I have just taken delivery of a Zoom H4n portable audio recorder. We have used a Zoom H4 for recording material for the podcast “in the field” (quite literally on one occasion) and this new version offers some great improvements according to the specs, so I was keen to try it out.
The first thing to notice is that the two devices look very different. There is clearly a shared heritage in the design, with the two crossed microphones at the top and XLR sockets on the bottom, but the two devices are very different stylistically. I’m trying to resist using a Star Trek and ST:TNG comparison here. Although the H4n looks different, it doesn’t feel that different from its predecessor. It’s squarer and so looks more rugged, but don’t be fooled by the darker grey side panels. They are still made of thin plastic, not rubberised.
A quick inspection of the contents of the box reveals a number of bundled goodies. A 1GB SD card is supplied, enough to record 90 minutes of stereo audio in WAV quality, although those planning to make use of the new multi-track features will want to upgrade to one of the supported SDHC cards rapidly. Also included in the box is a wall-wart PSU, this one is lighter than the one supplied with the H4. There is a windshield included, which is one of the few parts of the supplied equipment which is worse quality than before. Whereas the H4 windshield fitted neatly over the microphones, the one supplied with the H4n has to be crudely pulled over the whole of the top of the device. Even then the shield doesn’t seem to fit particularly well and I’m sure it will need repeated adjustment in use.
The most puzzling inclusion is a microphone stand adapter. This screws into the tripod mount, now thankfully on the underside of the unit rather than a separate tray velcro-ed around it. The H4n can then be attached to a standard microphone stand clip. It isn’t a sophisitcated part, but may be of use to those who don’t have a proper tripod. Finally, the light draw string bag which protected the H4 has been replaced with a fairly solid plastic case for the new version. This is a hugely welcome change, which will provide the H4n with adequate protection in bags and on the move. A USB cable and a copy of Cubase LE make up the contents of the box. An optional remote control is also available.
Like its predecessor, the H4n runs on two AA batteries, but they are now installed in a compartment on the rear of the unit, not under the flap at the top. Importantly, the SD card slot has been moved to the side of the device, so you can now remove the batteries and SD card independently of each other. The manual claims that the H4n can run for 6 hours on one pair of AA batteries. There is also a special “stamina” mode which can stretch them to 11 hours. If true, this is a vast improvement over the H4, which usually drained batteries within two hours. Being naturally cynical of manufacturers’ battery life estimates, time will tell just how well the H4n treats its batteries in the field. It can also be powered via the USB cable, but only for transferring data or when being used as an external sound card.
The first thing I noticed when I powered the H4n up is the screen. It’s much larger and clearer than the old version. The time counter and VUs are much more easy to see as a result.
The H4n seems to have suffered from a button explosion, compared to its predecessor. The H4 had a jog-dial, a big red recording button, 4 recording mode buttons and a multi-purpose play/fast forward/rewind/stop button. The H4n has retained the jog dial on the side but replaced the recording mode buttons with input selectors (Mic, 1 and 2) presumably to better facilitate multi-track recording. The recording mode buttons themselves have morphed into dual-purpose buttons allowing selection of each of the 4 tracks, as well as folder, file, speed and WAV/MP3. The multi-purpose dial has been split into four separate stop/play/fast forward/rewind buttons, with the menu now being accessed via a dedicated button on the side of the unit. There is also a new record level rocker switch on the side.
The new separate stop/play/fast forward/rewind buttons do make navigating through a recording much easier. It’s trivial to skip back a few seconds, something which will be of use to those transcribing recordings, as will the ability to play back recordings at 50-150% of the original speed and the ability to add marks whilst recording and skip between them during playback. Being able to pause and resume recordings without creating a new file on the SD card is also a handy extra.
The built-in speaker is a new feature. Whilst it is obviously not a sophisticated way of monitoring recordings, it is clear enough to be useful for speech. The record level rocker switch allows adjustment of levels during a recording, something which only used to be available through the menu system. Positioned under the thumb would be when holding the device, I hope it’s not to easy to accidentally knock the level whilst in use. There is also a jack on the underside to connect a stereo microphone, useful if you are unable to physically mount the H4n in an appropriate location for a recording.
The microphones on the H4n have the same clear recording quality as the older model (though Zoom tell me that they are actually better quality than the ones of the H4, I haven’t had enough opportunity to fully test them myself) and rotate to provide a wider stereo field if desired. The active recording mode, stereo, 4-channel and multi-track, is shown by an LED at the top of the unit, which is covered up when the windshield is in use. In stereo mode, either the build-in microphones, the external stereo microphone or the XLR/jack inputs can be used. The 4-channel mode allows external inputs as well as either the built-in microphones or the external stereo microphone to be used. The audio from the external inputs is saved to one stereo pair, and the audio from the build-in mics to another. This in itself allows for much more flexible use of the H4n, perhaps recording the output of a mixer via the inputs and picking up crowd noise via the built-in microphones. In both the stereo and 4-channel modes, one of ten directories can be chosen into which to save the audio files. As if that wasn’t enough, the H4n has multi-track support, allowing individual playback and recording of four tracks. It also allows multi-track recordings to be saved as separate projects. I haven’t much call to use this feature, but my experience with the H4 tells me that anything as complex as multi-track recording on a device with a jog-dial, it can be frustratingly slow to configure and tweak settings.
There some additional software features, some of questionable value. Whilst the ability to encode WAVs recorded on the H4n to MP3 files after recording, not just at the time of recording, is a bonus, the inclusion of a karaoke feature has to be somewhat more frivolous. Adding a metronome, guitar tuner and effects processing may be of use to some musicians, but I suspect most will want the H4n to function purely as a recording device, and use external effects pedals.
As I mentioned before, there are two modes available when connecting the H4n to a computer via the USB cable. It can act as a simple USB card reader, giving access to the recordings on the SD card to the host computer. In this mode, the only difference over the H4 is that the H4n is a “high speed” USB 2.0 device, transferring large recordings much more swiftly than the older version. The H4n creates directories on the card for recordings made in each mode – stereo, 4-channel and multi-track. The second option is to use the H4n as a portable external sound card, offering connections at 44.1kHz and 48kHz, as well as having a range of on-board effects. This makes it ideal for use with a laptop to edit audio on the move and I can see this being of use to radio journalists in particular. Both the SD and sound card modes worked flawlessly on my Ubuntu system.
This unit was shipped with firmware version 1.30, but a quick check on the http://www.zoom.co.jp website showed that there was a newer release, 1.40. There are a handful of bugs fixed in this new version. Firmware releases for the H4 often fixed some very annoying bugs, so I suggest keeping an eye on the new firmware releases for the H4n too if you have one.
It seems that Zoom have built on the solid work of the H4. The only thing missing is an S/PDIF digital input port, which would let the H4n to be a very convenient replace the combination of laptop and I/O unit which I currently use for recording the podcast. The lessons they have learnt from the H4 have been worthwhile and the H4n is a much more flexible and useful device as a result, but one that doesn’t compromise its core functionality. It will save me carrying as much equipment around when we record in field, which on its own is enough to let me recommend it.Pin It