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Hands-on with the Zoom Q3 camcorder

CNET's Donald Bell gets his hands on the new Zoom Q3, a digital video recorder with a big emphasis on audio quality.

Photo of the Zoom Q3 camcorder.
The Zoom Q3 camcorder brings quality audio to the solid-state video camera market. Donald Bell/CNET

Update: CNET's full review of the Zoom Q3 is now available.

As the audiophile's answer to the Flip camcorder craze, the Zoom Q3 ($249) takes a basic pocket video camera and bestows it with a high-quality stereo microphone and advanced audio-recording options. After a weekend playing with the Q3 and testing its audio and video capabilities against the Flip Ultra HD, I have a few initial observations to share.

Test image of the Zoom Q3 against the Flip Ultra HD.
Compared with the Flip Ultra HD (bottom) the Zoom Q3's video quality appears washed out, hazy, and oddly grainy. The sound quality is exceptional, but not enough to make up for the video's deficiencies. Click to enlarge. Donald Bell/CNET

First off, let's hold no illusions about the Q3's video quality. The standard-definition 640x480 recordings (stored in a .MOV container format) are exceedingly average, making even the first-gen Flip cameras look good by comparison. There are no settings to adjust video quality, and results are particularly poor in low-light conditions. Zoom's own marketing for the Q3 calls it, "A little bit of video...a whole lot of audio," which is a clever way to couch the fact that the video quality sucks.

To be fair, the second half of Zoom's marketing slogan holds true: there is "a whole lot of audio" going on here. A pair of quality condenser mics are arranged on the top of the Q3 in an XY pattern, concealed behind a metal cage with an integrated windscreen. You also have a dramatic assortment of recording options, ranging from Pro Tools-ready 48kHz (24bit) WAV, down to 48kbps MP3, and all points in between (including a satisfying 320kbps MP3 compromise). A switch on the left side takes you between three recording-level settings (low, high, and automatic), but unlike Zoom's other audio recorders, there's no way to fine-tune the gain beyond these settings.

Another aspect of the Zoom Q3 that seems out of step with its emphasis on audio is the lack of any type of external audio input. The Q3's mics are great for most applications, but a minijack microphone input would have added a unique flexibility not offered by many competitors (the Kodak Zi8 is a notable exception). That said, Zoom does include a headphone jack, giving the Q3 the rare capability of direct audio monitoring.

To make a long story short, the Zoom Q3 video recorder offers above-average sound quality--but that's about the only good thing you can say about it. The product is relatively bulky, the video quality is sad, and battery life is unremarkable. If you're front row at your favorite concert, the Q3 may be the best route for capturing great audio along with passable video, but Flip and Kodak have better products for the other 99 percent of your nonrock-star lifestyle. Stay tuned for a full review.