Going Digital – Which Flash Recorder?

Salt is going digital this fall. We’re making the leap from mini-disc to flash recorder in the writing and radio tracks. (Even photo is shifting from film to digital this fall.)

So, we’ve been researching which hand-held flash recorder to buy for a couple of dozen students. It’s gotta be sturdy. It’s gotta make clean recordings — no hiss allowed. And, it’s gotta be inexpensive because we have to buy so many.

After some comparison testing, we’ve landed on the Sony PCM-D50. Here’s why:

There are A LOT of hand-held flash recorders these days. I’ve not tested them all. Not even close. But, so many of the first generation recorders are plagued by hiss and poor construction — or at least that’s the case according to on-line reports — I’ve ruled them out.

But, from the gaggle of flash recorders on the market, three rose to the forefront receiving decent reviews: the Olympus LS-10, the Marantz PMD620, and the Sony PCM-D50. So, I focused my tests on those three.

I had a chance to use an Olympus LS-10 at the National Press Photographer’s Association’s Multimedia Immersion. In short, I wasn’t impressed. It’s hissy — even with a condenser mic. And, it doesn’t feel sturdy. I don’t think it can hold up to the beating we dish out at Salt.

Then, I tested the Marantz and the Sony side by side. Remember, I’m testing the gear with students in mind. Durability and simplicity is key.

Marantz 620

Comes with a 512mb SD card that allows for 47 minutes of uncompressed audio recording time — not much. We would need to buy two, four gig flash cards (one as back up) adding to the base price.


  • Smaller, lighter than the Sony
  • Buttons more intuitive
  • Needs only two AA batteries
  • Divides files with ease
  • Will mount to a tri-pod


  • Latency problem — sounds are heard in headphones after a momentary delay. Marantz has a free firmware update that fixes this. But, updating two dozen decks would truly be a pain
  • Doesn’t seem as durable as the Sony
  • Comparing recordings with an RE-50 on both decks, the Marantz was much hissier
  • Menu somewhat complicated and for new users of gear, it’s best to keep it simple
  • A lot of options that would be useful to access on the fly are buried in menus, i.e. limiter
  • Somewhat noisy buttons
  • Doesn’t recharge batteries (if Salt wishes to use rechargeable batteries, we’d need to buy a lot of re-chargers… an added cost)
  • The display is not comprehensive. You have to switch between windows to view VU meters and time remaining.
  • Mini-plug mic inputs (of course, all of the hand-held decks have mini-plugs except the Marantz 660 but reports are that deck is too hissy)

Sony PCM D-50

Comes with a built in drive. Holds 6.5 hours of uncompressed audio. Has a port for a memory stick. We would need to buy a four gig stick to have as back-up in the field. So, adding in the flash cards and memory sticks, the Marantz and Sony’s aren’t too far off in price.


  • Durable
  • Dial controls for volume – both playback and record!
  • Simple menu
  • Doesn’t record mp3s
  • Limiter and filter available on a switch, not menu options
  • Adjustable stereo mic built-in
  • Divides files easily
  • 20db pad switch
  • Tripod mount option
  • Display is comprehensive – VU meter, numeric representation of VU, file type and number, time remaining all in one window and easy to read.


  • A bit more expensive
  • A little heavy, a little big
  • Needs 4 AA batteries
  • Doesn’t recharge batteries
  • Doesn’t record mp3
  • Confusing folder system when you plug the deck into the computer
  • Launched iPhoto first time I plugged it into the computer, but not second time (wonder if it will do that with all the decks)
  • Mini-plug mic inputs

The Sony has too many important pluses to ignore. In fact, I went into this test rooting for the Marantz if for no other reason than it is less expensive — important at a non-profit school purchasing a slew of recorders. But, between the hiss and the on-going latency problem, two major drawbacks, I’m voting for the D50.

I’ll report back at some point on how the gear fairs.



Other, more comprehensive reviews are at Transom and Brad Linder’s blog.


  1. One Response to “Going Digital – Which Flash Recorder?”

  2. By Dan on Aug 18, 2011

    Not sure if anyone reads this blog anymore, but, I thought I’d put in my two cents.. After reading (and listening to!) Transom’s review on the Zoom H4N and the recommendation of the H4N from another podcaster I asked (Marc Maron), I got it and love it. Especially love the 4 channel option.

    By the way, I’ve started a project called Living Histories (link above), and my first attempt at producing a piece is listed there. If anyone does read the blog anymore, I’d love some feedback. It’s pretty choppy, but since I recorded the narration on my back porch, all the ambient sounds made seamless transitions difficult. I have big hope for Living Histories, but I know I still have a lot to learn.

    I found the Saltcast through my Stitcher radio app a couple of months ago, looking for storytelling podcasts to use as research for my own project. I absolutely loved it, and started catching up on the archives through iTunes. I work a third shift job cleaning churches, so I have a lot of time to myself to listen. When my iPod’s battery ran out of juice last night, I brought up the blog on my phone to keep listening. Now I have to go through each episode again to read comments and such!

    Thank you so much for the Saltcast (and now for How Sound). While listening, I take copious notes and try to apply it to my own work. I wish I could come to Portland for 15 weeks, but alas, it’s not in the cards right now. Maybe someday. Until then, I am learning something new every night! Thanks also for leaving the Saltcast blog up for latecomers like me. I am so glad I found it!

    Thanks again, Rob, and everyone there who puts this together.

    Be Well,

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