Friday, May 22, 2009

Zoom H4: A Review

A while ago I posted my first impressions of the Zoom H4, but they were only first impressions and I don't know how much weight they would hold with most people. Well, I did some thinking, did some tests, and I've taken that previous post and reinforced it with some experience.

Sorry, I still don't have any of my own audio clips to post. If you'd like to hear it in action, check out this review, which has a few audio clips on page 2. That review is what ultimately pushed me over the edge into buying the H4, by the way, and I have not been disappointed.

That's right, I'm coming right off the bat and saying I am not disappointed. At all. I love this thing. I love the Zoom H4.

One of the things that made me wary of buying it at first was my confusion of the brand. Is it made by Zoom or Samson? It all seemed a little sketchy and fly-by-night at the time. Truth is, I still don't know what the deal is. I'm assuming Samson re-branded it, but it doesn't really matter. As far as I've heard, they're both the same device.

For reference, my old mic was an Azden SGM-2x. I bought it five years ago and today it still it goes for roughly the same price, around $200. It has a shotgun and a condenser capsule. I bought it, online without ever hearing any recordings from it, for it's assumed flexibility. It's been used at weddings, used for some voice overs, and it's even been used on some nationally syndicated television shows. I've put it through the paces, and I must say, it's a decent mic, but it seems to pick up far too much noise, good sometimes but not good for the voice-over stuff I'm working on now. I generally used it with my Canon XL1 and record to DV, or I used my M-Audio Black Box to record to computer.

Here's a quote from my original "first impressions" post:

I was looking into a M-Audio mic, a Luna perhaps, and noticed it needs to be phantom powered. The Black Box doesn't do phantom power, so I started looking at other options. I stumbled across the H4. It looked promising, but I didn't have the cash to spare or the need for it at that time.

Well, now I have both and ordered it yesterday, Amazon got it here today. First of all, genius. Genius. I love this thing already. It looks a little odd, looks a little cheap (and $260 for what it does is somewhat cheap). It has two sockets for XLR inputs. These two sockets also fit a 1/4" jack, so you can use a cheaper mic or plug a standard guitar cable in. That's right, XLR or 1/4" jack in one socket. Pretty slick.

As I implied earlier, it does phantom power, it records on a SD card or you can plug it in via USB and record in your computer. It also has two built in mics, in standard crossed formation, for stereo recording. The chrome mics (and the wire guard around them) makes the thing look like a stun gun. And yes, I have scared a friend by moving as if to press it into their neck.

The H4 debuted, I think, in 2006, and the firmware has been updated as recently as March, 2009. They've fixed a lot of bugs, they changed the whole screen layout so the menus would be easier to navigate, and they added support for SDHC cards, among other things.

Here's what surprised me out of the box: The H4 came with newest firmware loaded on. Not unusual but not standard by any means. It also came with an AC adapter. That's expected but many companies seem to think providing an AC adapter (for battery-operated devices) is optional nowadays. Device came with a 512MB SD card. I knew about this in advance but it's worth mentioning. Device also came with printed manual! Very strange to get a full printed manual, usually you just get a CD and a quick start guide. In addition to the manual, you also get a few pamphlets. One with recording advice, mic placement for certain situations as well as the best mic settings. Another sheet listed all the changes made with firmware updates (firmware changes aren't reflected in the manual, I don't think) as well as the dates the firmware was changed.

Now let's go to the sound. I expected the on-board mics to sound good. There are audio tests floating around, live recordings and such, podcasts recorded on the H4 to check out. I've used it pretty extensively, in the same environment I record with my Azden. Let me just say, the mics on this thing sound great. Amazing. I had to do all sorts of things to keep the Azden for picking up room sound, which I'm sure my own fault for not buying the right mic for what I wanted to do. And SGM-2x was not good for indoor work at all. The Zoom, however, is great. At the lowest sensitivity there is no room noise yet my voice is still fairly loud. There is a lot of noise at the highest sensitivity (duh) and I's bet it would be great for even acoustic live shows. I'm very impressed. As I said earlier, I was going to buy a new mic, now I don't need to.

The biggest drawback I've seen so far is the menu navigation. I know the menus now, but there is a bit of a learning curve. Maybe the curve wouldn't have been so steep if I had read the manual more carefully, but I figured it out eventually. All the buttons are clearly marked, so paying a little attention really goes a long way. As for the amp simulation, I've used it a little playing around on guitar, and it's amp models are okay--fun to play with, at least. Ultimately, I think for practicing I'd use the H4, and for serious recording I'd go to my M-Audio Black Box (which I'm also very fond of).

Another potential drawback is that there are reports that running it on batteries causes a very quiet humming under the recording in certain microphone settings (either with phantom power or without it, I think). I haven't used it with batteries, and I probably never will, but there are work-arounds using external battery packs with the AC port (kludgy, I know). If I ever have problems with that I'll post it, but as I recall the noise was so faint a lot of people experiencing it didn't even notice until it was brought to their attention on message boards.

I just now saw that there's a new model, the H4n, which seems to boast a few more features in an updated form factor. I don't know anything about it, but it looks like Zoom has discontinued the H4, completely eliminating the purpose of this review. Huh. Anyway, you should still be able to find the H4 around for a few more years, and this could mean you'll find it for even cheaper.

Ultimately, the thing that drove me away from other audio recorders is what might drive others away from the H4: it's size. The H4 is pretty large by current DAR standards. Having a larger size means a lot, though. It means all the ports are built-in, no adapters needed. It means there are two large-ish, good sounding mics on this thing. It means phantom power. It means being a little awkward at times, and the H4 does look a bit like a toy. But the sound it gets is really, really good for it's price range. Really. Don't take my word for it, though. Listen. (Link goes to page 2 of previously mentioned review, with audio samples)


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