The world is full of portable audio recorders for capturing lectures, recording your garage band, or helping you produce a podcast, but few products are flexible enough to do it all. The Zoom H4n is a welcome exception to the rule: a mobile recording jack-of-all-trades that includes built-in stereo microphones, professional XLR and 1/4-inch microphone jacks, a multitude of recording formats, and a design that's intuitive and tough. Best of all, the H4n comes at a price ($350) that doesn't hit the wallet quite as hard as the competition.
If you're familiar with Zoom's previous handheld recorders, the H2 and H4, you probably know that the company's excellent track record with creating value often comes at the expense of cheap-feeling design. For instance, its $200 H2 recorder includes useful features you won't find on high-priced competitors like the Edirol R-09HR, but the H2's cheap, plastic construction feels like it dropped out of a cereal box. Fortunately, it's time to erase those preconceptions, because the Zoom H4n looks and feels remarkably solid. Side by side with the R-09HR and the Sony PCM-D50, you'd never guess the H4n is the most affordable.
Measuring 6.5 inches long by 2.75 inches wide by just less than 1.5 inches thick, the Zoom H4n isn't the most pocket-worthy recorder we've tested (try the Yamaha Pocketrak 2G), but it's the smallest design we've seen that includes two full-size XLR/instrument combination jacks. In fact, no feature is spared on the Zoom H4n. From the built-in multipattern stereo microphones on the top, down to the phantom-powered mic inputs on the bottom, the H4n packs in every conceivable option you'd want in a portable audio recorder. Zoom even throws in extras such as a foam windscreen, mic stand mount, 1GB SD card, Cubase recording software, and a power adapter.
Design features such as microphones encased in solid aluminum and a spacious 2-inch screen may be the first details to catch your eye, but its the small things that really have us loving the H4n. Little details such as an offset record button that's easy to feel out in the dark, or the built-in speaker on the back that lets you listen back to recordings without having to plug in a pair of headphones, demonstrate that Zoom's designers really did their homework designing the H4n. However, our favorite unsung design feature is the H4n's menu navigation system. Using a simple menu button and a scroll wheel off to the right side of the recorder (where your thumb naturally falls), the H4n offers the easiest menu navigation we've ever used on a portable recorder. Granted, the menus themselves offer a dizzying amount of options and features, but the ergonomics of jumping in and out of menus to manipulate those features is as smooth as can be.
Of course, not everything is perfect. For one, it seems a little odd that Zoom placed the minijack microphone input on the back of the H4n, instead of putting it on the side like its competitors do. Placing the input on the back makes it impossible to lay the H4n on a table while recording with an external minijack microphone, unless you stand the recorder on its end. We also would like to have seen a dedicated track-divide button on the H4n, similar to the one found on the Sony PCM-D50.
If you value simplicity over flexibility, you may find the hundreds of settings and configurations offered by H4n overwhelming. For us, Zoom's everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach feels refreshingly generous, offering more features than recorders that cost twice as much. The H4n comes with a 150-page printed manual that clearly explains each and every aspect of operation. We only have a few paragraphs, however, so let's just go over the main details.
The H4n can be set in three main recording modes: stereo, four channel, and multitrack recording. Dedicated LED indicators for each of the recording modes are found just above the H4n's screen, making it easy to determine which mode you're using. By default, the recorder is set to stereo recording mode, letting people capture stereo-audio recordings from the H4n's built-in mics, or external microphone inputs. Recording resolution ranges from a maximum of 24-bit/96kHz, to as low as 48Kbps MP3, with selections for just about everything in-between (such as 320Kbps MP3, or a Pro Tools-friendly 24-bit/48kHz). Microphone gain adjustments are made using a clearly labeled rocker switch on the right side of the recorder, and features such as auto-level adjustment, multiple compressor, and limiter settings help to prevent recording levels from overloading.
While most people will only use the H4n's stereo mode, the recorder's four-channel mode distinguishes it from the competition. With four-channel recording, the H4n lets you record from the built-in microphones and external microphone inputs simultaneously as two separate stereo files. In the real world, this means you can record the stereo sound of a music performance and the direct sound of an instrument (say, a closely-mic'd acoustic guitar, or the line output of a keyboard) all at the same time. The result is a more professional-sounding recording that leaves some creative wiggle room when the files are mixed together later on. To hear a comparison between two-channel (stereo) and four-channel recording, take a listen to the sample recordings in the Performance section of this review.
The third recording mode of the Zoom H4n is MTR, or multitrack recording. This mode is similar to four-channel recording, but treats each channel as a distinct track, with individual settings for panning, volume, and effects. In essence, MTR mode lets musicians layer compositions in multiple passes (first drums, than guitar, and so on). Some users will find value in the H4n's ambitious MTR mode, but from a general usability perspective, we feel that the mixing board-style interface of the MTR mode is awkward to operate using the included controls.
Other useful features of the Zoom H4n are an SDHC-compatible memory card slot, support for phantom-power microphones, and a low-cut filter with several frequency selections (from 80Hz on up to 237Hz). To see the full list of features, pay a visit to Zoom's H4n product page.
During testing, we found the controls of the H4n just as responsive and easy to operate as any of its competitors. The recorder's bright, 2-inch screen displays information in a way that is crisp and easy to read, and quick adjustments to recording and headphone levels are a cinch.
Rumbling noises caused by handling the recorder were minimal, and disappear almost entirely if you attach the included mic mount and use it like a pistol grip (note: this also makes you look awesome). Soft rubber pads on the back of the H4n help to isolate the recorder from noise when placed on a table.
The H4n runs off two AA batteries, and includes internal settings to maximize performance from either alkaline or rechargeable batteries. At its default setting, you can expect around six hours of continuous WAV recording. For longer recording times, you can switch the H4n into a stamina mode that offers up to 11 hours of WAV recording. No matter how you cut it, though, you're still not getting the 12 hours of recording promised by the Sony PCM-D50, but the $100 you save may be worth the sacrifice.