The Zoom H4n, retailing at around £290 (late 2009), is an all-in-one mic/field recorder, recording onto standard SD cards. In some ways it is an updated version of the original Zoom H4 which we reviewed earlier, but in many important ways it is a new machine altogether.
As well as the built in microphones on top of the unit, the H4 can accept XLR balanced microphone inputs, and provide P48 phantom power for capacitor mics where required. Unbalanced mics are supported via a 3.5mm socket on the back.
The inbuilt mics are quite good, though for quiet subjects the recorder is best fixed to a tripod rather than hand held. The metal baffles on the mics can be rotated for a 90 degree soundstage or alternatively set a wider 120 degree soundstage.
The recorder uses two standard AA size batteries, either alkaline or NiMH rechargeable. There is an external mic and line input, which disabled the internal mics if used.
You can select a number of recording modes and sampling rates - 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 96kHz and bit depths of 16 or 24 bits, plus a range of mp3 recording modes.
Like many CF recorders, this product is clearly aimed at musicians rather than widlife sound recordists, with a large number of music-related effects and equalisers, including a metronome. However, the compact form factor makes it attractive to the widlife sound recordist on a budget, with the built in mics there for soundscapes and the external input available for more specialist mics.
In the field the unit is light and easy to use. Record level is controlled by up/down buttons on the right hand side. Although a rotary wheel is available it is for selecting menu functions rather than record level. Thankfully, record level can be adjusted on the fly, and the Zoom is unusual in that the mic recording range in continuous, no separate high and low level ranges like its predecessor.
New to this model is a 'stamina' switch in the battery compartment, which may achieve the extra life but switching off some of the bells and whistles. In this mode the recorder records 44.1kHz/16bit wav files only, which is still a very good choice for wildlife sound recording though there is a gradual trend to higher bit rates/depths.
Overall the recorder is nicely designed and performs well. Wildlife sound recordists will find some of the features particularly useful - the preroll buffer which captures sounds just before the recording is started, the XLR inputs with switchable P48 powering, and a rather nice feature of a MS matrix allowing MS mics to be monitored in stereo on the headphone output though the tracks are recorded in MS, keeping flexibility for post-production adjustments.
Operationally there is one niggle. The 3.5mm mic jack is oddly located on the back of the H4n. This is a little bit of a pain for wildlife recordists as the jack sticks out to the back of the unit, digging itself into the ground and kinking the cable exit if the user tries to set the H4n in the obvious way, on its back on the ground so you can see the LCD. A right-angled plug is definitely to be recommended here, otherwise the jack/cable will be strained and get intermittent in due course.
The maximum gain available is better than the original Zoom H4 by about 10dB, so it is easy to get enough level for monitoring in the field.
Settings - 3.5mm microphone input, level 100 sampling rate 44.1kHz Source impedance 150Ω Software level 1.10 S/N 00000103, Stamina OFF
Minimum input for 0dBFS = -49dBu
Ein = -114dBu (unweighted, 22kHz BW)
Ein (A) = -115dBu (A weighted, 20kHz BW)
The mic gain varies from 1 to 100, various points were sampled for overload. Provided the signal was kept below -3dB on the metering clipping was not observed until at the lowest gain of 1 the input reached 260mV rms (corresponding to 0dBFS)A 5V DC power socket is provided at the base of the recorder, this is of a conventional polarity (inner +ve). It is rated as requiring 1A.
Switchable from Menu
Open-circuit voltage = 2.92V
Source resistance  = 2.2k
As a low cost standalone field recorder/microphone combination the H4n is capable recorder, and it is one of the cheapest recorders that can be used with phantom-powered balanced mics, such as the Sennheiser ME66. It can also be used with unbalanced electret types such as the MKE300 or PiP mics, making is versatile choice for the wildlife sound recordist. Mic preamp noise performance is good., and PiP voltage and source resistance is adequate to power Panasonic WM61A capsules.
Wildlife Sound Recording Society would like to thank Zoom UK for the loan of the Zoom H4 reviewed here.
Review date: October 2009