This post is just a wrap up of the handheld shootout.
I did the tests because I wanted to find out for sure a few of things:
1: how did the internal mics and other features of these recorders stack up against one another
2: how do they stack up against an industry standard setup
3: when can I opt for the cheaper and more convenient option over the more expensive and time consuming one?
Here's generally how I interpret the results of what I found:
Sony PCM D50:
This unit costs 1.5x what the others do, but lacks some of the features and xlr inputs. So what are you paying for? Design and build quality.
The D50 is the only device made of metal, with all metal switches, jacks, and mounting threads. Its built like a tank, and sounds great. The limiter is the best of the bunch, the preamp knob feels great, the mics swivel and are protected with metal bars, there's 4 gigs of storage built into the device, and all of the most important functions are available without resorting to menus. The battery life obliterates that of the other devices, and the size isn't compromised at all.
Its designed to be 100% stand alone, so no XLR inputs. That's a pretty big bummer if you're looking for an alternative to a 702, but it seems to fit the mentality of the grab it and roll improptu recording device, which is where it gets most of its use in my world.
This unit was a little disappointing IMO, but mostly due to missed opportunities. It has tons of switches on the outside, but only about 2/3rds of them are truly useful. I'd love to have seen a mono/stereo switch given how often I'm jumping into the menu to change that back and forth. The limiter is analog and pre a/d, but has an incredibly slow release time and is not adjustable. The unit is built from pretty sturdy plastic but plastic nonetheless and the XLR jacks could have been the neutrick dual use kind but are not. Also, the tripod mounting threads are plastic, which is a bad place to get cheap. The internal mics performed the worst of the three units, and I didn't bother testing the other "omni" mics that are included because I listened to them earlier and deemed them unworthy of competition in this specific arena. The unit has a proprietary Li-Ion battery that charges via USB and seamlessly switches to the AA backups, though the combination of the two still don't come close to matching the battery life of the D50 with its four AA setup. I'd have gladly payed another $100 for metal construction and switches, and neutrick dual use XLR jacks.
I'd only recommend this unit as a compliment to an external microphone, but in that capacity it handles the job well and could even serve as a cheap but effective backup recorder.
The Zoom H4n
This unit is the de-facto standard for dslr filmmakers. It's by far the most versatile unit. The internal mics are good enough for use, the XLR jacks are 1/4 compatible which is great for my contact mics, and this is the only unit that can record 4 channels at once (2 from the internal mics and 2 from the XLR inputs) This makes the H4n ideal for performance recordings where one has access to the soundboard. Just run the board mix into the 1/4 jacks, mount the device where the built ins can catch the crowd and you're good. I've used it in this context before to great effect, but there is one serious caveat here - power. The power in theaters and clubs is notoriously dirty, so if you can't take a clean feed without resorting to batteries be prepared for a long night because thing sucks batteries like crazy. The switches and jacks are plastic but pretty sturdy, and the tripod mount is metal. My unit has a nasty habit of telling me that there is no SD card until I reboot it sometimes, so be on the lookout for those type of quirks as well.
Overall its a sturdy unit that is more versatile than any other out there. It is competent at everything it tries to do, but take the battery thing seriously with this unit. Two AA are not enough.