Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Sub-$100 Portable Digital Recorder Roundup

After purchasing my Zoom H1 Handy Recorder a while ago, I was wondering if there wasn’t another decent recorder out there at a similar price point. I knew about Tascam’s DR-05, which was developed as direct competition to the H1, but was that it? Having review powers granted to me by B&H, I requested all recorders under $100 that met some basic criteria.

All these units have on-board stereo mics for ambient sound recording. They also have an external mic input, headphone monitoring and audio levels that can be manually adjusted. I then ran the following tests (available below each photo): sound checks with a cheap unbalanced Radio Shack lav mic, an expensive balanced Sennheiser ME66 shotgun going through an XLR-Pro adapter and an ambient recording with the built-in stereo mics. Use headphones for critical listening.

Alesis PalmTrack ($89)




Build quality:
Decent for plastic unit, though well-spaced buttons and switches feel cheap and SD card door looks like it will break off.
Sound quality: Weak preamp in all modes. Both external mics had very difficult time hitting –24db, let alone –12db. With gain switch set on high, nasty noise was added to signal. Records .wav up to 24bit/48khz or .mp3 up to 320kbps.
Interface: Smallest (OLED) screen in group. Dual horizontal audio meters have multiple marks, including 0db, -6db, -12db and –24db. Meters appear to have slight lag.
Mounting thread: Metal! Located on bottom of unit and would cover SD card door if used.
File transfer: No problem connecting to computer via exposed mini-USB port on side. No file tree, recorded files show up immediately.
Best thing: Metal mounting thread!
Worst thing: Weak or noisy sound.

American Audio Pocket Record ($89)




Build quality:
Rugged and tough. Largest recorder of the group (gameBoy sized) has rubberized buttons and feels like a plastic tank. Rattles when shaken.
Sound quality: Definite hiss detected from onboard mics during ambient recording. Hiss much more noticeable with unbalanced lav (using ¼” to 1/8” adapter that I had to provide) and when using XLR shotgun. Onboard mics NOT disabled when external mic plugged in. Records .wav up to 44.1khz or .mp3 (no bit rate indicated).
Interface: Medium-sized LCD screen. Cryptic “menu” system is not user-friendly at all. Dual horizontal “meters” have no db indicators. “Levels” adjusted by high, medium or low switch.
Mounting thread: None.
File transfer: Connected to computer via exposed min-USB connector after two tries. Overly complicated folder system.
Best thing: You could probably run this thing over with a car and it would still work.
Worst thing: Doesn’t really “work” at all.

Jammin Pro HR-5 ($95)




Build quality:
Cheap and plasticky, buttons are small and close together. Rattles when shaken.
Sound quality: Some hiss detected from onboard mics during ambient recording. Hiss much more noticeable with unbalanced lav and less noticeable (but still there) when using the Sennheiser XLR shotgun. Levels maxed and unit barely hits –12db. Records .wav up to 24bit/96khz or .mp3 up to 192bps.
Interface: Second largest (OLED) screen of group. Easy to navigate menu has basic options. Dual horizontal audio meters have no db marks, but do have db readout. Meters adjusted by wheel on side of unit, but could never get enough level to hit –12db.
Mounting thread: Plastic. Located on back of unit and would cover battery door and two switches if used.
File transfer: No problem connecting to computer via rubber flap-covered mini-USB port on side. Standard file tree system.
Best thing: Large screen is always lit (great when working in the dark).
Worst thing: Hissy sound.

Tascam DR-05 ($99)




Build quality:
Solid and robust. Unit has nice weight and well-spaced, large buttons that click firmly. No rattle when shaken.
Sound quality: Little or no hiss detected from onboard mics, unbalanced lav and Sennheiser XLR shotgun mic. Records .wav up to 24bit/96khz or .mp3 up to 320kbps.
Interface: Largest screen of group. Easy to navigate menu has lots of options. Dual horizontal audio meters have –12db mark and db readout. Adjusted by front buttons, had no problem hitting –12db and beyond.
Mounting thread: Plastic. Located on back of unit and would cover battery door if used.
File transfer: No problem connecting to computer via exposed mini-USB port on side. Standard file tree system.
Best thing: Feels and acts like a real field recorder.
Worst thing: Probably too big and heavy to be mounted on talent.

Tascam PR-10 ($93)




Build quality:
Lightweight and fragile. Most svelte recorder of the bunch, resembling a removeable car stereo faceplate (only shorter). No rattle when shaken.
Sound quality: Little or no hiss detected from onboard mics during ambient recording. More hiss during recording with unbalanced lav. Much better, cleaner sound with the Sennheiser XLR shotgun mic. Records .wav up to 24bit/48khz or .mp3 up to 320bps.
Interface: Next-to-smallest LCD screen. Easy to navigate menu has lots of options (including a stealth mode). Dual horizontal audio meters have no db marks or readout. Adjusted by front buttons, had no problem hitting (what I’m guessing was) –12db mark and beyond.
Mounting thread: None.
File transfer: No problem connecting to computer via exposed micro-USB port on side. Standard file tree system.
Best thing: Perfect size for body mounting on talent or stealth purposes.
Worst thing: No audio meters available on playback.

Zoom H1 Handy Recorder ($99)




Build quality:
Feels cheap and fragile. Except for large record button, switches small but well-spaced. Rattles when shaken.
Sound quality: Little or no detectable hiss during ambient recording or using external lav mic or XLR shotgun mic. Records .wav up to 24bit/96khz or .mp3 up to 320kbps.
Interface: Next-to-smallest LCD screen. No menu system—all functions performed by hard buttons. Dual vertical audio meters have 0db, -6db, –12db and –24db mark. Had no problem hitting –12db mark with onboard mics or Sennheiser shotgun, but external lav needed levels cranked.
Mounting thread: Plastic. Switches on back inaccessible when thread is used.
File transfer: No problem connecting to computer via exposed mini-USB port on side. Standard file tree system.
Best thing: Size and sound quality make it great hybrid (field use or body mount) recorder.
Worst thing: Very delicate case, probably due to cost-cutting. Handle with care!

Conclusions
No real surprises here. The best-sounding recorders are the ones you’d expect: the Zoom H1 and the Tascam DR-05. I was hopeful for the Tascam PR-10, whose size is perfect for body mounting and its name reputable, but its poor performance with the unbalanced Radio Shack mic means you’d need to add XLR hardware to your actor. This defeats any stealth qualities the unit has. It was also no surprise that the XLR Sennheiser shotgun sounded better than the cheaper, muddier unbalanced Radio Shack lav (except on the Alesis and the American Audio units, which are just terrible all around). Of the no-names, the Jammin Pro is the best model, but the $5 you save is not worth the noise and lack of power you get. All units sounded pretty good in the ambient test, but only the Zoom and the two Tascam models give you enough clean power when you need it.

The best choice is really dependent on your needs. If you need a solid field recorder that’s sturdy, versatile and easy to operate, get the Tascam DR-05. If you need to mount a body mic on talent, I recommend the Zoom H1 (which can also act as a field recorder). Either way, your audio is going to sound really good for $99, which is the ultimate endgame with a purchase like this.

6 comments:

Kyle said...

Hey that really helps! Thanks fo much for doing all that work for us!

Anonymous said...

Good shoot-out. Thanks. Just bought the DR-05 over the H1 due to build quality.

Scott Eggleston said...

It's a good choice, Anonymous. I was sad to have to send the review unit back.

sean said...

While the sony pcm-m10 cannot record in mono, I feel it is higher quality than the ones listed here. I know these were $100 or less but a little more money would buy a solid and well tested recorder.

Greg Nuspel said...

I would like to see a test of mono recorders as well. If I'm putting a recorder on a subject it doesn't need to be stereo just good sound and small.

Marcos C. said...

Thank you so much for this test. I'm trying to get into field recording, noise pollution and acoustic ecology, and this made me decide on the DR-05. It was tremendously helpful. Thank you!

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