What You Need to Know Before You Buy a Digital Voice Recorder

A woman using a smart phone
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Digital voice recorders can be indispensable business tools, whether you need to dictate business letters or memos or record meetings, conferences, interviews, or lectures. Modern digital voice recorders are compact, lightweight, and can record hundreds (even thousands) of hours of high-quality digital audio that can be easily transferred via USB to a personal computer for permanent storage and/or transcription.

Smartphone or Dedicated Recording Device?

Choosing a digital recorder comes down to selecting the device that has the required capabilities to meet your needs. If you're looking for a voice-to-text recorder, the first decision will probably be whether or not a dedicated recording device is a requirement. Today, most high-end smartphones/tablets have apps that can be used for digital voice recording and transcription. For example, Apple's iPhones (4S and later) include cloud-based text-to-speech dictation. If your voice recording needs are occasional, then a smartphone app should suffice.

Here are some of the best dictation software options for both PCs and smartphones.

For more heavy duty voice recording needs, a dedicated recording device has the following advantages:

  • More battery life: Some digital voice recorders have a battery life of 48 hours or more. In addition, some dedicated devices use normal batteries so you can carry spare batteries with you.
  • Ease of use: Dedicated one-press record/pause/stop/play is a snap to use.
  • Additional features: Voice activation, variable-speed playback, and track-marking may be what you're looking for.
  • Sound quality: Some of the more expensive dedicated devices (such as the Olympus LS-100) are essentially miniature recording studios, capable of making concert-hall sound quality recordings using high fidelity directional microphones and multi-track stereo technology. Some even have triple microphones to record simulated 3D sound as well as built-in editing and voice-over capability. 

Recording Time

There are digital voice recorders that can handle over 1,000 hours of recording time. However, general recording time numbers for digital voice recorders always has to be taken with a grain of salt. The higher the quality of the recording, the fewer recording hours will be available. If you plan to use automatic voice recognition software for transcription, you will want the best quality recordings possible. Stereo and high-fidelity formats require much more storage and will greatly reduce maximum recording time.

Note also that recording time is directly related to memory capacity. Recorded data is stored in the device’s onboard memory so the more memory the device comes with, the greater the recording time. To extend recording time many devices have memory expansion slots (microSD) that can greatly expand the available recording capacity.


A common misconception about voice-to-text recorders is that they are capable of transcribing voice into text all by themselves. If you want to be able to transcribe the voice files you record with your digital voice recorder into text, you will have to have some type of software that will perform transcription such as Dragon Naturally Speaking, available for Windows and Mac computers.

Some digital voice recorders come bundled with voice recognition software or their own proprietary transcription software. But, in other cases, you will have to purchase it separately. You will also have to purchase accessories for your digital voice recorders such as foot pedals and headphones if you want to use manual transcription.

Size and Weight

Compact voice recorders are about the size of a smartphone and can weigh as little as a few ounces. High-quality recording units with additional features tend to be larger and can weigh 10 ounces or more.


With digital voice recorders, price correlates to the number of features the recorder has and the recording quality the device is capable of. You can get a USB flash drive digital voice recorder for about $30 which will allow you to record and playback your voice files, but that's it. At this price, the "fancy" feature is an on/off switch. 

At the other end of the price spectrum, you can get something like the Olympus LS-100 referred to above which retails for about $400 which is designed to help "working musicians write music, create demos, rehearse, and capture live shows." It also has sound quality that’s even better than what you hear on a compact disc. Of course, there are hundreds of options in between.

The First Step

The first step in buying a digital recorder is to decide what features you want and how important sound quality is to you. Then you'll be ready to shop for the best recorder that fits your needs. Our Top Digital Voice Recorders is a good starting point.