This is a review of the Zoom H4 “Handy Recorder,” a portable audio recording device. Sometimes branded a Samson device, the H4 retails for around $300.
These devices have been growing in popularity over the last few years, due to the growth of podcasting and also the growth in independent film production. Because the H4 records in either wave or MP3, it is appropriate for both uses. MP3 bitrates can be adjusted between 320kbps and 48kbps. Wave files can be sampled at 44khz, 48khz or 96khz with either 16bit or 24bit precision. So, whether you’re a podcast producer looking to create quick MP3 files on the go, or an indie filmmaker looking for better audio than your camera can produce, this device tries to meet your needs.
Read on for the rest of the review… apologies for the terrible picture quality, my normal camera was unavailable.
The device itself feels a bit on the cheap side. I’m not convinced it’ll hold up to normal abuse as well as the Marantz PMD-660, a similar device. However, I also thought the PMD-660 felt kind of cheap, and it seems to be holding up just fine. The unit has two XLR/TRS inputs on the bottom, a mini-jack line input on the side and a set of stereo microphones on top. It runs on two AA batteries and accepts a standard sized SD card.
I like the fact that you can connect either XLR or TRS connections without using adapters. Additionally, you get phantom power and either manual or automatic level controls.
The user interface is relatively confusing, as you have to use both the direction pad and an up/down jog button on the side to navigate the menus. Some functions can be accessed through buttons directly on the device – choosing your recording mode for example. This is a nice touch.
Who’s it for?
One of the biggest problems with consumer and prosumer camcorders is the quality of the audio they record. Often times the audio seems like an afterthought, with noisy preamps or limited manual controls. Many low end cameras have done away with microphone inputs entirely, and instead expect you to rely on the built in mic.
While the Zoom H4 does not compete with high-end field audio recording setups, it does a very nice job for the price. The biggest limitation to its use in film and video production is that it does not accept an external timecode source, so matching your audio to your video will be strictly a manual process.
For podcasters, it’s an even more enticing option. The built in microphones are “good enough” for capturing a quick bit of audio on the go, and as your needs grow, the H4 can grow with you. Being able to record directly into MP3 is another plus, since your files are all set to be dropped on an iPod or added to an RSS feed.
The Zoom H4 is also attempting to serve third market – musicians. It is the only sub-$500 portable recording device I know of which can do 4-track recordings. That is, you can record a track of audio, and then go back and record another track while listening to the first track. The H4 also has a built in metronome with a lead-in feature. It also has a built in tuner, which I think is a fantastic addition to a device like this. If nothing else, it’s rather entertaining to try and sing a perfect note. Entertaining to me at least.
Finally, there’s the H4’s party-piece: it can act as a USB audio interface. Plug it into your computer, navigate through the menus on the H4 to find the “USB” option and enable the USB interface. On Mac OS X, the H4 immediately appeared in the System Preferences Sound pane as both an input and output device. I was able to select it in GarageBand and recorded without any trouble. That’s an extremely cool feature! It alone may justify the cost for some users.
In all, I’m really enjoying the Zoom H4. The big worry for me is still the issue of durability, but at $300 it doesn’t have to last all that long. I really appreciate that Zoom has gone the extra mile to add features which distinguish the H4 from the rest of the market. This has become my new defacto recommendation for portable audio recording.