Well I got a new toy a week or so ago, and I'm here with the full review of the Zoom H4 handheld portable recorder.
First off, I'll spell out a little of what I was looking for in a recorder so that you can see my perspective as the review unfolds a bit.
The main use I'll have for this recorder is to get sounds from out in the field both on-the-fly and in planned scenarios for use in sound design for television, film, and interactive media. I already have a good supply of gear available to my through my company for major projects, but I wanted some personal gear that I could always have on me for when the moment struck me. I also plan on getting some contact mics for specific recordings of things like guy wires and other stuff that would sound better with mics acutally attached. As such, the primary elements that went into my purchasing decision were:
-usable onboard mics
-common solid state recording medium
-96k 24 bit capability
Here's an excellent review with other audio samples that delves into some things that I won't cover like the 4 track and audio effect functions.
So of the good news and bad news, we'll lead with the bad here.
These are the things that I don't like about the Zoom H4:
Now I know that any piece of gear that I get at this price point is going to make certain compromises, and that they all are going to be made of plastic in this range, but I was honestly surprised at how plasticky the controls felt. My old cell phone felt more reassuring to the touch.
Again, I'm not speaking as much to the chassis here as I am to the buttons and particularly the joystick and the little scroll wheel on the side that any H4 user will become very very familiar with. They feel like a bad bump could snap either one clean off, and they don't exactly inspire the feel of roadworthiness. Thankfully, both are fairly well recessed into the chassis.
-susceptibility to wind noise-
Again - I realize that this can be a function of the price point, but when one considers that this particular box is being marketed as a location recording device with built in mics, the fact that the mics overload when I think about wind makes them a little annoying. The unit does come with a workable windscreen that fits well on the device, but the sheer necessity of the windscreen in most situations revokes a lot of the "it fits in your pocket" usability part of the unit in on-the-fly ambiance and sfx gathering applications.
This is decidedly not a price point related gripe. Zoom really could have thought out the interface better - if only through programming alone. The interface has you using the scroll wheel on the side in conjunction with the joystick in some confusing and counterintuitve ways.
I think this is a function of the fact that the box tries in some respects to be all things to all people, and as such the architecture is a little schizophrenic.
This is somewhat related to the menu control gripe, but it has a couple of specifics to go along with it.
First off the preamp control is buried in a menu that requires 3 clicks to access, so God help you if you've got it set in a bad place for the sound you're trying to catch and you need to adjust it quickly.
Secondly, once you do access it via the menu and start to adjust it, the movement is s l o w man. It can take upwards of 10 seconds to do a full 10 db move if you include the time it takes to access the input level via menu. Oh, and the input level is marked in 127 steps as opposed to anything useful like dB or VU.
Third, the preamp doesn't exactly put out a lot of juice. Many of my recordings had the preamp wide open - both with the internal and with external mics. This is fine when using good quality condensers, but I imagine it'd pose a problem with something like an sm-57 (though I haven't tested that specific setup yet.)
really that's it, and while some of those things can be pretty annoying, none really adds up to be a deal breaker by any means.
So here are the things that I like about the H4:
The price point is right in my wheelhouse. $250ish including shipping brand new off of ebay is a hell of a deal for any piece of quality, usable gear - but especially for one that includes the rest of the positives that I'm about to list off.
windscreen necessity aside, this is a pretty darn portable piece of gear. It does actually fit in your pocket, and even when toting the windscreen it's not a cumbersome arrangement. It helps if one has a bag to carry the recorder/windscreen/mic stand setup, but there's really no excuse to hear something you like and then not be prepared to record it once you own this thing. The quality won't be what you'll get with a pricier setup, but it won't be so far off that you won't use it either.
-preamp and mic quality-
In my own tests, the preamp and mic quality both belie the clunky exterior on this thing. While I'd personally much prefer an MS configuration than an XY config, nothing on the market seems to have that going for it. The stereo image is a little narrow for my tastes, but I suppose I'm glad that they erred on that side of it than on the too wide side.
That aside, I found the built in electrets to be of high enough quality that I'll use them and be unashamed of the results as they come out of it. They catch the whole frequency range well, and while they're not remarkably linear they're not unpleasant with thier character either.
The preamps are quiet enough to work for grabbing ambiences and the like, though I'll mostly anticipate grabbing loud things, and this box excels at that particular task. There's plenty of headroom in both the mics and the preamp to catch things like motorcycles and construction witn no overload.
You'll be able to judge for yourself with the samples and tests that make up the third part of this review.
-usb computer interface-
This could be worth the price of admission by itself for podcasters and other desktop recordists. The unit can be buss powered via usb, and immediately turns into a cool sounding mic/headphone setup for use in podcasts, skypes, etc. quick, easy, clean, useful.
Ok, enough words - time to listen!
When I unpacked it, I just about immediately grabbed my camera and headed outside to our condo's swimming pool, which happens to have a series of small waterfalls feeding it. I also went to my motorcycle and our communal industrial strength water cooled air conditioner.
Following are the recordings I made along with documentation of the mic position of each. Also note that for each of these (except the motorcycle) the preamp was cranked wide open. Aside from editing, these files are unaltered from the disk - including any gain changes. All photos are of actual mic positions and were actually taken during the recordings.
[click on the photos to hear the recordings]
So that's the representation of what those internal mics and preamps can do. Overall I'd personally label that better than merely acceptable, and I'm very happy with the usability of the files in post situations.
Now onto the shootout!
For the shootout I was hoping to do a couple of things that didn't end up working out, but I think I got a good picture of the relative quality of the mics and preamps in a more critical situation nonetheless.
The first thing that I was hoping to do was to run the internal and external mics on the H4 simultaneously. Unfortunately, the menu options only allows one mode at a time so I had to do a second pass of all of the recording tests with the internals .
The second thing I was hoping to do was to run an iPhone recording at the same time so that I could get a good approximation of how near/far the Zoom would end up to a really crappy recorder as well as the nice one that I was setting up along side it. Unfortunately, the recording software that was available only ended up recording at 16-bit 8k, so once I downloaded the files I realized that they were just too artificially crappy to give me a good comparison.
With that out of the way, here's what is included in the test:
-Simultaneous setup of the Zoom H4 and the Sound Devices 744T
-recording 24 bit 48k
-each recording device powering a Schoeps CMC6 with hypercardiod capsule
-Zoom H4 input set to 127 (wide open)
-Sound Devices 744T input set to 2 o'clock
-a separate pass of the same tests with the Zoom H4 internal mics at the same settings
The Sound Devices/Shoeps setup is a version of the industry standard for high-end film recording, and the price of entry for that particular combination runs around $4,000 for the Sound Devices and $1700 for the mic/capsule combo. Of course you get much more functionality out of that setup than you'll ever get out of the H4, but you're also paying for the quality of the preamps/clock/converters as well.
This also means that I'm plugging a mic into the H4 that's around 7 times it's price. :)
Here's a pic of the setup:
And here are the results:
Zoom H4-built in mics-glass-ping.wav
Zoom H4-built in mics-paper.wav
Zoom H4-built in mics-pretzels-glass.wav
Zoom H4-built in mics-pretzels.wav
Zoom H4-built in mics-voice.wav
Zoom H4-built in mics-water.wav
Zoom H4-with shoeps-glass-ping.wav
Zoom H4-with shoeps-paper.wav
Zoom H4-with shoeps-pretzels-glass.wav
Zoom H4-with shoeps-pretzels.wav
Zoom H4-with shoeps-voice.wav
Zoom H4-with shoeps-water.wav
So what's my take on the results?
Well the 744T is clearly quieter than the Zoom H4, but that's to be expected. With that said, I was very impressed with how close the H4 preamps ran to the 744T, particularly with regards to dynamic range and frequency responses. And while you can't really do foley work with those preamps, that's about the only thing you can't do with them (and who does foley with a portable recorder anyway?)
I was also happy with how the internal mics held up - especially given the price differential. They're certainly not capable of anything near what the Schoeps can do - especially on the voice - but they were true enough to make me a believer on the pretzel and paper tests. The susceptibility to wind noise will always be problematic, but the recordings will be worthy of the things that I throw at them.
There you have it. Not scientific, but certainly more comprehensive than most of what you'll find out there. Thanks for sticking with this super long post!