The best voice recorders

With all the portable audio-video devices floating around today, it seems surprising – nay, downright annoying – that so few of them offer support for voice recording. Sure, they’ll load and play a kazillion songs in any format you want, display photos, play movies, and probably pour you a frosty beer, but should you want to do something as seemingly simple and as natural as recording the human voice, you’ll have to look far and wide. And even fewer of them feature line-in jacks for direct feeds from hardwired outside sources or external mics.

But have no fear – we’ve found a few that’ll do the trick. Moreover, we’ve also dug deep into the world of standalone voice recorders – a far better choice if you’re serious about recording time or recording quality or sophisticated features – and come away with several best bets.

To focus on convenient, highly portable, and affordable solutions, we’ve imposed a street price ceiling of $200, and most of our options are substantially less than that. So if you’re looking for pricey tabletop dictation machines, or multi-track monsters with a hundred functions and enough circuitry to capture and mix twenty-five takes of you and your AC/DC cover band, you’ll need to check elsewhere.

Here are our top ten options for budget voice recording, sorted from most to least expensive, and on startlingly simple yet ingenious peripheral that’ll really help all you devious types out there.

CC WitnessCC Witness
C Crane Company
Street Price: $190

Clearly at the higher end of our price spectrum, the C Crane Witness is nonetheless packed with yummy goodies. And we do mean packed. It includes an MP3 player, a voice recorder with provisions for both line-in and external mic operation, an SD card expansion slot, a USB jack for computer connectivity, and both an FM radio tuner and AM. The latter is, sadly, an extreme rarity these days in portable digital devices.

The Witness isn’t exactly cheap, nor is it as small or as pretty as some of today’s most popular MP3 players. But when you’re fully stocked with features and can record basically anything, you can be forgiven for imperfect aesthetic appeal.

Olympus DM-520 DM-520
Street Price: $180

As you’ll see throughout our list, Olympus tends to dominate the budget voice recorder pack. And for good reason – its models are generally reliable, easy to use, and pleasant to listen to. Right at the top of the current Olympus voice recorder totem pole, and brand new as of August 2009, you’ll find the DM-520.

Sporting 4GB of internal memory, a micro SD slot for even more storage, and in excess of 1,000 hours of recording time, the unit is spacious enough for even the most crippling series of college lectures. It handles a wide variety of audio formats, records luscious stereo content at 44.1 kilohertz, features voice-activated control, and allows you to edit your files in ways that may be illegal in some states. That all of this comes in a package that offers in excess of 50 hours between battery charges is simply icing on the cake.

Sony ICD-SX700D ICD-SX700D
Street Price: $160

A step up from the sub-$100 dedicated units you’ll find elsewhere in this overview, the ICD-700D is a just-released upgrade in the mid-level range of dedicated Sony voice recorders and a highly recommended option for anyone who needs to convert voice to print. That’s because the ICD-700D comes packaged with a light version of the highly acclaimed Dragon NaturallySpeaking software. Note that we said “light” – this is not the power-packed full iteration of Dragon NaturallySpeaking.

The unit is notable for other reasons too, such as its stereo mic array and dictation-friendly overwrite options. All in all, a smart option for those who loathe typing.

Zoom H2Zoom H2
Street Price: $150

Carrying an official MSRP of $300-plus but commonly available for half that, the Zoom H2 is a dedicated and sophisticated recording machine that’s as highly regarded for its top-notch sound reproduction (even the subtle nuances of an acoustic guitar sound great though this thing) as it is for its post-recording manipulations and extreme versatility.

We’re not talking mono here, folks. We’re talking real stereo recording, either through its impressive on-board mic array or with the assistance of external mics. But perhaps the coolest part of all is that you can convert everything you’ve captured to 5.1 surround sound. That’s right, now you can put yourself in the middle of all the action when you play back that heart-stopping dissertation you recorded last week.

There seems to be no end to what you can do with this beast – including great sounding podcasts – and it’s even more amazing that it’s as small and portable as it is. If you have the bucks and you can foresee the need to accurately record sounds other than voice, it’s a superb alternative.

Cowon D2 D2 (4 GB)
Street Price: $130

MP3 player manufacturer Cowon has a small but rabid fan base in this country. And that’s what happens when you release an MP3 player that sounds and performs as good as the Cowon D2, but simply isn’t supported by an iPod-like marketing budget.

Ridiculously tiny, yet equipped with MP3 playback, an FM tuner, an oversized color touchscreen display, and, most importantly, voice and line-in recording, the D2 was way ahead of its time when released in 2007. The upgraded D2+ has been released since then, yet many consumers favor the original. Remember though, few MP3 players will offer the features or the audio quality of a purpose-built voice recorder.

Creative Zen V PlusCreative Zen V Plus (4 GB)
Creative Labs
Street Price: $130

Like Cowon, several of Creative Labs’ MP3 players offer both voice recording and line-in connectivity. We chose the Zen V Plus because it isn’t exorbitantly priced, and because it’s been on the market for quite a while – plenty of time for Creative to work out any bugs.

The Zen V Plus is aimed at the athletically oriented individual, and as such offers skip-free playback, exceedingly diminutive dimensions, and an optional armband. Again, we must caution that you’ll find more recording options and better sound from a dedicated voice recorder, but if you have the room and budget for just one hybrid unit, you could do much worse.

Olympus WS-210S WS-210S
Street Price: $50

Okay, so Olympus doesn’t official manufacture this particular model any longer. That’s okay – the company is B-I-G into voice recording and has a gaggle of other models ready to take its place. It’s also good news for you, because this is currently a discontinued item at a variety of shops and therefore can be had on the cheap.

Olympus recorders rank highly on virtually every survey, and to grab one at a substantial markdown is a very good thing. Granted, its 512MB worth of storage space is far from massive, so you’ll need to exercise caution after the first few dozen hours. Still, the unit features nifty amenities such as a voice filter to reduce unwanted noise, USB connectivity for easy transfer of files to your PC, and slow and fast playback. A reliable recorder at a snappy price point – what else does the average user need?

Olympus VN-6200PC VN-6200PC
Street Price: $50

If you look at this one on paper, it seems like an average voice recorder at a decent price. But when you use it and play with it for a bit, it’s easy to see why the new VN-6200PC and its immediate forefathers (including the immensely popular VN-5200PC) dominate the market as they do at e-tailers such as Amazon.

Slim, intuitive, and sporting all the essentials – including USB-to-PC connectivity, line-in and external mic recording, more than 70 hours recording time in high-quality (HQ) mode, and impressive audio output – it’s a solid package. Note that the VN-6200PC and the vast majority of digital voice recorders in this price range do not support dictation operations such as overwrite, though even the least expensive analog microcassette recorders generally do. And therein lies the only advantage of tape.

Olympus Pearlcorder S711 Pearlcorder S711
Street Price: $25

The Pearlcorder S711 may be tape-based, but it’s nothing like those clunky cassette recorders from your youth – if, that is, your youth fell anywhere between 1970 and 2000.

A far thriftier solution than any other voice recorder in this overview, the handheld Pearlcorder S711 nevertheless delivers desirable features such as voice-activated operation, a fast play mode, and an external mic input. It sounds good too, and it’s available in both blue and gold color schemes. True bargain hunters may want to opt for the marginally cheaper Pearlcorder S701, which does away with voice-activation, yet both units are eminently affordable.

Olympus TP7 TP7
Street Price: $20

With all the technical wizardry available today, you’d think someone would have developed a purely digital method for capturing landline telephone conversations. And they have – though most of the devices that plug into your phone line somewhere between the wall outlet and your handset don’t exactly boast the best reviews or track records. And we definitely don’t trust those too-good-to-be-true gizmos you can find online at those dubious spy-on-your-wife websites.

However, we can say with certainty that one such product does do exactly what it says it will do: the Olympus TP7 Telephone Pickup. The way cool thing is that it’s less expensive and far simpler than most of the alternatives. You merely plug one end to your voice recorder, position the other end (essentially a tiny microphone) in your ear, bring the handset to your skull, and hit “record.”

That’s all there is to it. Works like a charm…with one caveat. Recording telephone calls may be prohibited in your jurisdiction. Check first before you go all 007 on us.

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