Sunday, March 22, 2009

Zoom H4n external mic tests

The other day I posted audio recordings comparing the built in microphones on the Zoom H4n, Zoom H4, and Sony PCM-D50 digital audio recorders. Today I have some recordings made using two different external mics: an ElectroVoice RE50 dynamic mic and an AKG Perception 100 studio-style condensor.

I didn't have enough mics to make simultaneous recordings as I did with the previous tests. But each recording includes a bit of my voice, some ambient room sounds, and a short section of guitar. I can't promise that the mic placement was perfect for the guitar - as a radio journalist I'm better versed in micing people than musical instruments.

Zoom H4n with RE50 dynamic mic using the XLR input

Zoom H4n with RE50 dynamic mic using mini input

Zoom H4n with AKG Perception mic using 48v phantom power and XLR input

Zoom H4 with RE50 dynamic mic using XLR input

Zoom H4 with AKG Perception mic using 48v phantom power and XLR input

Sony PCM-D50 with RE50 dynamic mic and mini input

To my ear, the XLR inputs on both the original Zoom H4 and the Zoom H4n have far too much hiss to be used with a dynamic microphone like the RE50. On both devices, the original recording was very quiet (although the Zoom H4n recording was a bit louder), and when I boosted the volume using CoolEdit, the hiss become quite noticable.

But the Zoom H4n also has a 1/8th inch input. When using this input with the RE50 microphone, the recording level was much higher, and the hiss much less noticable. In my opinion, the Sony PCM-D50 still works better with the RE50. But it also costs $100 to $150 more. If you're on a tight budget, the Zoom H4n might be all you need. Plus it offers added features like XLR inputs and phantom power for condenser mics.

The AKG Perception microphone sounded reasonably good with both of the Zoom recorders. You'd need a preamp to use that mic with the Sony PCM-D50.

What it comes down to is that all three are decent recorders. But you'll have to pick the right one for your needs and your budget. The Zoom H4 is available from Amazon for as little as $227, while the Zoom H4n costs $346. The Sony PCM-D50 goes for about $469.

In the next few days I'll share my thoughts on the Zoom H4n hardware to roundup this review.


mbrenner said...


It would be nice to see tests that really show a signal to noise ratio. With Phantom power and without. I would recommend getting hold of a test oscillator run it at low mic level and set the mic pre so that you are recording 6dB below absolute digital 0 on each device. Shut down the oscillator and measure the noise. Then you will know how much noise you have rather than which system has the most pre-amp gain. Do the same with phantom power on.

I am seriously considering this device and worry about noise in the Mic Pre's. I would generally use with fairly high output level mics but may end up recoding some low level instruments,

Philip said...

FYI To use AKG perception with Sony pcmd50 you can use Rolls XLR phantom power - battery operated. I use this device with NT1a and the performance is studio like. (It cost me $50 and sounds good as XLR-1 which cost around $399).

Graham Riches said...

This is quite interesting round I am only going to comment on recording using dynamic mic as both Zoom recorders were very good with Condenser mic.


XLR - Dynamic

Zoom H4n - was not to bad in comparison to Ewers recording. However there is still some background noise - nothing severe though. 6/10

Zoom H4 - The recording on this unit was pretty good probably slightly better than H4n around the way it handles Dynamic mic through XRL inputs. Although it was a bit more transparent, but the background noise is still evident. 7/10

1/8 inch input (3.5mm)-Dynamic.

Zoom H4n - with this input the quality was much better to my ears, there was lot more drive which resulted in much cleaner pre-amps. The reproduction of sound had jump too. Overall was quite impressed but there was still hint of some back ground noise. 8.5/10

Sony pcm d50 - This is where this product's real strengths lies and the sound quality rivals 3 times its price - absolutely faultless. 10/10

All products tested here are very capable units in different ways.

If you want a true all rounder with XLR inputs for condenser mics (pretty interface) and a good 1/8 inch input for dynamic mics plus a decent internal mics look no further than Zoom H4n ( a real improvement over H4) as in my opinion this is an excellent budget portable studio.

If your out and about in field, live concert, live interviews to gather some important recordings then you may want something a bit more durable and robust with excellent battery life and while all controls are hardware base it makes this device very easy to use such as its beautifully implemented (jog dial)recording level control ; found in pro equipments. look no further than
Sony D50.

If your on on a tight budget and want XLR inputs then H4 would fit the bill (the recent production has really improved).

Anonymous said...

hi brad,

first of all thanks for the comparison tests!

there is one thing i noticed on all h4n tests recording (both int/ext mics).. a lack of low end.
i dare not assume a hipass filter was switched on during recording so i am afraid this is a "build in feature" by zoom. anyone else notice this abscence of low end compared to the other recorders (h4 and sony) ?



Brad Linder said...

@Arnoud: I made sure to flip off all of the effects before running these tests. What you hear is what you get.

That said, it's always possible that turning some of these features *on* could result in better sounding recordings in some environments.

Anonymous said...

Thinking this tool was designed primarly for musicians, i decided to purchase this but for my application it was useless because recording quiet parts of the piano was very tricky and could not get one successful recordings with this device. So I decided to loan a pcm d50 to compare and the recordings with Sony was quite accurate very little unwanted noise and the tones were very precise. Final verdict I am returning H4n for a replacement with Sony.

mountainwatcher said...

I record nature sounds.

I've had a bunch of recorders over the years.
The h4n sounds very good to me.

I used the built in mics in both 120 and 90 degrees.
I used a tripod, so there was no handling noise.
In all of the ambient recordings, I heard very little hiss.

I agree about a high end bump in the EQ.
I think this high freq weighting might increase the perceived hiss.
This is easily rectified when you import the sounds into your DAW.

So far, I have made many recordings that have translated well into my projects.
I think this new recorder is very good.

Anonymous said...


will you be using any external microphones and what type ? how do they compare to the internal?
and do you also here a lack of low end or is it just me being picky?

mountainwatcher said...

One of the reasons I chose the h4n was for the possibility of doing 4 channel recordings using the internal mics and 2 external mics.

I haven't tried that yet, so I can't offer any info.
So far, for the nature sounds, I've been able to get very nice results when I EQ the audio in my DAW.

I haven't recorded any music so far, so I can't give any info about the bass response.
I hear a hi-mid bump and that may be giving you the perception of "lack of low end".

Anonymous said...

@mountainwatcher: thanks for the answer. about the lowend, in the comparison tests i clearly hear a low drone sound (airco) on both the sony and h4 but not on the h4n, so i don't think it's the hi mid bump. maybe another place in the room to record ?

oh and brad thanks for your response, forget to mention that in my earlier post.

Anonymous said...

I used the H4n with some Neumann SDC mics.
I recorded in 4 channel mode.
Holy Shrimp!
It was the best live recording I have ever done.
Don't give up on this baby.
Two extra phantom powered jacks are a godsend.
The final mix is extraordinary.

Fabrice said...


thanks for the review, it's really great stuff. I'm just wondering if you've tested the Sony PCM-D50 with any microphones using the XLR-1 mic adapter?

Anonymous said...


This is really helpful! I do recording in the field, with my film camera 5D Mark II. I am thinking about getting the H4N to use with my NTG -1 mic XLR input. Would it be close to the sound of your test with the AKG mic? Not sure if was that your test mic of the H4 was in the middle, and you where speaking right into it that made it sound better, but it sounds pretty good to me.


Anonymous said...

I need an affordable recorder for Sync Film Dialogue. Have you made recording testing image and audio sync? I also want to know if you have test short or long shotgun microphones? I use both the Sennheiser MKH 416 and the Sennheizer ME66 With K6 power module. Have test any of those?

I get the feeling I will be better off with the sony recorder but I am not sure. The price for the H4n attacks me in this economy!

Thanks for the tests!


Anonymous said...

I've owned the Zoom H2 and H4. Both have crap for mic preamps, and are far too hissy -- especially if you plan to add EQ and compression for more professional interview sound in podcasts. I made the mistake of selling an H2 to buy a more expensive H4 and two high-quality XLR Lav mics (A-T 831b) with their own phantom power packs. Big waste of money, as the Zoom H4's preamp inputs are pure hissy crap.

The internal mics on both the H2 and H4 provide incredibly low-noise sound. I have actually found it the most economical to purchase 2 zoom recorders for interviewing multiple people (Front 90 degree mics are best). Make a clapping noise at the front of an interview so you can time them well, then just merge the files in Audacity or your program of choice. The cost of two Zoom H2's is still dirt cheap compared to purchasing separate equipment (and are far less to lug around). Sound is far superior, as well. You can also use the 120 degree mics on the back of the H2, but I find the audio far less pleasing.

Screw expensive mixers, multiple-input XLR to USB or Firewire boxes that are either expensive or have cheap, hissy preamps. Go with two Zoom H2's and be done with it. Far cheaper investment with far superior audio quality.

Anonymous said...

I want to amend the above first line to read, "Both have crap for external mic preamps..."

The internal mics on both the H2 and H4 are very good.

Just avoid using external mics!

Anonymous said...

"Just avoid using external mics!"

Well, that defeats much of the advantage of this recorder by rendering the XLR inputs irrelevant. The XLR inputs are what make this product way more interesting than the competition, along with the standard AA batteries.

If the preamps suck, then we have a real failure. If you're willing to use some external workaround and pipe it into the 1/8" jack, this product suffers from the dumb jack placement (an again you're squandering the XLR inputs).

Anonymous said...

"I made the mistake of selling an H2 to buy a more expensive H4 and two high-quality XLR Lav mics... Go with two Zoom H2's and be done with it."

And pin them to your lapel? What about people who need mics that are physically separated from the recorder?

vavoomhr said...

did you use some reverb on the pcm d50 with dynamic mic using mini input record and no reverb on the zoom h4n record? I noticed a difference that sounded like a reverb adding more body to the sound. That would seriously compromise the comparison.

Anonymous said...

I need an affordable recorder for Sync Film Dialogue. Have you made recording testing image and audio sync? I also want to know if you have test short or long shotgun microphones? I use both the Sennheiser MKH 416 and the Sennheizer ME66 With K6 power module. Have test any of those?

I get the feeling I will be better off with the sony recorder but I am not sure. The price for the H4n attacks me in this economy!

Thanks for the tests!


Andy said...


I know this post is a couple of years old, but I just wondered if you could help me?

We've recently invested in a Zoom H4n at work to record our podcasts. For the past year, we've been recording our podcasts with an old Sony MZ-RH1 MiniDisc recorder and a Beyerdynamic M58 N(c) dynamic microphone. This set-up - though rudimentary (and making use of whatever equipment we could lay our hands on!) - has actually produced perfectly good results for us, but we wanted to upgrade for various reasons.
One of those reasons is that we wanted a recording set-up in which our interviewer and interviewee both had their own microphone (until now, there's just been one between them). The Zoom H4n seemed to offer this function, so it seemed like the best option.
I used the Zoom for the first time last week and was looking forward to hearing the results, but unfortunately our latest podcast hasn't recorded very well (undoubtedly my fault - not the equipment!). I'm not sure where I'm going wrong?I had two Beyerdynamic M58 N(c) dynamic microphones attached to the Zoom H4n via two male to female balanced XLR leads (inserted into the two inputs at the bottom of the recorder) . I was recording the podcast in Stereo mode (with mono-mix selected), but the recording levels (set at the default 80) were REALLY low. The levels were barely registering. In a panic, I stupidly increased the recording level to about 100, but it's left me with a really quiet recording and really noticeable hiss.

Our podcasts are a simple format: a ten minute sit-down interview (with one interviewer and one interviewee), so we don't need to record anything fancy. All we need to do is make sure the recording is clear so that we can hear the voices!
Have I set the recorder on the wrong setting for this kind of recording? Used the wrong leads to connect the mics? As you've probably guessed, I'm very much an audio amateur, so I do apologise for these stupid questions and probably even stupider mistakes!I just want to make sure I know what the optimum settings are for recording our podcasts with the Zoom H4n (using two dynamic mics). Can you possibly advise on where I might be going wrong? I'd like to get it right before I record the next podcast!Thanks.

Brad Linder said...

Hi Andy,

As you pointed out, this post is a few years old and I don't have a Zoom H4n in front of me. But it sounds to me like this might not be the best recorder for your needs. If I remember correctly I got much louder volumes and lower hiss  using the mini jack instead of the the XLR input. 

There's only one mini jack, so you're pretty much stuck with a single-mic setup if you use this method.

For a podcast you might be best off picking up a cheap audio mixer like this one:

This would allow you to plug two mics into the mixer and run the output into the Zoom H4n or any other recorder of your choice. 

Andy said...

Thanks so much for getting back to me. That's really useful advice.

audio brisbane said...

I've used the Zoom H4n at work one time, and the experience of hearing such crisp audio quality is no less than heavenly.

Eddy jr said...

No mention of distance in these tests?  Distance of subject from microphones

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