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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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 Electro-Voice 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:
Zoom H-4 voice test:
MZ-R50 room tone:
Zoom H-4 room tone:
For comparison’s sake, here’s the RE-50 microphone plugged into the Zoom H-4:
Zoom H-4 with RE-50 voice test:
Zoom H-4 with RE-50 room tone:
And finally, I plugged in my AKG Perception 100 studio condenser mic and flipped on the H-4’s phantom power.
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.
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.
- 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)
- 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.