Thursday, March 8, 2007

Zoom H-4: first impressions

My Zoom H-4 came today. I really wasn't expecting it for a few more days, but since I've got an interview tomorrow I thought I'd put it through some paces this evening to decide if I should take it with me in the morning.

I'll have a much more detailed review up soon, but since I've got about a thousand and one assignments to finish before we leave for Paris on Thursday, I might not have time for a complete review until the end of the month.

So here are my initial thoughts.

Size and shape

It's small. A lot smaller than I would have thought based on the photos. It fits comfortably in the palm of my hand. Sure, it's huge by M-Audio Microtrack or Edirol R-09 standards, but it's a lot smaller than the Marantz PMD660.

It also has a very cheap plastic feel to it. The first time I opened the battery/SD card compartment, I was a bit worried that it would break right off. It's also odd that this compartment is located right by the stereo microphones at the top of the unit, but that's the only spot with room for the battery and SD card. Both sides of the unit have a number of switches, while the bottom has two combo XLR and 1/4th inch inputs.

Overall, I'm happy with the size, but I'd be even happier if it felt a little sturdier. But you get what you pay for, and the Zoom H-4 couldn't be much cheaper. I picked it up for $260 from an Amazon affiliate.


Okay, here's the important stuff. I spent about two hours playing with various settings, and I still feel like I barely know what the Zoom H-4 is really capable of.

I've been using minidisc recorders for the last 6 months, so that's my basis for comparison. The first thing I wanted to do was plug my ElectroVoice RE-50 microphone into the Zoom to see how it sounds compared to my Sony MZ-R50 minidisc recorder.

And it's a tossup. I pick up a decent amount of hiss on the minidisc, but the volume is higher. The Zoom H-4 picks up a little electrical noise which is kind of annoying.

But here's the really surprising thing. The built-in stereo mic sounds better than using the RE-50 with either the H-4 or the minidisc recorder. At first I had some problems with popping Ps on the H-4, but it comes with a little windsock, and once I put that over the mics, the sound quality was excellent.

In fact, the only way I was able to get better sound was by plugging in the AKG Perception 100 condenser mic that I use for voicing stories in my studio. The H-4 provides a full 48V phantom power, and the sound was crisp, clear, and clean. I'm almost tempted to take the AKG mic with me in the field, but I think I'll try the internal mics first, and think about buying a handheld condenser mic in the future.

After making a number of sample recordings, I noticed that there are also several "virtual microphone" settings available if you're using the built in mics. I haven't tried them all, but the SM57 setting sounds reasonably good, and might actually be a little better for recording vocals than using the standard mic setting.


Well, this mini-review went on a bit longer than I'd expected. But there's plenty more. There are a number of features that I'll probably never use as a radio reporter, including sound effects and a 4-track recording mode.

But one feature that seems very promising is that you can use the H-4 as an audio transport. That means you can connect it to a computer with a USB cable, and it will act like an external sound device, allowing you to plug in a microphone or other device and load sound onto the computer.

You can also use that USB cable to drag and drop recordings from the SD card to the PC. So you can record tracks in the field, transfer them to a computer, then use the same device to voice your tracks directly onto your PC. I haven't been able to get the audio transport function to work yet, but I have an Alesis 8USB mixer plugged into my computer, so I won't really need to use the H-4 for this purpose unless I take a laptop out and need to produce a finished piece in the field.

For under $300, the Zoom H-4 might be the only tool beside a computer that you need as a radio producer or podcaster. Did I mention it comes with Cubase LE software for sound editing?


Dave Zatz said...

That thing looks like a taser! You will scare folks... ;)

Brad Linder said...

That's because you haven't seen it with its poofy windsock on. It looks more like a taser with a fro. I'll be sure to upload a photo of the windsock in the full review.

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