A minor update to a piece of gear doesn’t usually generally trigger a re-review, but new editions of the venerable Tascam DR-100 have been an exception. The original DR-100 was one of our favorite recorders when it came out (with a few reservations) and then the DR-100mkII had some significant improvements in audio quality. It’s been one of our go-to recorders at Transom, with a good balance of features, performance and price. But oddly, the mkII was missing a few capabilities included on other Tascam recorders, as well as models made by competing companies.
So, we were curious to see what functionality the mkIII update would add, and whether it could stay competitive with the other recorders currently available.
(purchasing via these links helps support Transom.org.)
As so often happens, the update of this recorder is a mixed-bag. It’s mostly good: the mic preamps and analog-to-digital converters have been noticeably improved, giving this recorder excellent sound quality with almost any microphone, even low-output dynamic mics.
Dual recording has been added, helping to protect against distortion resulting from unexpectedly loud peaks. And it’s still a fairly intuitive recorder to use, with many common functions controlled by easy-to-access hardware switches.
But a few important functions have moved to menu control, requiring a few button-pushes and scroll-wheel turns. Recording with one external microphone is especially problematic: audio only appears in one channel of the headphones, making it very difficult to monitor effectively (although there is a work-around – see below…) And the improved performance comes at a price. At press time, this recorder sells for $400, significantly more than the DR-100mkII (~$235) or the DR-60D (sometimes less than $200) or the Zoom H5 (~$270).
What do you get for that extra investment? Here are some details.
The most-useful improvements:
- The input circuitry is improved, offering more gain, and cleaner sound. It can provide hiss-free recordings with practically any microphone, including low-output mics like the Electrovoice RE50.
- It’s capable of recording at very high sample rates (up to 192 kHz). That’s of questionable value in a recorder like this, but some users may find it of use.
- There’s no more “low-medium-high” input gain-range switch — input gain is controlled only by the input gain knob.
- The two nested input knobs have been replaced by just one, still positioned comfortably under the thumb, when the recorder is held in the right hand. A front panel switch makes it possible to adjust just the left channel, or the right, or both channels at once. Gain settings for each channel can be offset if using two mics with differing sensitivities, or if recording two subjects with different volumes.
- Two types of dual recording are possible: making a safety recording at a lower level, to guard against loud peaks; or recording a WAV and MP3 version at the same time.
- The display screen is larger, and easier to read, with helpful information clearly visible.
- New input level indicator lights near the external mic jacks offer a quick and obvious indication of audio present, close-to-peak (-6 dBfs), and over.
- The external inputs are now XLR/quarter-inch “combi” jacks, allowing connection of both mic and line-level sources. (Line-level input signals should be connected to the quarter-inch jacks; mic-level signals should use the XLR jacks.)
- The external mini input can now be set, in a menu, to accept mic level or line level.
- Switches formerly on the back of the recorder have been moved to more convenient, and logical, locations on the front or sides of the unit. The phantom power switch is now located in between the mic inputs. The speaker on-off is now located near the volume dial and headphone jack. The limiter switch is now on the face of the unit, next to a pad switch and an input level control.
- There are small bars on the bottom of the recorder that will allow the connection of a shoulder strap. Hanging the recorder from a strap places the screen in an inconvenient position, but the gain-indicator lights will still be clearly visible, at least providing some feedback about audio levels.
- The unit can now operate fully on USB power. Earlier models could only charge the internal battery via USB.
- The internal rechargeable battery can operate the unit for an impressively long time. Actual operating time will vary depending on many factors, including whether phantom power is being used, what file-type is being recorded, whether headphones are being used, among other variables. In our tests, recording from the built-in mics to a WAV file, the internal Lithium battery kept the recorder running for almost 12 hours continuously. Operation then automatically switched over to the two AA batteries. Those batteries only lasted about two hours. Connecting an external mic and turning-on phantom power might cut that record time in half, but if you keep the internal battery charged-up, the recorder should have plenty of power for a solid day’s reporting. Different kinds of rechargeable AA batteries can provide longer operation times than standard Alkaline AAs.
Things that remained the same (for better or worse).
- It’s approximately the same size and shape, although it’s heavier, probably due to the new internal battery.
- Many controls remain as hardware switches, rather than menu items, allowing for quick adjustments and immediate confirmation of settings.
- There’s still a decent built-in speaker, which can be handy for quick checks, logging, or transcribing.
- The unit can still be powered via an internal rechargeable battery, or by two AA batteries (or by USB, which is new).
- Latching XLR inputs assure a secure connection.
- Built-in Unidirectional microphones are good quality, well-suited for recording ambiences and performances.
- Built-in Omnidirectional microphones are noisy and tinny.
- There is an S/PDIF digital input, which is increasingly rare on portable recorders.
Sadly, there are a few steps backward, and curious omissions.
- The input source selection is no longer made with a hardware switch, it now requires accessing a menu. To be fair, there are more input options, making the previous versions’ multi-position switch less practical, but it’s unfortunate that menu navigation is now required for something so fundamental. Thankfully, navigating the menus for changing the input settings is fairly easy and logical.
- The designation of MIC and LINE vs. EXT MIC and EXT LINE is not completely obvious. EXT is for mics or line-level signals connected to the minijack on the top edge of the recorder, and choosing mic or line will set the gain-range appropriately. MIC makes the XLR jacks on the bottom of the recorder the active input, and LINE is for the quarter-inch inputs at the center of those combination jacks.
- The headphone amp is seriously under-powered. It’s hard to get much volume in the headphones, especially when recording with one mic. UPDATE! A helpful reader pointed out that there’s a new headphone level control, in addition to the thumbwheel on the side of the recorder. It’s semi-hidden in a menu: I/O SETTINGS>>OUTPUT ATT. On most recorders, output attenuation will simply reduce the output level of the mini-jack line-out, which is helpful when feeding audio to a video camera. And this menu will let you control that level, but there’s ALSO a setting for headphone output level. The overall headphone volume can be reduced by 10 or 16 dB, or there’s a setting called “EAR PROTECTION.” The recorder’s default settings have “ear protection” selected, which drops the output level significantly. Set the headphone output attenuation to zero, and you’ll get plenty of sound in the headphones.
- When recording in mono to one channel — a common interview scenario — the sound only appears in one ear on headphones. This makes it very difficult to monitor confidently. UPDATE! Another helpful reader asked if there was a downside to using “MONO-MIX” (set in the FILETYPE menu) when recording with only one microphone. This mode combines the left and right channels into a mono file, and routes sound from each input equally to both channels of the headphones. In theory, this is bad practice: recording an “empty” track into the mono mix file can add noise. This used to be a real problem on some older recorders. But in practice, on the DR-100mkIII, any noise created by the unused channel is so low that it’s inconsequential, so using mono-mix mode when recording with one mic is a viable workaround. Just to be safe, I’d recommend turning the input gain down on the unused channel, the new Input level switch makes that easy to do.
- The internal rechargeable battery is no longer removable. With the new battery’s relatively long life, and the ability to switch to AA battery power (or USB), that’s probably not going to be a huge problem in day-to-day use, but it was nice to have the ability to swap-in a spare, rechargeable battery. Additionally, rechargeable batteries tend to fail eventually, and it will be more complicated to update that battery if its performance falls.
- The internal battery takes a long time to charge: several hours to fully-charge an exhausted battery.
- Although the recorder can now make two stereo recordings at once, either as a reduced-level safety recording, or as a WAV-plus-MP3, this recorder does NOT allow 4-track recording from the built-in mics and the external inputs at the same time. The (much cheaper) Tascam DR-40 allows this, as does the DR-70D, as well as most of the Zoom recorders, such as the H5 or H6.
- The current record settings, such as mono or stereo, are not reflected in the display until the record button is pushed. The correct information appears when that record-ready button is pushed, but it’s confusing that the display doesn’t accurately reflect the record mode until one is actually about to record.
Ultimately, the most important issue is how recordings made on the device sound. The good news is that in most scenarios, the improvements to the mic preamps and converters are clearly obvious. The sound quality, in particular with external microphones, is excellent. Even low-output mics, such as dynamic omni mics, can be used with this recorder without turning the input gain controls all the way up, and without hissy background noise degrading the recordings.
Strangely, that pristine sound quality is not as apparent when using the built-in microphones. The unidirectional mics still sound pretty good, but do not seem as quiet as mics plugged into the external XLR inputs. Here are some examples:
The Tascam DR-100mkIII offers some real improvements over the earlier versions, and over competitors in the market. The sound quality is quite fine, and the operation is intuitive. Menus, when one needs to delve into them, are logically-arranged, and making changes is relatively quick and easy. The new rechargeable battery provides impressive performance: in most cases one could record for a whole day on a single charge. It’s unfortunate that the battery cannot be easily replaced, but its long life might be a reasonable trade-off. Conversely, operating on two AA batteries is a disappointment, we only got a couple of hours of continuous recording before the pair of new Alkaline batteries went dead.
The biggest downside of this recorder is the headphone monitoring. Levels overall are low, making it hard to make critical assessments of mic placement and background noise. Even worse, if recording with one mic, the audio only appear in one ear of your headphones. I’m hopeful that the single-channel problem could be addressed with a firmware upgrade, but I’m afraid that the weak output levels might not be easily fixed. There are possible work-arounds for these problems, but one shouldn’t have to add external devices and adapters simply to monitor recordings. Perhaps there are some specific headphones that work better than others with this recorder, but the industry standard Sony 7506 headphones, which can generally produce a very healthy level from most headphone outputs, are left sounding a little weak when connected to this recorder.
Those monitoring problems make it hard to wholeheartedly endorse this recorder, but the recordings it can make are quite impressive. The high-sample-rate recording that this recorder is capable of is of little use in most journalistic and documentary projects, but the overall quality of the mic preamps and analog-to-digital conversion is a real improvement from the earlier models. The DR-100mkIII can make clean, excellent-quality recordings with a wide array of microphones, including the dynamic mics that are often problematic with small portable recorders.
The Tascam DR-60D, and DR-70D offer good recording quality too — maybe not quite as good as the DR-100 mkIII, but still very good, and for less money. However, the design of the DR-100 mkIII may be more appealing in some contexts. If you intend to use the built-in mics, the DR-100 is a better choice: the DR-60D doesn’t have any, and the DR-70D’s are positioned poorly for hand-held use.
The most direct competitor is the Zoom H5, which has a similar size and configuration to the DR-100, and has a few extra tricks (four-track recording, interchangeable mic heads) at a lower price. The Zoom H5 is a good-sounding recorder, especially when using the built-in XY stereo mics, but the DR-100 mkIII has more clean gain for external mics than the H5. If sound quality is your primary concern, especially if you use a dynamic microphone, the DR-100 mkIII is your best choice.
(Purchasing via these links helps support Transom.org.)