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Zoom Q3 review: Zoom Q3

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6.3

Zoom Q3

The Good

The Zoom Q3 is a portable video recorder with uncompromising audio quality. Its small size, removable SDHC storage, built-in USB cable, and replaceable batteries, make it ideal for on-the-go musicians and journalists.

The Bad

Video quality is mediocre-looking and uses a standard-definition resolution that feels mismatched with its high-definition audio capabilities.

The Bottom Line

The Zoom Q3 is long on audio features, but short on video quality, but it fills a niche for musicians and avid concertgoers who may prize sound above all other considerations.

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.

Design
The Zoom Q3 will certainly get you noticed. Looking like a blue-hued Flip Mino 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 H2 audio recorders. 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.


The Zoom Q3 (left) takes a lot of its design cues from the Flip, including the navigation pad. That big microphone sitting on the top is unmistakable, though.

Features
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.

Performance
Right off the bat, let's make it clear that the audio recording quality of the Zoom Q3 is without peer in the pocket camcorder market. If you're looking for fantastic and flexible sound from a handheld video recorder, the Q3 delivers on its audio fidelity hype.

Now here's where we'd love to say that the Q3's video quality is equally matched by its aptitude for audio--but it's simply not true. In fact, compared with the glut of smaller, cheaper, HD-capable camcorders competing in this space, the Q3's video quality is downright disappointing.

The problem is more than just a pixel count. Many of our recordings demonstrated poor white balance, hazy contrast, washed-out colors, and an odd grainy quality. Similar to the video camera found on the fifth-generation Apple iPod Nano, we did appreciate the accommodating wide-angle lens (0.8mm to infinity focal length), which allowed us to capture subjects and scenes from shorter distances than the Flip.

Image samples can be found in our slideshow and First Look video. To fully understand the unique audio capabilities of the Q3, be sure to listen to the selection of audio samples at the end of this review, as well.

The Q3's battery life is rated at 2 hours of video recording, or 4 hours of audio-only recording.

Final thoughts
We can think of several examples where the microphones on our camcorder or digital camera have let us down: windy recordings of childrens' soccer games; interviews imbued with a nagging mechanical whine hovering in the background; or concerts where the sheer volume overloads the audio into an unlistenable wall of noise. The Zoom Q3 is an admirable attempt to remedy the problem of bad sounding videos, and it may find an audience with musicians and journalists who value sound quality over all other considerations.

That said, we now live in a world where expectations for digital video quality have dramatically increased. Our TVs are HD, our portable media players are HD, and even YouTube recently announced 1080p HD video streams. No matter how great it sounds, we have a hard time justifying an investment in a standard definition video camera at a time when the world is going HD.

Recording samples
Flip Ultra HD test, No. 1 (YouTube):

Zoom Q3 test, No. 1 (YouTube):

Flip Ultra HD test, No. 2:

Zoom Q3 test, No. 2

Flip Ultra HD test, No. 3:

Zoom Q3 test, No. 3:

6.3

Zoom Q3

Score Breakdown

Design 6Features 7Performance 6Image quality 0