Digital Recorders - Comparison II
Our tests aimed at single devices support you in your purchase decisions. However, they vaguely hint at the differences in the quality of recording devices. Meanwhile, many new devices have entered the market. Hence, we did another comparison in October in 2010. We hope that the data provided will help you to find your favourite device. Enjoy reading our test and listening to our sound samples!
1. Situations and Recording Settings
2. Test Devices
3. Assessment Criteria
4. Recording Outcome (5 different Situations)
4.1. Bewitched by the Guitar
4.2. Conversation in a Big Room
4.3. Urban Noise in front of the Elisabeth Church
4.4. Recordings of an Organ and Atmosphere
6. About the Testing Team
Again, we chose five different settings for our recording tests. Those are exemplary for the manifold application areas of digital recorders, and cover a wide range of possible circumstances. They concern:
- Fine music nuances
How natural does the recording of the guitar appear to be?
- Conversation in a big room
How well do recordings of groups succeed. Is the quality of those recordings sufficient for transcription?
Can the recording devices capture the atmosphere that surrounds the Elisabeth Church in Marburg?
How well do different recording devices perform when recording an organ in a church?
The setup for these four settings was similar. Our chosen recording devices were positioned in almost identical distance and alignment to the sound source. Additionally, the recording devices were attached to a small tripod about 15cm above the ground or a table.
Every recording device offers a wide range of different settings, such as MP3 and WAV, low and high sensitivity of the microphone, Low-Cut, noise suppression, and more. However, we had to choose the same settings for every recording device. Everything else would have distorted the outcome of our tests. Hence, we decided to use the following settings:
- Highest recording quality possible, i.e. ideally uncompressed WAV (24 Bit, 96 KHZ)
- No additional filters or equalizers, i.e. noise suppression off, low-cut off, limiter off, etc.
- The sensitivity of the microphone was adjusted according to the setting and the levels adjusted in a similarly
- The data was uncompressed and normalized with the software audacity. Then, they were converted into 320 KbPs MP3 files (with Lame Version 1.32, Engine 3.97). Normalizing sound files is not ideal in terms of sound quality, though, because it can lead to artefacts and noise. Nevertheless, normalizing them allowed us to compare the sound files with a similar volume, and to examine the characteristics of the individual devices more clearly.
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For our second comparison of current digital recorders, we decided to compare ten different recording devices. Our award winning champions of the first comparison are, of course, included in the list of participants:
- Olympus LS-5 (identical to the LS-11)
- Olympus DM 550
- Olympus DM-5
- Tascam DR-100
- Tascam DR-2d
- Zoom H4n
- Zoom H1
- Sony M10
- Sony D50
- Marantz PMD661
The Olympus devices VN and WS were also included for the recording of the conversation. Overall, we used equipment which was worth about 5.000 euros.
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In this test, we did not assess the looks, functionalities and handling of the devices, because we dealt with most of these characteristics in our individual tests of the digital recorders (Please note: These tests are currently only available in German). This test’s only focus was the quality of the recordings. The following characteristics were taken into account: perception of details, perception of ambience, and the level of noise.
The first part of our test involved the use of studio headphones (AKG K271). We started testing by listening to all recordings blindly, i.e. without knowing which recording was done with which device. Additionally, the extremely similar conditions of the recordings and settings rendered it impossible to guess which device had been used. Then, we evaluated the situational recordings with the help of a questionnaire.
While listening to sound samples, one has to realize that the idea of marking devices is flawed. It is too difficult to fairly mark them. Furthermore, marks would not have been as meaningful as one might expect. The nuances and refinements are too detailed, ambience does not automatically equal ambience, stereo sound can proof to be hindering, and so on. Hence, we decided to visualise the overall picture. Which device left the best impression in which setting, and why do we think so?
According to the performance of each recording device in different settings, we determine their overall performance and decide on winners in different categories:
- Overall Winner (best recording quality of all devices tested)
- Interview Winner (recommendation for interview settings)
Then, we compare other important aspects, such as size, usability, electric power consumption, and the device’s price. All those factors result in another category:
- Value for Money Winner
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If you want to retrace the outcome of our tests, we suggest using high quality headphones for listening to the sound samples below. Notebook speakers and PC speakers are insufficient, because they can neither give an account of details, nor highlight smooth differences existing. Just click on the corresponding "Play"-button of a sound sample, if you want to listen to it. You can also download the sound samples as MP3 files, if you would like to.
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Our colleague Oliver Leibrecht was so kind as to bring his old and bonfire proof guitar to our office, and to play some chords for us. The room is about 4 meters high with a surface area of 30 square metres. There is a small carpet in the room. Hence, one cannot expect studio like sound quality, because of the resulting resonance, although it is a fairly slight resonance. The recording devices were positioned on the table with tripods, approximately 1.5 meters in front of the guitar. You can find our sound samples here:
Independently of our review of the sound samples listed above, we recognised two basic differences of their acoustic patterns. Some recordings sound like live recordings. Perception of ambience is clearly given, and it fairly easy to locate the guitar. Other recordings, however, sound like studio recordings. The guitar is presented without a clear perception of ambience. Currently, this difference is not taken into account. After all, the evaluation of such characteristics depends on one’s personal preference. For example, the recordings of the Marantz PMD-661 and the Sony PCM-M10 sound like studio recordings. Recordings made with devices such as the Sony PCM-D50 and the Olympus DM-550, on the other hand, sound like vibrant live recordings.
After listening to the sound samples, our team agreed on several winners. The recordings made with the Tascam DR-2d, and the Olympus DM-550 / DM-5 are our personal favourites. Perception of ambience is absolutely given, and it does not feel disturbing at all. Furthermore, it does not feel as if something was cut from the recording. This is the kind of feeling, however, we had when listening to the recording made with the Sony M10. We also like the Sony D-50, which features a “light” and especially crisp sound with a nice perception of ambience. Additionally, we like the Zoom H1. It almost sounds contained, and it features dry “studio” characteristics. Nevertheless, it also sounds very balanced.
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This is a special setting, because the requirements are relatively simple. Recording conversations is less about fine nuances and details. Everything is about clear perception of human voices, ideally several voices at the same time. This can, for example, be important for a tutor who wants to record his class, for a journalist who wants to interview a band, or a scientist who conducts qualitative interviews.
Every single one of the expensive devices listed above is almost perfect at this. However, what about their cheaper cousins? Is the quality of their recordings sufficient? Hence, we are interested in the question whether it is possible to pay less for this setting. We focused on recorders with costs ranging between 60 and 140 euros. Is it easy to keep track of their recordings? Is it easy to isolate speakers and clearly identify them? In our office, we threw four cheap candidates into the arena:
- Olympus VN-8600PC (60 euros)
- Olympus WS-750 (109 euros)
- Olympus DM-450 (139 euros)
- Zoom H1 (99 euros)
The speakers were spread across the 4 to 8 meters big room, and the recordings were made with automatic adjustment.
When reviewing such recordings, one has to keep in mind that it is going to be necessary to keep listening to these recordings for quite a long time. Hence, a recording with heavy bass (humming) and noise would be hindering. This is why we decided to focus on these important characteristics. Please mind the second half of the recording, where you can hear several speakers talking at once, in particular.
Overall, every device produces feasible results. Despite of the long distance to the sound source, it is easy to understand the voices represented. We felt most comfortable listening to the recordings made with the DM-450, especially when listening to longer passages. It is followed by the WS-750. Both feature a clear and crisp representation of human voices. However, the DM-450 definitely produced less noise. With the DM-450, it is easy to record 10 or more people without an external microphone.
While listening to the Zoom H1’s recordings, we realised that it emphasises human voices. However, it also produces a frequent humming, because of its heavy bass. Listening to such recordings for a long time can be exhausting. The mono recording of the Olympus VN-8600 sounds muffled, which is especially negative when listening to several speakers at once. Additionally, a mono recording cannot possibly represent a group interview correctly (which renders the transcription progress harder).
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The Elisabeth Church in Marburg was the perfect location for our atmosphere setting. Every single device was equipped with a longhaired wind deflector. While listening to the following sound samples, one can here the rippling of a fountain, voices from different directions and different distances, noise coming from the street, and footsteps:
While listening to these sound samples blindly, we focused on the perception of ambience.
Yet again, every member of our team favoured the same devices. The Olympus LS-5 and the Tascam DR-2d delivered the best results, featuring outstanding quality. The LS-5 offers a clean and crisp recording with a nice perception of ambience. Furthermore, the Tascam DR-2d featured a low degree of noise and a natural representation of details. Listening to these recordings blindly with our headphones on, we felt like actually being “there.”
Two other devices also rank amongst the best, although they did not quite manage to be at top of the list. The Sony PCM-D50 and the Zoom H4n. Unlike the LS-5 and the DR-2d, the D50 and H4n lack when it comes to bass. The recordings sound a little flat, even though the representation of the rippling fountain and the bus are good.
Also remarkable was the bland performance of the devices Olympus DM-550 and DM5. The overall impression of atmosphere is simply missing. However, the representation of human voices was the best of all devices tested. Obviously, this fact is due to the actual purpose of this type series.
The broad midfield is crowded by the Marantz PMD 661, the Tascam DR-100, the Zoom H1 (which sadly did not record this setting loud enough, although the device’s display indicated it), and the Sony M-10 (only the human voices are well recognizable).
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During the past three months, we conducted two (single) comparisons, and we wanted to include their outcome into this comparison as well.
1. Organ Test: We recorded an organ in a church. The Sony D-50 and Tascam DR-2d delivered the best results. (Read the Organ Test)
2. Atmosphere Test: We made recordings of the atmosphere of a street. We concluded that the Olympus DM-550, LS-11 (hence, the LS-5, too), Tascam DR-2d, Zoom H4n, and Sony D-50 are suitable for this setting. (Note: This test is only available in German Language.)
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At this point, we would like to remind you that we listen to sound samples “blindly.” Hence, we did not know which device was responsible for which recording. Furthermore, despite of their anonymity, every member of our testing team came up with the same results. Based on these results, we decided to announce the following winners:
Overall Winner 2010 – best recording quality overall
Deciding on our overall winners was easy. The Tascam DR-2d and the Sony D-50 delivered the best results. They feature clear and crisp recordings which are true-to-detail. The Sony D-50 is really worth its price. It is expertly crafted, although you should mind that it is an expensive device. If you want to ambitiously tweak your recording settings, or if you simply want to have “the best device” available, this is the right choice. The Tascam DR-2d, on the other hand, impressively proves that devices which cost less than 300 euros can also perform extremely well.
Interview Winner 2010 – best interview recordings
Interviews and recordings of human voices do not require an extensively high level of quality (although you could, of course, use our overall winners for it, too). Hence, we decided on a winner for interview settings, too. The Olympus DM-450 creates recordings which are comprehensive, even if you are listening to large groups of speakers. Additionally, its price ranges below the landmark of 140 euros, which is definitely a plus. It is not suitable for recordings of atmosphere or music, because adjusting its settings is not precise enough, but it is very good for interviews.
“Value for Money” Winner 2010 – best balance of quality and price
Our winner in this category is the Olympus LS-5. Apart of the fact that this is an expertly crafted device which creates recordings of high quality, it is easy to use, features long battery life, and a low price. Additionally, impressions from previous comparisons also underline how good this device is. For 189 euros, this device delivers the same level of quality as its brother, the Olympus LS-11 (although the LS-5 is not shipped with the LS-11’s extras). The sound of the Tascam DR-2d is only marginally better. Considering the gap of 100 euros between them, one can almost tend to say that such differences can be ignored.
Last but not least: Why did the Olympus LS-5 win our “value for money” price? What about the Zoom H1? Well, the Zoom H1 costs less than 100 euros and delivers uncompressed recordings. However, one often feels like living with a trade-off. There are no accessories, the plastic body, the short battery lifetime, the small level display, and one has to expect defects from time to time (e.g. the battery discharges while the device is turned off).
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Outlining the own role and position in a transparent manner is important for every scientific investigation setting. This is the only way to enable the reader to evaluate our findings. Dr Thorsten Dresign and Thorsten Pehl are educational scientists and not audio engineers. Our core ability is the recording of dialogue-situations for scientific analysis of the gist of discussion. We have been recording and transcribing conversations for years. Something we regularly do is listening to recordings with headphones. We think that better recordings, i.e. clear and realistic, alleviate the transcription progress, and render it easier to familiarise with a voice. By now, we have sold recording devices to more than 16,500 customers. Hence, our experience is based on the feedback of many users.
Furthermore, our colleague David Georgi has been working in the field of journalism (BBC, London) for a long time and created coverages of sports, travelling, and nature - things which require clear recordings.
We deliberately abstained from analysis supported by frequency curves and noise clearance. Deciding whether a recording is good or not is made with our eyes closed and headphones on.
Last but not least, we earn our daily bread with the sale of digital recorders. Hence, we are not absolutely irrespective. Our goal is, however, to represent our products in a manner as transparent as possible, and to offer well-founded information independent of advertisement and pure technical details. If you want to support us, we would be happy about your purchase of digital recorders in our shop.
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