Best Voice Recorders

Editor's Note:
If you need to take notes or record lectures for work, school or personal notes, the Sony ICD-UX533 digital voice recorder is tough to beat. If you want something cheaper, or more basic, we found a great Olympus recorder, too.
Sony ICD-UX533 Review
Best Reviewed

Best digital voice recorder

Sony ICD-UX533

The Sony ICD-UX533 outclasses even pricier recorders in reviews. Its stereo recordings sound better than rivals' in nearly every situation -- bustling cafes, echoing lecture halls, hushed boardrooms. Thoughtful features make it an owner favorite: It's slim and light, with easy-to-use buttons, and its slide-out USB connector makes it easy to recharge and transfer files to your PC or Mac. It includes extras you won't find on cheaper recorders, including a backlit screen, microSD slot and multiple record/playback formats.

Olympus VN-541PC Review
Best Reviewed

Best cheap digital voice recorder

Olympus VN-541PC

For roughly half the price of the Sony, the Olympus VN-541PC includes all of the basics: one-touch record, headphone and microphone jacks, plenty of memory and decent recording quality. You can adjust playback speed and microphone sensitivity, and bookmark and skip around within your recordings. Importantly, a USB hookup lets you easily offload recordings onto your computer -- a necessity that's missing from other cheap recorders. It records in WMA (Windows Media Audio) only, however; Mac users will need to download a free WMA player.

Finding the perfect digital voice recorder

Capturing that crucial moment --whether it's an important interview quote, a college lecture you're going to be quizzed on later, or personal thoughts you want to capture before they fade from your mind -- is hard to do without a reliable digital voice recorder. At the high end of the market, you can find professional-grade models that are suitable for broadcasters or podcasters, for musicians looking to capture their performances, and for similar users and uses. However, these can run into the hundreds of dollars and are overkill for most. As such they are beyond the scope of this report. But, for $80 or less, you can get a great digital voice recorder that will nicely fill the bill for business and personal use.

Types of Digital Voice Recorders
Best Digital Voice Recorders

For between $50 and $80 or so, you can get a digital voice recorder that's equipped with powerful mics that capture great sound quality and offer a useful range of extra features. These are suitable for dictation, capturing interviews and lectures, and recording meetings.

Cheap Digital Voice Recorders

In the $30 to $40 range you can find pared-down but very usable digital voice recorders that meet most of the basic needs of average users who simply want to get something recorded. Voice recorders in this range tend to have minimal to no extra features, limited file format support and lower recording quality than pricier models (most only host a single mic). They make up for this by being relatively easy to use and notably less pricey. For those with basic needs -- taking personal notes on the fly, for example -- they can nicely fill the bill.

What about using a smartphone?

It's true that many smartphones can conveniently fill the role of a bare-bones digital voice recorder, but that doesn't mean dedicated recorders at this price range are obsolete. As Seamus Bellamy of TheWirecutter.com notes, "You can use a smartphone to collect understandable audio, but the poor sound quality will grate on you if you plan on listening to it for an extended period of time (raise your hand if you love phone meetings)." Even low-end dedicated voice recorders will typically outperform cellphones (and their meager microphones), and offer much more flexibility.

Finding The Best Digital Voice Recorders

To produce our recommendations for top choices among digital voice recorders for different budgets and uses, our editors pore over hundreds of user reviews, while also factoring in any observations from professional reviewers. We look to those to learn how digital voice recorders perform, of course, but also how easy they are to master, their lineup of useful features, if there are any durability or user support concerns, and how much bang for the buck they deliver.

The Sony ICD-UX533 digital voice recorder hits the sweet spot

If you're in the market for a high-quality digital voice recorder but don't need all of the high-tech extras that tend to hike up the price of some devices, there are some great options that can deliver top-notch recording quality without completely emptying your wallet. In this category, the Sony ICD-UX533 (Est. $80) emerges as the clear top choice. Reviews tell us that the ICD-UX533 is a great voice recorder for tackling everything from crowded lecture halls to quiet one-on-one interviews.

The Sony ICD-UX533 triumphs in TheWirecutter.com's eight-recorder test. "It recorded the most intelligible and truest-to-life sound clips of all the recorders we tested," Bellamy says, placing either first or second in every single scenario -- big lecture hall, smaller college classroom, soundproof boardroom, busy cafe, noisy mall food court, public park and quiet home office -- in two rounds of testing.

In testing, other voice recorders at this price produce sound that's hollow and phone-call-like, or a mixed-up jumble of background noise. But audio from the Sony ICD-UX533 would actually work great even for a podcast, TheWirecutter.com listening panelist (and former sound engineer) Lauren Dragan says. Even in the mall food court, "the external noise is there," she said, "but it almost sounds like added walla from a radio documentary."

This Sony voice recorder is easy to use, reviews say, with all of the handy features most users will want. Physical buttons on the front let you power the ICD-UX533 on (it's ready to record in three seconds), record/pause, stop and play. A menu button gives you more choices -- recording format, audio quality, scene selection, mic sensitivity and more -- and the backlit 1-by-1-inch LCD screen proves easy to see, even in bright sunlight. Its built-in 4 GB of flash memory "is enough to record three hour-long lectures a week for a whole semester before you would need to empty it," Bellamy says, and you can add a microSD card for more storage.

A slide-out USB connector makes it easy to transfer files to your PC or Mac. You can recharge the included NiMH AAA battery via that connection when the recorder is connected to a computer, or via a USB AC adapter (not included). A USB cable for situations where plugging the recorder directly into a computer or laptop is difficult (for example, tight clearances) is included.

Slimmer and lighter than cheaper digital voice recorders, the Sony ICD-UX533 measures 4.3 by 1.6 by 0.6 inches and weighs 2 ounces. It includes 1/8-inch mini microphone and mini headphone jacks and a set of stereo headphones, in addition to its built-in speaker and stereo mic.

In terms of user feedback, it's an overwhelming favorite, earning between 4.3 and 4.5 stars at sites such as BestBuy.com, Amazon.com, Staples.com and BHPhotoVideo.com. When owners do complain, it's often because they say Sony's customer service and tech support aren't helpful.

Other brands of digital voice recorders lag behind Sony in this price range. In fact, Sony's two step-down models -- the Sony ICD-PX440 (Est. $60) and Sony ICD-PX333 (Est. $50) -- wind up being the Sony ICD-UX533's closest competition in reviews.

The ICD-PX440 lacks a rechargeable battery. It uses two AAA alkaline batteries instead, making it a little thicker and heavier than the top pick. It also records and plays only MP3 files (the ICD-UX533 is compatible with MP3, WMA, AAC and WAV formats).

The cheaper ICD-PX333 omits the backlit screen -- so it's impossible to navigate menus in the dark -- and its glossy screen is hard to see in bright sunlight, too. It also slashes stereo recording and playback (it's mono-only). Even so, it finishes second only to the UX533 in TheWirecutter.com's listening tests, "beating out competitors costing twice as much." It's TheWirecutter.com's runner-up pick, and a very popular owner favorite at every retail website we checked.

Low price doesn't have to mean low performance

Money might not be an object to some, but plenty of folks either can't afford pro- or mid-level digital voice recorders, or they could care less about all the high-end features piled into these pricier units. For those who prefer to pass on the extra frills and don't have the patience often needed to master more complex digital voice recorders, the Olympus VN-541PC (Est. $40) is a solid voice recorder for note-taking and capturing class lectures.

For half the price of our top pick, this Olympus digital voice recorder includes all of the basics: Headphone and microphone jacks, 4 GB flash memory, one-touch record, battery level indicator and an included micro USB cable. It runs on two AAA batteries, and it's the usual shirt-pocketable size (about 4.3 by 1.5 by 0.8 inches and 2.4 ounces).

It's not totally bare bones, either. Four "scene" settings let you choose Memo, Talk, Music or LP (Long Play), and the recorder optimizes itself automatically. You can also manually adjust the noise cancellation and playback speed, and bookmark specific spots in your recording.

There are some downsides, however. It's mono-only, and the screen isn't backlit. File support is limited to WMA (Windows Media Audio); Mac users will need to download a free WMA player such as VideoLAN. You can't add a microSD card for extra storage. The speaker isn't great, some owners say (headphones help a lot).

However, most of those concerns don't matter to most owners. Among cheap digital voice recorders, the Olympus VN-541PC earns the most consistently high marks from users: 4 out of 5 stars at Amazon.com and 4.1 stars at BestBuy.com, for example, both with about 30 reviews posted. Satisfied users say it gets the job done at a reasonable price, recording class lectures, interviews, etc. quite adequately.

TheWirecutter.com doesn't test this model specifically -- but it does test a couple of pricier Olympus digital voice recorders, and they simply can't match Sony's recording quality. "Sony recorders universally produced higher-fidelity recordings than their Olympus counterparts did," Bellamy writes.

However -- and this is a big however -- Sony's cheap versions omit one very important detail. They have no USB ports. That means there's no reasonable way to save your recordings onto your computer. And that prompts a big "You're kidding!" from Amazon.com shoppers. For example, a whopping 15 percent slap the lowest one-star rating on the Sony ICD-BX140 (Est. $30) digital voice recorder, mostly because it lacks a USB port.

Expert & User Review Sources

To make sure your digital voice recorder suits your needs and your budget, you have to put some serious thought into what you plan to use it for. Expert reviews can be a big help, but finding those for many current digital voice recorders is a challenge -- in fact, Bellamy's eight-recorder shootout at TheWirecutter.com is the only up-to-date professional test we found. That means the best guidance often comes from the opinions of experienced users, which can be found in abundance at sites such as Amazon.com, BestBuy.com, Staples.com and BHPhotoVideo.com. Using that feedback, we name the best picks as well as some alternatives worth considering.

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Sony ICD-UX533BLK Digital Voice Recorder - Black
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from Amazon.com
New: $132.76
Average Customer Review:  
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Sony ICD-PX440 Stereo IC Digital Voice Recorder Built-in 4GB and Direct USB
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from Amazon.com
New: $53.65
Average Customer Review:  
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SONY ICD PX333 Digital Voice Recorder
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from Amazon.com
New: $62.34
Average Customer Review:  
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Olympus VN-541PC Black Voice Recorder
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from Amazon.com
New: $39.99 $35.30   
In Stock.
Average Customer Review:  
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Sony ICD-BX140 4GB Digital Voice Recorder
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from Amazon.com
New: $24.70 $19.50   
In Stock.
Average Customer Review: