Not too long ago, I picked up a field recorder to improve audio captured for various random shoots. I felt inclined to thoroughly express my opinion through a review on the overall value of the Zoom H4n Recorder...
Pros: Sound Quality, XLR input versatility, and some home recording functionality, not normally found on digital hand-helds like this one.
Cons: Small buttons, tricky double-punch-to-record function, poor battery life when utilizing 4 channel recording. VU meter reading is only activated by "single" pressing record button.
The Bottom Line: The H4n Digital Recorder is worth every penny I spent on it. Great audio quality in a small mobile unit along with XLR, 1/4", and 1/8" input versatility.
I own a video production company in Las Vegas and more and more we were looking for a reliable field recorder to allow us to capture professional qualitiy audio outside of the cameras we use. I also wanted a unit that could be used for a quick studio recorder with a USB interface for an editing bay. I shopped around and, on paper, the best buy for my buck looked to be the Zoom H4n. I had never purchased a Zoom product before so I was a little tentative, but once I got the H4n, I immediately began to feel comfortable with my purchase.
Whats In The Box
When the recorder came in, I liked the combination of sturdiness and mobility. I also liked the accessories that Zoom included with the purchase. The package came with the H4n unit itself, an AC adapter, a 1GB SD Card, a mic wind screen, a mic clip adapter, a USB cable, Cubase LE recording software, and a plastic case for the H4n unit. I have seen retailers online try to pass these accessories off as their own "add ons" but don't be fooled, Zoom includes them in every box.
That being said, I bought mine at an online company that included a microphone stand with boom and a 16gb SD card for the same price as what everyone else was selling just the H4n by itself. Amazon currently has the best deals on these recorders either as standalone or in kits, as you can see here:
My point is, take a look, there are some good packages out there where you can pick up some additional accessories at no extra cost.
I will run through an overall look of the Hardware itself and will incorporate pros and cons along the way:
As I mentioned before, this unit was a bit surprising, I've used voice digital recorders before and they were light as a feather and were built that way. I half expected the H4n to be the same but it had some girth and substance to it (for a hand held mobile recorder) yet was still about as light as some of the old school ipods.
Microphones and Mic Inputs:
Here is the big selling point for me: 4 channel recording with XLR inputs. I could not find this in a sub $500 recorder, until the H4n, end of story.
I use professional mics that utilize XLR outputs so I needed a field recorder that would have XLR inputs, this unit has 2 XLR inputs on the bottom. If you are a home recording musician and your instrument utilizes 1/4"...no problem, the XLR inputs double as 1/4" inputs as well.
There are 2 high quality built in XY mics at the top
of the unit that aim either 90 or 120 degrees depending on how you want them. On the back of the unit is a 1/8" mini stereo mic input in case you would rather use a mini input for an additional mic instead of the XY mics. The versatility is staggering I could set the unit up for 4 channel recording and have 1 XLR in one channel, a 1/4" in another channel, and either the XY built in mics OR a 1/8" mic to record audio. This is really amazing, and after using it several times, works beautifully with a simple 1 button configuration!
At the top of the H4n Digital Recorder are two very good XY microphones. They are VERY sensitive which means that if ANY contact is made to the chassis of the H4n, these mics will pick it up. They come set up as a 90 degree setting which will allow for a standard, directional room ambient setup. However, they are adjustable to 120 degrees to allow a wider coverage area like a full audience response in a conference room, which is what we need for convention speaker videography here in Vegas.
The Display and Controls
The front of the H4n Digital Recorder has a 1.9" LCD display which give you channel VU meters, record remaining time, and even a battery remaining meter.
*Please note* when checking the LCD to see if the H4n is receiving a signal, you need to press the record button once. This does not start the recording but rather appears to just ready the unit for recording. Only after pressing the record button are you able to see the VUs registering a signal. Its an annoying 'feature', I know, perhaps Zoom will allow for the VUs to register without having to press a button at all in the future.
Moving along, above the LCD screen is an LED mode display to give you a quick glance at whether you are in 4channel, Stereo, or MTR mode.
Beneath the LCD screen are 4 short cut and track select keys, which, like nearly all of the control buttons, are teenie tiny itsy bitsy. Which, is one of the true Lame-ities of this product, I have big fingers which makes selection a bit challenging, and when my videographers need to use it, they are trying to select things on the fly which doesn't bode well for small buttonry, but aside from this, its liveable.
Underneath the short cut/track select keys are the playback and record buttons called the "transport" keys by Zoom. The record button has a "gotcha" built in that can be costly when professionally recording a "one-time-only" event. I've alluded to this above, when you press the record button, it is more of a "standby" on the first press that readies the unit for recording. Pressing it a second time, actually starts the record timer on the LCD which tells you that you are recording. It can be a gotcha for newbies who think that they are recording only to find out after the session that they didn't press it the second time. Ouch!
The Menus and SD Card slot
The right side of the H4n is where you'll find the menu and jog dial selector. This information will be displayed on the LCD screen to configure the unit the way you like. I really like the set up the menu controls, it seemed intuitive enough for me, but I've read that others aren't too happy with them. The controls felt very "ipod-ish" to me, with jog dialing to sub menus and more sub menus, but the main selections are all on the main menu selector so that didn't bug me much.
Also on this side is the SD Card slot. I LOVE that this unit is expandable with SD cards, as long as SD cards (or SDHC) keep getting cheaper and the space on them even larger, my H4n recorder capacity will grow accordingly, BEAUTIFUL. OK, I'll calm down now. There is a "gotcha" involved with the SD card slot that seems to be consistent with ALL recording devices (video as well) that record to flash memory. Remove the card while the unit is running or processing in any way and you stand the chance of losing ALL data from that session...OUCH again. But no one reading this is going to try that are you? Are you!? Its just good to be aware of this pitfall ahead of time in case you fill a card and try to change it out too quickly. Dont do it!
The left side of the unit has the ever-popular "power" switch (its a good thing to know where this button is located), the headphone output - 1/8" mini which can double as a line-level out if you are working with a larger soundboard and/or mixer, volume controls, and, another gem feature of the H4n: The mini USB port.
The USB Port
This glorious USB port will allow you to power the H4n
by your computer's USB bus, or it lets you use the H4n to offload your files to your computer directly from the device OR, another great feature, use the H4n as an interface between your microphone(s) and or instruments to directly record to your computer. Ah, therein lies the 'home recorder in your pocket' phrase. The H4n is equipped with a preamp which will allow you to connect unpowered mics and instruments directly to the H4n and then directly to your computer.
Don't worry about picking up a USB to mini USB cable to accomplish this, as I've mentioned before, its in the box.
The final stop on our hardware tour is the back of the H4n digital recorder. At the top there is a small 1/8" mini input should you decide to use an external mic instead of the XY built-in mics. Obvious as this may be, if you choose to use this mic input, you DISABLE the built in speakers AND I've not been able to get it to work properly in "Stereo Mode" so using this output may be a choice only for the 4 channel mode.
Below the speaker to give you an audio reference apart from the headphone jack. VERY handy when trying to quickly get an audio read...remember, VU meters can tell you if you are getting a signal but they can't tell you if that signal is clipped (distorted) or wacked out in some other way. This is where the headphone jack is a must! And, when in a hurry and needing a quick reference, the speaker is a small blessing.
Beneath the reference speaker, is the threaded tripod mount. It is the standard size which I think is 3/8" or 1/4" basically the same as what you find on the bottom of consumer and prosumer video cameras. The great thing here is that Zoom includes a wooden Mic-handle shaped adapter that screws into this slot and the mic handle attaches to any standard mic clip for use on a mic stand. This is how hiproductions uses it exclusively.
I set it up as an "ambient" mic on a stand with the windscreen on the XY mics, put it in 4 channel mode, run my mics to it and Bob's my uncle.
The mic-handle adapter is included in the standard box, but the microphone clip and stand are not. As I mentioned, I found a nice kit that included these so I was set to go when it all came in.
Power, Batteries, and Stamina
Underneath the tripod mount on the H4n is the battery compartment . It takes 2 AA batteries and inside the battery compartment, (hidden by the battery cover, is something Zoom calls the "Stamina Switch" this is a switch that supposedly doubles the life of your batteries. Herein lies another slight flaw with the H4n. First of all, Zoom advertises nearly 6 hours of life on a set of 2 batteries...eeerrrmm, not so much. This unit might give you 6 hours if you attach it to your wall and use it as a night light, but try to do serious recording, especially 4 Channel recording and the battery life drops off significantly. When the batteries go, so does the recording, OUCH yet again.
I lost part of a recording during a shoot because I refused to believe that the batteries were dying after only about an hour of usage. They did. But I have seen 2+ hours on 4 channel recording with this which does the trick but its NO 6 hrs as advertised.
Zoom's answer to this is the hidden stamina switch. Supposedly this doubles the life of the batteries but does so at a cost to the responsiveness and performance of the H4n. I personally prefer to sacrifice battery life for performance everytime so I am not complaining, however, I did experiment with the stamina switch and it did improve my battery time, but I did not try it while 4 channel audio.
Herein lies yet another "GOTCHA". You will set up your rig to record 4 channel and the unit will record in 2 channel stereo. You will scramble to find the setting in the menus and submenus, you will try to press the 4channel mode button all to no avail. It is only going to record in 2 channel UNTIL, you find that sneaky nagging little hidden Stamina switch inside the battery compartment and turn it OFF. Then, magically, 4 channel mode is enabled again. So, stamina mode only works with Stereo 2 channel and will disable the ability to record in 4 channel.
Of course all of this can be avoided by using the adapter that is included in the kit and running this to the DC5V jack on the bottom of the H4n - but who wants to do it the easy way!? We find ourselves in a situation that requires a field recorder without access to power on outdoor shoots, but maybe this isn't your application. If its home studio stuff - then the power adapter is the way to go.
Software and Features
Included in your H4n package is a disc for Cubase LE software that allows you to record directly to your computer. This software is not bad at all, its on a level with Garageband for Mac (which is somewhat superior) but better than the freebie audio software out there for PC and Mac. Its not Pro Tools or advanced audio editing software but it is a great start for someone just getting started.
In addition to the H4n being a field recorder and a home studiio audio interface, it is also a phase trainer for musicians trying to learn a song by slowing down the playback without changing the pitch. The playback can be slowed to 50% or sped up to 150% as needed. This is also good for video work where we would need to add subtitles to an audio track to go along with picture. We can roll the session playback from the recorder and madly type in the appropriate subtitles in FCP's absolutely useless text 'mode' (I'll save that for the FCP review).
The H4n can also be used in MTR mode to record continual 2 track audio and dub down to 4 track for mixing vocals and music on the fly. Pretty cool. It also triples as a digital tuner for guitarists and a metronome for rhythm as well. Guitarists can also plug in and utilize some preset "amp" models should they decide to go on the cheap for this.
For Guitar FD Clean, VX Clean, HW Clean, US Blues, BG Crunch, MS #1959, PV Drive, Rect Vnt, DZ Drive, TS+FD_Combo, SD+MS_Stack, FZ+MS_Stack For Bass SVT, Bassman, Hartke, SuperBass, Sansamp, Tube Pre
I haven't used it for this purpose but I've read that they are probably not the recommended method for amp modeling. You can be the judge there.
The H4n can record to Mp3 or to WAV (less compressed) files up to 24bit quality, which is superior to CD quality and to most prosumer camera audio record quality (16bit). Recording to 24bit, and in WAV for that matter drastically reduces the amount of record time on your SD card but I tend to record in this quality exclusively and have been VERY pleased with the crisp, clear, rich sound that I've received from this unit. Granted, this is a $300 recorder so I'm not expecting the world, but for the money, the quality is more than acceptable.
Since I bought the H4n several months ago, the price has dropped by about $50. If I had to do it all over again, I would be willing to buy it at the $350 price point. It has been worth every penny to me. Yes a few gotchas and minor construction issues i.e. button size, but the quality, versatility, and functionality of this little H4n make me forget about those altogether.
Yes - by all means if you are in the market for a decent little 4 channel hand held recorder.