Quality digital recorders have shrunk to the point where they fit *inside* a hi-fi microphone, like this Zoom model. You can hold the mic and the recorder in one hand. This very compact recorder/mic can capture music in the studio or in the field at surprising high audio quality in stereo. I am more interested in recording voice and sounds for radio, and flash-card-based units like this one are more than adequate for that purpose. I was guided to the Zoom by the audio geeks at Transom, an online hangout for radio journalists. They review the best gear for NPR reporters and the like. (This stuff changes quickly so check Transom’s tool area for the latest recommendations).
I’ve been using the Zoom H2 because it was among the least expensive choices for a professional level digital sound recorder. It contains its own decent microphones (no fooling around with auxiliary plugs, boosters, adapters, etc.), it records on cheap flash cards, it has an earphone jack so you can monitor the actual feed, and it comes with a nifty removable handle so I can hold it in front of interviewees. It also comes with a short mini-stand for studio recording. The Zoom H2 gets good marks for the quality of the mic and stereo recording. The resulting edited files sound as crisp and full as anything you’ll hear on radio or CD. And the street price for this microphone/recorder combo is about $180.
Remember when $200 digital cameras were able to take a picture as rich and detailed as a professional 35mm camera? Recorders like the Zoom H2 have crossed a similar threshold for sound. For under $200 you can record music, voice, sound at a quality nearly undistinguishable (for 95% of uses) from anything a professional model would do.