Audio recorders

Audio recorder reviews

Zoom H4N

I think this is the best handheld recorder to get if you want to do serious sound work but have a limited budget. It can be had for about £250 in the UK at the moment or a bit less if you shop around. There are cheaper machines around, but with these you lose key features. The H4N is a major improvement over the earlier H4, which I didn’t much like. It has everything you need: combi XLR/jack inputs, phantom power for external mics, low cut filters. It’ll even do mid-side matrixing, should you need it. And unlike the H4 and H2 it has a sensible, easy to use interface, and a rubberised coating which cuts down on handling noise. The built in mics aren’t great quality, but I find they’re OK if I need to travel light. The preamps aren’t the most amazing quality, but perfectly fine for most things.

Pros: full set of features; easy to use interface; compact; cheap.

Cons: eats up batteries fast; it has buttons for mic level control, which works fine but is much less nice than having a knob to turn; I don’t like the form factor – I prefer over-the-shoulder but because this is hand-held the headphone jack ends up sticking out of the side, mic cables sticking out of the bottom, and it’s not easy to keep waterproofed/attached to you in the field; the low price and the fact that it’s made in China make me wonder about the labour conditions.


Tascam DR100

Quite similar to the H4N – a fully featured recorder with XLR inputs, phantom power, etc etc. The Tascam feels a bit sturdier, with a nice dial for the mic level, and is a bit more expensive than the Zoom. It’s some years since I used this, but I liked it. The Zoom does have additional features such as 4 track recording, jack inputs and MS matrixing, which might sway you in that direction if those things are important. On the other hand, this has the mic level dial, which is much nicer to use than the clicky +/- buttons on the Zoom.

Pros: good features and interface; mic level dial; switches on the rear for easy access to common functions like phantom power.

Cons: like the H4N, I don’t like the form factor of hand-held recorders – in the field, I find over-the-shoulder recorders much easier to work with.


Sound Devices 702

An absolutely superb recorder, but with a price tag to match. I love this machine. I’ve been using it since 2010 and apart from having a duff battery initially (which can’t really be blamed on the machine itself), it hasn’t let me down once. It’s built like a tank – I fully expect it to still be functioning fine in 20 years time, even with regular trips to the field. The preamps are superb, the metering is the best I’ve ever come across, the over-the-shoulder design and layout of the controls is perfect for operation outdoors and on the move. The menu system has every conceivable option available, but that does make it complex. Definitely not a machine for novices.

If you need timecode for video work, get the 702T. There’s also the 722 model which has a hard drive inside as well as compact flash, but I can’t see the benefit – it’s more weight, more money, and the flash cards work fine. Then there’s the 744T which has another two channels (though without preamps) plus timecode, and the mighty 788T which has 8 channels with 8 preamps, and timecode. The 702 is by some way the cheapest of all of them, and you get the same tough construction, awesome preamps and user interface as the more expensive models.

Sound Devices make the field recorders that all field recordists covet. The other machine in this high-end price bracket that field recordists rave about is the Nagra Ares PII+, so it’s worth comparing the two. I’ve not used the Nagra, but speaking to Peter Cusack, who has one, he said that the preamps aren’t as good as the Sound Devices but they are still pretty good, and it is much smaller and lighter, which for him gives it the edge. Personally, I don’t like the handheld format, I much prefer over-the-shoulder, and the Nagra needs breakout cables to connect mics which seems a bit messy, so the Sound Devices is definitely the right choice for me, and I just have to put up with the extra weight.

Pros: great build quality, great preamps, great control layout, great metering, great battery life…you get the picture.

Cons: expensive, relatively heavy, extensive menu options likely to be confusing for novices.