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Searching for the perfect handheld field recorder

I’ve been looking for the perfect hand-held field recorder for a few months now. I should define perfect. I know that there is no such thing as the perfect all-around field recorder. But for me, perfect would be that with low-noise, strongly built, good-sounding, stable. I know that the market is saturated with every kind of handheld recorders, so during my search, I’ve tried to test as much as possible. These are not thorough tests, some of them are more deep, some just a few minutes of playing with a candidate. Why handheld? This is the question I heard a thousand times already. Yes, I know a Sounddevices or Cantar, etc. with some high quality mics would be of higher quality altogether, but I think handhelds have strong advantages in many situations. As you live your life, both the personal and professional, I bet you like me, encounter fantastic sounds, but at that moment whether you don’t have the “big” recorders at your hand reach, or there would be no time for setting up a rig. This is even more true if you encounter the sounds in the personal life. I cannot always carry a complete mobile recording rig. It would be too big and not so convenient. While a handheld recorder can easily be carried around in my backpack without occupying too much space, and whenever I need it, there would be virtually no set up time needed, literally just point-n-shoot. These are the reasons why – this time – I need a handheld recorder. Of course quality still matters.

The candidates


The Zoom family:

I think I virtually tried all of them. Feature wise it would be hard to find more appealing offer. They come in every possible configuration, with multiple mics, with 4 track record capability, bigger and smaller, surround! version, etc. To be honest I was suspicious, because those tiny recorders offers so much that it’s almost impossible to believe. Specs tells you almost nothing, as every manufacturer in the market nowadays has pristine specs sheet, while in the real world we still get very different results from gear that seems almost identical on paper.

I was very excited to try any of these little things. My first “date” was with the H4N. After playing a few minutes with the unit, frankly I didn’t like it. It wasn’t bad at all, but I was disappointed by its build quality, and have found the menu very unwieldy to deal with. Remember, my aim is to grab the handheld out of my car or from my backpack, and start recording as soon as possible. Somehow the unit felt like a cheap plastic toy instead of a dependable sturdy recorder. I really tried to love it though, because the 4 track capability was so irresistible. I decided to give it a try sonically. This was the second time where I was displeased. This handheld is noisy. Even if you use the xlr inputs. It’s not that it’s unusable, but for me, it’s very disturbing. At first I thought maybe it’s only the headphone output, but later I’ve sadly found out that the noise is there on the recorded material. No matter how hard I tried to stay objective, the H4N is NOT for me.

The other models were better though. I really liked the small form factor, though when I tried to test them in different conditions, it turned out that the smallness here is danger factor. I almost dropped the tiny recorder more than once. Maybe it’s too small, or the plastic housing is slippy. After these causal tests I knew that these recorders are very affordable, but they are simply not for me.

What I liked about the Zoom family:

  • good price
  • amazing feature set

What I did not like in them:

  • flimsy built
  • noisy
  • inconvenient menu

The Tascam family

The second “family” I encountered was two nice Tascam units, the DR-2D and the DR-100 mkII. I met them with somewhat lowered expectations. After the first burst of tests with the Zooms I thought I might want things which are only exist in the bigger class of recorders like a Sounddevices. These two though surprised me. The layout of the units were much more friendly, I mean it is more likely my taste. Less clutter, less “fishing” in some menu, more focus on the recording. The build quality is better too. Even the smaller’s plastic case was better than the Zoom’s one. Specs, just as I’ve mentioned are almost the same so not really relevant. The smaller one is nice, but I need something more durable. The bigger brother looks fine, let’s try it! I tried it on a few sources, and again, the disappointment comes with the inherent noise. At this point I was considering another option, that is I am too sensitive to noise, maybe more than it’s healthy… 🙂 But the fact remain, it is noisy for me. That alone could kept me away from buy this unit, but then I saw that the price is higher compared to the other units I’ve tried. Not significantly, I would accept that if I’d be satisfied with the recorder.

What I liked in these units:

  • well built
  • more logical layout

What I didn’t like:

  • noise performance

The Sony family

These little so called tests were fine for one thing for sure. At this point I had a pretty good idea about the “perfect” handheld field recorder. Perfect for me of course. I was researching online reviews and tests and uploaded soundfiles. And after a few days, something caught my eye. Sony’s line of handheld recorders. Obviously the specs sheet was no different, but I didn’t expected to be. There are cheaper and more expensive options, so first I had to decide the price range. The biggest one, the Sony PCMD1 is out of range for more reasons. In my opinion it is too expensive for a handheld field recorder, and in fact that is so expensive that if you save a little more, you would be able to buy a Sounddevices recorder. And as I stated that for my needs now I need a handheld, I simply disqualified the D1 from my own little competition. Fortunately I’ve found many reviews about the other models. I could only try one of them, and frankly I really loved it. The build quality was fine, most of the controls are accessible on the front panel, so no need for inconvenient menus while you’re at THAT moment when you have to record, and the sound was fine. One thing I had to check though…you guessed right: the noise performance.

So, let’s hear the Sony PCM D50. One thing bothered me a bit. I heard that annoying noise through the headphones, but as I did my research, many wrote that the noise comes from the headphone amp, the recording is fine and not noisy. And that’s right, the recording is dead quite compared to the competition.

What I liked:

  • well built
  • quality materials
  • good sound
  • good noise performance

The negative:

  • a little too big
  • more expensive

Don’t want to bore you, I’ve ordered the Sony PCM-D50. As soon as it’s going to be here, I’ll write a follow-up about it.