UPDATE 01/2017: Updated with 2017 Best Recorder for Interviews recommendations at the bottom of the post.

There’s a myriad of ways to record your research interviews. You could use your phone, laptop, or even a camcorder. However, I strongly recommend using a digital voice recorder. Handheld digital voice recorders are compact, affordable and enable you to easily manage the audio recordings, which makes the process of getting your dissertation transcription easy and cost effective.
TL;DR – the best recorder for interviews; the Olympus WS-853
Best Recorder For Interviews

The greatest advantage of digital voice recorders over older tape recorder is that they have no moving parts, which make a lot of noise, thus your interview recordings are crystal clear, which makes interview transcription easier. Portable digital interview recorders are less bulky, can hold more audio data (up to a 1000 hours) than their analog counterparts. What are the 3 key features you need to look for when buying the best recorder for interviews?

3 Things to Consider When Buying a Voice Recorder for Interviews

1. Memory

Buy a voice recorder that has both built-in memory and a memory card slot – which gives you virtually unlimited recording capacity. It’s okay to buy a digital recorder with a low built-in memory – you can easily increase the storage capacity using an external memory card. There are many different types of memory cards; Secure Digital, CompactFlash, MicroSD just to name a few. The most common digital memory cards store 1GB to 64GB of data.

When choosing a memory card always check its storage capacity. However, the most important consideration should be compatibility. Always go for a memory card that is compatible with your voice recorder. Memory cards are quite affordable – $4 to $25 for MicroSD cards.

2. Microphone Jack

All digital recorders have built-in microphone(s). However, using an external microphone enables you to record high(er) quality audio, especially in a noisy environment. A microphone can either be unidirectional (cardoid) or omni-directional. Unidirectional microphones capture sound from a targeted source, while omni-directional mics capture sound evenly from all directions. Unidirectional mics can suppress unwanted noise and are great for one-on-one interviews. With a high quality voice recorder (for instance the Sony ICD-UX533), you can adjust and monitor the built-in microphone sensitivity/recording levels.  Ultimately you want to choose a recorder with a microphone jack, the most common and compatible jack is the 3.5 mm jack.

3. Audio Recording Format

There are two types of audio file formats, compressed and uncompressed. Generally, higher compression means lower quality sound. You should buy a recorder that allows you to capture uncompressed audio in AIFF or PCM (Wav) formats. Audio Interchange File Format (AIFF) and Pulse Code Modulated audio (PCM) are audio file formats that store the audio in its raw uncompressed format, meaning you maintain the original recording quality. High quality voice recorders enable you to record your interviews in an uncompressed audio format.

The biggest mistake you can make!

Be Forewarned: Here’s the biggest mistake that researchers make when choosing a interview recorder: they buy one without a USB slot or external memory slot. Make sure the recorder that you buy has a USB port or an external memory card slot. This will enable you to easily transfer your audio interviews into a PC/Mac, so that you can easily share them with your transcriber. Most (cheaper/older) low quality digital recorders (for example the Sony ICDB600, Olympus VN-7200, Olympus DP-201) don’t have this feature!

And you’ll want to get 2 recorders to record your research interviews. Why? Because you do want to have a backup recorder in case “something” happens…

Best Recorder for Interviews

1. Olympus WS-852Best Recorder For Interviews

For a low budget interview recorder I recommend the Olympus WS-852. You can also get the Sony ICD PX333 or Sony ICD-PX440, but researchers have found the Olympus WS-852 to be more versatile, and easier to connect to your computer and share the files. The Olympus WS-852 comes with a built in 4GB flash memory that can record up to 1600 hours of audio. The additional storage slot can be expanded to 32 GB and is compatible with MicroSD flash memory cards. It only records in compressed mp3 format (max 128kbps), which is a major drawback, but has an 3.5 mm mic jack, a stand, and comes with a USB port for easy transfer of the recordings to your PC/Mac – a true bargain! Buy now on Amazon.com.

2. Olympus WS-853

Best Recorder For InterviewsIf you have a little bit of more money to spend, I recommend you get the Olympus WS-853. It has the same features as the WS-852, so you’re still limited to mp3s (max 128kbps). In addition, it also comes with a rechargeable battery and 8GB memory; double the recording capacity of the Olympus WS-852. And it’s only ~$20 more than the Olympus WS-852. This recorder is what you should get if you plan to record your interviews in ideal conditions (quiet rooms with little or no background noise). Buy Now on Amazon.com.

3. Sony ICD-UX533Best Recorder For Interviews

The Sony ICD-UX533 is a little more expensive than the Olympus WS-853, but it has one feature that sets it apart – you can record your interview or focus groups in the lossless linear PCM format. Unlike the Olympus 853, you’re not limited to the MP3 format. If you want to get a recorder that you can use to record high quality recordings, I recommend you get this recorder. Especially if you foresee recording your interviews or focus groups in non-ideal conditions (little or no background noise). Or if you plan to archive your recordings (very important for oral historians).

This recorder comes with an 4GB internal memory – which means that if you record your interviews using the high quality PCM format, it’s going to fill up pretty quickly (~about 6 hours of recording). So I’d suggest you get additional microSD memory. It comes with a rechargeable battery that you can charge using the recorder. Once you connect the recorder to your computer, copying the files to your computer is as easy as drag and drop (at least on a PC). If you’re willing to spend a little bit more (and get a microSD card), this is what I’d recommend you get! Buy now on Amazon.com.


Posted in: Recording.
Last Modified: February 25, 2017

32 thoughts on “Choosing the Best Recorder for Interviews

  1. Jennifer

    Thanks, was looking for a field recorder for my dissertation research. This helped a lot!

  2. Sean Quiney

    A full range of Portable Recorders and Transcription kits can be purchased from dictaphones

  3. Erik

    What about the Panasonic model RR-US550 audio recorder, do you have any experience using it?

    1. Isaac Post author

      Hi Erik, you’ll be fine with the Panasonic recorder. I don’t have any hands-on experience using it, but it’s a good recorder.
      All the best in your qualitative research.

  4. Sofia Lily-Anne McKey

    Thanks for this info. It helps a lot when deciding on a recorder for interviews. 🙂

    1. Isaac Post author

      My pleasure. It’s about a year old so I do need to update it, but I am glad you found it useful.

      All the best conducting your interviews.

      1. Isaac Post author

        Had a chance to update the post with new recorder recommendations for 2015…

        1. Mary

          My Zoom H5 is being shipped as I write. I will use it in a couple of weeks to record panel discussions in a university setting and assume the panelists will be seated facing the audience but don’t know where the moderator will be stationed. Id’ appreciate any advice on where to place the recorder (I’m not purchasing any additional microphones) for best sound quality.

          Thanks so much.

          1. Isaac Post author

            Mary, the Zoom H5 is a great handheld audio recorder. The inbuilt mics capture sound at the center – in a half an apple shape. So if you place it in front of the panelists you’ll capture the best sound. If the moderator is stationed at either side or behind the H5 you may have trouble capturing them. My advice is to get a mic – the H5 does comes with 2 additional mic inputs. The MSH-6 capsule might do the trick.
            If you don’t get a mic, I suggest you do test run and find the best placement for the H5, (you may have to move it farther away from the podium). And on the day of recording, carry a pair of headphones so that you can monitor the recording and make sure everyone is captured.

            Hope that helps.

  5. Amelia

    Hi, just wondering if you think it is necessary to use an external microphone with Olympus WS-823 if interviewing in cafes etc. ? If so can you recommend any in particular?

    1. Isaac Post author

      Hi Amelia,
      It all depends on the environment you are going to record the interviews. If you are going to record outdoors, you definitely need a microphone. I’d recommend you use a lapel mic (this is a good one). With one lapel mic, the voice level of your questions is going to be low. You can get a lapel mic for yourself and use this cable to connect the 2 mics to the recorder.

      I’d suggest you do a trial run using the WS-823 without the mics (especially if you are going to record indoors and you can get the management of the cafe to lower the background music… and play around with the ws-823 zoom settings) and then email me the trial recording and I’ll let you know if you do need an external microphone.

      All the best.

  6. Marry Harris

    Hi, guys! Have you ever used Roland recording devices? For example, something from R-05 series? I know they are of another price category, but I need a professional device at the moment.
    Roland is producing excellent equipment for musicians, as well as musical instruments, so I decided to choose one of his recorders.
    Is it worth? Could you please give me a piece of advice?

    1. Isaac Post author

      Hi Marry,
      I’ve never used the Ronald R-05, but I think it’s overprised at ~$200. The zoom H4 has more features, multitrack recording, 2 XLR/TRS inputs et al.
      If you are looking for a potable musical instruments recorder, I’d definitely go for the Zoom h4 or H5.

      Hope that helps.

  7. Ramzi

    I would like the best ever recorder for a very sensitive and accurate field works for my dissertation research. Knowingly, that sounds that are to be analysed. This mean that when the word “tell” is recorded when spoken by someone, /t/, /e/, /l/ are going to be analysed. That’s why I need the best ever recorder regarding this work.

    1. Isaac Post author

      Ramzi, the Olympus WS-823 will be perfect for your conversational analysis project. I recommend you read this post on how to record high quality interviews. All the best.

  8. Luke Smith

    I have transcribed an interview before, and it was not very easy. I could not hear very clearly at times, and rewinding was a pain, I needed a great recorder to do that. It seems that getting a recorder of high quality, and with a Sim card would be the best thing to do.

    1. Isaac Post author

      Yes, transcribing low quality audio interviews is a pain!

  9. Hazel Owens

    I like your advice to choose a voice recorder that has both internal and external memory options. Like you said, it’s usually fine to have a device that mainly relies on external memory cards because they’re affordable for the amount of data they can hold. However, I’ve found that it’s also nice to have some memory on the device itself as well, just in case the memory card runs into problems. Thanks for the article!

  10. sara

    hi i need help if you can
    i need to record memorie & most of digital voice recorder dont have play back & re recording option lets say i record for 10 minute but in middle i need to add or remove some part from that 10 minute can i do with digital device ? same as good old cassette player that record too ?
    sry my bad english

    1. Isaac Post author

      I don’t know if there is a digital recorder that can do this for you. My advice would be to use any of the recorders I recommend and just keep recording. If you need to do a retake, just make an audio note (“let’s record this section again or add this to that section”). Then use Audacity to edit the recordings. Hope that helps.
      The Sony ICD-PX440 allows you to overwrite and add a recording to previously recorded digital file. However, you can only add content at the end of the recording and the overwrite function overwrites the rest of the recording. You can overcome this by first splitting the recording and then overwriting or adding a recording to the split files. But as i said, it’s easier to use an audio editor to perform the same functions.

      Hope that helps.

  11. Cheta

    Hello Isaac..
    thanks for your help.
    What of HccToo 8GB Multifunctional Digital Voice Recorder Rechargeable Dictaphone Stereo Voice Recorder ?
    Is it recommended for a research interview?

    1. Isaac Post author

      Hello Cheta.
      I’ve never used HccToo 8GB Multifunctional Digital Voice Recorder. But a did a bit of research on it and it looks like a piece of garbage! But that’s just my 2 pence. If you do buy it and use it to record your research interview, please let us know your experience using it.

      I always recommend researchers to get reliable audio recorders, because it’s very hard to re-record a research interview. And always have a backup device…

  12. Leah

    Hi Issac,

    Your articles have been so helpful! Thank you! For my new job, I am conducting around 60 focus groups (with 5 to 10 people in the room) and around 100 individual interviews. The Zoom H4n or Zoom H5 seem to be good options for recording the sessions.

    I was wondering if you had any tips or suggestions for transcription. I am new to the interview/market research field and I am a bit overwhelmed by the idea of transcribing all the information that I will be receiving. Are there devices/softwares/apps that would help with the transcription?

    Thank you!

    1. Isaac Post author

      Hi Leah,
      The Zoom are great professional recorders, the only reason I don’t recommend them is because they are too sensitive – which is great for recording your band, instruments or vocals, but for interviews and focus group (FG), they tend to record a lot of background noise. If you do get the Zoom, make sure you record the interviews and FGs is a quiet room, and switch off any fans or AC, and run a few test runs to find the best setting for your room(s).

      This is a great series on how to transcribe dissertation interviews and most of the suggestions hold true for transcribing market research interviews.
      Yes, transcribing can be overwhelming, and you may want to try our services (which are very reasonably priced). If you do choose to transcribe the interviews and FGs, get the right equipment (desktop, comfy chair, a good pair of headphones) and transcription software (I recommend F4 – a bit pricey but very good). BTW, voice recognition software (for instance Dragon) is awful at transcribing interviews and focus group discussions (because of the multiple voices in the audio).
      One final tip, make sure you record high quality audio – believe me, it will greatly reduce the amount of time you’ll need to transcribe the interviews and FGs (for a novice, 8-10 times the duration of the recording).

      Hope that helps.


  13. suzanne

    Hi Isaac,
    I like your tip to buy the Sony ICD-UX533BLK Digital Voice Recorder . If I’m doing a focus group with 8 people in a relatively quiet room, would I need additional microphones?
    Please advise.

    1. Isaac Post author

      Hi Suzanne. If you get a couple of recorders, you should be fine. I’ll write a detailed post (hopefully soon) on how to record focus group discussions…

  14. Judy

    My husband has Alzheimer’s, early stages and I want to interview him about his life and memories before they are lost. Like the blitz in London and the partition of India, things our children and grandchildren might enjoy. I will need to transcribe it so being able to pause while my flashing four fingers catch up is necessary. What would you recommend?

    Thank you for your article

    1. Isaac Post author

      Hey Judy, sorry to hear about your husband illness. You’ll need a software to slow down the audio and pause it. Express Scribe is a good free one. But if you plan to conduct a lot of interviews, (I bet he has a lots of stories), then you may want to spend a little money and get F4 – which is what I use. And you’ll find great tips on the blog on how to transcribe your interviews…


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