Consumer Compares Digital Voice Recorders (MP3 format, line-in option)

As a rule, I don’t review products. But after 10 years of fighting to find the right digital voice recorders, its time someone else avoided
waisting hundreds of dollars like I have.

Q: What’s the best MP3 recorder?

A: It depends on the purpose. I need three kinds of digital recorders in my work. The three intended purposes are: bootlegging live music (or recording my band / acoustic songwriting), high quality interviews for podcasts (or someday… editing my own episode of This American Life), and third – I need a simple and featureless MP3 recorder that I can put in the hands of children in an African village whose members have never even used door knobs or latch keys, and still end up with recordings. If you have seen the Flip Video Camera – it is so simple it achieves that goal for video. So why is there nothing like that for audio?

For Bootlegs and live music:

The expensive solution is the Edirol ($270 in 2010). For a cheap alternative (under $100) – You want an MP3 recorder with an external line input. The two companies to look at are the Cowon iAudio U2 and the iRiver T20/T30/T60. Unfortunately, the simplest and easiest models are out of print, so it’s Ebay or nothing now. I’ve used the 1GB iAudio U2 for years without trouble. I bought a $60 stereo lapel mic and plugged it into the 1/8" input.

For Interviews:

For transcribing, many MP3 players come with voice recorders. These are fine for recording yourself, but don’t expect to hear what the professor says in a room of 100. Look at using Dragon to auto-transcribe you audio notes – it is worth the expense. If you want to broadcast or podcast these interviews later, always use a lapel mic with a long wire. iAudio and iRiver are sufficient here. with a high quality stereo lapel mic clipped to my own collar or shirt pocket, I can record conversations 6 feet away with good enough quality for a podcast. Editing the audio is another hassle. If you have recommendations on editors – I’m all ears!

Note: I also used an Archos 20 GB MP3 recorder in 2003. It was fair but the hard drive inside created a lot of stray noise. Flash MP3 recorders are much quieter and had a longer battery life.

Simplest MP3 recorder:

None meet my standard yet, of being able to leave it with a novice who speaks another language and return with quality data, or any data. All of these offer too many options. The best feature of all is recording while listening to the levels on headphones. For conversations, nearly everyone can reposition the mic to improve the quality without any need to adjust levels, bitrate, etc. If I made a FlipCam MP3 audio recorder, I would default it to 128 kpbs 44kHz MP3 recordings and drop the ability to change these setting altogether. I would also make the device auto-offer to copy all recordings to your PC when you plug it in.

Overall recommendation?

I’ve tried several MP3 recorders and the Edirol is the best. Even the entry-level model has the best built-in mic I’ve ever heard. I insisted the office get a model with a line-in 1/8" mic jack but it was unnecessary. Our $300 mic isn’t any better than the built-in one you get for less than that.

The user interface is simple enough to use. Most people can use the edirol with coaching, but it looks complicated. One very smart person was at a loss when the hidden buttons on the back got switched from low to hi sensitivity on the mic. So it is too feature heavy for novices, and the search for a truly simple "hit play and stop" recorder continues.

But if you want to record field interviews in the Sahara and turn around and get a drum circle, this one will do both better than any other. I own 3 mics designed for each situation – but the Edirol does all three with a crazy-good amplifier. I usually have the input set at 25% sensitivity on the high-sens setting for conversations. Works even in buses and streets at 12%. At maximum sens you can spy on conversations down the street.

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