If there's one single tool that every filmmaker should own, it's a handheld audio recorder. More affordable than a camera, which you can always rent, a handheld audio recorder is useful in a whole host of different situations.

The most obvious one is to record audio on set on smaller shoots where you're working with a smaller crew. But it's so much more than that. When researching your screenplay you can use it for audio interviews, which are easier to capture and less stressful for your subjects than video interviews. If you decide to work on a podcast, you've got the recorder all ready. Most can even interface right into your computer for direct recording. 

Many of you might be wondering, can't I just record audio with my camera?

Technically yes, but on-camera audio generally isn't the greatest. The big difference is the pre-amp. The signal put out from a microphone is relatively weak, so recorders have a pre-amp that takes that signal and amplifies it before recording. Hence, pre-amp. Better quality pre-amps sound better. Since camera makers are focused on high-quality images, the sound is often an afterthought feature, and some cameras that create beautiful images have terrible audio quality. Handheld recorders have better preamps, creating better audio. 

On top of that, a handheld recorder gives you physical controls for things like gain. This means if someone gradually starts talking louder and comes close to clipping, you can turn the recorded signal down by hand, and not have to go into your camera menus to adjust the volume. Most solo shooters mount a handheld recorder on top of their camera, route their audio into it to monitor, and then take the output signal from that into the camera input as a backup and to speed up syncing.

Some of these features can be helped with a good quality on-camera shotgun microphone, but if you can, you want to add a handheld recorder to your kit for even the smallest of shoots. 

Here are the ones worth considering today. 

Best Overall: Zoom H6

Zoom H6

Our Pick

The H6 is the ultimate portable recorder. With its advanced preamps and interchangeable capsules, the H6 delivers unmatched versatility and great sound quality.

  • 6 Track Recording
  • Interchangeable Capsules
  • Phantom Power
  • Color LCD
  • Larger Footprint

For the vast majority of filmmakers, we believe the right combination of features, performance, and price can be found in the Zoom H6.

It has four full-sized XLR/1/4" combo inputs for connecting microphones or accepting signals from a mixer (all six of its inputs switch between mic and line level), 20dB switchable pad per channel, records locally to an SD card, and can send a signal out to the camera. It even has a handy tilted view screen at the bottom to make it easier to read when mounted on top of a camera.

It can record in 16- or 24-bit at up to 96kHz, though most motion picture users are likely to stick with 48kHz when recording dialogue on set. 

Like most handheld recorders it has built-in X-Y microphones at the top for direct recording. These will mostly be useful for research or podcast interviews. When shooting, you usually need the microphone further away from the subject and are beyond the optimum working range for the module. When doing an interview when you can get the unit only a few feet from the talker, you can get good fidelity and save yourself having to bring along a separate microphone and XLR cable. The top microphones are interchangeable, and you can get omnidirectional and shotgun attachments for it if you wish.

Users report great satisfaction with the wide gain range and the quality of the audio even in the quietest situations. Also nice is the menu system with a full-color screen and live view of the signal that is clear and easy to read.

One standout feature of the H6 is that it can also be used as an audio interface over USB. This means you can plug the USB cable into your computer and the H6, set the menu to "audio interface," and the audio signal will come straight from the H6 into your computer as an input. 

Our one caveat is that it is currently limited to 24-bit recording. 32-bit float recording, a format that provides a greater amount of leeway in post-production, is currently only found in larger recorder/mixer units like the Zoom F6. 

Table of Contents

How We Picked

Foremost in our mind was the ease of use on a busy film set. We wanted to identify a device that could fit well into film workflows and see a lot of use for filmmakers. We also looked at what is common in the industry, since there are many situations where you might want to hand off the recorder to another crew member to get sound. 

We looked at the audio quality of the recordings and the flexibility of inputs and outputs, all of which pointed toward the H6 as the obvious choice for the best overall. Zoom recorders took off in the motion market around the launch of the Canon 5D Mark II many years ago, and they've continued to be practically the default option for an affordable handheld recorder for those who do motion work. However, there are other great options from other brands like Sony. 

Best Alternative: Zoom H5

Zoom H5

Best ALT

The H5 provides four tracks of simultaneous recording and, like our flagship H6, it can use all Zoom interchangeable input capsules, allowing you to choose the best microphone for every recording situation. 

  • 4 Track Recording
  • Analog Gain Control
  • Phantom Power
  • LCD Disply
  • Larger Footprint

The entire Zoom lineup is fantastic, and if you are looking to save money, you can consider the H5. While we think filmmakers will appreciate the extra features with the H6, the H5 will satisfy many. It has two XLR inputs, a side-mounted external 1/8" input, and records up to 24-bit/92kHz. 92kHz is plenty for vocal recording and will cover the needs of most filmmakers. 

The H5 also works as a USB interface with your computer. You can even swap out the top X-Y mount for an additional two XLR inputs, which we think makes the device more appealing for filmmakers, whether it's sitting down with four friends to do a podcast and giving them all handheld microphones, or working on set with a boom and two lavaliers. Of course, once you've paid for the H5 and the XLR adapter, it might have been worth it to just go straight for the H6.

Best Budget: Tascam DR-40X 

Tascam DR-40X

Best Budget

The DR-40X allows high-quality recording with its stereo built-in condenser microphones. Every detail is captured from small whispers to loud sounds up to 125dB SPL

  • 4 Channel Mode
  • XLR/TRS Inputs
  • Phantom Power
  • X-Y or A-B Pattern
  • No Interchangeable Capsules

Tascam is known for its quality recorders, and the DR-40x is no different. The versatile four-track audio recorder is great for cinema, music, podcasting, and any other application. Easy to use, the compact design has versatile audio I/O to produce professional content.

The DR-40X allows high-quality recording with its stereo built-in condenser microphones. The built-in microphones are adjustable unidirectional microphones for recording in an X-Y pattern for tight stereo imaging, or in an A-B pattern for a more ambient recording. Dual Neutrik XLR/TRS combo jacks support both mic-level and +4dBu line-level. These inputs can accept a balanced microphone or line level from mixers. The microphone preamp includes +48V phantom power and plenty of gain for detailed recordings with condenser microphones, as well as electret type microphones. 

Better yet, the DR-40x can be powered by 3 AA batteries providing approximately 17 hours of runtime. 

Final Thoughts

A handheld recorder is one of those items that's surprisingly useful to have around. As a filmmaker, it's also one of those markets where it's relatively easy to make a decision.

While there is competition moving in the space, going with the first major player that is still very dominant makes sense.