t want to go over the $100 mark, the Sony ICD-UX570 is a reliable unit. Offering the option of on-board or external memory and multiple recording formats, the UX570 will perform reliably in pretty much any scenario.
This post was created by a non-news editorial team at Recurrent Media, Futurism’s owner. Futurism may receive a portion of sales on products linked within this post.