I’ve probably recorded more hours on my Zoom H2 than any other recording device I’ve ever owned. It’s handy and functional, but still some distance from perfect, I’m afraid. When I heard about the new Zoom H2n and read the feature list I knew I’d get one as soon as they were available. Happily they were released a bit ahead of schedule, and mine is here.
The first thing that jumped out at me – the new box is a lot smaller.
Not the result of a breakthrough in packaging efficiency, I’m afraid. The reason is the lack of accessories. The AC adapter is missing, as is the mic clip adapter stick. These useful bits are now part of an extra cost accessory pack which adds $40 to the price of the H2n and includes stuff that I already have or wouldn’t use. Bummer, as we used to say in the 60s.
On the other hand, the AC adapter is a USB connector type, so maybe I have something around here that will work, and the long battery life makes the AC adapter less necessary. And I’ve collected a couple of mic sticks already, so for now I’ll skip the accessory pack. And I’m happy to see Wavelab LE7 in the package. Maybe I can get rid of my Adobe Audition and use this instead.
Look and Feel
The look of the H2n is cool black, the new screen is bigger and brighter. This is my number one reason for wanting the new unit – I can operate the menu without glasses. This screen is still pretty lame compared to the beauty they put on the Q3HD, though. The H2n screen is monochrome and pretty low in resolution.
The menu is similar to the H2, but a bit simplified. The menu interface is simple and direct – a menu button takes you in and out of the menu, the playback paddle serves to select options. The buttons all operate much more easily and positively than those on the H2, but many of the H2 buttons are covered by a plastic skin which should add longevity even though it reduces tactile feedback.
SDHC card access is not quite as easy as the H2, it’s one of those uninspiring “flexi-hinge” covers and it’s pretty stiff right now. When I see one of these I figure there’s going to be duct tape on there someday. To be fair, plenty of people complain about the H2 hard plastic cover, and I’ve read reports of failure (and replacement with duct tape).
The battery compartment is a big surprise – the batteries both go the same way!! First time I can remember this configuration, usually two AA batteries would go opposite each other.
There’s no “Standby” mode as in the H2. The unit is listening and giving meter readings as soon as it’s turned on. Press the big red button all by itself on the front and you’re recording. Press it again and you’re not. Standby is a feature that has been part of recorders for a long time, but I know I am not the only one who missed many recordings because I only pressed the H2 record button once. I’m not sure which bit of technology made this new design possible, but I see it as a step forward, as soon as I can get out of the habit of pressing record twice – oh no!
Headphone monitoring can be turned off or turned on constantly, but the default is to have monitoring on at the home screen or while recording.
Files can be named with a date time stamp!!! No more hassles with duplicate file names when combining different recording sessions!!
The two obvious changes on the recording side are the level setting and the mic options. Instead of a three position analog “Mic Gain” along with a digital “Rec Level” control in the H2, the new recording has a continuous thumbwheel controller that is advertised as analog. My first impression is that the H2n offers much higher overall sensitivity than the H2, which will be a big benefit to nature recorders if the noise floor is adequately low.
The mic arrangement is interesting. There are still two mic arrays inside the H2n, but now there are five mics instead of four. A classic XY array (two cardioid mics at a 90 degree angle to each other, 45 degree angle to the source) points to the front of the H2n, as it does in the H2. The back array on the H2 is a pair of cardioids at 120 degrees, giving an option for a wider stereo field. In the H2n there are three mics in the rear facing array and they are combined into an MS (mid-side) configuration. This consists of cardioid mics facing opposite sides and in opposite polarity, so the two mics together emulate a single figure 8 mic at right angles to the source, while a single cardioid mic faces directly at the source and serves as the mid mic. The mid and side mics are then combined mathematically to yield a stereo field. The H2n can save either the decoded (stereo) or raw (mid and side separately) files, and it can be monitored in either mode as well. This is a nice bit of flexibility. In addition, you can adjust the amount of the side mic mixed into the decoded stereo file, changing the width of the stereo image. Visit the Zoom H2n site for a detailed explanation of the mic arrays and how they can be combined and adjusted.
I have this strong feeling that the real benefit of the mid-side (MS) mic arrangement is the marketing buzz it generates, but there are probably many users who will find a benefit in the ability to adjust the stereo width at record time. I’m guilty at times of seeing the whole recording world in terms of solo acoustic guitar, I’m afraid. I would add that the mic selector can be a bit difficult to adjust. It’s a small circular nob with a somewhat slick surface, so a slight case of sweaty palms can make it impossible to change mic patterns.
The playback speaker is a very nice addition. We no longer have to carry headphones just to confirm that we got something. Playback is controlled by the same jog-and-press wheel that navigates the menu. These things always feel a little uncertain to me, but it gets the job done. The headphone out is clean and clear, I’m thinking this unit will work very well as a powered mic to feed into a video recorder like the Q3HD.
I was satisfied with most aspects of the H2 recording quality, except for the low level noise. My big hope for the H2n is an improvement in that area. I set up a comparison by putting the H2n, the H2, and a Rode NT4 stereo mic next to each other.
The Rode was connected to my Echo Audiofire Pre8 interface. I played a 1 khz test tone into all three recording chains, adjusted levels to avoid clipping, and recorded the tone. With the recorders still running I played a bit of slack key guitar, and left a nice long “tail” at the end of the recording complete with tummy gurgles. This ending section where the last note dies off is a classic place to hear self-noise generated by mics and preamps, along with the room noise (and the belly noise).
After recording these clips I pulled them into REAPER, put the Sonalksis FreeG stereo meter on each track, selected the reference tone in a loop, and adjusted the level of each track so they were within 1 dB or so. This is barely adequate level matching, but hopefully it will be revealing of the differences in noise level. I trimmed off the test tone when I rendered the sample files – no one should be subjected to a 1 khz tone if they don’t have to be. I also made a second set of clips with just the tails, and here I raised the gain significantly.
Having listened to these a bit I hear two things – the overall spectral balance and audio quality of the Zoom recorders is similar, and they’re both similar to the NT4. And the H2n does improve on the noise performance of the H2, but it’s still noticeably noisier than the Rode & Echo combination.
Knowing what I do now, I’m glad I got the H2n. The improved battery life will make my recording projects easier, and the more readable screen will help as well. But aside from those issues, I’d say the H2 holds its own very well in this comparison. For many projects the difference in audio quality is probably not enough to justify a switch. For someone on a tight budget the H2 might still be a good purchase, especially if their eyesight is good.
*** Update ***
Down in the comments, Boston Dave asks about how the H2n deals with loud sources. I banged away pretty vigorously on my Martin and from looking at the wave form and listening to the result I think turning down the mic gain wheel successfully eliminated clipping. You can download the test clip, it’s straight from the recorder so it’s a little ungainly, but perhaps it will be useful to someone.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, August 31st, 2011 at 2:56 pm and is filed under Audio, Comparisons. 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.