Review: Zoom H4n audio recorder

To create a decent video or movie, you used to need a camera that ran into the tens of thousands, but these days all it takes is a consumer or “prosumer” video camera, an idea, some self-education, and YouTube. The proliferation of Nikon, Canon and Sony dSLRs with video recording capabilities has lowered the technical requirements for creating footage. However, no matter how expensive the dSLR, sound stays a weak proposition. Tin can audio is the rule rather than the exception, unless you are using a field audio recorder. One of the all time favourites seems to be the Zoom H4n, a feature crammed handheld audio recording device.

IT Enquirer rating

9/10
URL: zoom.com

Pros
  • LCD screen; information
  • sound quality even with built-in microphones
  • up to 4 channels simultaneous recording
Cons
  • battery life with phantom power on
  • recording zapped when batteries die
  • no remote in the box
Price (approx.): €285.00

The Zoom H4n has no less than 4 audio channels, which it can record to simultaneously (stereo/stereo). Two of these are permanently fixed as built-in microphones. The two others have XLR/Jack interfaces without locks. The Zoom H4n audio recorder can record in four (4) modes: Stereo from built-in, Stereo from XLR, 4-Channel, and MTR, which allows you to mix recordings with effects in the recorder.

The H4n is marketed as a 24bits/96kHz capable recorder, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. In uncompressed WAV mode, the recorder can record at its highest setting in Stereo mode only. It doesn’t matter which source the recording uses. In 4-Channel mode, the setting drops to a maximum of 24bits/48kHz — still DVD Audio quality, so high enough for any sort of application.

In MTR mode, however, the highest setting drops to CD quality (16bits/24kHz), which may be too low for movie makers. I found it odd that MTR mode has such a low maximum quality under all circumstances and regardless of the number of channels you actually use, but I’m sure there will be good reason for it.

For this review, I did not further focus on MTR mode. For video shooters, I consider MTR mode to be little more than a gimmick.

I did test Stereo and 4-Channel recording, both with the built-in microphones, with two sE Electronics s2200a studio microphones, and two Rode VideoMic Pro microphones. In 4-Channel mode, the recordings were obviously a mix of the built-in and XLR connected microphones. The Rode microphones were connected using a Rode XLR to mini jack converter.

It’s important to note that I did not conduct any tests with music. I did not attend concerts, nor did I capture musical sounds from speakers or anything like that. I have two reasons for that. First of all, over where I live it’s illegal to capture music at concerts unless the performer gave his/her explicit OK. Secondly, recording music with a speaker would be fine for test purposes, but then again I’m not a sound engineer, so what loudness level would I need? Which distance should the microphone be held at? How, in fact, do you test sound quality and distortion without turning oneself in a sound lab? This is a hands-on experience review targeted at video and movie makers, so that’s what I tested for.

What’s in the box

When you buy a Zoom H4n, you’ll get:

  • The recorder
  • A power adapter
  • A microphone stand adapter
  • A wind cap (foam)
  • A 1GB SD card
  • A USB cable
  • A CD with Cubase LE4
  • User Guides
  • A semi-transparent plastic protection box

Not in the box are:

  • Batteries
  • A remote control

Given the price of the remote control I personally think it’s silly not to include it. However, due to that same price (€40.00), everybody can afford it.

Noise

I first wanted to see how the built-in microphones faired with gain wide open and very little sound (signal) coming in. The built-in microphones are positioned in a so-called XY pattern. This should ensure a natural stereo image. The microphones can be rotated so they accept sound within a 90 degree angle or a 120 degree angle.

This obviously only works well when the microphones are really directional, i.e. if they don’t capture too much sound from outside the 90 or 120 degree area — their capture pattern. I was sceptical, but I found the microphones to behave well within these directions and capture little sound from outside the area.

The tests further revealed a good quality for voice and “natural” sounds like birds twittering, leaves rustling, wind blowing, etc., but also more “unnatural” ambient sound like planes flying over, car engines, etc. Good quality meaning what I recorded sounded exactly as what I heard (or remember hearing, rather).

The one and only criticism I have with regards to the microphones is that they are unprotected. I think it may be easy to knock them off the device or damage them otherwise if one isn’t careful handling them. On the other hand, it’s best to stay away from the recorder when recording with the built-in microphones to prevent noise (defined here as anything you don’t want to capture).

An interesting test was capturing ambient sound from a city park early in the morning when most sane people were still fast asleep. Even with the gain set at 100, the digital noise (caused by the electronics themselves) was tolerable and could easily be removed with iZotope RX Advanced. With gain set at 75, I couldn’t hear the digital noise anymore, but the ambient sound was faint too. Cranking up levels with Logic Pro proved to be a no-brainer that did not introduce noise back into the recording.

My conclusion of all my tampering with the built-in microphones is that they’re astonishingly sensitive with low levels of noise and good audio characteristics for my taste. Voices in particular sound clear, natural, and with just enough bass to experience “rich” sound with no rumbling. I have tested microphones in the past that had a tin can sound to them; not so with these built-in microphones.

However, you can do better. While the Rode VideoMic Pro was only marginally better than the built-in ones, the sE Electronics s2200a studio microphones sounded a lot better, but then again they capture sound in a very broad pattern; they’re not directional and therefore not really useful as video microphones. They would do well used together with the H4n in interview situations, though.

XLR microphones

The Rode VideoMic Pro microphones were connected to the Zoom H4n using Rode’s own mini jack to XLR adapters. Sound quality with the Rode microphones was slightly better than with built-in microphones.

However, the sound quality dramatically improved when using the sE Electronics microphones. These are studio microphones, so they’re not easy to transport, and they do require phantom power. The H4n can provide phantom power to the XLR (as well as to the stereo microphone plug, which can ‘replace’ the built-in microphones) interfaces, but the device only works on two AA batteries for power. No matter which type of battery you’ll use, they’ll quickly run out of steam.

When this happens the whole recording you were working on will be lost. There is no warning up front, so the best when working with phantom powered microphones is to use the included power adapter. This adapter has the same specifications as a USB power plug found on many solar power battery systems. That made me think you can probably run the H4n off a solar powered battery like a Changers or PowerMonkey system and avoid the AA batteries to be drained.

Of course, it would be better if Zoom would offer an optional accessory like a large battery power adapter with 6 to 8 AA batteries that would probably be better at powering phantom powered XLR microphones.

Features that matter

The Zoom H4n comes with an abundance of features but for video producers, many of these are just overkill. Here’s a list of the ones you will find extremely useful:

  • Ability to set gain for each of the two external sources individually
  • Ability to bypass the built-in microphones for an external stereo microphone
  • Mixing down a stereo sound file off one external source (e.g. one XLR microphone)
  • Live monitoring of sound with a pair of headphones or earphones
  • Automatic recording START/STOP when sound levels exceed or fall below a specified dB level
  • Pre-recording capability: 2 seconds of audio before pressing the Record button are added to the recording
  • Low Cut filter for eliminating wind and other low frequency noise
  • Automatic recording levels to avoid clipping.
  • Mid/Side recording capability with conversion feature for the stereo microphones

The ability to use the recorder as a computer audio interface is nice, but only useful when you’re conducting an interview and don’t have an audio interface like an Apogee Duet or similar connected already. When using the recorder as a computer audio interface, you can power the unit from the USB port.

The recorder can also be used as a SD card reader, again with USB provided power. It’s nice that you can, but I can’t see the use of that feature at all. Still, it shows how flexible the H4n is in terms of usage scenarios.

General quality

The Zoom H4n looks pretty sturdy to me. The XLR connectors lack a locking mechanism, but it’s not as if your microphone will fall out under normal conditions. The SD card latch seems a bit flimsy, but a bit of careful handling works magic. The unit isn’t lightweight either; it’s definitely not a piece of plastic junk.

The LCD screen is clear and shows enough information to know what you’re doing at all times. A 1/4 inch tripod hole at the bottom ensures you can mount the recorder on tripods, but also onto Zoom’s optional video camera hot shoe conversion accessory.

The one thing that seems like unnecessary to me is the loophole fit for a lanyard — I don’t see many people carrying this around their neck… The built-in stereo microphones could do with a metal “cage” for added protection. The built-in speaker is more of a gimmick if you ask me — who’s going to be using this to monitor a recording?

Taking my experiences and tests with the Zoom H4n as a reference point, I’d say you can’t go wrong for recording interviews, nature’s sounds, sound clips (for sales on a website, for example) and even music. If you want to get the best recording device ever, there are probably loads of better equipment on the market, but I’ll bet you it will be much bigger and bulkier too.

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