Most of my video work consists of “look at me” videos I post on YouTube, shots of my slack key guitar playing. The audio is at least as important as the video, and a couple of my camcorders, the Sanyo Xacti HD2000 and the Kodak Zi8, were chosen because they had some sort of audio input and some degree of control over that input. In both cases, though, I’ve never been really happy with the audio I was able to record with these cams, even when I used an external source. Both these cameras, and others I’ve tried, have some kind of processing on the audio that attempts to maintain a constant level. And, of course, the audio circuitry gets a pretty small share of the development and manufacturing budget. The combination of these factors results in noisy distorted audio unless every detail is exactly right, a rare thing indeed.
Another thing missing on both these cams and many others below the professional ($2000 and way up) level is the lack of metering and monitoring. There’s not a way to tell if the audio is being recorded well until playing back the clip, when it’s too late to make any corrections. Even when I’ve done multiple test shots I’ve always considered myself very fortunate if I manage to capture some useful audio with this kind of gear.
The Q3HD Arrives
A couple of years ago, Zoom introduced the Q3, a pocket video recorder that emphasized the audio quality. It included stereo directional mics in an X-Y configuration and didn’t inflict excess processing on the audio. Unfortunately, they released this SD format camera just when HD video took off. YouTube switched to HD format, Flip put out the MinoHD, HD video recording began to appear in phones, HD was everywhere except in the Q3. But earlier this year Zoom announced the new Q3HD, which addressed the format issue, offered improved low light performance, added special settings for difficult lighting conditions like concerts, and added a Line Input for stereo audio. In the past, new products from Zoom have arrived long after their planned date, so I was expecting to see the Q3HD sometime in 2011, but happily the first shipments have arrived in the US and are available from a number of retailers. I bought one from BSW and it arrived the day after Thanksgiving.
My initial impressions are really positive. The build quality seems a bit better than my venerable H2, and it’s noticeably more solid feeling than the Kodak Zi8. The menu system is easy to manage, there’s audio metering and monitoring during recording, it even comes with a 2 GB memory card and a set of AA batteries.
Three Way Comparison
I mentioned the other cams that I purchased because they had audio input and some degree of manual control. It seemed reasonable to use them in a comparison with the Q3HD. So I setup in Digital Duck studio (also known as the spare room upstairs) and shot some video, first using camera mics then external mics.
I chose 720p for the video format for all three cams. The Zi8 and Sanyo don’t offer control over the audio format, but on the Zoom I selected CD quality PCM (44.1 khz and 16 bit word length).
For the external mic shots I connected an Audio Technica AT822 to the Zi8, a Rode NT4 to the Xacti HD2000, and a pair of Shure KSM141s through an M-Audio DMP3 to the Q3HD. Here’s the video that resulted:
When I listen to the clips on my “junk reference” computer speakers, the difference in audio quality isn’t that great, but as soon as I put on headphones or turn on the good monitors, the audio from the older cams sounds dreadful in comparison to the Q3HD. My Zi8 sounds worse than I remember, so perhaps it’s dying, but even the HD2000 features burbling noises in the quiet moments and an odd tonal balance. I also feel that the video quality of the Q3HD was noticeably better than that of the Zi8. Looks like the Kodak is going in the drawer.
My First YouTube Clip from the Q3HD
The Q3HD has minimal built-in editing, just “Divide” and “Trim” – minimal but sufficient to create a clip for YouTube, so I figured I should put up something straight from the camera. I chose the Rode NT4 stereo mic just to simplify the setup, and fed the mic into the M-Audio DMP3 preamp. From there an adapter chain converted two 1/4″ outputs to a single stereo cable ending in a 1/8″ stereo plug, which went into the Q3HD Line In jack. I took advantage of the meters on the Q3HD to check my levels, aiming for average levels around -20 dBFS and peaks around -6 to -8 dBFS.
With that set I chose the highest resolution video, 1080p format. I chose PCM (uncompressed WAV) audio, but stayed with the basic 44.1 Khz sample rate and 16 bit word length. After a few test shots to get the framing right I recorded a few takes of an old R. Alex Anderson song, Haole Hula. With a little scrolling around in the playback, I was able to trim the clip down to the performance I chose.
Based on my experience with other camera software, I didn’t load the Handyshare package that comes with the Q3HD. I simply removed the memory card, stuck it in my card reader, and copied it to my hard disk. From there I uploaded to my YouTube account. Here’s the result:
Since I was determined to use only in-camera editing, my clip has no title, no fades, no credits, but I feel that it presents the song in fine fashion anyway.
Framing Changes with Format
One thing I stumbled on while shooting my clip – changing the video format also changes the framing of the shot. I framed the image then decided to switch from 720p to 1080p. I made the format change and shot a clip, and when I played it back my head was gone! Here are a couple of snapshots that illustrate the difference:
As you can see, the change is pretty dramatic. So be sure you check your framing whenever you change the video format, or you might lose your head.
Not Quite Perfect, But Pretty Darned Good
On the frown side, I’m a bit annoyed that I have to buy the AC adapter separately. My brief attempts to shoot in lower light were not a big success. And while I was really pleased when I learned that Zoom added a Line In jack on this new camera, I’m already wishing it had a 1/8″ stereo mic input as well. With that extra feature the NT4 and the Q3HD would make a fantastic package for portable recording. As it is, I’m shopping for a battery powered two channel preamp with P48 phantom power that won’t bust the budget … and I’m not having a lot of luck.
On the smile side, I expect to have a lot of fun with this little camcorder. The video quality is reasonable in good light and the audio sets a new standard for a consumer cam. It’s nicely made, easy to use, an all around fun toy.
This entry was posted on Sunday, November 28th, 2010 at 12:43 am and is filed under Comparisons, Video. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.