Zoom H4n Portable Digital Recorder
Originally published in Guitar World, November 2009
Whereas many earlier portable recorders were more of a convenient
compromise, the H4n overcomes most of those drawbacks to offer truly
professional sound quality and exceptional ease of use for a truly
Portable handheld digital recorders are so commonplace these days that finding a musician without one is like encountering a corporate type who doesn’t use a Blackberry. If you’re one of the few who has resisted temptation, now is the time to give in. Compact field recorders have progressed significantly compared to the early versions that started appearing on the market just a few years ago.
Zoom’s new H4n is a great example. Although by name alone it seems like just a minor revision of Zoom’s popular H4 Handy Recorder, the H4n boasts so many new features and upgrades that it really should be considered an entirely different product. Some of the H4n’s basic features are similar, like its four-track recording capability and pair of combination 1/4-inch/XLR inputs, but just about every other detail has undergone a major makeover or upgrade. While the list price has experienced a bit of a minor “upgrade” as well, the street price is about the same as the H4’s when it first hit the market, making the H4n an even better buy.
Overall, the basic functions of the H4n are identical to the H4. It’s a field recorder, a four-track portable studio and a USB audio interface. Like its predecessor, the H4n features a pair of built-in stereo condenser mics arranged in an X/Y pattern, but now the mics can be adjusted to 90- or 120-degree recording patterns. The improved mic preamp captures more transparent sound with lower noise, and the H4n now allows users to record up to four tracks using the internal mics and a pair of external mics (or instruments plugged into the combo jacks) at once instead of just two tracks. Using a 32GB high-capacity SDHC memory card, the H4n records up to 15 hours of 96kHz/24-bit audio, and even longer for MP3 formats, which range from 320 kbps to 48 kbps. Like the H4, the Multitrack Studio mode only records audio at 44.1kHz/16-bit resolution. The H4n’s multitrack studio section also features 50 built-in effects, including a variety of guitar and bass amp models, chorus, compression, delay and reverb.
Ergonomically, the H4n is much more comfortable and easy to use. The 1.9-inch LCD screen is much bigger, the front panel features dedicated transport and input select buttons, and side-mounted menu button and scroll wheel controls replace the somewhat confusing four-way menu navigator. The rubberized, shock-resistant chassis feels more sturdy and durable, and a built-in speaker has been added to allow users to monitor recordings without headphones. A new “Stamina” mode lets the H4n record 16-bit/44.1kHz linear PCM audio continuously for 11 hours, almost triple the H4’s overall battery life.
While the H4n's operation is more user friendly, Zoom has also added a ton of features and functions that make the recorder a more professional-quality unit than its predecessor. For example, instead of three-position gain settings for each input, gain is now adjustable in much finer increments using a +/- recording level switch. While the previous four-way menu navigation button often led users to unwanted pages when their fingers slipped, the menu button and scroll wheel arrangement takes you exactly where you want to go every time.
The sound quality is exceptional, especially when compared to other digital handheld location recorders in this price range. The built-in microphones sound great, but the H4n really shines when you plug in a pair of big condenser mics (the combo inputs also provide phantom power) and combine them with the built-in mics. While the compressor on the H4 sounded overly heavy handed, the H4n’s compressor sounds open, transparent and natural, rather than forced. Thanks to the built-in limiter, capturing huge “Headley Grange” style drums on location has never been easier.
The four-track studio (MTR) section still isn’t going to convince computer users to dump their Pro Tools or Cubase software, but it’s great for making quick, basic demos while you’re away from your studio. If you capture a performance that you don’t think you can duplicate, the sound quality is good enough to fly into a bigger multitrack production without sounding out of place.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Like many guitarists, you’ve probably put off buying a portable digital recorder because a) you’re lazy and b) you knew that an improved version would come along in a few months. Whereas many earlier portable recorders were more of a convenient compromise, the H4n overcomes most of those drawbacks to offer truly professional sound quality and exceptional ease of use for a truly attractive price.
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