Portable Audio Recorder Shootout

By Ed Ting Updated 11/10/07 The M-Audio Microtrack, the Roland Edirol, and the Zoom H2
I've been fascinated by recorded audio all my life. When I was a kid, I would figure out ways to record anything - the rumble of traffic on my street, conversations around the house, and TV shows (Star Trek, of course, was a favorite.) When M-Audio launched their Microtrack a couple of years ago, I was one of the first people lining up to get one. I was amazed - A $400 16 bit (or better) digital audio recorder that fit into the palm of my hand! 10 years ago, you couldn't get any recorder of this type, for any amount of money. What's more, the digital medium allows for easy and seamless editing, something which was (and I'm being kind here) a real chore with the magnetic tape media of the past. The Microtrack picked up some competition, and now there are three viable alternatives for portable digital recording. Roland introduced the Edirol R-09 ($300 street) and Zoom really opened up the price wars with their recently released H2 ($199 street.) All three recorders have a large array of features (the Zoom even records in surround sound) but as a lover of quality audio, I wanted to see how their recorded audio compared to one another.
  • The Devices The M-Audio Microtrack
    M-Audio's Microtrack ($399 street)
    The Microtrack is the simplest of the three devices. The screen is the largest, but there's a lot of wasted real estate on there, and it doesn't show you any more than the Edirol's or the Zoom's screen. There are four buttons on the front, and four along the left side. Menus can be reached with the "Nav" rocker switch on the right hand side. The Microtrack seems to be aimed at a higher-end crowd than the other two - it has RCA jacks for line outs and 1/4" TRS (Tip Ring Sleeve) inputs for mics at the top (Note: Be sure you don't accidentally apply Phantom Power to mics that don't need it. The TRS jack looks identical to conventional 1/4" input jacks, but it's not the same.) The unit takes a while to boot up. And you'd better not be wearing headphones when it does. You'll get an unpleasant POP in your ears when the firmware finishes booting. The device records on to Compact Flash cards. To connect to your computer, turn the device off and attach the USB cord, or leave the unit on with the USB cable attached and connect via the menu. It does not have replaceable batteries, and this is the source of the most consistent complaints against the device. The batteries, well...they aren't very good. Mine never seem to stay charged for very long. I get an hour or two worth of use before I start getting nervous. I've emailed M-Audio about this and they're told me there's pretty much nothing they can do, short of me buying a new one. The Edirol R-09
    Roland's Edirol R-09 ($299 street)
    The Edirol is stylish and sleek little unit. Two built in condensor mics sit across the top of the unit. The device has switches - a lot of them. There are controls on the front, the back, and on both sides. The latter can be difficult to access in the dark, since they're black on black. The bottom opens up to reveal an SD card slot, a USB jack, and a bay for a pair of conventional AA batteries. If you're a Microtrack owner who's struggled with battery life, you probably just groaned. Roland is going to sell a lot of these due to this feature alone. While making these recordings, I found it a little inconvenient to keep having to open up the bottom just to gain access to the USB connector and the SD card. Happily though, the computer recognizes the device immediately and there are no buttons to push, unlike the other two devices. If you make a lot of recordings and upload a lot, this could be an important feature for you. The Edirol has a tiny little screen (the smallest of the three by far) but it tells you what you need to know. It's got the best contrast, by far. I also like the big blinking red light on the front showing you that you're recording. Even though I own and use the Microtrack and the Zoom, I found the Edirol to be the most intuitive. Due to these nice "human" touches, I made the fewest mistakes during my recording sessions with the Edirol. The Zoom H2
    The Do-Everything Zoom H2 ($199 street)
    The Zoom H2 is the newest of the three devices. Even though I already own a Microtrack, I bought an H2 the day it came out due to its amazing array of features and its low price tag ($199 street.) The Zoom's designers were paying attention when they made the H2. The confusing menu system of the H4 has been cleaned up. It has user replaceable batteries. It records on an SD card, and its slot, as well as the USB connector port, are easily accessible. The device one-ups the Edirol by supplying four built in mics. Yes, it will record in surround sound. It comes with a desktop stand, a mic clip adapter (it's the only one of the three threaded at the bottom) a case, and a giant foam windscreen that works better than the Microtrack's. If you like to tinker, the Zoom is for you. You can manually rename files, divide files, normalize levels, and it has a built in mp3 converter. And I've just scratched the surface. You really have to see the manual. I was shaking my head at all the things it will do. The downside of all this is that you have to poke at a lot of menus to get at the function you want. When I don't use mine for a couple of months, I still have to look up how to sync it up with my computer. The H2's screen is larger than the Edirol's but smaller than the Microtrack's. It's decent. There are switches and jacks along the left and right sides, and membrane keys on the front. Tiny LEDs let you know which mics are active. A nice touch - when you turn it off, the display reads "Goodbye See You!"
  • The Setup
    I set up the three recorders near the open end of my piano, a 7 ft 1999 Yamaha C6 parlor grand. If you've listened to my other mp3s on this site, this is the piano where I do most of my recording. I recorded myself playing a short piece of music, first using the supplied mics, and then with an external mic setup. My external mics are of high quality - they're Neumann KM184s, and they're fed into a Symetrix SX302 dual mic preamp. The mics alone cost more than all three recorders combined. I spent some time matching levels between the three devices (if you've ever done this, it can be a real pain to get this right!) and then recorded the music. The test with the supplied mics was done all at one time - all three devices are listening to the same performance. With the external setup, each device was tested separately. Thus, with the external test, you're hearing three different performances. In other words, I played the piece four times - once for all three internal mics, and three times for each device with the Neumann setup.
  • Results, Built-in Mics (Note: All audio tracks are about 290K, and last 18-19 seconds.) M-Audio Microtrack audio sample, supplied "T" mics Edirol R-09 audio sample, internal mics Zoom H2 audio sample, internal mics, stereo mode The Edirol has two gain settings on the back of the device. When they say "low" they mean low. I can't hear anything at this setting. It must have been meant for very loud events (a rock concert, perhaps?) The Microtrack also has a "high/low" level setting, accessed through the menus. Again, its "low" setting is quite low - down 27 dB. I wound up using the "high" settings on both the Edirol and the Microtrack. The Zoom has a three way L/M/H switch, and I wound up using it at the "M" setting. After setting these rough levels, I fine tuned the input levels using the kepyads. I'll be brief here. None of the supplied mics were worth writing home about. All give tinny, grainy, harsh sound - the worst characteristics of cheap digital audio. In particular, listen to the second half of the track, where the high notes come in. The sound gets scratchy and harsh on all three tracks. However, some consistent trends emerged, and if you intend to use your recorder only with the supplied mics, this section may be of some use to you. The Microtrack's mics are a pair of tiny condensers mounted in a little plastic "T" tree with a 1/8" plug at one end. Little foam windscreens are supplied, which aren't of much use. I've recorded the sounds of the surf and waves along the coast of New England with the Microtrack, and even the lightest breeze gets through and ruins your recording. I'll be kind here; the Microtrack's mics look ugly and cheap. Mine aren't even straight.
    Those Microtrack Mics are Stylin'!
    In a strange turn of events, though, those cheap-looking mics actually yielded the best sound, if only by a small margin. It has the most laid back sound, and has the least amount of grain. If you care sound quality and absolutely must use the on-board mics, the Microtrack is the one to get. On to the Edirol R-09. The sound is a step down from the Microtrack. It's harsher and grainier, and if you put its audio through a good system, you will hear some low level noise. It sounds like faint hiss. I know two people who own these Edirol R-09s, and both of them complain about its sound quality. While the sound (with the supplied mics, at least) leaves something to be desired, I should point out for fairness's sake that 1) Both of these guys are serious audiophiles, and 2) The Zoom does it too. Still, this is not serious, quality sound. While running the level checks, I wound up making nine different test tracks for each of the three devices. That's a lot of tracks. But I got to the point where I could identify an Edirol's internal mic recording without looking at the screen. The Zoom has four mics and will record in surround sound, but I only used it in stereo mode. The H2's mics throw up an aggressive, up-front sound that you might find exciting (if you like it) or fatiguing (if you don't.) It's the opposite of the sound produced by the Microtrack's mics. It's a forward sound, kind of like the Edirol's, but it's slightly smoother. Still, I would not rate this as serious audio.
  • Results, External Mics M-Audio Microtrack, Neumann Mics Edirol R-09, Neumann Mics Zoom H2, Neumann Mics Ah, much better! The sound on all three units improved markedly. The audio became smoother, less harsh, and easier to listen to. The noise floor on all three devices dropped considerably also. If you are picky about audio quality, this is definitely the way to go. Having said this, certain trends again emerged. The Microtrack wins. The M-Audio's sound is the most open, smooth, grain-free, natural, and unforced. Again, listen to the second half of the track. The high notes are the smoothest and most open of the three. The Edirol's sound gets the "most improved" award. The sound quality takes a huge leap from that of its internal mics. I suspect that what we have here is a decent set of A/D converters, mated to a cheap set of internal condensor mics. By the way, both the Edirol and Zoom line inputs impart a weird kind of phasey distortion (can you hear it too?); it's almost as if the circuitry inside both of them accidentally invert polarity somewhere.
    The Neumann KM184 Mics
    And the Zoom? Its sound improved with the Neumann's also, but it retains the forward, aggressive quality. While I found this quality a little charming with its internal mics, it started to grate on me here. Note that the Zoom's line-in inputs are set very "hot." The levels are quite high, and I had to reset it down almost 20% to match the levels of the other two devices. I noticed this once before, when I was helping someone transfer an LP to the Zoom. I didn't set the record levels and the album's sound came out loud and distorted. So, call it an easy win for the Microtrack, followed at some distance by the Edirol, and then the Zoom.
  • Conclusions The Microtrack is the one to get if audio quality is important. Its subjective audio tests routinely beat those of the Edirol's and the Zoom's. For best results, use the line in inputs and a pair of high quality mics and mic preamps. The Microtrack is the one with the most legitimate claim towards high-end audio status. It's easy to use, well made, and has the most serious input and output jacks. But it costs the most, and its non replaceable battery is definitely a minus. The Zoom dons an amazing array of features and accessories for very little money. Based on its features and price alone, it is worth owning. It also sounds decent (especially through its line in inputs) though I think you'll get better absolute quality through the Microtrack. If you want to do the most for the least amount of money, it's recommended. The Edirol was a tale of two devices. Its internal mics left a lot to be desired, but the sound quality through its line input jack was quite listenable. Its ultimate sound quality was slightly higher than the Zoom's. Also, it's an easy and intuitive device to use. Having said all of this, I should point out that the differences between the devices, while audible, are small. Used judiciously, any of them will provide satisfactory performance. Case in point: I was asked to record a piano recital at a friend's house. It was a last minute notice and the only recorder available was the Edirol. It was the most demanding type of recording imaginable - live, close-mic'd acoustic classical music with a huge dynamic range. We went with the line inputs. The mics were Audio Technica's new AT2020 (superb value for the money by the way) and a cheap Behringer mixer. The R-09 made a fine showing for itself and I haven't heard any complaints from the people who heard the recording later. As with telescopes, we sometimes get wrapped up with the equipment, instead of the message. And boy, have we come a long way since those days in the 1970s when I was holding a microphone up to the TV to record Star Trek on cassette! Happy recording to you all, -Ed
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