Comparing Handheld Recorders & External Microphones

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.

a) H1N:
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:

Recorded with LOM MikroUsi + Sony A10: Recorded with Sennheiser MKH8090 + Mixpre6:

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.

Wrap Up

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!

18 Replies to “Comparing Handheld Recorders & External Microphones”

  1. Thank your for this review. I have a similar setup and Í’m interested to know how you connect the xlr mics to the sony minijack input and how you get the phantom power.

    1. Hello Thank you for your interest. I am using an external preamp, I chose the small Kortwich that has modified , I will write another article about my current setup soon.

  2. Thanks for sharing and putting this together 🙂 A note regarding noise, if you used the regular sized USI and D100 you will greatly reduce noise.
    Sony A10 has an EIN of -116dBu and the D100 has an EIN of -127dBu. The Mikro Usi has a self-noise of ~20 dBA and the normal sized Usi’s have a self noise of ~14 dBA.
    So, the noise would be reduced by ~17dB and be about as quiet as possible for a portable rig 🙂

  3. Greetings! There is Sony PCM-D10. With high-quality microphones on board and the ability to connect xlr cables, it, like the PCM-A10, is controlled by bluetooth. The PCM-D10 uses two analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog converters AK4558, which significantly improves recording standards. This combination improves the signal-to-noise ratio and allows you to record perfect sound at 192 kHz. Variable gain analog amplifier accurately adjusts sound levels.
    Two 3300 uF capacitors built into the PCM-D10 provide uninterrupted power supply, which allows you to record clear sound without interference.

    1. Hello Stan! Thank you for your comment and the details! I would want to try this one too even though a bigger than what I am aiming. However I’ve heard mitigated reviews about it. Interesting gear.

  4. Thanks so much for the review! Well done. I bought the A10 a few months ago along with the Lom omni mics and have been very pleased with the results. Amazing little recorder for the size and price. I also use the PCM-D10 and D100 and highly recommend both.

    I enjoyed your article with creative field recording a few months ago and it inspired me to buy the A10 and the Lom mics.

    Thanks!

    1. This is wonderful Mark! Happy I can help other out there in their recording quests ! Sony has made really nice piece of gears. Hopefully they will keep up on developing and improving their line of products.

      Happy recordings!
      Regards

  5. Bonjour Stéphane,

    très utile cette entrée de blog ! Merci !

    Je suis à la recherche d’un enregistreur de poche le plus petit et léger possible mais avec lequel on peut faire des enregistrements potables.
    J’hésite encore entre le D100 et le A10. Connais-tu aussi les modèles Zoom H2N et Roland R7 ?
    J’ai noté qu’avec des micros externes type Lom, on a de très bons résultats avec le A10. Parcontre pour les ambiances très calmes, j’aimerais connaître le préamp que tu utilises pour brancher un micro qui nécessite une alimentation fantôme. C’est apparemment la seule tache sur le CV de l’A10 et tu sembles l’avoir résolu.

    J’attends donc avec beaucoup d’impatience ton entrée de blog sur la question 🙂

    Merci d’avance 🙂

    1. Lom Usi ont besoin de 48v pour fonctionner (est donc ne pourrait pas etre alimenter avec le sony A10), aussi ils sont un peu plus ‘bulky’ et compliqué à installer que les microusi, entre autre ils necessitent une suspension.
      Pour rappel, mon but premier dans cette comparaison est pour moi de trouver la solution la plus legere, donc transportable facilement.

  6. Hi, Great review

    “I found an external preamp that would allow me to connect the MKH with the A10”
    Would you mind telling us what is the preamp you’ve chosen?

    Thanks!
    Best
    Roy

  7. Interesting review!

    Nice that you have found a setup that works for you.

    I am very new to this, so read the following with a grain of salt….

    As for the Olympus LS-10. I do not have LS10, but I do have LS-11 and LS-12 and Primo em172 microphons (As well as Tascam dr100 mkiii and centrance mixerface r4r)

    Both LS-11 and LS-12 (-122 dbu/-120dbu) have better Noise performance than A-10 (-116dbu) at higher gain settings. At lower gain settings, performance can drop to -100 dbu for Olympus.

    So Olympus recorders “only” work “very well” on high gain settings. I only use them at high gain settings.

    Primobased microphones has s noise level of aprox -108 dbu (EIN), 12-14 dbu higher than the Olympus noise level, so preamp noise will “not” contribute to the overall noise level (at high gain settings) in that setup.

    Also…
    Loms micro have much higher noise level than the larger (Primo em272) based microphones.

    The Mkh microphones has lower noise (almost half) of the Primo 272, but combined with the sensetivity, it gives a “noisefigure” of around – 113 dbu (EIN). In order to make use of the lower noise, one needs high quality preamps with an EIN of maybe -125 dbu (or 12 dbu lower). With higher noise levels in the preamps, they will contribute more and more to the over all noise level.

    Based on the specifications, my guess is that A10 will ad (2) 3 db to the microphone (mkh 8090) noise level of 13db (A), giving a comparable noise figure of maybe (15)-16 db (A), compated to Primo em 272 (14db) in Olympus LS-11, on highest gain setting.

    On the other hand – it is just figures – let our ears be the final judge.

  8. Hello,
    What is the voltage of plug-in power in Sony PCM-A10? I have Primo EM272-Z1 and the capsule required 3 volts of plug-in power. I know that PCM-D100 have 5 volts.

    Thank you.
    regards
    Marcin

    1. Hello Marcin! Thanks for your question.
      I am not sure of the voltage of the Sony A10, however it works great with LOM Mikrousi which has an operating voltage of 2-10 V.
      So I believe it would work, but don’t take my words for absolute truce.
      I am not a technician, neither I work for these company.
      Maybe you can try to contact them.
      Kind Regards,
      Stephane

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