MP3 players and cell phones are fine for recording the occasional voice memo, but recording a music recital or broadcast-quality interview requires a product with more muscle. The Zoom H2 is not the smallest or best-sounding mobile audio recorder we've come across, but with an unbeatable street price of about $200 and a dizzying list of features, it is an attractive compromise.
Measuring 4.2x2.5x1.25 inches, the Zoom H2 is one of the smallest high-quality mobile recorders available. In spite of its pocketable design, however, the H2's flimsy plastic construction feels too fragile for heavy professional use and abuse. While we wouldn't want to depend on the Zoom H2 to document our Mount Everest travel tales, its construction quality is adequate for more domestic tasks, such as recording piano recitals.
Despite its budget build-quality, small touches, such as a retro-styled microphone grille, threaded tripod mount, and easy-access battery compartment endear us to the Zoom H2. The sides of the Zoom H2 offer the expected assortment of features, such as headphone output, volume control, separate microphone and line-input jacks, microphone gain control, a mini USB jack, a power adapter port, and a wimpy plastic power switch that offers no safeguards against being accidentally turned on or off.
The main navigation pad found on the front of the Zoom H2 is straightforward, offering buttons for menu, play/pause, track skip, and record. Above the navigation pad you'll find two buttons for changing the settings on the built-in microphone, and a 1-inch, backlit LCD which we found barely adequate for all the menu diving we had to do.
In spite of the Zoom H2's low price and cheap construction quality, its list of features outstrips many of its high-priced competitors. The Zoom H2 includes settings for low-cut filter, automatic microphone gain control, compression presets, sound-activated recording, track splitting, a two-second prerecording buffer, metronome, an instrument tuner, and A-B audio looping. Unfortunately, accessing any of the aforementioned features requires you to fuss with the teensy onscreen menu, which can be difficult to read in direct sunlight.
The Zoom H2's biggest claim to fame is the inclusion of four built-in microphone capsules instead of the stereo pair found in most recorders. The integration of four microphones allows the H2 to pull off some neat recording tricks, such as the capability to selectively record from the front or rear of the recorder, to record a stereo mix using all four mics, or to record a four-channel mix using all the mics (recorded as two separate stereo WAV files). The four-channel recording option, which is unique to the H2, is useful for capturing surround sound recordings or making live recordings that allow for some mixing flexibility in post-production. A handful of H2 owners have even created their own Mac and PC software for converting the H2's four-channel recordings into 5.1 files, which can be played back on most consumer surround-sound receivers.
Another feature that is unique to the Zoom H2 is the capability to use the recorder as an external USB audio card for your PC. Once connected to your PC via USB, you can use the H2's microphones and recording inputs to record audio directly to your PC. Zoom does not include any computer recording software with the H2, but a free program such as Audacity will do the trick.
Zoom may skimp when it comes to recording software, but a surprising amount of accessories come bundled with the H2, including a microphone windscreen, a tabletop stand, a microphone mount, earbuds, an RCA line-input cable, an AC adapter, and a 512MB SD card. By contrast, Sony's microphone windscreen for the PCM-D50 runs an extra $50.
We're happy to see that the Zoom H2 is capable of a wide range of recording resolutions, including 48Kbps to 320Kbps MP3 and 44kHz, 48kHz, or 96kHz WAV recordings at 16 bits or 24 bits. Unfortunately, whether it's the fault of the Zoom H2's microphone quality or its built-in preamp, most of the recordings we made at various settings couldn't hold up to the detail and stereo imaging we got from the competition. The automatic gain control feature, which made recording on the Edirol R-09 dead-simple, required some unintuitive finessing to achieve a clean recording on the H2.
Our biggest pet peeve with the Zoom H2, however, is the 27 seconds it takes to start up. Maybe our short attention spans have got the better of us, but when it comes to quickly capturing an interview or a performance, 27 seconds can really kill the spontaneity.
The Zoom H2 supports SDHC storage cards as large as 16GB, although it can make continuous recordings only in 2GB chunks. Depending on how you have the Zoom H2 set up, a continuous 2GB recording translates to 23 hours of 192Kbps MP3, or 3 hours of 16-bit/44kHz WAV. Powered by a pair of AA batteries, Zoom rates the H2 at four hours of continuous operation. Like most portable audio recorders, however, expect that the H2's battery performance will vary depending on the recording resolution you've selected.
Despite our disappointment with the Zoom H2's cheap construction and microphone fidelity, at $199 the H2 is an excellent value and an ideal choice for general-purpose recording. If you're looking for a durable mobile recorder with knock-out sound quality, however, you'll need to spend some extra money on the competition.