Hidden Voice Recorders: The 2019 Buying Guide

 

Whether you want to collect evidence of abuse, prove wrongdoing, record lectures or meetings, or gather source material for that book you’re writing, hidden voice recorders let you capture conversations without drawing attention to yourself.

 

But not all hidden audio recorders are alike. Plenty of apps can turn your cellphone into an audio recorder, but depending on what you’re trying to do and the kind of phone you have, that may not be discreet enough or have the range you need.

 

When shopping for a hidden voice recorder, there are several key features you’ll want to consider:

 

  • Form
  • Range
  • Voice activation vs. continuous recording
  • Storage capacity
  • Battery life
  • Time and date stamp

 

What you’re trying to do will determine which features are most important to you. In this guide, we’ll dig into each of these features and then take a look at some of the best hidden audio recorders out there. (Skip ahead to compare recorders here.)

 

But before we do that, we there’s something we need to address.

Is it legal to record a conversation without someone’s consent?

Depending on the state you live in, you may not be legally allowed to use a hidden audio recorder without getting someone’s consent first. When it comes to laws regarding voice recording, there are three categories your state may fall under:

 

  1. One party consent
  2. All party consent
  3. Mixed

 

Federal law only requires one party consent, but states can prosecute and individuals can initiate civil suits based on their local laws.

 

Note: This article does not constitute legal advice, nor is it intended to. This content is for general informational purposes only.

One party consent

“One party consent” means at least one person who is involved in a conversation must consent before you can record the conversation. This person can be you. In most “one party consent” states, you have to be a participant in the conversation, but in some cases, you just have to be within earshot. It’s always safest to assume you need to be a participant, but look at your state’s laws to be sure.

All party consent

“All party consent” means everyone in the conversation needs to consent before you can record it. If your state has a all-party consent law, you should only buy a hidden voice recorder because they’re convenient and portable—not so you can record a conversation without someone’s knowledge.

Mixed consent laws

If your state’s laws are “mixed,” that can mean a few different things. It might mean legally you only need one-party consent, but that you’re still vulnerable to a civil suit if you record someone without their knowledge. Or it might mean your state’s laws have been interpreted differently in court based on the specific situation. Or that while you need all-party consent to legally eavesdrop on a conversation, you’re not technically eavesdropping if you’re a participant in the conversation.

 

It’s complicated. And even within the categories of “one party consent” and “all party consent,” there are a lot of variations from state to state, so you should look into your local laws before you consider secretly recording a conversation.

 

To help you get started, here’s a quick look at consent laws regarding voice recording in the US:

 

[Color-coded chart with map of the US. Green states have one party consent. Red states have all party consent. Yellow states have “mixed” consent laws. Gray states (Vermont) represent undefined laws. Map should include abbreviations for each state and a key.]

 

We’ve also included a table categorizing the laws in each state at the bottom of this article.

 

And if it isn’t clear already, remember: you have to be present in the area you’re recording. If you’re not there, and no one in the conversation has consented, there’s no gray area: recording a conversation in that situation is always against the law.

 

Note: “Consent” is a little ambiguous. In some cases, if you tell someone you’re going to record a conversation, and they choose to continue the conversation, this is considered “implied consent.” You’ve likely encountered this before when calling a company’s customer service number. “Your call may be recorded for quality and training purposes.”

 

Keep in mind: recording a conversation and using the audio you record are two very different things in the eyes of the law. If you record a conversation and disclose it with someone who wasn’t involved or use the audio for malicious purposes, federal law states that you could go to prison for “no more than five years” and/or receive a fine of up to $250,000. You don’t want to make assumptions or play around in gray areas here. If you plan on using an audio recorder to capture criminal activity, you should probably start talking to a lawyer. 

 

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about what you should look for in a hidden audio recorder.

Form

Hidden audio recorders come in all sizes and shapes. They can be disguised as pens, thumb drives, keychains, and other ordinary objects. Sometimes they actually function as those objects, and sometimes they don’t. Other hidden audio recorders are just really, really small. (Some can be less than an inch wide or tall!) 

 

The important thing is to find a style you’re comfortable with and that makes sense for your setting. A thumb drive audio recorder is appropriate in an office setting or if you’re on your computer a lot, but if you don’t have a computer and aren’t anywhere near one, it might raise a few eyebrows if you’re constantly holding it. Whatever you choose, make sure it’s something that won’t draw any attention.

Range

Some audio recorders only work within a few feet. You’re probably not going to have a conversation with someone from a football field away, but keep in mind: if the range is a few feet, that’s the max distance the recorder can pick up decent audio. So even from a few feet away, the quality may not be great. You want an audio recorder that works from a lot further away than you intend to be, so you don’t have to worry about quality.

Storage capacity

Once you start recording, how much audio can your device actually hold? Some may only hold a few hours. Others can record days of audio without having to erase anything. And keep in mind: storage capacity and battery life aren’t the same thing. It’s possible for your storage to outlast a single charge of the battery.

 

Storage capacity matters most if you plan on continuously recording, as you might in situations where something important could come up at any moment.

Battery life

You’d hate for your audio recorder to die right in the middle of a recording, or in the moment you need it most. That’s why you need to make sure your battery life will outlast the situations you’ll be using it in. Generally, the smaller the recorder, the shorter the battery life (but there are exceptions). The best hidden audio recorders should have batteries that last for days, but the battery dies a lot faster if you’re continuously recording—which is one of the reason to get one with voice activation.

Voice activation

Nobody wants to sift through hours of silence to find “the good stuff.” But if you’re continuously recording, that’s exactly what you have to do. Voice activation works like a motion sensor on a camera: your device only records when there’s something to record! This means no more sorting through silent audio clips. It also extends your battery life by allowing your device to use a “standby mode.” And it means you won’t have to discreetly turn your hidden audio recorder on or off in front of anyone.

Noise reduction

If you might be recording outside or in a busy workplace, noise from wind, traffic, and other people can interfere with your recording and drown out the audio you really want to capture. High quality voice recorders have noise reduction capabilities to keep your recording focused on the conversation in front of you, instead of the things going on all around you.

Time and date stamp

Depending on what you’re using your audio for, a time and date stamp might be a feature you need. If, for example, you plan on using your audio as evidence in a criminal investigation, the time and date the audio was collected could have a big impact on how relevant it is. And even if you don’t plan on taking it that far, the time and date stamp could support your side of the story.

 

Or if you’re recording lectures and meetings or conducting research, the date and time stamp can be a helpful way to organize your recordings and keep track of what was said when.

Other things to consider with hidden audio recorders

You’ll probably want to pay attention to where the actual microphone is on your device, and whether or not it’s a directional mic. Some hidden audio recorders also have multiple microphones to increase the audio quality and make sure you don’t miss anything.

 

A word of caution: as you shop around, you’ll likely find “knock-off” hidden audio recorders that look identical to more popular models and come at a fraction of the cost. If a deal looks too good to be true, it is. Use ratings and reviews to identify legit models, and try to vet brands before you buy from them.

 

Now, let’s look at some popular hidden audio recorders and see how they stack up.

Top hidden audio recorders

We’ve selected a range of styles to help you see what’s out there and hopefully find something that fits your purposes. We’ll highlight whether or not these recorders have the features we’ve discussed and point out if there’s anything else you should know about them.

 

For starters, here’s a table to compare the specs.

 

Model aTTo Mini Voice Recorder RECJOY Thumb Drive Voice Recorder Digital Recorder Pen Lawmate KeyFOB Digital Voice Recorder
Price $95.85 $21.99 $39.99 $99.99
Range 20 feet About 10 feet 20 feet 30 feet
Storage capacity 286 hours 72 hours 260 hours 32 hours
Battery life 24 hours 13 hours 15 hours 15 hours
Voice activation Yes No Yes Yes
Noise reduction Yes Yes Yes No 
Time and date stamp Yes No No No
Weight 0.31 ounces 0.48 ounces 1.62 ounces N/A
Dimensions 1.22 in x 1.06 in x 0.41 in 2.63 x 0.83 x 0.39 in 5.5 x 0.46 x 0.47 in N/A

 

aTTo Mini Voice Recorder

Price: $95.85

Range: 20 feet

Storage capacity: 286 hours

Battery life: 24 hours

Voice activation: Yes

Noise reduction: Yes

Time and date stamp: Yes

Other notable features: password protected, lifetime customer support, adjustable range

 

This hidden voice recorder is just over one inch by one inch and weighs less than one third of an ounce. It’s so tiny even you won’t notice it’s there. It also comes with all the basic features you want, plus a couple more unique ones. It’s password protected, so if someone else gets a hold of it, they won’t be able to access your recordings. And you the microphone has 10 different levels you can switch between to fit your environment.

RECJOY Thumb Drive Voice Recorder

Price: $21.99

Range: about 10 feet

Storage capacity: 72 hours

Battery life: 13 hours

Voice activation: No

Noise reduction: Yes

Time and date stamp: No

Other notable features: functions as a 16 GB thumb drive, PCM recording, saves recording before battery dies

 

The price of this thumb drive voice recorder is hard to beat. It’s short range, but with pulse code modulation (PCM) recording, you’re going to get high quality, uncompressed audio to work with. While the battery lasts for 13 hours, you can also record while charging. As a flashdrive, this will blend right in with an office or classroom setting. It doesn’t come with voice activation, but the simple on/off switch is easy to use and probably won’t draw attention.

Digital Recorder Pen

Price: $39.99

Range: 20 feet

Storage capacity: 260 hours

Battery life: 15 hours

Voice activation: Yes

Noise reduction: Yes

Time and date stamp: No

Other notable features: functions as a pen and MP3 player, PCM recording, lifetime warranty

 

This voice recording pen is perfect for lectures and meetings. You can listen to audio directly through the pen, and you can use it to take notes (or pretend to) while recording. It also comes with a lifetime warranty, so you can return a defective one at any time.

Lawmate KeyFOB Digital Voice Recorder

Price: $99.99

Range: 30 feet

Storage capacity: 32 hours

Battery life: 15 hours

Voice activation: Yes

Noise reduction: No

Time and date stamp: No

Other notable features: disguised as a key fob, vibration feedback for discreet activation, comes with headphones

 

Lawmate makes law enforcement–grade surveillance devices. The KeyFob Digital Voice Recorder is inconspicuous, easy to conceal, and simple to activate. The buttons vibrate when pressed, so you can conveniently turn it on or off without looking. If you want to listen to a recording directly from the recorder, it comes with headphones. (It does not have a standard headphone jack.)

Choose the hidden voice recorder that’s right for you

Hidden audio recorders come in all kinds of styles, and there’s a massive selection of small, discreet recording devices. Ultimately, you’re the only one who can decide which features and specs are most important, and depending on your situation, the form your recorder takes may be more important than any other feature. And whether you choose one of the options above or go with something else, be sure you review your state laws on recording conversations.

 

For your convenience, here’s a list of all 50 states (plus Washington DC) by consent laws.

 

One Party Consent All Party Consent Mixed Consent Laws Undefined Consent Laws
Alabama California Colorado Vermont
Alaska Delaware Nevada
Arizona Florida Oregon
Arkansas Illinois
District of Columbia Maryland
Georgia Massachusetts
Hawaii Montana
Idaho New Hampshire
Indiana Pennsylvania
Iowa Washington
Kansas
Kentucky
Louisiana
Maine
Michigan
Minnesota
Mississippi
Missouri
Nebraska

 

New Jersey
New Mexico
New York
North Carolina
North Dakota
Ohio
Oklahoma
Rhode Island
South Carolina
South Dakota
Tennessee
Virginia
West Virginia
Wisconsin
Wyoming

 

*This article does not constitute legal advice, nor is it intended to. This content is for general informational purposes only.