Field Recorder Comparison Sony PCM-D100 and Tascam DR series
Staying somewhat to the topic, I did an exhaustive search for the best microphone solution and ended up with nothing
- My two 3.5 mm Sony ECM mics are from the 90s and are a relic of the tape recorder age. They simply do not capture good sound. They’re cut off at 15kHz. Yet I thought there must be a way to get them to work on my dongles (TRS mics do not get detected in TRRS jacks, although some PCs from 2014-15 had jack detection features for onboard audio). I have fond memories of old laptops which had two 3.5 mm jacks, or even a LINE IN jack too
- All my headsets have 20kHz omnidirectional mics on them, but they have variable quality and mostly do not match inbuilt mic quality
- All digital devices e.g. iPads, phones etc have digital microphones, and they all work well
But the above mics are too basic – merely capturing sound, without regard to quality.
The reason I still hold onto these and try to find a way to use them is because I want to keep costs down. Unfortunately, the only two adapters I found to change TRS to TRRS were variable – UGREEN splitter and RODE SC4 – one you have to plug the mic in after plugging the adapter into the dongle, another is the opposite where you have to plug in a headphone and then a mic and then together plug into the dongle. Their quality was not assured, and they were overpriced. It would end up no different to using a bad headset with the apple dongle. Even though I believe the dongles have just 10 dB less SNR for their mic in quality, the 3.5 mm microphones that currently populate the market just aren’t good enough. In fact, nobody buys them anymore. The focus is on digital mics which have ADCs in the mic (usually bad ones) and you connect directly to USB – instead of having to buy an interface to use XLR cables – something most people can’t do. That brings me to the conclusion: only a field recorder can fit every use case I envisage.
Other facts for microphones in use by all people in daily life: Noise cancelling for mics usually ruins sound but ASUS has an AI dongle for mics. Mic gain isn’t available on most headsets and the Windows mic boost is virtual and bad quality. Best way is to either use hardware gain or rely on the software like Skype to deal with your audio – and not distort the sound by processing it twice. Mics that are too small can’t vibrate enough – smaller diaphragms of few millimetres which can’t pick up bass and end up muddy, noisy, sensitive to vibrations etc. They usually lack the low frequencies where the voice is, and capture an altered, unnatural sounding sound. And since headsets share the cable with a headphone, cable thickness is insufficient. Bad mics support people to buy dedicated mics. Good mics are larger and cost more to produce. Same applies for wireless earphones with their small mics.
TASCAM’s latest portable recorder with a colour screen has detachable mics (TRS plug so each mic is stereo (?) and you end up with 4 channels?).
For a beginner, Zoom H1n and Tascam DR-05X or 07X (consider omnidirectional vs unidirectional mics) seem to be the only choices.
DR-07X has its fans, and they reckon it is a good recorder. Internally its Cirrus chip might leave the recorder at 94 dB SNR and THD of 0.01% but that is just the baseline. It could be better. The only issue is that the battery cover doesn’t have a good hook – it snaps easily and then you will have to tape it on. It is very difficult to find the right S/N and mic quality…
The A/D converter is made by CIRRUS LOGIC, similar to those used in the TASCAM DR series of linear PCM recorders. This high-quality converter – miles better than those included in DSLR cameras – ensures quiet, clean audio recording. Audio resolutions up to 96kHz/24-bit are supported.
On the history of portable audio recorders: Now that I know more about PCB design and chips, it looks to me that Ivan’s Cosmos recorder with mic inputs is a better option compared to the expensive recorders one can get from the big brands. PCM-D1 was 20 years ago, D50 was in 2007, D100 in 2013, and no DSD recorders came out since then. Nobody can get PCM-D10: production has stopped. Until D100, these were more about getting prosumers interested, than actual professionals (who may prefer Tascam or Zoom). Some questions include what chips are inside the recorder – 99dB SNR chips from Cirrus just doesn’t cut it for me. I could just as well use the apple dongle. What quality are the mics and are they that much different from the S-Mic system of IC recorders, or the digital microphones found on all smartphones and laptops?
Given the research done over the past few days I’ve concluded that DR-07X is a good choice for a beginner recording enthusiast. PCM-D100 had a teardown which didn’t reveal what chips it uses. Possibly TI or BB chips. Obviously it is renowned for its rather unexpectedly high performing playback capabilities – such that users of Sony’s Signature Series earphones are advised by a Sony engineer to try them out with PCM-D100.
Further, PCM-D100 has been used professionally to release DSD downloads on mora, Sony’s iTunes store (I have a separate post here on ASR about that one-bit ambitious project)
At a much more affordable price, DR-07X uses CS42L52 or one of its latest variants. One has to wonder what difference there is between a CS42Lxx chip in any random USB-C dongle or digital device, and one that has an entire PCB board dedicated to it. Would the mic in quality be higher? Here the most that can be said is to avoid thinking solely in terms of the chip and more about implementation. The chip isn’t exactly extraordinary for its ADC qualities, so that is a factor when considering how well the implementation could be. Any device can record audio. Why is this portable recorder far better, or how can it justify its existence?
I guess there is an audible difference.