The advent of dedicated, pocket-size video cameras, popularized by Flip, Kodak, and Creative, brought a welcome change from the bulky tape recorders of the past. Most users praise the simple operation and basic features of this new breed of video cameras, but in some cases, the limitations can be frustrating.
Audio quality is one such limitation in the pocket camcorder market. In many cases, outdoor recordings made on a camcorder are plagued by wind noise and audio is typically captured using low bit rates and inexpensive internal microphones. Recognizing the need for a consumer pocket video camera with high-performance audio features, the Zoom Q3 ($249) gives audiophiles something to shout about.
The Zoom Q3 will certainly get you noticed. Looking like a blue-hued with a space heater sticking out of its top, the Q3 comes across a bit like a Star Trek prop. Unfortunately, as futuristic as it seems at first glance, the overall size and construction is a little dated compared with the competition.
Measuring 5.25 inches tall by 2.25 inches wide my 1.25 inch think, and weighing about 6 ounces (batteries included), the Q3 is taller and bulkier than most conventional pocket cams. To be fair, the top inch of the Q3 is literally dedicated to its crowning feature--a pair of high quality stereo condenser microphones wrapped in a protective metal grille and wind screen.
Aside from the obligatory SDHC card slot, tripod mount, and built-in USB cable, the sides of the Q3 look as though they were torn off of one of Zoom's popular. For example, the left edge includes a headphone jack that lets you directly monitor audio recording quality. You also get a three-position switch for adjusting the microphone gain between low, high, and automatic settings. There's a power button, of course, but there's also a switch that lets you specifically shut off the video capabilities, turning the Q3 into an audio-only recorder.
In true pocket camera fashion, the Zoom Q3 offers absolutely no video features to meddle with. You just turn it on, hit the record button, and you're guaranteed a 640x480 -pixel resolution MOV video file recorded at 30 frames per second-- compressed using the MPEG4-SP codec. Just like the Flip Ultra HD we tested it against, the Q3 includes dedicated buttons for play, record, skip, and trash.
Its audio features are abundant. Beyond the gain setting switch, the Q3's menu button offers an onscreen menu filled with options for sound quality and lo-cut filtering. For discriminating audio purists, the Q3 lets you elect to record at audio resolutions far exceeding CD-quality, up to 48kHz (24-bit) WAV in video mode, or 96kHz (24-bit) WAV for audio-only recording. For mere mortals, CD-quality 44kHz (16-bit) still offers a welcome improvement over the competition, and a long list of MP3 encoding options (ranging from 320Kbps to 48Kbps) still benefit from Q3's superior microphones and gain control.
Other features worth noting include a composite video output (cable included) that can format for both NTSC and PAL TVs; a power adapter input for extended recordings; support for rechargeable batteries; and a built-in speaker for hearing recordings without an attached set of headphones.
One feature surprisingly missing from this audio-friendly camcorder is an external microphone or line input. Granted, the Q3's built-in mics are great, but the audio fanatics looking at the Q3 probably wouldn't mind the added flexibility to plug in a clip-on lavalier microphone or the mix from a soundboard. We're even seeing some consumer cameras such as the Kodak Zi8 include a microphone jack.