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November 20, 2006

Review: Zoom H4 pocket recorder

Please note, this blog has been archived and now lives at www.discretecosine.com

This is a review of the Zoom H4 "Handy Recorder," a portable audio recording device. Sometimes branded a Samson device, the H4 retails for around $300.

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These devices have been growing in popularity over the last few years, due to the growth of podcasting and also the growth in independent film production. Because the H4 records in either wave or MP3, it is appropriate for both uses. MP3 bitrates can be adjusted between 320kbps and 48kbps. Wave files can be sampled at 44khz, 48khz or 96khz with either 16bit or 24bit precision. So, whether you're a podcast producer looking to create quick MP3 files on the go, or an indie filmmaker looking for better audio than your camera can produce, this device tries to meet your needs.

Read on for the rest of the review... apologies for the terrible picture quality, my normal camera was unavailable.

Physical Device
The device itself feels a bit on the cheap side. I'm not convinced it'll hold up to normal abuse as well as the Marantz PMD-660, a similar device. However, I also thought the PMD-660 felt kind of cheap, and it seems to be holding up just fine. The unit has two XLR/TRS inputs on the bottom, a mini-jack line input on the side and a set of stereo microphones on top. It runs on two AA batteries and accepts a standard sized SD card.

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I like the fact that you can connect either XLR or TRS connections without using adapters. Additionally, you get phantom power and either manual or automatic level controls.

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Usage
The user interface is relatively confusing, as you have to use both the direction pad and an up/down jog button on the side to navigate the menus. Some functions can be accessed through buttons directly on the device - choosing your recording mode for example. This is a nice touch.

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Who's it for?
One of the biggest problems with consumer and prosumer camcorders is the quality of the audio they record. Often times the audio seems like an afterthought, with noisy preamps or limited manual controls. Many low end cameras have done away with microphone inputs entirely, and instead expect you to rely on the built in mic.

While the Zoom H4 does not compete with high-end field audio recording setups, it does a very nice job for the price. The biggest limitation to its use in film and video production is that it does not accept an external timecode source, so matching your audio to your video will be strictly a manual process.

For podcasters, it's an even more enticing option. The built in microphones are "good enough" for capturing a quick bit of audio on the go, and as your needs grow, the H4 can grow with you. Being able to record directly into MP3 is another plus, since your files are all set to be dropped on an iPod or added to an RSS feed.

The Zoom H4 is also attempting to serve third market - musicians. It is the only sub-$500 portable recording device I know of which can do 4-track recordings. That is, you can record a track of audio, and then go back and record another track while listening to the first track. The H4 also has a built in metronome with a lead-in feature. It also has a built in tuner, which I think is a fantastic addition to a device like this. If nothing else, it's rather entertaining to try and sing a perfect note. Entertaining to me at least.

Finally, there's the H4's party-piece: it can act as a USB audio interface. Plug it into your computer, navigate through the menus on the H4 to find the "USB" option and enable the USB interface. On Mac OS X, the H4 immediately appeared in the System Preferences Sound pane as both an input and output device. I was able to select it in GarageBand and recorded without any trouble. That's an extremely cool feature! It alone may justify the cost for some users.

In all, I'm really enjoying the Zoom H4. The big worry for me is still the issue of durability, but at $300 it doesn't have to last all that long. I really appreciate that Zoom has gone the extra mile to add features which distinguish the H4 from the rest of the market. This has become my new defacto recommendation for portable audio recording.

Posted by at November 20, 2006 4:13 PM | Reviews

Comments

Thanks for reviewing this recorder. I used to use a PAD20 Teac DAT recorder. I love that I can plug in my dual-xlr stereo mic on this, with phantom power. sounds like the real deal.

Posted by: Mark at March 6, 2007 8:36 PM

Now that you've used the device for a few months, do you find that the interface is getting easier to use? And how does the reliability and quality compare to a Marantz PMD660? I currently use a Marantz PMD660 for field recordings (as an ethnomusicologist working in southern Africa), but have considered switching to a Zoom H4 because of some of the features and the smaller size.

Posted by: Rob at April 19, 2007 11:59 AM

So far so good - we've had a lot of folks using it and haven't had a problem. I still don't like the icon-heavy interface, but once you've used it a bit it'll do.

Posted by: Colin at April 19, 2007 12:04 PM

I am wondering if this unit would be suitable for voiceover work. Connecting directly to use as a mic, plus the portability for field would seem attractive to reduce the amount of equipment necessary to accomplish both.

Posted by: Matt Wills at May 16, 2007 4:05 PM

You might want to connect a better mic if it's serious voiceover work, but otherwise I can't see why not. The preamp and A/D seem pretty good, and the flexibility would certainly be handy.

Posted by: Colin at May 16, 2007 4:09 PM

Did you have to use the Steinberg Cubase software to make the H4 work with GarageBand?

Posted by: aysrav at May 22, 2007 6:19 AM

I bought one because of this review and it's really great for simple voiceover work like on Podcasts.

Posted by: Tom at June 18, 2007 11:21 AM

Hey, I am a sound engineer doing lots of live shows on the road for 30 years now. THIS UNIT IS COOKING ! all the formats you could ever want, good quality sound, Mike Emulation (you can get them inside mics to sound like U-87s or 441s, compression, limiter.
YOU CAN JUST DOWNLOAD FROM THE CHIP STRAIGHT, or even load in music and such on your PC...for listening on the Bus and such............
And I have recorded 45 minutes live with two batteries and on she goes....
I LIKE IT !, no, I LOVE IT !!!!

Posted by: Jimmy at August 3, 2007 8:52 PM

I've been trying to do voice overs using the H4, and I notice that
on any mic sensitivity setting other than low (in other words, the mid or hi setting) the built-in mics pick up noise from the unit itself. If the "access" LED is flashing it registers on the meter and you can hear it beeping via monitor headphones and it gets recorded. That sucks. IN fact its bullshit...and in Australia its a $650 pricetag. Has anybody else noticed this? Or have I got a faulty unit? If the mid and hi sensitivity settings pick up noise from the unit itself, then they're just a cosmetic con as far as I'm concerned.

Posted by: Michael at September 1, 2007 6:58 AM

how deos it compare to the Boss BR micro recorder?

Posted by: racustik at November 7, 2007 4:26 AM

before buying the H4 you should read this review: http://www.sonicstudios.com/zoomh4rv.htm

the H4 sucks, internal noise is high, without external microphone and mic-preamp the quality is no better than some $90 priced mp3 player-memorystick-recorder.

Posted by: Average Hacker at December 14, 2007 1:47 PM

that test was done with an early firmware version, clipping problems are fixed now i think, i have the latest version and find the sound quality great for the price, a very versatile tool!

Posted by: shane at February 28, 2008 5:13 AM

Thanks for writing a good review! Is there a way I could plug this directly into my landline phone to record a telephone conversation?

Posted by: Avery at April 23, 2008 5:04 PM

I've been using H4 for doing simple voiceovers when I am away for a few months now. Whether it is a news summary for television or a short commentary, no sound engineer has ever complained of sound quality. All I need is a quiet room, my H4, and a notebook to get the job done.
I record myself on the H4 using the 96/24 setting, then I mp3 recode the recording using the unit, transfer the recording to the notebook HDD, and I am set to mail the job.

Posted by: Jan at December 6, 2008 7:19 PM