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    The $300 Recorder Question, or, "Which cheap audio recorder should I get?"
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    Section Moderator Alex H.'s Avatar
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    Yup, we're back. This time, the answer isn't nearly as simple, but the question has been posted almost daily in recent weeks.

    The reason this isn't as easy to answer as the $500 Wireless Question is that the market is much more saturated with different makes and models in a competitive range of price and performance. Like everything else in this industry, however, you do get what you pay for. Buy right, and buy once.

    There are different levels of recorders, based on price. There are handy uses for many/most of them. So, instead of throwing out a definitive make and model, let's look at what you need to know about these devices before you buy.

    The important things to consider (aside from budget) are interface (I/O connections), pre-amps, and form factor. Also of importance is what the rest of your system looks like (mics and mixers), and what your intended use is; both of these will be covered in the other three points.

    Interface

    The i/o connections on a recorder are very important. A lot of this really has to do with other gear in your kit. Are you working with mic-level sources, or line-level sources? Do you need XLR connections for your mics? Are you using a mixer, and what kind(s) of output(s) does it have? The basic connections that you'll find are:
    • 1/8" TRS (stereo) mic. This is useful for mics that have 1/8" connections, such as the RØDE VideoMic or Sennheiser MKE400 or similar. If this is all the recorder has for mic-level inputs, and you have mics with XLR outs, you'll need an XLR converter. If you are planning to use anything other than the aforementioned mini-shotguns (RØDE, Sennheiser, etc.), or are planning to use a mixer in front of the recorder, and this is the only input the recorder has, then consider a different recorder.
    • 1/8" TRS (stereo) line. Line inputs are great for use with a mixer. If your mixer has a 1/8" Tape Out, this will be a good fit.
    • 1/4" line, either TRS or TS. Line-level signals, again, come from mixers (or pre-amps). These are more robust connections than the 1/8" TRS. If you're using a mixer with balanced line output (most likely over XLR), a 1/4" TRS line input will work with a simple adapter cable.
    • RCA line. This is an unbalanced line-level signal, same as the 1/4" TS connection.
    • XLR mic. This is the standard mic connection. If you have mics that use XLR connection, you need a recorder with an XLR connection. Some mixers offer mic-level output over XLR, but that's kind of a wasted connection since the signal has to go through a second pre-amp in the recorder.
    • XLR line. Generally found only on the much higher-end recorders, this is the most secure, most robust line-level connection you can get on a recorder. If you have a mixer with XLR line-level outs, this is what you really want (though the 1/4" TRS line is a perfectly acceptable substitute).
    • S/PDIF digital RCA (coaxial). This requires another device that sends a digital signal over the same connection.
    • AES/EBU digital XLR. This also requires another device that sends a digital signal over the same connection. The benefit of digital inputs comes with a mixer that has digital outputs, eliminating an entire analog link in the signal chain. Once it's digital, analog noise cannot be added.
    There is a difference in levels between balanced and unbalanced line-level signals. This is important to know when matching mixers and recorders. Taking a balanced output from a mixer and sending it to an unbalanced input on a recorder can be a mismatch, and can cause some artifacts in the signal. This is taking a +4dB balanced signal to a -10dB unbalanced signal. If your recorder has 1/4" TS (unbalanced) line inputs, you may be better off taking the 1/8" Tape Out from the mixer using a simple Y-cable (1/8" TRS to dual 1/4" TS). Likewise, for recorders that have RCA line inputs, a simple Y-cable (1/8" TRS to dual RCA) can be used from the mixer's Tape Out.

    Balanced signals, both mic- and line-level, can be run longer distances and are less susceptible to signal degradation than unbalanced signals. This is especially important to know when matching mics to recorders. If your mic has an unbalanced output and you plan to run it a long distance to the recorder, such as mounting the mic to a boom that will be located some distance from the recorder, you're opening your signal up to potential problems. Mics with 1/8" TRS connections are unbalanced. If you're running the Tape Out from a mixer to 1/8" or 1/4" line in on your recorder, don't worry that it's unbalanced. You only need a 3' cable, and that's not a long enough run to suffer any signal degradation at all.

    There are other types of audio connections out there, but the list above covers everything you'll find on field recorders. You probably won't find digital connections on any recorders under $750, though.

    Pre-amps

    There is no such thing as mic-level recording. When the signal is written to tape (remember tape?), CD, Compact Flash, Secure Digital, or any other media, it is line-level. So every mic must first go through a pre-amp, which brings the mic-level signal up to line-level for proper recording. Your audio signal is only as good as the weakest link in the signal chain, and pre-amps can be make or break.

    Generally speaking, 1/8" mic inputs don't feature great pre-amps. Why would they? The manufacturer cheaped out on the input connection, so why waste money on a higher grade of pre-amp? It may have been a design decision made to fit within limited real estate on the recorder, but most of the compact hand-helds are really designed for use with their built-in mics more than anything, and the 1/8" input is offered as a convenience. That's not to say that every XLR mic input has a pristine pre-amp hiding inside; there are certainly some less expensive recorders that have bad circuitry with XLR ins. Point being, if you're serious about your sound, limiting yourself to cheap input connection is a mistake.

    Do some reading on different recorders, and look for reviews that talk about the pre-amps. As another general statement, pre-amps in recorders in the sub-$500 range aren't going to be that impressive. Some are better than others, but they'll mostly be varying degrees of "could be much better".

    Recorders with cheap(ish) pre-amps can still be very useful, though. If used with an external mixer or pre-amp, the recorder becomes a line-level recorder (assuming it has a true line-level input) and its pre-amps don't enter into the equation. Even better, if your mixer has digital inputs and is used with a mixer that has digital outputs, the recorder becomes nothing more than a "bit bucket".

    It's also worth mentioning that phantom power, required for use with condenser mics (at least, those that don't have a battery option), can drain the recorder's batteries much faster. Also, some recorders with cheap pre-amps start to generate noise when the batteries get low. Do your research and read reviews. Using an external mixer/pre-amp takes that load off the recorder and extends battery life and alleviates other issues.

    Form Factor

    This really has to do with intended use (and a bit with budget).

    A hand-held recorder can be useful for small projects. If you're in a place where you can hand-hold it, or have it sitting on a desk, table, or cart, you should be fine. One place this recorder design falls short is for bag use. The other is on-the-fly level control.

    Run-and-gun ENG/EFP with a hand-held recorder is a logistical pain in the duff. There's no way to put it in a bag where the controls are easily accessible and the meters clearly visible. Plus, there's a huge risk of the recorder getting jostled in the bag during a take and the wrong button getting hit. And if you need to ride levels during production (which you most likely will), not only are the controls hidden but the recorder doesn't have tactile level control like a mixer does. So if you're running with a bag, consider investing a bit more in a recorder that's made for the job.

    The thing about level control: it's very helpful - required, rather - that there be some way to keep control of record levels during production. There is no "set it and forget it" process that is 100% reliable. If you're using a mixer on the front end, then you have all the level control you need on the fly after the recorder's levels are calibrated to the mixer. If running with just a hand-held recorder, however, you likely will not have tactile control. Most of these devices are menu-driven even for input gain and master recording levels, though a few of them have at least rudimentary control in the form of 3-position switches (low, medium, high gain). If you don't have a mixer, rotary level control is going to be crucial.

    While it may not fit perfectly under "form factor," I'm also going to use this section to talk about tracks. Tracks have to do with how many discreet channels can be recorded. If you're working with one or two mics, a two-track (stereo) recorder is plenty. Even with three mics and a mixer in front, two record tracks can be useful. But consider what's going to happen in post: do you want to have control over the mix as you edit? if you're dealing with more than two mics, being able to record them each individually is a huge plus. That means that you can work with each mic during post, and you aren't stuck with a mix if one mic happened to be a little lower than the others when it should have been higher.

    One other note: time code. Do you need it? Probably not. TC is great (and necessary) if you're working on a high-end, professional production with film or a top-of-the-line video camera. For anything else, it's not a big deal. Buy a dumb slate (clapper board), and take diligent log notes during production, and all will be well.

    Hand-held recorders are by far the least expensive recorders. They also are the least flexible and feature questionable pre-amps. They do, however, have their place. With built-in mics that often aren't half-bad, they can be tucked into tight places to grab sounds in risky environments. They're also great to keep in a kit for quick grabs so the primary recorder doesn't have to be reconfigured. I keep one with me specifically for grabbing sound beds and some FX on set/location, even though I have a much better primary recorder in my bag.

    ---------------------------------------

    So, what about recommendations? Well, at the time of writing, there are a few different things out there. Really, there are too many to list, and countless threads discussing pros and cons of specific models. So here's a brief breakdown of what you'll find (with a few notes):

    Low-end (under $300)

    Zoom, Tascam, Yamaha, Sony, and Roland are the common names here. Recorders from $99 and up. These are all hand-held.

    Tascam, by far, has the most offerings in this range. Their vast array of model numbers can get a bit confusing. They do, however, have the only hand-held recorder in this price range that can actually take +4dB (balanced) line-level by 1/4" TRS connection. That's a pretty big plus.

    Zoom has become very popular. Their least expensive recorders, the H1, H2, and H2n, all have 1/8" connections only. Pre-amps in the H4 were terrible, and only slightly improved in the H4n. Another big difference between the H4 and the H4n is line-level input. The H4 could take -10dB (unbalanced) line-level in via 1/4" TS connection. The H4n says it can take line-level via the 1/4" TS ins, but this is not true. Those inputs are actually designed for instrument-level signal, such as from a guitar, which is not really mic-level and not really line-level. Either way, it's much lower than -10dB line, and feeding a line-level signal into those inputs will result in overmodulation (distortion).

    These recorders also feature built-in mic arrays. One thing I absolutely love about little recorders like the H1 is that you can take them anywhere you go and grab some great ambient sound beds as you travel. Despite the fact that I run with a bag-friendly recorder, I do keep a small recorder with built-in stereo mic array just to grab quick sound beds.

    Popular models: Zoom H1 and H4n, Sony PCM-M10. The H4n is one of two with XLR ins, and the pre-amps leave something to be desired. The DR-40 from Tascam offers XLR as well as +4dB line in through 1/4" TRS. With the new firmware update (as of Feb. 2012), it also allows independent recording levels to be set between the two inputs. Honestly, in my opinion, the DR-40 is currently the best offering under $300.

    Semi-low-end ($300-$500)

    Kind of a "neither here nor there" price range that has only a few offerings from Sony, Marantz, and Tascam. These are all middle-of-the-road hand-held recorders.

    Popular models: Tascam DR-100, Sony PCM-D50. The Sony is often described as a better recorder, quality-wise, but does not have XLR ins. The DR-100 has XLR in, and though the pre-amps are notably better than those in the Zoom H4n there's only so much you can ask from a low-cost recorder. The DR-100 also has rotary level control for on-the-fly adjustment. The new DR-100mkII adds line-level input ability via the XLR inputs. It also has another dedicated Line In via 1/8" TRS.

    A relatively new player in this field is the Roland R-26. It features two pairs of on-board mics, two XLR 1/4" combo inputs, and a stereo 1/8" TRS input. It has a large touch-screen display. The R-26 also offers 6-channel recording, though some of that is from the on-board mics - great for live events, not so great for on-cam dialog recording. Most importantly, it has two large, rotary controls on the front for input level control.

    Also, Zoom released the H6 in 2013. Offering four 1/4"/XLR comb inputs, it also features a modular design on top that allows interchangeable use of XY, MS, and shotgun mic modules, as well as an additional two 1/4"/XLR combo inputs for a total of 6 record channels. As of this edit, it has premiered at NAB but has not hit store shelves.

    Mid-grade ($500-$1000)

    While this range has some higher-end hand-held recorders from Roland and Sony, we're also now in the price range for some really nice, bag-friendly recorders from Fostex and Tascam, including both a two-track recorder with digital in and TC and a multi-track recorder from Tascam. These will generally have a good recording level control.

    Roland has a 4-track recorder that's under $1000; a good recorder with not-so-great pre-amps. There's also an offering from Marantz in this category, but it's not really a hand-held and it's not really bag-friendly. A decent recorder with a clumsy design.

    It should be noted that the HD-P2 from Tascam has an annoying quirk. The XLR inputs are labeled "MIC/LINE IN", but this is not true. That's a leftover labeling scheme form the DA-P1, the DAT predecessor to the HD-P2. The DA-P1 could actually take line-level input over XLR connection. The HD-P2 cannot, and you'll probably fry the input boards if you try. I don't know why Tascam did this, but they did... and it's frustrating. For line-level in on the HD-P2, use the RCA inputs. Other than that, the HD-P2 is a solid performer.

    Also, you may find some posts about the Tascam DR680 (multi-track recorder) overheating. This seems to be a result of packing too tightly in a gear bag with little air-flow/ventilation, and it also seems to be a pretty rare problem. Nonetheless, it has come up, and I thought it was worth mentioning.

    Popular models: Fostex FR2-LE, Marantz PMD660/661, Tascam HD-P2 and DR680. The Marantz is clumsy, but performs well. Pre-amps in the FR2-LE are very good, even though the headphone amp leaves a little to be desired (overall, a stellar deal on a reliable recorder). Both offerings from Tascam are great, each geared to a very different purpose from the other (2-track vs. multi-track). The Roland recorders don't get as much attention these days.

    The Bee's Knees (over $1000)

    Now we're getting into some serious gear. Roland and Fostex have offerings in the lower end of this range. Sound Devices, Nagra, Sonosax, and Zaxcom (and one more from Roland) take it from there, and go from just under $2000 to well over $10,000. Great pre-amps, great designs, sturdy construction, and time code options abound.

    Tascam also has a newer offering in this range with an 8-track recorder (HS-P82), that comes in around $5k.

    Popular models: The Fostex FR2 is a solid offering that often gets overlooked, and has a time code option available. Sound Devices pretty much has the market here with 2-track, 4-track, and 8-track offerings, with and without time code. Their 552 mixer has a built-in stereo recorder. Nagra has been the old standard, since the days of open-reel tape, and has a digital recorder (the Nagra VI, $8k) that shows up on very high-budget productions. Zaxcom also has some very high-end recorders.

    ---------------------------------------

    A Note About Drift

    When dealing with double-system sound and non-sync recorders, there is a chance that the sound will drift when put up against the video in post-production. Why? Well, it has to do with each device's internal clock.

    Put two devices together that don't share a master clock (this is what "non-sync" means) and set them both to record at 48kHz. One might actually be recording at 47,998Hz (47.998kHz) and the other at 48,024Hz (48.024kHz). When these audio files are placed in the time line of an NLE or a DAW, where they play at an actual 48kHz, one will be playing slightly faster than the other. This can cause problems.

    Drift isn't usually a huge deal if each shot or clip is fairly short, but longer clips may have noticeable drift over time. The audio and video will start in sync, but after a few minutes the audio may either lead or fall behind the video. Many of the low-budget recorders have this issue, but some are far worse than others. Zoom is one of the worst in terms of drift. Again, not an issue for a minute or so, but 10 minutes later and there's a big problem.

    And, by the way, audio knows no frame rate. Questions have come up before that are along these lines: "I shot my video at 24p but my audio recorder was set to 29.97. Is this going to cause problems in post?" If you're new to the world of audio for video, this is important. Higher-end recorders have SMPTE Time Code capability, and may even have selectable frame rates, but this is just meta data and is for reference only. Audio is based on sample rate (such as 44.1kHz for CD audio, or 48kHz for video). When using a recorder that is synced to a camera, the Time Code may be locked together for accurate reference but it's the shared master clock (48kHz) that keeps things in sync.

    ---------------------------------------

    So which recorder is right for me?

    Taking all the above into account, not everyone can afford to plop a couple grand into a top-of-the-line recorder. There's something for every budget, just be aware of the challenges of the low-cost recorders. This does not mean that they are useless. Far from it. There are some great, little gems in the low-end range. Remember: there's a difference between cheap and inexpensive. Look at what you need, what you need to be able to accomplish, and compare reviews before you buy.

    Most inexpensive recorders are actually decent recorders. They may have other weaknesses, usually having to do with XLR inputs and pre-amps, but they can get clean recordings under the right conditions. It may take the use of an external mixer or pre-amp, but it can be done.

    The best "diamonds in the rough" can be found in the mid-grade recorders from Fostex and Tascam. These recorders are still relatively inexpensive, but have remarkably clean pre-amps and perform above their price bracket. If you're starting out, and can make room in the budget, this is probably the best place to start.

    One other viable option for short-term projects, rather than purchasing something that will only marginally do what you need, is to rent. Renting gets you access to high-end gear for a very reasonable rate. This is also a good way to try out a recorder before investing in one.

    ---------------------------------------

    One last note, and this is about format. Dialog recording for film and video will end up being 16-bit, 48kHz in the end. Recording 24-bit/48kHz is fine, and can give you a little flexibility in post for audio filters and plug-ins, but make sure that you use one or the other. And do not record in MP3 format. Keep it in uncompressed WAV (BWF, or Broadcast Wave File), or AIFF. The only reason to record something higher (such as 24-bit/96kHz) is for effects recording where you'll be doing some pretty serious signal manipulation later.

    So, that's about it. Read reviews, do your research, and compare specs. While budget is certainly a concern for most, audio shouldn't be cut short for any serious work. As I've said before: good audio isn't cheap, and cheap audio will cost you more.

    Peace,
    Alex
    Last edited by Alex H.; 04-18-2013 at 06:28 AM.
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    For Sale: Fostex FR2-LE field recorder


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    Section Moderator Alex H.'s Avatar
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    Here are some recent threads that talk about various recorders. They are tagged by the recorder featured in the initial post. Please note that a few of these threads include discussion of comparable (or not-so-comparable) recorders, and a few of them originally inquire about choices between recorders that may not be in the same class.

    ZOOM

    H4n - Issues with phantom power
    H4n - More issues with phantom power generating a high-pitched noise
    H4n - in use with Sound Devices MixPre
    H4n - Mic and line level questions
    H4n - Battery Life
    H4n/H2n - Which one is right for me?
    H4n - Pre-amp quality
    H2/H4n - H2 with mixer vs. H4n alone
    R24 - Alternative to Tascam DR-680?
    H6 - Announced for 2013

    TASCAM

    DR-40 - Introduction of the Tascam DR-40
    DR-100 - Seeking alternatives to DR-100
    DR-100 - DR-100 vs. H4n
    DR-680 - Merits of DR-680, or alternatives (also mentions Edirol, which is now Roland)
    HD-P2 - Connection to Sound Devices 302 mixer
    DR-680 - DR-680 vs. Zoom H4n when paired with Sound Devices 552 mixer/recorder
    DR-60 - Announced at NAB 2013, 4-track recorder aimed at DSLR shooters

    FOSTEX

    FR-2LE - FR-2LE vs. Tascam DR-680
    FR-2 - General questions
    FR-2LE - FR-2LE vs. Tascam DR100 vs. Fostex H4n
    Last edited by Alex H.; 04-18-2013 at 07:30 AM.
    Formerly known as C2V
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    Nobody notices audio... until it's not there.



    For Sale: Fostex FR2-LE field recorder


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    Thought I'd chime in as I've done some research on the subject.

    I don't know if it's against the rules to refer to another forum, but if anyone want's to read more about the lower cost recorders available than the posts found here, including some of the multitrack ones, then a good place is http://taperssection.com/. They have extensive posts on the more popular alternatives examining every possible usage and problem. One of the things they seem to agree on is that the Sony PCM M10 is one of the best small recorders in its price point (without XLR-inputs that is). One of the reasons that is of interest to film recording is that it's one of the few that can take a line in signal of +4dB, which is required if you use a mixer in front. Olympus LS-11 and LS-5 are other very good pocketsize alternatives.

    Another good site is http://www.avisoft.com/recordertests.htm that compares the preamp noise of many popular recorders, from sound devices down to Zoom H2. On http://www.rane.com/note148.html you can look at a list to see if the preamp noise will be noticably audible compared to the self-noise of the microphones you want to use.

    http://www.wingfieldaudio.com/ has some short reviews of the recorders they offer, and also recordings comparing internal microphones, external through the preamp, and line in.


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    Another good forum I missed in the first post is
    http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/naturerecordists/

    People doing nature recordings are very critical about things like self noise and the practicality of the equipment, which to a large degree coincides with the demands in film.
    Last edited by Jema; 11-29-2011 at 01:20 AM. Reason: typing


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    And it's also worth pointing out that these are *new* prices for the most part. I picked up my (virtually) new Fostex from a audio forum Marketplace for $400. Came with lots of extraa too! Audio forum folks are always pushing for the latest and greatest and usually keep their gear in stellar condition. My $.02


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    A Note About Zoom R-series Recorders

    There have also been mentions about the Zoom R-series (R-8, R-16, R-24) as possible location recorders. These bring up an interesting option as affordable, entry-level, multi-track recorders in the +/- $500 range. They feature XLR inputs with phantom power. There are some things to note, however.

    Form factor: these are neither hand-held nor bag-friendly. They're suited for cart-based use, as they have the form factor of a small-format mixing console. This means that you'll need to have a boom op (or two) and a sound mixer operating the machine... so this is not for the one-man-band (unless you're dealing strictly with lavs). Also, the meters leave a lot to be desired, so best of luck keeping accurate track of your levels.

    Inputs: The R-8 has only two XLR ins, and can record only two tracks at a time. That pretty much makes it the least viable option (why go with such a form factor when you cannot record 8 simultaneous tracks?). The R-16 and R-24 are both equipped with 8 XLR ins and the ability to record 8 simultaneous tracks.

    Pre-Amps: Don't expect amazing things. These are low-end recording devices, and Zoom's recorders are not known for the quality of their pre-amps.

    Recording Format: The R-16 cannot record higher than 16-bit/44.1kHz unless used as a computer interface. Since 16/48 is the standard for video (and 24/48 is highly recommended), it's pretty much out of consideration. The R-24 can record 8 tracks of 24-bit/48kHz audio.

    So of the three, the R-24 is really the only viable option. Still, keep in mind that the pre-amps are not going to be stellar, and your signal can be only as good as the weakest link in the chain.
    Formerly known as C2V
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    Any thoughts on the Roland R-26?


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    Section Moderator Alex H.'s Avatar
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    Specs look good, but I have yet to play with one. Anyone else?
    Formerly known as C2V
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    Hey guys...I'm stumped with my rode ntg-2, when I use it with my h4n, the audio is so low coming in but when I use my sennheiser me66 the audio is so much louder. Any ideas why this would be, the rode is brand new?
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    I don't believe audio specs anymore, as many of the manufacturers either fib or leave out pertinent information.

    The key things I want to know about any audio field recorder are:

    1- What is the actual noise floor ?

    2- How long do the batteries last ?

    3- If the recorder has built-in mics, what do they sound like ?

    4- How noisy are the mic pre-amps ?

    ...When I bought my Olympus LS-11, I was surprised to find out ( through testing ) that the noise floor was 10+ dB better than my older Olympus LS-10 recorder. The Olympus reps kept saying there wasn't much difference between the LS-10 and LS-11 models, but the truth was that these guys really didn't know. By doing my own tests I found the following main differences between these two models: The LS-11 had a 10+ dB lower noise-floor, the LS-11 had a better sounding low-end ( 150 Hz roll-off filter was gone ), a pair of rechargeable AA batteries would last 17 hours on one charge.

    I would love to see somebody publish easily repeatable tests ( so that we can confirm the results ) that demo the actual performance of these field recorders. I will try and do this later this Spring if I can round up enough recorders to test. ( I own or have access to the following: Olympus LS-10 and LS-11, Zoom H1, Zoom H4n, Tascam DR-100, but I would like to throw more units in to the mix )
    Cameras : Panasonic GH3 with Grip, Panasonic GH2, Panasonic HMC-150
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