Best Handheld Recorders

As audio geeks and musicians, we oftentimes rely on handheld recorders to:

  1. Record a live performance quickly and easily
  2. Record audio samples “in the field”– i.e. in the outside world — for later processing
  3. Make a demo tape
  4. Record lectures and interviews
  5. Record audio for video/film

Here are the best handheld recorders available for these purposes.  This list compares features and price, for the best mix of both.  All 5 top rankings have been trusted by audio professionals and musicians for years.

Best handheld recorders

Top Five:

  1. Zoom H4N PRO Digital Multitrack Recorder

  2. TASCAM DR-40 4-Track Portable Digital Recorder
  3. Zoom ZH1 H1 Handy Portable Digital Recorder

  4. Tascam DR05 Stereo Portable Digital Recorder

  5. Zoom H2n Handy Recorder

Again, these compare the features you get for the price.  There are many cheaper and many more expensive handheld recorders out there, but these are tried-and-true by many audio professionals and musicians.

Zoom H4N PRO Digital Multitrack Recorder

My go-to handheld recorder is the Zoom H4N, now available in a PRO model.  I would upgrade to the PRO model, but my Zoom H4N has captured countless hours of field recordings, live performances, demo tracks, and even tracking sessions, and it is still in mint condition.  It has been out at 3:00am in the middle of the woods capturing birdsong; it has been left outside on a summer night to record crickets for three hours; it has close-miked rushing winter streams over a bed of ice and snow; and, it has recorded contact microphones on the hood of my car as I took a drive (it was for an avant-garde electroacoustic work).

In short, this is an extremely versatile recording device.  Here are the features I have used; there are countless others:

  • Extremely high-quality audio format capabilities
  • High-capacity SD card insertion
  • External microphone connectivity (including the ability to use Phantom Power)
  • Tripod mounting
  • Durable construction
  • Low noise
  • Portable as heck (worked great after a plane ride to Nebraska and subsequent walking in 20-degree-Farenheit winter weather)
  • Flexible battery life via settings
  • Easy to use all functions

It can also be used as a 2×2 audio interface for your computer!

This is a mid-range-priced recorder, and so its innumerable high-quality features are some of the biggest bang for your buck you will find.  It is a staple in the audio toolbox of audio technicians and musicians like myself.

Zoom H4N PRO Digital Multitrack Recorder – on Amazon

TASCAM DR-40 4-Track Portable Digital Recorder

Zoom and Tascam have competing products that dominate the market on handheld recorders.  The TASCAM DR-40 is a device used by many colleagues of mine, and serves as a comparable unit to the Zoom H4N.

The DR-40 features the ability to switch the stereo mics from A/B to X/Y positions for added flexibility, as well as some processing capabilities that the Zoom H4N does not offer.  For example, the TASCAM offers dual mode recording, automatic level adjustment, and a built-in limiter.  These help musicians capture great-sounding recordings, but unlike the Zoom H4N, the DR-40 does not function as an audio interface to your computer.  It does offer Phantom Power for those condenser microphones, like the Zoom.

TASCAM DR-40 4-Track Portable Digital Recorder – on Amazon

Zoom ZH1 H1 Handy Portable Digital Recorder

For those of you on a budget or looking for something that’s a bit simpler, but doesn’t sacrifice quality, I would recommend the Zoom ZH1 H1.  It is super compact and ideal for capturing live sound, but can also be used as a 2×2 audio interface.  The battery life of the device is amazing, and it only takes one AA battery!  And, you still get the same high-quality audio capabilities you need for recording for video, lectures, field recordings, and simple music setups.  The price point is really hard to beat for all of these features.

Zoom ZH1 H1 Handy Portable Digital Recorder – on Amazon

Tascam DR05 Stereo Portable Digital Recorder

Much like its Zoom counterpoint above, theTascam DR05 allows for a more portable, compact design that retains high quality sound.  It mimics its more expensive (and more feature-rich) sister Tascam model, by having more processing capabilities than its Zoom competitor, but not offering the ability to be an audio interface.  It again seems more tailored to recording and basic manipulation of audio, instead of having to export it to a computer/DAW to do basic, necessary processing to the audio.

The features listed advertise this device to be a good fit for musicians recording on-the-fly, whereas the Zoom H1 is more multi-use.  For example, the TASCAM allows the slowing down of audio, which can help the student (or professional) learn new music or study it in detail.

All of the devices reviewed here have been seen around the campus of my conservatory (The Hartt School), and I have observed this one in lecture and in other capabilities.  And much like its Zoom competitor, this model is great for the wallet.

Tascam DR05 Stereo Portable Digital Recorder – on Amazon

Zoom H2n Handy Recorder

This recorder is an amazingly versatile recorder.  It has five (!) built-in microphones, offering the following recording modes:

  1. Mid-Side (MS) stereo
  2. X/Y stereo
  3. 2-channel surround
  4. 4-channel surround

It has been around for years and is still one of the best recorders you can buy in the mid-price range (and in general).

It is not just a great recorder, but it is meant to be out in the field.  One of my college roommates was recording a stream with it, and it accidentally fell in the water!  He brought it to the apartment, took it apart, and dried it out.  It still worked fine when he reassembled it, and thank goodness–it was university property!

For pristine sound with unusual, but extremely useful, recording modes, this recorder is a sound choice (pun intended).  It offers some processing features as well, and can serve as a 2×2 audio interface and a USB microphone.

Zoom H2n Handy Recorder – on Amazon

In conclusion

These are the top 5 handheld recorders for the audio professional or musician that won’t break the bank while giving pro-grade sound.  There are of course many more expensive and inexpensive models that offer more or fewer features and varying degrees of quality.  I have either used or seen my colleagues use each of these in the different contexts I experienced in conservatory and in the field.

It is worth noting that these handheld recorders just the devices–there are countless peripherals and accessories that can really make these even more effective tools.  My recommended accessories are:

  1. A large SD or micro-SD card (depending on the model); the bigger the card, the more audio, and the higher quality audio, you can capture.
  2. A windscreen: this is essential for any field or outdoor recording.  This can make or break your audio (who wants loud wind noise blowing through their pristine film audio?).  Even when the wind is gentle, your audio can sound like garbage without the investment in one of these–and these are super cheap, so they are a no-brainer to get.
  3. High quality headphones for monitoring your audio
  4. External microphones, if you want to take full advantage of the capabilities
  5. Extra batteries or a power adapter, for increased recording time
  6. A carrying case
  7. A tripod mount, for taking the recording out of your hands (but not risking it falling in a stream, like my colleague!)

Most of these are available as bundles with the recorders themselves, for a discount.  So, instead of buying the recorder and peripherals/accessories separately, many online retailers will sell you a package with a lower price when bought together.

Please feel free to let me know what you think; these are the best in my experience, but I’m interested in hearing of your experience with other brands in a similar price- and quality-range that aren’t as popular.

Happy recording!



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