A few months ago, while having a break in Montreal, I re-questioned my recording setup.
In my quest for minimalism, I decided to find the lightest possible configuration that would allow me to travel more easily, further away; but of course without giving up on quality.
In this state of mind, I tested and compared various recorders and microphones mostly for their self-noise. I wanted to see/hear how much I can reduce the size and weight of my equipment and still be able to record pristine sounds.
The quiet factor is really important in my work, indeed I believe quiet sounds are more important and allow emotions to breathe more easily. Therefore optimizing the signal-noise ratio is paramount in my opinion.
So I gathered various easy-to-carry recorders and small form factor microphones to test their ability to deliver great recordings. Here are the tests and verdicts I drew last July before leaving for more trips.
Here is a disclaimer: the following article is based only on my own subjective opinion from my personal experience with my own ear. This is not a technical chart comparison, and I am not affiliated with any manufacturer. This my own experiment towards achieving my own goal (which is mega-Lightweight with less self-noise); your goal and use might be different and wouldn’t necessary relate to my findings.
1. Comparing handheld recorders
I had for the past 15 years used a lot of Zoom-branded handhelds. Though my first handheld was a Roland Edirol R-1 (if not counting tape recorders as handheld which I had at 5 years old). I was fascinated to see how easy it was to carry, and how great sound it could capture for that time. For some time, it was a useful ‘nice to have’ in addition to the main recording rig. I possessed a Zoom H4 for a long time, and then Zoom H4N.
2 years ago I was still using the H5, which proved to do a good job in general, furthermore providing 2 XLR input with phantom power.
I started using the Sony PCM D100 not a long time ago, it happened to be a game-changer, the overall quality of the internal microphones and built quality made me think twice about how bulky my setup has to be in order to deliver high-tier professional sounds.
In the month of June 2019, I gathered various small factors handhelds, I wanted to have a closer look at how possibly I could include and replace bulkier pieces of my setup in order to pack light and compact!
I ordered the small Zoom H1N. I also got the Sony A-10 as I was really curious following my great appreciation for the Sony D-100 of the same brand.
I also found an Olympus LS-10, as I heard and read many great reviews and technical specifications about this one.
Comparing these 4 recorders from the outside (weight and size), the A-10 is clearly the smallest and lightest with the microphones well incorporated in its form factor, the H1N is a little bigger, still really small but its XY microphones are not well incorporated in the design making it a little awkward. The Olympus comes next and is a little bigger than the 2 previous, and finally, the D100 is kind of a brick compared to the others, but it looks more professional.
After few trials, it became clear that the Zoom H1N was the least performing recorder for my use. The internal microphone sounds okay-ish, but very limited, and remind me of the H4N plastic feel. The fact that it has only one XY configuration make it not suitable for ambience unless you use external microphones. The self-noise is in my opinion, unbearable for quiet situations, quiet rooms or nature, however, with external microphones plugged in it can become more manageable. In my view, the technical characteristic does not make it friendly with my devotion to quietness. I had some success using it in louder environments, city ambiences, crowded places, like the street or busy hallway. Since it is very small and light, you can carry it easily. And using it won’t be visible in public, meaning you will have very few disturbances, nobody will notice it.
I eventually did not pursue using the H1N recorder as I found it to be a little bulkier, and less performing than the A-10, lacking some functions (as Bluetooth remote) and having a plastic feel to it. Therefore Zoom has been eliminated from my final selection.
b) Olympus LS-10
For some years, I witnessed many people were referring positively to Olympus and more particularly the LS-5 , LS-10 , and LS-11 models.
Since I never tried any Olympus previously, I was curious about their performance and naturally found one of these discontinued models in the sale online. I ordered the LS-10. I was impatient to try it out and put my grip on it.
Despite being a product from 2008, it proved to be a very sturdy recorder with great technical specifications. On the downside, I did not find it very user-friendly. The fact that it is 2 to 3 times bigger than the A10 is not a good point for my purpose, but I tried it out while field tripping. I compared it with Sony A-10 for room tones and ambiences. The self-noise is more or less comparable to the A-10 (with a tad more noise from the LS-10).
The most deceptive observation is about the low frequencies. I found them to be hollow and lacking some roundness even though the high frequency were very clear. Using the internal microphones, I found the stereo imaging to be somewhat blurry.
All in all, I was not attracted to this recorder and decided to put it aside. I thus concentrated on comparing the A10 with the D100.
c) Sony vs Sony
Finally, after eliminating the Zoom H1N and the Olympus LS-10 from my final selection. It only remained the Sony PCM A10 and the Sony PCM D100.
The A10 is SO SMALL that it is almost unbelievable, and I wanted to put it to the test against the D-100 which is more than 3 times more expensive, but also 5 times bigger and heavier. You can fit the A10 easily in a pocket and its weight is around 90g! On the other side, the D100 is about 480g.
I like the fact that the A-10 internal microphones have a 3-way adjustable position, exactly like the D-100, which allow versatility, however, the internal microphones are obviously not performing as much as the one from the D-100.
One of the features that I like the most on the A10 is the Bluetooth remote control, you just need to download the sony remote app and it works like a charm, you can even monitor and adjust the level from the phone. Looking at the D-100, there is no such thing as a Bluetooth remote, even though there exists an optional wireless remote you can buy in addition but with limited functions and make it another piece of gear you have to carry around (not compatible with phones).
The most differentiating characteristic between the two recorders, in my opinion, is the maximum recording sample rate. While the D100 can record up to 192 kHz, the A10 can only go up to 96 kHz. Eventually, it is not an issue at all, as 192KHz is useful only if you want to record way beyond the human ear capability, and this use is very specific with very few applications; without saying that you also need a special microphone that can capture up to those frequencies, which is most uncommon.
And not to forget that the human ear can hear up to 20 kHz, 96KHz is capturing 48KHz ( see Nyquist sampling theorem) which is already 28KHz more than what the best human ears can perceive! In my case, I still have my Sanken co-100k and mixpre safely waiting in a suitcase somewhere hidden in this world, in case I really need to record up high. But for day to day tasks, I don’t need 192KHz and found it even cumbersome as it overcharges the file sizes.
Now comes the meat of the comparison between these two: the sound quality!
One obvious conclusion is that the internal microphones are no match!
The D-100 internal microphones are capturing sounds with subtlety and balance, it is as of right now one of the best sounding units when testing its incorporated microphones.
Inversely the internal microphones of the A10 are average but can prove to be a lifesaver on some occasions when you need on the spot to record a sudden interesting sound. They are surely better than many other handhelds.
But the most striking fact, in my opinion, is the external microphone input quality.
Side by side the D-100 and the A-10 have very similar quality render when using an external microphone. I frankly wouldn’t be able to recognize them on a blind test. The idea that you can get the same quality with a fifth of the bulkiness is for me a rejoicing. The bigger does not mean the better!
So is the A-10 the lighter replacement version of the D-100?
I wouldn’t say that as it is far from perfect, but for my own quest and use, it does a pretty job and surely has replaced the D-100 in my day to day, knowing that I use mostly external microphones.
Now to go deeper in my reflection and be a little controversial:
Could the A-10 be a replacement for a Mixpre-3?
Let’s see that in the following parts:
2. Capturing Quietness with details: Microphone Compared
This test was to compare microphones for their ability to capture quiet sounds and ambiences but with as little self-noise as possible.
I had tried lately to record only with a miniature microphone, the LOM MikroUsi for example gave me really good results while plugged in small external recorders. The idea to use only ultra-small and lightweight gear grew up in my head as it would allow easier travel in any place.
Following my main quest to get drastically lightweight, my primary goal with the microphone test was to understand if I could live with only small Omni electret microphones as external microphones, hence eliminating a big chunk of gear for the sake of weightlessness.
The first test was a real-world setting as a friend of mine invited me on a camping trip in the wilderness of Canada, I tried to record with Lom Mikrousi plugged into A-10 on really quiet ambience, but it rapidly became clear that the noise-signal ratio was too low for it to capture these kinds of sounds.
When I came back to my apartment and listened again to these recordings, I found the self-noise so strong I couldn’t believe it was real.
In comparison, the Sennheiser MKH8090 plugged into Mixpre-6 transcribes more nuances with less noise. Herewith similar ‘very quiet’ recordings:
As a matter of fact, I wanted to confirm and be sure that the miniature microphones like Lom Mikrousi and DPA 4060 were too noisy on quiet sounds! I thus connected 3 pairs of microphones in the same recorder: the Sound Devices mixpre-6, and compared their self-noise in an apartment room with the exact same ambience. DPA 4060, LOM MikroUsi, and Sennheiser MKH-8090. Listening to the room tone will give more examples to draw conclusions.
In my opinion, the noisiest here is the DPA4060, shortly followed by LOM MikroUsi, and then the difference with the Sennheiser from the 2 others is particularly audible.
Driven by these microphone tests, I decided that I needed to keep high-end microphones with me like the Sennheiser MKH8090, but without the usual bulk, getting rid of bigger recorders and using only small form factor like the A10. I understood that the most cumbersome part was coming from the XLR connectors, so I decided to replace my mini-XLR using an MZL Rycote Connbox. My endeavour now was to found a suitable preamp as small as possible with a phantom power source to be able to connect the Sennheiser MKH to the Sony A-10, which would make it the most compact quality recording setup. I eventually found it and was able to phantom power the MKH. After some DIY customization, I put up my custom independent recording setup ‘handheld, ‘lightweight’, and ‘ultra performing’. I will talk about this setup in an upcoming article.
All the recorders tested here are already very good pieces of gear that might suit any beginners. For the sake of compactness, lightness and performance, I had to choose something small. I thus decided to go along with Sony PCM A10. Despite being the smallest of all the recorders I have tried, it performs very well, particularly when using external microphones. In my opinion, the quality delivered is comparable with the Sony PCM-D100 (with external microphones), even if the latter is 5 times bigger by size and weight!!
I now have already 2 Sony A10 with me, and probably will get a third one for safety. The price makes it very affordable and dissipates the fear of breaking or losing them.
As for microphones, along with the A10, I decided I will bring the Sennheiser MKH-8090 for very quiet sounds. I would not want to compromise the recording of quiet spaces like nature or room tones. I found an external preamp that would allow me to connect the MKH with the A10, and thus create my custom compact setup which I will speak about in an upcoming post.
Stay Tuned for more adventure!