Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Zoom H-4 review: a reporter's recorder

Well, I've had my Zoom H-4 for a few days now, and I think it's fair to say this is one heck of a portable audio recorder for the price. I picked mine up for about $260 from an electronics dealer through Amazon, and I paid another $30 for a 2GB SD card, which will store almost four hours of WAV audio at 44.1kHz. Using the MP3 mode, you can store close to three days worth of audio. The Zoom H-4 comes with a 128MB card, but that only enough to record about 12 minutes of WAV audio.

Size

The first thing I noticed is that the Zoom is a lot smaller than I'd imagined. Somehow the pictures I'd seen all made it look enormous. I figured it would at least be the same size as a Marantz PMD660, which is difficult to hold in the palm of your hand.

It turns out that while the Zoom is definitely larger than the M-Audio Microtrack or Edirol R-09, it fits comfortably into the palm of my hand.

It's large enough that you can't easily press buttons while holding with one hand. But there's really not much reason that you'd want to tinker with it while recording. I'll explain more in a moment.

Form Factor

There's definitely a cheap plastic feel to the Zoom H-4, but I'm not sure that you can expect much more from a low-cost machine like this. I'm not sure how many drops it would handle, and I'm not ready to test its durability just for this review.

But there are very few actual moving parts to break. The switches and jog dial on the side all feel sturdy and well built. The directional pad on the front doesn't inspire as much confidence, but I'm willing to put my faith in it not breaking for at least a few years.

My only real concern is the battery/SD card latch. It's a bit of a chore to open the battery compartment. It's located right under the stereo condenser microphones at the top of the unit.

The battery door seems to be held on by two small pieces of plastic, and I'm a bit concerned that they could break off, making it impossible to close the door and use the device.

Design
On the top of the Zoom H-4 are two stereo condenser mics in an XY pattern and the battery/SD compartment. The device runs for 4-5 hours on two AA batteries. On the bottom are two combination XLR/quarter inch jacks.


On the left side:
  • Line-out mini jack
  • Headphone mini jack
  • Headphone volume dial
  • On/off switch
  • Mini-USB connector
On the right side are gain switches (line, mic, and high):
  • Input 1
  • Input 2
  • Built-in microphone
  • Jog dial for navigating menus
And on the front of the device is a five-way navigation button that lets you play tracks and navigate certain menus.

Operation

But how well does it work? That's a tricky question. Zoom has crammed an awful lot of features into the Zoom H-4. It does a lot more than the Marantz PMD660, M-Audio Microtrack, or Edirol R-09.

All four devices work as field recorders. Some have built-in microphones. All accept external mics and line input. But the Zoom H-4 also works as a portable 4-track recorder. In other words, you can plug multiple devices, like a keyboard and a guitar into the H-4 and record up to four separate tracks. I haven't really tested this mode as it's not something I'm likely to use as a reporter.

The Zoom H-4 also serves as an audio transport. Like most flash recorders, you can connect the H-4 to your computer with a USB cable and quickly drag and drop WAV or MP3 recordings onto your desktop. But you can also choose Audio I/O mode, which essentially turns the H-4 into an external sound card for your computer. Now you can plug an XLR microphone or other audio source into the H-4 and it will send the sound to your PC.

I have no use for this feature in the studio, as I'm using the Alesis 8USB mixer, but this is an added bonus for anyone who produces in the field using a laptop. Many laptops don't even include line inputs, making it difficult to record telephone interviews or dub sound from analog sources.

But is the Zoom H-4 a jack of all trades, master of none? Well, it turns out it's a master of some.

Button Navigation

In order to turn on the H-4, you flip the on/off switch. It takes about 5 seconds to boot up, which is about par for the course -- and much faster than the M-Audio Microtrack.

In order to bring up menus, you need to click the 5-way pad in the center of the device. Pressing it in brings up the main menu, where you can
  • Manipulate files
  • Choose from stereo or 4 track modes
  • Choose MP3 or WAV recordings
  • Choose sample rates bit rates, and MP3 quality (44.1kHz to 96kHz, 16bit and 24 bit, and 48kbps to 320kbps)
  • Use a metronome
  • Control the backlight settings
  • Format your SD card
  • Connect to a computer.
The tricky thing is you need to use the jog dial on the right side of the device to scroll through this menu. Press in on the jog dial to make a selection. To exit a menu, press in on the 5-way pad again.

It's a bit annoying at first that you need to use two different buttons to navigate a single menu, but this does make it less likely that you'll accidentally reformat a card while you're recording.

Also annoying is the fact that you have to press down on the 5-way pad in order to access the input menu. Even though Input Menu is written right on the front of the device, I wasn't clear on how to access it until I consulted the manual.

From the input menu (which you also navigate with the jog dial), you can:
  • Choose to use the internal mic or an external mic
  • Set recording levels (which you can adjust while recording, but not without getting some handling noise if you're using the internal microphones)
  • Turn phantom power on and off
  • Turn monitoring on and off (allowing you to hear what the mic is picking up even if you are not recording)
  • Turn automatic gain control on or off
  • Turn compression/limiting on or off
  • Choose an emulated microphone type (this sets the built-in mics to take on certain features of an SM57, MD421, U87, or C414 mic).
Pressing the big red record button the front starts a recording in pause mode. Pressing it again starts the recording, and pressing one more time stops the recording. If there's a way to go into pause record and then change your mind without recording a file, I haven't found it yet.

Having spent a few years working with minidisc recorders, at first I was a bit wary of using flash recorders because most models lack track mark buttons. For daily news reporting, I've found it's generally much easier to hit track every time someone finishes a thought (usually every 30 to 60 seconds) than to try to remember timecode. That way, you can quickly glance at your recorder when a great quote comes up and remember that it's track 37. Rush back to the station, flip over to track 37 and your work is done.

This isn't nearly as big an issue in feature reporting, where I tend to log all of my tape anyway. And the fact that I can load an hour-long interview onto the computer in just a few moments more than makes up for the lack of track marking. On the few occasions when I do daily news or quick turnaround features, it's not that hard to jot down timecode.

Recording quality

Okay, here's the big one. How does the sound quality stack up? Well, as always, there's no simple answer to that question. The only device I've been able to compare the Zoom H-4 with is a Sony MZ-R50 minidisc recorder. I think this is one of the best consumer level minidisc recorders available, but I've never been thrilled with the sound quality.

So I ran a few tests, and the results are a bit surprising. Not only do I think the Zoom H-4 records much cleaner sound than the MZ-R50, it does so using the built-in microphones. Normally I'm wary of built in mics, but these seem to be fairly high quality. What's more, when I plug my Electrovoice RE-50 into the Zoom, I actually pick up a little bit of interference and some electric buzzing sound.

Listen for yourself. In the following test, I placed both the MZ-R50 w/EV RE-50 microphone and the Zoom H-4 at about the same location in my living room. All of these files have been compressed to 128kbps MP3s to save bandwidth, but I think you'll still be able to hear the difference.

MZ-R50 voice test


powered by ODEO

Zoom H-4 voice test


powered by ODEO

MZ-R50 room tone


powered by ODEO

Zoom H-4 room tone



powered by ODEO

For comparison's sake, here's the RE-50 microphone plugged into the Zoom H-4:

Zoom H-4 with RE-50 voice test


powered by ODEO

Zoom H-4 with RE-50 room tone


powered by ODEO


And finally, I plugged in my AKG Perception 100 studio condenser mic and flipped on the H-4's phantom power.


powered by ODEO

For my money, this is the best of the bunch, leading me to believe that it might be worth investing in a condenser mic for field recording. That said, the built-in mics sound pretty good.

I haven't tested the line-in recording extensively, but I haven't noticed any great difference between line-in recordings on the H-4 and the MZ-R50.


Conclusion

The Zoom H-4 has more features than most users will ever need. It's cheaper than most of the other options on the market, and it records high quality audio. There are a few limitations to keep in mind. The H-4 only accepts SD storage cards up to 2GB. This may be addressed in a later firmware release. There is also no mono mode, essentially cutting your record time in half. One thing I've always tried to do with the MZ-R50 is to record in mono mode, since I'm using a mono microphone. Although the H-4 comes with a stereo microphone, for the most part I'm converting stereo files into mono files before mixing anyway.

I'm also puzzled as to why Zoom decided not to include a sturdier carrying case. The Zoom H-4 comes with a flimsy cloth bag. The recorder is distributed by Samson in the United States, and I wasn't able to find any information about padded cases on their web site. I did find one retailer that claims it has a padded case for the H-4, but when you add it to your cart, the description reads "microphone case." For now, I'm actually storing my H-4 in the padded case that came with my RE-50 microphone. The mic can probably handle more of a beating in my bag than the recorder.

Pros:
  • Small size
  • High quality WAV recording
  • Drag and drop files to your desktop
  • Also functions as an audio transport
  • Built in microphones are surprisingly good
  • Decent battery life from AA batteries (easily replaceable)
Cons:
  • Confusing button navigation
  • No mono mode
  • No track mark function
  • Inferior carrying case
  • Only accepts SD cards up to 2GB
Would I recommend picking up a Zoom H-4? Yes. I've had some experience with other flash recorders, including the Marantz PMD660 and the M-Audio Microtrack.

The H-4 beats the Microtrack on everything but size. The Microtrack lacks removable batteries, takes longer to boot up, and has no XLR plugs.

The PMD660 is built much more solidly than the H-4, and I'd rather have it in my bag if I was going overseas for a long assignment. But feature-wise, theres' not much the Marantz can do that the H-4 can't, other than starting new tracks without pausing recordings. If you have the money for a Marantz, go for it, but the H-4 is a great deal for just over half the price of a PMD660.

Update: I take it back. There are several solutions to the "beeping" problem. One involves soldering some parts into your unit to reduce the noise. Not for the feint of heart (or anyone who values their warranty). The other is a bit simpler.

Apparently they noise is a result of running your device on battery power. Just plug your H-4 in, and the noise should go away. If you're not in a position to plug it in all the time, you can make an external battery pack with under $30 in parts.

Related posts:

33 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this review, Brad. I think I might get one. But I'm still wondering about how you adjust recording levels on the fly...Is it possible?

Robin

Brad Linder said...

Hi Robin,

You can adjust audio levels on the fly, but it's not easy.

Basically, once you're recording, you hit the input menu button, (by pressing down on the navigation pad on the front of the unit), then use the jog dial on the side to select level. Press in on the jog dial to select level, then press in again to let it know you really want to adjust the record level. Now move the jog wheel up or down to change the record level.

I suppose if you're in a situation where you expect you'll need to adjust the level this way, you can just go through all of those steps at the start, and all you'll need to do is flip the jog wheel up or down as you're recording.

There's also an automatic gain control setting similar to what you have on most minidisc recorders. It seems to do a fairly decent job.

But if being able to adjust levels on the fly is a high priority for you, I'd recommend the Marantz PMD660 over the Zoom H-4. If memory serves, it has an easy to adjust dial.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Brad,

Thanks a lot for the review. Helps tremendously. I got a Zoom H4 a couple of days ago, and used it for a Congressional hearing today. I guess it should line-in level. I found no matter how I adjust the level, the audio sounds clipped and muffled. Have you experienced the same problem, and do you know how to fix it?

Brad Linder said...

Can you tell me a little more about how you were using it? Were you plugging into a mult box or using a microphone?

If you plug into a mult box, you're going to want to use an XLR to XLR cable if the box is sending a mic level signal. If it's a line signal, I believe you'd need an XLR to 1/4th inch cable. I haven't spent much time using the line input on my Zoom H-4, but it appears that it treats a quarter-inch plug as a line input, and an XLR plug as a mic input.

Using the built-in mics and an RE-50, I've never had problems with audio clipping. I tend to set the level at medium. Recordings come in a little low at this setting, but there's little risk of clipping, and I can boost the levels on my computer.

Yanmei said...

Thank you much for your response. It was a line signal and I plugged into a mult box. I used, however, a XLR to XLR cable. Maybe that's where the problems came from. If I use an XLR to 1/4 inch cable, where's the line-in on the recorder? I only see one that says line output.

Brad Linder said...

Hi Yanmei,

The plugs at the bottom of the H4 are combination XLR/quarter inch plugs. The line output you see on the side of the device is actually about 1/8th inch or 3.5mm. So what you need is a cable that fits into a standard mic on one end and looks like a big headphone jack on the other.

If you carry an XLR to XLR cable and an XLR to quarter inch cable with you, you should be covered for any event.

Yanmei said...

Thank you so so so much, Brad. That really helps a lot!

dpeach said...

Thanks for the review. I have considered getting one of these devices. I do a lot of field recording.

Zachary M. Schrag said...

Since you mentioned telephone interviewing, could you explain how you would rig up this recorder for a telephone interview?

Thanks,

Zach

Brad Linder said...

Zach, the Zoom H-4 has a line/mic input. You can run a line from a telephone interface to the jacks on the bottom of the unit. In order to capture a line level signal like that generated by most telephone interfaces, you'll need a quarter inch cable (think big headphone jack).

As for the telephone interface, there are a variety of boxes you could use. The simplest is a $15 box that you can pick up at Radio Shack. It plugs into your telephone between the base and the handset and provides you with a 1/8th inch output. Place a quarter inch adapter on the end and you're all set.

Of course, you get what you pay for, and the audio levels will be pretty low with a cheap box, and you may get more interference than you'd like. You can buy a more expensive unit, with some devices costing over $1000. A good place to look for a reasonably balance between value and prices is JK Audio. They make a low end $60 box that's like a higher quality version of the Radio Shack device I mentioned above. But they also have broadcast quality boxes that run between $100 and $500.

Zachary M. Schrag said...

Thank you for your quick and helpful reply, as well as for the review itself.

Zach

Anonymous said...

hello there, i listened to the "H4 room tone" recording, and just as I increased the overall volume of my headphone, i could hear a "rythmic-humming-tick" that goes through all of the recording. I was wondering, i know that humming is too low, but is there a way to diminish its effect? by using an external preamplifier or something?

Brad Linder said...

Unfortunately I have not yet found a way to eliminate that rhythmic noise. When I wrote this review I hadn't really noticed it yet, although in later blog entries, I think I did mention the sound. I updated this post to reflect the issue.

To my ear, the interference is quieter than the hiss you record with most minidisc recorders or low end flash recorders, so I'm willing to live with it. The fact that it sounds a bit machine-like is annoying, as anyone who cranks up their volume could be more likely to notice it than the white noise of a messy preamp.

If anyone has suggestions, I'd love to hear them.

Anonymous said...

Brad;

What external mic do you recommend using with the H4 for rasio broadcast interviews?

Thanks;

Leslie

Brad Linder said...

Hi Leslie. I actually don't recommend using an external mic with the Zoom. I haven't found one yet that sounds very good, and the internal mics are fantastic. So I just use the internal mic unless I'm outdoors where wind noise is a problem.

If you're absolutely set on using an external mic, I'd recommend a condenser mic with a high output such as a shotgun microphone. But if you're willing to spend a few hundred dollars on a microphone, you might as well shell out a few hundred more and get a fancier machine like the Fostex FR2-LE or the Sound Devices 722. What makes the Zoom H-4 special is that it records high quality audio and costs less than $300.

ChasCreek said...

I think the Zoom H4 is a cracking little unit. I always record at 96khz which means that I don't get the clicking but of course recording at this does mean large files and not a lot of time on a 2Gb card.

The small inbuilt capsule mics are great but I do also use a Rode NT4 stereo mic with the Zoom and I find that this does work with the and creates a much richer and more expansive sound field.

I love the Zoom that much that I have two (one in reserve!).

I have recently purchsed a Fostex FR-2LE which is a step up - but for any recording where I wan't to be less obvious the Zoom really can't be beaten I think in it's price range and even with units costing a little more.

A modifed Rode deadcat windshield makes it a great on the spur of the moment unit for outdoors work, as the supplied foam pop shield doesn't cope really with even the slightest breeze.

Anonymous said...

Audio files produced by ZOOM H4 will not synch with audio (and therefore video) files produced by any MiniDV camcorder. Manufacturer says its a problem with the internal clock in the H4. But they can't fix it. Which means the pitch of what plays back is slightly different than what you recorded. Inexcuseable in a piece of gear this expensive...

Rebecca Thatcher Murcia said...

Dear Brad,
I bought the Zoom H4 Handy Recorder after reading positive reviews. But I have Windows Vista on my only computer and I've been told there is NO way it will work on Windows Vista.
I'm disappointed this was not more clear in the advertising.
Becky

Brad Linder said...

Rebecca: What specific problems are you having? I never had trouble using my Zoom H4 to load sound onto a Vista computer. It also worked just fine as an audio input/output device.

Rebecca Thatcher Murcia said...

Dear Brad,
Thank you so much for your rapid response. What you said is encouraging. Maybe I just have to keep poking around. When I plug in my H4's USB, my computer says it cannot find the driver anywhere, so it cannot download any files. I've been reading about the Vista Service Pack and how it has a fix for problems with finding device drivers, so I'm wondering if that is a solution.
Becky

Brad Linder said...

Rebecca: You might need to upgrade your Zoom's firmware in order to get it to work with Vista. I honestly can't remember if I had to do this when I got my Zoom H4. But here's a link to the latest firmware and installation instructions:

http://www.zoom.co.jp/english/download/software/h4.php

Note that if you have audio saved on your SD card, the update shouldn't affect it, but just to be safe you might want to try using a separate SD card to load the update if you've got one.

Rebecca Thatcher Murcia said...

Thank you so much, Brad!

guitarpsych said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
guitarpsych said...
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Anonymous said...

Hello Brad.

I ve got problem with importing file from stereo mode in 4 track recorder in Zoom H4.
When I ve got H4,there was no problem to import wav,but I cant no longer import.Is there something wrong with software or what.How should I reset it on original stings?
I only can import file if I set stereo link,but than I loose one track in 4 mode.What should I do.

Thank you for an answer.

Sten

mfhiatt said...

Brad,
I wonder if you were able to get a higher input level using the RE-50 with the H4. I love the Zoom but can't do interviews with the internal mics because of the handling noise, and I can't get the level up when recording with my RE-50. When I bump it up the background noise is excessive.

Thanks

Mike

StalkingButler said...

Hey - about not being able to import files - this happened to me also. What happened is, you changed your record mode to record at some funky resolution (96k or 24bit). You need to either re-record at 44.1 and 16 bit or convert the existing files to those settings, then you'll be able to import them as usual.

Anonymous said...

Hey Brad,
I got the zoom h4 myself for some radio stuff. I usually worked with Marantz equipment from the station and am not too much of a technic freak....so I'm a bit lost now just by trying to record a normal interview inside... where can i regulate the sound?whereabouts should it be (normally around 0 level, right?) which format would you recommend, and where to put the mic gain button?

I'd be very glad for a quick reply!!
Chris

Rebecca Thatcher Murcia said...

Thank you so much, Brad!

mfhiatt said...

Brad,
I wonder if you were able to get a higher input level using the RE-50 with the H4. I love the Zoom but can't do interviews with the internal mics because of the handling noise, and I can't get the level up when recording with my RE-50. When I bump it up the background noise is excessive.

Thanks

Mike

ChasCreek said...

I think the Zoom H4 is a cracking little unit. I always record at 96khz which means that I don't get the clicking but of course recording at this does mean large files and not a lot of time on a 2Gb card.

The small inbuilt capsule mics are great but I do also use a Rode NT4 stereo mic with the Zoom and I find that this does work with the and creates a much richer and more expansive sound field.

I love the Zoom that much that I have two (one in reserve!).

I have recently purchsed a Fostex FR-2LE which is a step up - but for any recording where I wan't to be less obvious the Zoom really can't be beaten I think in it's price range and even with units costing a little more.

A modifed Rode deadcat windshield makes it a great on the spur of the moment unit for outdoors work, as the supplied foam pop shield doesn't cope really with even the slightest breeze.

Anonymous said...

Brad;

What external mic do you recommend using with the H4 for rasio broadcast interviews?

Thanks;

Leslie

low energy pc said...

The other main issue to consider is that not all recorders support all disc formats. PC DVD burners have mostly eliminated format wars with cross-format support; however, DVD recorders continue to be more stratified along format lines.

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