Zoom H4n Handy Recorder

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Product: Zoom H4n Handy Recorder
Provided By: Samson Audio

Price: Find Lowest Price Online

 

Introduction:

It's not often we take the opportunity to review audio gear such as the Zoom H4n Handy Recorder, but since we started podcasting here at BCCHardware (through WeeklyTechUpdate), we've had reason to check out some high-quality audio products for use in the office and on the road.  When at home, some of our equipment includes Samson C0U3 USB Microphone as well as CAD GXL3000 mics and a Behringer Xenyx 1204 Mixer.  We decided that we wanted to go big or go home and although there is a lot better equipment available for thousands of dollars, we picked some good gear that gives WeeklyTechUpdate an edge over some other podcasts in terms of audio quality at least.

The problem with all this gear is that it weighs in the neighborhood of 40 lbs. (18Kg) and this becomes a bit of a pain to pack in your suitcase when traveling to CES in Las Vegas or CeBIT in Hanover.  It was prior to CeBIT that we contacted Samson to find out if they could spot us a microphone for the road and the recommended the H4n.  It supports XRL inputs as well as 1/4" mono inputs, and a lot more - including built-in stereo microphones so we thought we'd give it a go.  Unfortunately, it never arrived until the day before we left and our initial experience with it was less than stellar.

Box
Box Front
Box Back
Box Back

 

After we got used to the Handy Recorder, moved out of our 10'x10' cell and have used it more, we've become familiar with how it works and have much better success and our results are much better.

What makes the H4n so handy is that it comes with everything you need to get up and running - other than batteries.  In the box we received the recorder, a windscreen, USB cable, power adapter, 1GB SD Card, software CD (contains Cubase LE) and a nice thick manual.  The H4n has a lot of features and there may be times that you're grateful for the manual.

H4n Bundle
H4n Bundle 

 

Before we take a closer look at the Zoom H4n, we'll go through a brief list of features.  There is a lot more information about the Zoom H4n at the product page and if you want all the juicy details make sure to check it out.

 

Features:

  • Built-in X/Y stereo mics record at either 90° or 120°
  • Four channel simultaneous recording using built-in and external mics
  • Digitally controlled, high-quality mic preamp for improved audio quality
  • Large 1.9-Inch LCD screen and improved user interface for easy operation
  • 24bit/96kHz Linear PCM recording for pristine recording
  • MP3 recording for increased recording time
  • Built-in reference speaker to check recordings
  • Shock resistant rubberized body for improved chassis protection
  • Broadcast Wave Format (BWF) compatible time stamp and track marker
  • Records on SD/SDHC media of up to 32GB for maximum recording time
  • Auto-record and pre-record feature so you never miss a moment
  • Variable speed playback capability for “phrase training”
  • Stamina mode enables 10 hours of continuous battery life
  • Onboard mid-side matrix decoder for additional miking possibilities
  • Built-in mounting joint for tripod and mic stand mounting
  • USB 2.0 port for faster file transfer
  • XLR inputs with phantom power allow recording with any mic
  • Supports plug-in power type external mics
  • Hi-Z Inputs for recording guitar and bass
  • Studio effects onboard, including guitar and bass amp modeling
  • USB audio interface capability
  • Low-cut filter to reduce noise
  • Normalizing and file splitting functions
  • Mono mix function
  • Onboard tuner and metronome
  • Includes 1 GB SD card, wind screen, mic clip adapter, AC adapter, USB cable, protective case and Cubase LE recording software
  • Optional remote control (RC4) available

 

On the next page we'll take a closer look at the H4n before we share our thoughts, experiences and sample audio with you.

 

First Look:

H4n Front We first saw the Zoom H4n at CES in Las Vegas earlier in 2010.  We never got a chance to handle it much though, so I was quite excited to get a look at this not-so-little recorder to see what it was capable of, and how easy it is to use.  If you're familiar with the other Zoom recorders, it won't take you too long to get used to this one.  The original Zoom H4 was similar I understand and the "n" simply means "Next".  It's not an entirely new product but they did fix some of the issues apparently.

For those who are merely looking for a simple voice recorder, the Zoom H4n appears to be quite daunting and is overkill for many people.  If you are looking to record a lecture or some other audio that isn't require to be high quality, there are a bunch of cheap recording products for you to use.  If you're looking for a lot of features, the ability to record four separate channels, output to another device, plug in external microphones, provide phantom power to devices that require it, as well as basic mixing features, the H4n is geared for you.  One of the more recent uses for this product has been attaching it to DSLR cameras. This allows you to record much better audio that with the tiny built-in microphones.  We even managed to take it along to hear Leonard Nimoy in Vulcan on the weekend of April 23, 2010.

The back of the device is pretty basic and houses an external speaker, external microphone input as well as a standard tripod mount so that you can keep it stationary if desired.  The included "Mic Clip Adapter" also screws into this central hole.  The two "AA" type batteries are loaded from the back as well. A nice little touch also located here are the three small rubber feet that help keep noise transfer to a minimum if you are recording with the H4n lying flat on a table or counter.  It's not a huge deal, but it's nice to see they paid attention to the little things as well.


H4n Back
H4n Back

 

The top of the H4n is taken up by the two small condenser and somewhat directional microphones.  They work at 90° as well as 120° simply by rotating them to the indicated position.  While the difference appears negligible, there is a noticeable difference in pickup and stereo separation for different circumstances.

H4n Mics
H4n Mics

H4n Bottom
H4n Bottom Inputs

 

The bottom contains the double-purpose XRL / 1/4" input as well as the DC power input connector.  It is a nice feature to see that Zoom has included support for 1/4" powered microphones - including guitar pickups as well as standard XRL inputs.  If you need phantom power, you can go into a menu on the H4n and select either 24v or 48v power.  Please make sure you know which is required by your devices before you turn it on.


The right side of the H4n is quite simply and contains the record level switch as well as the menu button and a job wheel.  You'll also notice the cover for the SD Card.  Thankfully, the H4n supports up to 32GB SDHC cards so you should be able to record for days without transferring data off the card if required.

H4n Right Side
H4n Right Side
H4n Left Side
H4n Left Side

 

The left side of the H4n gets a little busy - but is still laid out well enough to be useful.  On this side we find the wired remote (optional) connector as well as a line out/headphone jack if you want to monitor what you're recording.  The playback/monitor volume control is on this side as is the mini-USB connector and power/hold switch.  Buttons are spaced well and are within easy access of your fingertips when holding the H4n.

As we jump into testing on the next page, we'll cover the full gamut of buttons and controls on the H4n on the next page.


Button Breakdown:

As far as the buttons go, Zoom has a nice breakdown of the buttons in their own graphic and this makes things much easier as we carry on forward.  We've covered quite a few of them as we took a closer look and the graphics below should help fill in all the details that I may have missed.

H4n Callouts - Front

 

 H4n Callouts - Rear

 

It's interesting to see how different file formats and channels affect recording times.  Zoom has posted up a chart showing recording time vs. audio quality.  If you use the included 1GB card on a four channel recording using 24-bit WAV files, you're only good for a mere 28 minutes.  Compare that to a stereo recording saved to 128kbps MP3 that nets you almost 17 hours of recording.  Certainly, there is a mode and quality setting for everyone.

 Recording Time Chart

Testing Info:

The Zoom H4n is such a robust product that there is no way that we can test every aspect of this device and keep the review remotely interesting for many of you.  Instead, we'll highlight some of the features, navigation and controls of this device on the next page and leave you with an audio sample taken outside on a breeze day.  If that doesn't impress you, well, you must be pretty hard to impress.  

 

General Usage:

I thought that probably the best way to "test" out the H4n Handy Recorder is to use it for a lot of different applications and find out how it handles and performs.  The overall construction is quite sturdy and the button placement on both sides is quite well thought out.  The jog wheel and buttons are in logical places and it doesn't take you very long to get used to the device and change folders, file formats and more.  

Menu navigation is quite easy and as you cycle through the Folder, File, Input, Recording, Tool, Play Mode, System, SD Card, USB and Mode menus, everything is in a logical place and is very easy to find.  For instance, if you want to turn Phantom Power on for a XRL mic that uses the bottom input, go to the Input menu and you'll find it there.  Zoom also gives you the ability to play back files that you've recorded through the devices speaker or through the line-out jack.  


Recording sound is done by pressing the "Rec" button on the front of the unit - not once, but twice.  The first press puts the H4n into standby/record pause mode where you can monitor levels on the display and tweak some settings prior to recording.  In this standby mode, the device will quickly enter full recording mode simply by pressing the main recording button.  Another recording mode you can choose to use is the automatic recording.  This will start the H4n automatically based on sensing sound.  You can adjust how loud the sound should be to trigger the automatic recording as well.  If you are worried about missing something when using the standard recording mode, there is an option to enable a "pre-record" as well that makes sure you don't miss any of the action.

One thing that may be handy for some of you is the ability to plug the H4n into your computer via the USB connector.  This will turn the mic into a high-quality USB microphone that will give you professional results and you can capture it to your computer directly if required.  Other handy features include a metronome, a guitar tuner and even an interesting karaoke feature.  We will all be glad that I didn't do too much recording with the Karaoke.

Although the Zoom H4n is much larger than most simple audio recorders, the size is still very functional.  You also have to keep in mind that this isn't a simple audio recorder.  It's a recording studio in a box.  It features a very basic mixer, as well as support for 4-channel audio recording.  We've tested this out in several situations and it appears to work as advertised.  The H4n can provide enough "Phantom" power to devices and while this certainly affects battery life, it is still usable for hours of non-stop recording.

Leonard Nimoy It's not all gravy though.  There are some concerns regarding the SD Slot cover and the memory card.  The issue is that if you press with a medium amount of force on the SD Card cover door, it will actually eject the card and you can lose your recording.  I never experienced this problem, but I could certainly see it happening if you were trying to quickly grab and set up the H4n in a rush.  Another issue that I find even more troublesome is the job wheel.  It works great, but emits a mechanical click as it is used - think of it as a noisy mouse wheel on your aging Logitech mouse.  The huge issue is that if you use the wheel while your recording, it picks up the sound and embeds a very irritating clicking sound on your audio track.  The volume buttons do the same thing.  Instead of a membrane switch inside the H4n, they use mechanical switches (which will last much longer), but if you're adjusting monitor volume or microphone volume, you'll certainly here that in the final recording.

So how well does it work?  We used it at CeBIT in Germany to record our Weekly Tech Update podcast and were in a very small room that had horrible acoustics.  There was a very hollow sound on our recorded tracks as we boosted the microphone sensitivity so that we could simply talk with the H4n about 1 Meter from either of us.  As we didn't have a clue what we were doing, the audio quality was not great.  As I've used it more, I've learned how to record better and this has certainly helped.

I took it with me to several events and one of the most fun was when Leonard Nimoy visited my hometown of Vulcan, Alberta.  I was hand-holding the Zoom H4n while playing paparazzi  with my Nikon D300s and a fast 80-200mm f2.8 zoom lens.  If I would have had a proper mount, you wouldn't hear me handling the H4n.  As it stands the handling noise is my fault, but at almost 100m of distance you can still here "Spock" very clearly.  You can also hear my D300s bursting very quickly in the background as well.

Please download a sample audio file here.

Final Thoughts:

The Zoom H4n certainly isn't for everyone.  It's not for people who think that audio recorded with their cell phones is good.  Is not for those who are on a tight budget and need a simple device to leave on the professor's desk to record a lecture.  It is for those who care about high quality recording, diverse features, expandable inputs, on-the-fly tweaking and easy-to-use functionality.  Although it is very easy to use, it takes a bit of time to know the device, understand what it can do and set it up correctly for your situation.  It's like an expensive camera.  Everyone can press a button, but you have to understand what it can do in order to maximize its potential.  I'm very pleased with the quality of the product and after last weekend, I've invested some money into a rig so that I can use my Nikon D300s to record video while having the H4n mounted to my camera rig for ultra-high quality audio recording as well.

Pros:

  • Professional audio quality with stereo microphones
  • Support for two additional XRL or 1/4" powered mics
  • Provides phantom power even when powered by "AA" batteries
  • SD Card supports 32GB cards for extensive recording capability
  • USB interface works as a USB Audio Interface on compatible OS'
  • Multiple file formats, compression and folder storage options  

 

Cons:

  • SD Card can be ejected by pressing on the slot cover
  • Volume and jog dial makes enough noise to be heard by the recorder
 

  BCCRating

Silver

I'd like to thank Samson Audio for sending over the Zoom H4n and working out some interesting details.  We got it under the wire and it save us packing 40 lbs. of kit to Germany.  I hate to send it back as it is a handy recorder for sure.

If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to post them in the forum at the "Comments" link below.