Bernard Howard, SOAS
The Zoom H4n is a compact and capable solid state audio recorder. It retains all of the functions of its predecessor, the H4, but is considerably improved with a more solid feel, and a better layout of controls. It also offers improvements over some of the weaker areas of the H4: the display, menu system, internal speaker, battery and SD memory compartment, and internal microphones are all updated. Other changes include new project edit functions, greater SD memory compatibility, stamina battery setting (giving longer battery life), a new handle/stand adapter, and an optional remote control.
The H4n’s display is about 4 times larger than its predecessor’s, and is now quite easy to read. It is also illuminated, which is useful in low light conditions and has a variety of settings for duration and contrast. In good light the display is clear enough to read without the illumination, potentially saving some battery life.
The H4n can record in a variety of formats and settings. PCM WAV files can be recorded at sample rates of 44.1, 48, or 96 kHz, and at 16 or 24 bit sample size. Various MP3 settings are available, but we recommend that WAV is always used for recording language documentation.
Comparing audio recorded at 48 and 96 KHz, I found no discernable difference in the sound quality. Since 44.1 and 48 KHz capture the full hearable frequency range of the human voice, and higher resolutions consume more storage space, and tend to cause compatibility problems on computer software used for downstream processing, the higher settings offered by the H4n are not recommended for normal work. It would be better to exploit the H4n’s unique 2 x XLR connectivity to make stereo recordings, rather than consume space for higher resolutions. We recommend that most users set the H4n to make stereo 44.1 KHz, 16 bit PCM WAV files, which will provide nearly 3 hours of recording CD quality recordings on the now very affordable 2 GB CF memory cards. Alternatively, if your computer and software can handle 48 KHz 24 bit audio, these are emerging standards and are likely to offer slightly greater fidelity.
The H4 has the unique ability among compact and affordable recorders in that it can record four channels simultaneously. This is achieved by taking input from the external microphone jacks (which can be either XLR or quarter-inch connectors) as well as the H4n’s internal microphones.
When recording, the main display shows recording level in dBs. The input button(s) of the currently selected input(s) is conveniently illuminated red, and blinks when clipping occurs on that input.
The H4n has a built in X/Y stereo condenser microphone pair. They are adjustable in angle from 90 to 120 degrees, allowing widening of the field of reception, useful for recording a larger group of speakers.
The microphones offer good recording quality, but can suffer from noise handling when handling the unit. It would thus be a good idea to use supplied handle/stand adapter (see Figure 2), although in general it will always be preferable to use external microphones so that monitoring and adjusting recording can be done independently of the microphone location and without inducing handling noise. The internal microphones are also rather sensitive to noise from air movement. While this was improved by using the supplied foam microphone windshield/pop shield, testing showed that a more substantial windshield is required for outdoor use (which is yet another reason for preferring external microphones).
The H4n’s controls have gained from the improvements made in response to the weaknesses of the former model. They are now well labelled, larger, and have a positive reassuring click when pressed.
The H4n now has a separate stop button, eliminating the confusing setup of the H4 which required a third press of the record button (after record-pause, and record) to stop recording.
Recording level is now easy to set via two dedicated up/down buttons (see Figure 4), unlike the H4 which required setting levels through the menu.
Providing further convenience, the H4n has four short cut buttons (see Figure 1) giving quick access to files, folders, and recording formats.
The unique feature of the Zoom H4n (and the H4) is its pair of XLR/quarter inch sockets on the base of the machine. The XLRs are balanced line with optional phantom power (controlled via the menu).
A disappointment is that Zoom has not added latching for the XLRs to the new model, so XLR plugs can still be pulled out accidentally. Although XLR plugs were quite a snug fit in the sockets of the brand new H4n machine used for this review, the sockets appear to be identical to those on our H4, which have become looser after only moderate usage.
The external inputs seem to be capable of handling a range of input signal levels (from microphone to line level), allowing the H4n to function, for example, as a digital interface for capturing audio from a range of devices including cassette recorders.
The unit also has a stereo minijack microphone socket (see near top of Figure 5) which can also provide plug in power (controlled via the menu). Inserting a minijack plug turns off the H4n’s internal microphones.
Headphones and speaker
The H4n has a minijack headphone socket with a separate volume control (Figure 3), as well as a built in speaker (Figure 5). The speaker might be handy in field situations, such as playing back audio to an interviewee, or for quickly seeking comments on a recording. Note, however, that the speaker should not be used to assess recording quality; a set of closed headphones is a must for monitoring audio quality.
USB audio interface
Like its predecessor, the H4n may be used as a USB audio interface for both Windows and Macintosh computers. It provides a mixer/output device, and an analogue to digital or digital to analogue converter. It effectively acts as an external sound card, which could be very useful for fieldworkers who wish to digitise existing audio recordings, such as on cassette, but who have ordinary laptops with typically poor audio hardware. Usefully, when functioning as an audio interface, the H4 operates on power supplied by the USB connection.
The H4n mounts on a computer as a USB storage device and can therefore be used as a generic SD/SDHC card reader.
The H4n uses SD and SDHC cards up to 32 Gigabytes capacity. A card of 4 GB allows recording of nearly 6 hours of 48 KHz 16 bit stereo PCM audio.
The H4n’s menu system provides access to its settings, functions and modes. These include file navigation and access, recording and channel settings, playback modes, SD card management, as well as USB, system, time and battery settings.
The H4n uses two AA batteries, which can be of either regular alkaline or NiMH type. The type of battery being used can be set using the menu so that the battery life indicator is accurate.
Zoom claims that regular alkaline AA batteries will give 8 hours of use, and that switching to “stamina” mode extends battery life to as long as 11 hours. In this mode, recording is limited to two microphones and 44.1 KHz 16 bit PCM format. In tests, battery life was reduced by approximately 50% when using 48 volt phantom power.
The SD and battery compartments have been separated (in the H4 the card and battery were under the same cover), and as a result both are now easier to access. However the battery cover has four tiny locating tongues which have to locate in slots on the body in order to shut properly. These are easily bent when putting the lid on, and are likely to break if not handled with great care - see Figure 5.
This review has covered only the main points that will be of interest to the field linguist. The H4n has several other capabilities, such as editing and functions for musicians (such as inbuilt metronome).
For the field linguist, the Zoom H4n represents an excellent balance of size, cost and quality. The construction has a robust feel to it, the control buttons and click-wheel are well set out and positive in operation, and the menu system is easy to access and operate. It is capable of making high quality recordings and offers a good selection of inputs and outputs.
After a large number of improvements over its predecessor, the only causes for concern are the flimsiness of the battery compartment lid and the non latching XLR sockets.
Overall, compared to its similar-priced competitors (such as the Edirol R-09HR or Olympus LS-10) the Zoom H4n is our current favourite due to the flexibility of being able to use fully professional microphones via its phantom-powered XLR sockets.
The Zoom H4n is currently available in the UK at around £300. If you are buying one, make sure you are buying the new model, as a few units of the previous model are still available at reduced prices.