Recording high quality audio on-the-go has never been easier. There’s a wide array of portable audio recorders on offer to suit every budget and need, be it for a film, a concert, a podcast, a lecture, or a field recording. Every device on the list below comes in at under $250, yet there are so many other factors to consider beyond price (does the device support external memory? what about an external mic?) that the process of zeroing in on the best unit for you can be dizzying if you don’t know precisely what you’re looking for. So, before you scroll down to the five best affordable microphones on the market, here are some questions to keep in mind:
What are you using it for?
Not only will your answer will help narrow down your choices, it also might save you money. For example, if you’re only intending to record lectures and voice memos, there’s really no need to pay extra for a four-track recording unit.
How many tracks do you need?
A two-track stereo recorder is an instant upgrade on your smartphone. But if you’re a musician, you may want to invest in a four-track unit or one that records in binaural audio, also known as 3D audio.
What’s the storage capacity?
If you’re planning to record several hours at a time, a device with a 1GB storage limit isn’t going to cut it. Some portable recorders accept external memory cards, while others download your audio directly to an app on your smartphone.
Internal or external microphones?
Every device below comes with one or more built-in mics, but they don’t all support external mics. If you aim to use the recorder as a scratchpad, that may not be a problem. But if you intend to connect an external mics, be sure to check first if the recorder you’re interested in can accommodate it.
Zoom H4N PRO
A perennial bestseller among musicians, filmmakers and podcasters, this flexible four-track audio recorder comes equipped with built-in X/Y mics (adjustable to 90 or 120 degrees) and two XLR inputs for hooking up external condenser mics. Used on its own, the H4N ($200) produces exceptional stereo sound that can stand up to a studio microphone. If you’re recording a demo with multiple instruments, you can lay down one track, then overdub it with another. Or, if you’re making a film, you can use the XLR’s to connect a condenser mic, such as a boom. The low-noise preamps give your audio a clean boost, while the LCD screen makes for easy navigating. The H4N comes with 2GB of built-in storage capacity, which is expandable up to 32GB with an external SD card.
Released this past summer, the Hooke Verse ($240) is the world’s first Bluetooth binaural microphone. For the uninitiated: Binaural audio captures sound as you actually hear it — spatially, between two ears. When you play it back with any ordinary pair of stereo headphones, binaural audio produces the incredibly immersive sensation of being in the same exact place where the recording was made. This wireless 3D audio headset records to your smartphone, so in terms of portability (not to mention audio quality) the Verse is tough to beat. Unlike the H4N, it comes with windscreens, a 3.5mm line input, and other features that makes the Verse comparable in price. You can use it to make binaural videos with your smartphone’s built-in camera, or you can connect the Verse via the cable it comes with to a GoPro, a DSLR camera, a field recorder, or a mixing console. With VR on the rise and people consuming more content with headphones than ever before, binaural audio appears to be heading straight for the mainstream. The Verse offers pros and hobbyists alike unprecedented audio recording capabilities. We’ve only just begun to see what it can do.
With five built-in mics and four recording modes (X/Y stereo, Mid-Side stereo, 2-channel and 4-channel), the H2N ($160) allows sound designers and musicians to capture audio from multiple directions, then mix their recordings in stereo sound. Because it lacks the XLR inputs of the H4N, this cheaper alternative may not be worth the savings for filmmakers. (If you want to attach a boom mic to the H2N, you’ll need to buy a special adaptor.) But it weighs less than half the H4N, boasts double the battery life, and includes features such as a limiter and a compressor, which help prevent audio clipping.
For just $100, the Tascam DR-05 offers an omnidirectional mic for recording high quality surround sound, a peak reduction feature that automatically sets the optimal recording level, and 4GB of storage that’s expandable to 32GB. The new Variable Speed Audition feature definitely comes in handy when transcribing music or learning a new tune. It joins established features such as overdubbing and a reverb effect, which is why this has long been one of the top two budget-friendly portable audio recorders of choice for musicians.
The other top budget-friendly choice comes from — you guessed it — the venerable Zoom family of audio recorders. Like the H4N and H2N, the entry-level H1 ($100) features an X/Y stereo mic configuration and earns high praise for its sound quality. So how does it stack up with the Tascam DR-05? Well, it’s slighter of build, coming in at nearly half the weight.