In addition to sturdier build quality with a rubberized grip, the H4n has larger, easier to manipulate buttons on the front of the unit. And the menus are much easier to navigate using the menu button and jog dial on the side of the unit than on the original Zoom H4. You can also rotate the internal mics to change the audio pickup pattern.
I do wish Zoom would start using a separate button for making track marks. Right now in order to create a new track while recording, you hit the record button again, which can be confusing -- especially because you need to hit the record button twice to start a recording in the first place (the first press puts you into record/pause mode).
The Zoom H4n also has a speaker built into the back of the unit. It's not going to replace your book box anytime soon, but it comes in handy if you want to check your audio or play a clip for someone on the go. You can certainly use the speaker to play music as well - it's just not going to sound very good.
But there is one major problem. It's far too easy to eject the SD card from the slot by pressing on the door that protects the compartment. And if you accidentally eject the SD card while making a recording, your data will be lost. I'm not saying that it's likely you'll eject the SD card, but it's possible. And that concerns me.
Here's a little video that should explain what I'm talking about. It shows both the new menu navigation and the problem with the SD card slot:
Like the original Zoom H4, the Zoom H4n has a number of features that really set it apart from competing recorders from Sony, Marantz, Tascam, and Edirol. For one thing, you can use the Zoom H4n either to record straightforward stereo tracks or as a 4-track digital recording studio. You can record up to 4 channels simultaneously using the built in stereo condenser mic for 2 tracks and the XLR inputs for to more channels.
You can also plug the Zoom H4n into a computer via a USB cable and use it as an audio interface. In other words, when it's plugged into your computer you can connect a microphone, musical instruments, or other audio devices up to your computer. You can also use the built in mics. It's sort of like having an external sound card that doubles as a microphone and headphone jack. This feature can come in handy if you need to make a Skype call or record a few voice or music tracks on the go with a laptop.
The recorder also has a number of digital effects that can be used while recording or playing back audio. There's a metronome feature, a guitar tuner, and even a karaoke effect.
Zoom has added a new "stamina mode" as well, which the company claims will nearly double your battery life by providing up to 11 hours of record time using 2 AA alkaline batteries. It's not entirely clear what stamina mode does, but the only recording option in stamina mode is 44.1kHz/16-bit WAV audio.
The Zoom H4n can handle WAV audio sample rates from 44.1kHz/16bit to 96kHz/24bit. You can also record MP3 files with bit rates ranging from 48kbps to 320kbps.
While the recorder is larger than the original Zoom H4 or Zoom H2, it's still reasonably small and fits easily in your palm, unlike larger recorders such as the Marantz PMD661, Fostex FR2-LE, or Tascam HD-P2. Here are some close-up photos of the Zoom H4n (Click any image in the slideshow to see a larger version):
Over the last few days I've posted a number of audio samples (made using the built in mics and external mics) to give you an idea of how the Zoom H4n sounds when recording my voice, ambient room sounds, and a bit of music. These tests are not by any means exhaustive. I wish I had 10 different microphones to try out with the H4n and other recorders, but I do not. Your results may vary.
To my ear, the Zoom H4n sounds better than the Zoom H4 in most of the tests. It records a fuller range of sounds and less hiss, especially when using the 1/8th inch input instead of the XLR inputs. With a high powered condenser microphone or the internal mics, the H4n sounds quite good. But when using a dynamic mic like the ElectroVoice RE-50, I feel that the Sony PCM-D50 sounds a little better and records less hiss.
That said, the Zoom H4n is at least $100 cheaper than the Sony PCM-D50, and while this recorder costs more than the Zoom H4 or Zoom H2, I think it's money well spent.
It's worth pointing out that, like most recorders with built in mics, the Zoom H4n is susceptible to handling noise. If you move your hand around too much while making a recording, you're likely to hear the sound of your fingers scuttling about the case. But thanks to the rubberized grip on the sides of the unit, it's a bit easier to keep your hands steady with the H4n than with earlier models.
The H4n also has a spot on the back of the unit that you can use to screw in a camera tripod. This allows you to set up the recorder and forget about it in some situations, while avoiding handling noise. The Sony PCM-D50 has this feature as well, while the original Zoom H4 came with a plastic attachment that you could use to attach a tripod - but you then had to strap the recorder into the plastic attachment with Velcro. Having a slot in the back of the recorder for the tripod is much more useful.
Overall, the Zoom H4n is a solid little recorder for podcasters, musicians, or radio producers on a budget. There are a ton of features packed into this little device, and the recording quality represents a significant improvement over earlier models. But if what you're looking for is crystal clear recordings, you'll probably have to pay more than $350 and buy a more expensive recorder.
The Zoom H4n is available through Amazon for $346.
Previous Zoom H4n coverage: