Hi, my name is George and I may have an obsession (with recording gear in general and with handheld recorders in particular). Over the years this has resulted in a hefty collection of recorders, mics, windshields, blimps, batteries and bags that now surrounds my workspace. I quite like it this way since I have everything on hand, at least until all this gear becomes sentient and starts taking me out on field recording expeditions.
At any rate, I have recently added a couple of recently-released recorders to my collection and I’ve been testing them in a variety of situations. I’m obviously talking about the Sony PCM A10 and the Sony PCM D10, unexpected additions to the Sony handheld recorder lineup. These two joined other three recorders that have been with me for months or years, the Sony PCM D100, the Sony PCM M10 and the Olympus LS14. Read on to find out how I’m getting along with them. Scroll down to the bottom for downloadable recordings made with each of these handhelds.
Sony PCM D100
I chose to start with the Sony D100 as I consider it to be the gold standard when it comes to handheld recorders. It features a pair of swiveling microphones that, coupled with the preamps, deliver low-noise, transparent sound that reaches up above 40kHz in the frequency spectrum. On top of that it can record 24/192 wav files and also DSD (which no one ever used, but that’s a different story). The limiters aren’t Sound Devices 7-series quality but they do an excellent job nonetheless.
It’s a very solid piece of kit and it feels like a brick when you hold it. I’ve left it out for up to 20 hours at a time, from temperatures way below freezing in Scotland and Northern Europe to extreme heat and humidity in Africa. It has never caused problems and it just works.
The Sony D100 takes 4 AA batteries and somehow manages to record for over 18 hours at a time. This is in stark contrast to other handhelds (I will not mention the H4n) who only can go for a few hours before they turn off for no reason, even if the batteries are not completely depleted. I’ve had to deal with both when doing long unattended recordings, and I have to say I prefer the D100 (and the M10) over any other recorder in these situations.
The D100 has physical knobs (one for each channel) instead of buttons to set the gain. It has 32GB of on-board memory and it takes SD cards (I use a 64GB Sandisk Extreme). It delivers Plug-in Power (PIP) so you can use external mics like the Lom MikroUsi or Clippys. When paired with these the Sony D100 works brilliantly. It does not have XLR inputs so you can’t use condenser mics that require phantom power directly though. This is not really a problem for me as I have other recorders for that purpose.
I’ve had my D100 for about 5 years and it’s always worked. It’s the one recorder that gets used the most since it is so easy to take in my backpack or recorder bag. At this point I should mention downsides, but I don’t really know of any. Maybe it’s a little heavy at 435g/0.96lb with 4 AAs included. The signal LEDs are positioned so that they always get covered by a windjammer (which you absolutely must get, more on this later). Otherwise I can’t think of anything that’s not to my liking, and I’m not getting paid by Sony to say this.
Sony PCM M10
Next on my list is the Sony PCM M10. Sadly Sony doesn't make them anymore, and with any new recorder announcement I keep hoping that there will be an M10 replacement, because they’re THAT good.
I stupidly did not buy 20 of these while they were still available so I had to pay 3 times the RRP for a “new old stock” unit on Ebay. I don’t mind it one bit though, as the M10 is definitely worth that and more. I have since used it on trips to Ethiopia, Gabon and Romania without a glitch. Some aspects are a bit dated now, like the USB Mini-B connector and very slow transfer speed for example. I’m prepared to overlook this though.
The Sony PCM M10 features a pair of omni electret mics (as opposed to cardioids on the other recordings on this list) that deliver low-noise, transparent sound. It is more or less on par with the D100 in terms of self-noise, with slight differences in the frequency distribution of said noise (check out the recordings further down the page to see and hear this for yourself). The M10 sounds excellent with external mics as well.
This recorder takes two AA batteries but it manages to record for over 15 hours, possibly even as long as 20 hours. It’s smaller but thicker than a smartphone and it feels great in the hand. No rattling or moving parts, just a small solid brick that gets the job done. It also has a physical gain knob, which is used for both channels.
There are a few disadvantages to the M10. The orange backlight of the LCD may make it difficult to read the screen in the field and also looks dated. The buttons and switches feel a little plasticky and decidedly less high-quality than those on the D100. These are no reason not to buy an M10 so if you find one in good condition, do not hesitate and grab it.
The Olympus LS14 is a recent addition to the roster and was recommended by my friend and fellow field recordist Pete Smith. He did a magnificent recording of Barnacle Geese on a trip to Scotland in 2017 using his LS14 and a pair of Clippy mics. As far as I can tell the LS14 has been discontinued by Olympus but there are still unsold units in inventories so I was able to get one for quite cheap.
I got the Olympus LS14 mainly as a last resort backup and possibly for very dangerous situations in which the recorder had serious chances of being destroyed or stolen. I never expected it to be as good as the Sony M10 or D100, and it indeed isn’t. The on-board mics are noisy and unfit for ambience recording. It sounds acceptable with external microphones though, but so do all the other devices in this list.
The LS14 feels OK in the hand, with nice grippy plastic sides and a polished front panel. Unfortunately the battery compartment cover isn’t 100% snug in there and makes plasticky sounds when tapped. As opposed to the other recorders in this list, the mics on the LS14 protrude and therefore are more prone to accidental damage.
Speaking of mics, what’s unique about this recorder is that it has a 3-microphone array called Tresmic. On top of the usual two directional mics there’s a third, omni one right in the middle. The feed from this mic is mixed in on both L and R channels and it supposedly extends the frequency response down to 20Hz. In theory this sounds great, but it doesn’t do much to fix the otherwise poor quality of the two cardioid mics.
Overall the LS14 is quite noisy and less than transparent, with dips in frequencies around 8, 12 and 22 kHz. It also lacks a gain knob which makes operation fiddly and annoying. Not really something I’d recommend even for a low price, unless you just want to use it with external mics.
Sony PCM A10
Now we’re getting somewhere! If the recorders I’ve listed so far have been available for many years, the A10 was just introduced in December 2018. When I first read about it I thought the A10 was the long-awaited M10 replacement. As soon as I got it I realized it was an order of magnitude smaller. It feels somewhat like an expensive toy in the hand, but as soon as you push out the USB-A connector it starts to feel cheap, like one of those first-generation mp3 players. Why didn’t Sony go for a USB C connector like everyone else? There will probably be no answer to that unfortunately.
What does it sound like though? Sadly it’s quite noisy when compared with the D100 or M10, and just a little less so than the LS14. It is relatively transparent though, with no noticeable bumps or dips in the frequency spectrum so the recordings can be denoised in post. It might be all right for recording loud spot effects but not for ambience I’m afraid. It can be used for ambience if you couple it with a pair of external mics like the very quiet MikroUsi.
The A10 does not use AA batteries and instead relies on internal, non-removable power cells. It can record for about 14 hours on one charge which should be enough for an unattended overnight session. If you use external mics you may even get 15 to 16 hours of recording time before the batteries get depleted. Unfortunately batteries tend to lose capacity over time so this will only get worse.
This handheld does not have a physical gain knob and instead relies on the left and right buttons for this function. This can only be done while actually recording and is not that intuitive, resulting in a very awkward experience. On top of that, the LCD screen is quite low quality compared to the other recorders in this list. The refresh rate is low enough at room temperature, but goes down to more than a second if it’s below freezing.
Overall the A10 is too noisy to be my main handheld on a field recording trip. I will bring it along and I might even leave it out overnight in a dry bag, with a pair of external mics poking out. It will be an interesting conversation-starter and a good backup to have, but I so wanted it to be as good as the M10. Tough luck!
Should you get the Sony PCM A10? Only if you already have a good handheld and decent PIP mics, or if you absolutely need it for its diminutive size. Otherwise I’d suggest getting a better handheld and good mics instead.
Sony PCM D10
This is my most recent acquisition. I found out about the D10 a little after I got my A10, and then ordered it as soon as it became available in Japan. It looks and feels like a D100 on steroids, and it has something that none of the other 4 recorders sport: XLR inputs. Is it good enough to dethrone the D100?
At a first glance the D10 is impossibly big. Having used the D100 for years, the button layout, screen and menu all seem familiar, maybe slightly more spread out. It is made of hard plastic with a nice matte finish and it seems like it can handle a few bumps or scratches. I like the fact that the mics are not protruding from the recorder’s outline. After a few weeks of testing it I got used to its size and don’t find it a problem.
The D10 only has 16GB of on-board memory and does not come with a Sony windjammer like the D100 does, instead arriving with a useless bit of foam. You can use a D100 windjammer with the D10 though as they’re more or less the same width and depth.
The most important aspect however is audio quality. The Sony PCM D10 is rather noisier than the M10 or D100 and has a small bump around 7kHz. That’s quite odd as I expected Sony to simply use the same mics and preamps as in the D100. The limiters are very similar to the ones on the D100.
When using the XLR inputs, the D10 is noisier than the Sound Devices Mixpre 10T or 633 recorders. Granted, these are recorders with more features and in different price categories, but it still is a bit disappointing. For what it’s worth, with PIP mics the D10 sounds almost exactly as good as the D100. Overall it seems like the D100 is “hotter” than the D10 in most cases.
I’m really not sure what to think about the Sony PCM D10 at this time. I haven’t had a chance to take it out on a proper field recording trip to see how it withstands the elements. I think the addition of XLR inputs is worth the extra noise in the on-board capsules, but why did it have to be this way? Sony simply had to reuse as much of the D100 as possible and add the extra bits. It might be that they want to sell both recorders and they’d rather not have the D10 cannibalize the D100’s sales and market share.
What surprised me was how long the D10 can record WITH phantom power on 4 AAs. I plugged a pair of Sennheiser MKH8040s in and left it running on Eneloop Pro batteries. It kept going for almost 13 hours and it did record the last file as well, even if the batteries became depleted while it was still recording. When using on-board or plugged-in PIP mics the D10 can record for up to 51 hours! On top of AA batteries, the D10 can be powered via the USB-C connector with powerbanks. That is another impressive feat.
Should you get the Sony PCM D10? This is a difficult question. Maybe, if you need a handheld that can also do XLR. Yes, if you need it to record for many hours and access to electricity is not guaranteed. No, if you already have a D100 and a proper recorder like the Mixpre or Zoom F line and don’t need one device that does both. It looks like it’s going to be about two thirds the price of a D100 so it might be worth getting as an additional recorder for backup and unexpected situations.
Regardless of which recorder you get, don’t take the “handheld” part literally. Handholding a recorder is an Instagram cliche and will only yield poor recordings with plenty of unwanted noise. Use a tripod like the Joby Gorillapod, Manfrotto Pixi or Manfrotto Compact Light.
These recorders come with various wind protection, from useless foam bits to proper windjammers. Regardless of which you get, you can always do better with a proper Rycote windjammer. Rycote also sells kits that include a windjammer, a handle and a Lyre suspension for most of the handheld recorders on the market.
Probably THE most important piece of advice I can offer is to try any gear before you buy it. We are all subjective about the kit we use and it’s difficult to review anything like a robot. We each have bugbears and things we like that might not be the same for everyone, so don’t rush and preorder anything before you’ve had a chance to test it. Your wallet will thank you.
As part of the research and review process I made quite a lot of recordings. Some of these are easier to compare with one another so I decided to share them for everyone to download and check. Here’s the dropbox link. I recorded these files simultaneously with the on-board mics on each of the 5 recorders. In terms of processing I only reduced the level on some of them so they were more or less at similar gain.
Before I ordered the two new devices, I thought the reign of the D100 and M10 might be coming to an end. This does not seem to be the case, at least for the moment. Sony has managed to carve two new niches for the A10 and D10, although they could have gone for lower self-noise devices.
At any rate, I will not be returning any of these handhelds and I’ll keep testing them on future recording trips. If anything massive happens I’ll make sure to update the original review. I also plan on releasing video reviews for each of the two, but that will take a while since I have a lot of studio work to get done in a relatively short time.
Researching and putting this review together took me several long days. If you’ve enjoyed it or found it useful you’re welcome to check out my sound effects libraries and you can also buy me a coffee.