Roland R-26, Tascam DR-40, and Nagra SD Portable Handheld Recorders Review

Mar 1, 2012 9:00 AM, By Brandon T. Hickey



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Anyone familiar with field recording knows the name Nagra. The Nagra SD is barely larger than a cigarette pack and constructed from sturdy aluminum. The back panel is covered in switches, and the face features a small display screen and various level, transport, and menu buttons. On one side is a headphone jack and the SD card slot, on the other is a miniature B-Type 4-pin USB connector for data transfers. The narrow top surface features a pair of 1/8-inch mini jacks designed to connect to the different clip-on input options; they can also directly receive mic or line-level signals.

All clip-on mics and cables are sold separately, but offerings include a mono, cardioid microphone; a dual-capsule stereo mic; a high-quality dual-capsule stereo mic; an omni mic; a stereo mic cable with dual XLRs; and a line-level stereo cable that terminates to dual XLRs. Neither of the microphone cables offers phantom power, so external mics requiring phantom power demand an external power supply. Accessories from Nagra’s ARES-M/MII/ML recorders are also compatible with the Nagra SD.

I spent the most time using the omni mic (marked with a blue band) and the high-quality stereo capsule (marked with a green band), which impressed me the most. The low midrange frequencies were very clear and detailed with great bottom and smooth, as well as balanced upper midrange and excellent top-end detail. As a result, I achieved an incredibly visceral image.

I was confused by the decision-making on the physical design. Certain features were given dedicated hardware switches that might have been as easily assigned to menu selections and vice versa. The unit included a protective carrying case with a tripod-style mount, which kept handling noise out of the recording. The case, however, blocked access to all of the back panel switches such as the mic-gain high/low toggle and the HPF—switches that I often needed to engage on the fly. De-casing required disconnecting headphones, making the process rather awkward. Similarly, pressing buttons through the clear, plastic top face of the case often caused errors, as two buttons would inadvertently be depressed at once.

The menu system was often difficult to navigate. For example, when you are four layers deep in a menu, it would be beneficial if the menu button brought you back to the top; instead, you have to scroll and navigate your way back home. Also, choosing whether you want to record a stereo or mono file should be a menu option, not a hardware switch. And for that matter, if I can’t get to the switches without taking off the case, I’d just as soon use the menus to gain access to them.

That said, you’d be hard-pressed to find another light, portable all-in-one recorder that sounds as good as this one. I think that Nagra envisioned the SD for broadcasters doing on-the-fly interviews, as that seems to be the connotation in the instruction manual. Given the microphone choices and portability, the unit seems more than capable of doing just that. With a little more ergonomic functionality, however, the SD could easily dominate the high end of the handheld recording market.

Brandon T. Hickey is a freelance engineer and audio educator.

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