Review: Zoom H4n Portable Audio Recorder

The ZOOM H4n is a portable audio recorder aimed at the armature professional market and is a great starting point when looking at portable audio recorders. Compared to the high end options like Tascam and Sound Devices it may look like just a kids toy and while it may not have some of the nice features of the bigger players, it does offer great quality recording at 1/20th of the cost. 



Quick Glance

Price: $270-$390
Pros: Affordable, Great Audio Quality, Stereo X/Y Mics inbuilt
Cons: Slightly noisy inputs on low volumes, Not terribly rugged
Rating: 8/10
Manufacturer: Zoom
Model: H4n


  • Built in quality stereo mics with XY offset (good for true\natural stereo recording)
  • Combo XLR\TRS external inputs
  • 4 Track Recording allowing both external inputs and on-board mics to be recorded at the same time
  • Simple menu navigation
  • Backlit LCD display
  • 24bit \ 96Khz Recording
  • Standard AA battery operation + External Power Option
  • Multi-Track recorder allowing playback and recording of up to 4 tracks
  • Phantom 48v power for powered mics
  • Can connect to a PC and act as an audio interface
  • SD Card Recording (1GB included)
  • Completely portable and small factor

Deciding on a Mobile Recorder

I started out doing months of research and comparing features and prices of dozens of different recorders. I had a desire to do field recordings and SFX gathering but could not justify the costs of larger units so I decided on the Zoom because it was a current model recorder, small, has on-board mics along with external inputs and fit in the $500 price range I was willing to spend. Ideally a Sound Devices recorder would be more desirable but these retail around $1800+ so it's a big difference.

I was quite excited to start collecting recordings and had already sourced a Rode NTG3 stereo mic to use for recording but I received the recorder in advance and began to experiment first. 

Initial Impressions, Quality & Usability

When removing this from the box I had mixed feelings. It looks quite good, doesn't initially feel cheap, the mics and head of the thing are metal so it feels rugged there but it is supplied in a very cheap plastic carry container where the clip doesn't even close. No issue for me as I have no plans on using that. Powering on the recorder the display lights up and then the thing is ready to go after about 15 seconds of bootup time.
Clicking through the menu options is very easy and most of the options are easy enough to follow. The front panel controls allow simple switching between the in-built mics and the external inputs along with the player controls for Rec, Stop, Play, Pause etc. The Power switch is on the side so a little difficult to reach when in a bag and so are the menu controls but this is no big deal.

One thing that is handy is the unit created 10 folders to place recordings into. Pressing the Folder button on the front sets a different folder to record into which allows you to easily seperate recordings for different locations etc but I don't find myself using that much.

Although the recorder does look and feel a little cheap the actual connectors and controls all feel and work just great. As with everything I get I like to study the manual for little tricks and tips but this recorder is so easy to use that you can change recording formats, inputs, playback settings, input settings, recording location etc so easy and the LCD display is well lit and simple to read even in total darkness. After using this recorder for the last 2 years I now know just how handy this is when in dark locations and on time sensitive sets and locations. knowing just how to get to settings is key.

Recording Tests

The quality of the on-board mics is quite good and can pass if you have nothing else. Don't expect super professional results with these mics as they are a little limited. A wind screen is a must for outdoor use and even sometimes indoors as even a slight breeze can cause pops. The stereo detail is perfect and really detailed. The recorder does transfer almost ALL handling noise into the mics though so this is a concern when holding the recorder but when handled carefully it's easy to get this recorder in public to record simple ambience with little notice.
Externally connected mics are recorded with pretty much whatever detail they pick up. The XLR inputs power a NTG3 Stereo Condenser mic just fine and record basically exactly what is heard from the mic.

The first initial tests I did with the on-board X/Y mikes in a public location had me hearing all kinds of detail. Being such a small recorder I was able to attach a bugger "fuzzy cat" wind protector (the one that comes with it is rubbish) and walk around some markets and other locations without attracting unwanted attention. This makes it perfect for covert sound gathering. 

Being X/Y mics they are not very directional so using these mics for voice pickup only or recording spcific sounds without other sounds interfeering is close to impossible. 

Working the controls are super easy. After powering on the display will show the time left on the card, the sound level meters and the last file name detected on the card. Just press the RECORD button to prepare the recorder in standby (record ring flashes) then press again to start recording. You can press PAUSE to pause a recording or STOP to stop it. Press PLAY when the recorder is stopped will play the last file so for set recording it is quick and great to catch sounds and audition without telling the rest of the crew to wait while you prep the recorder.

Recording Quality

One immediate issue I noticed after a few weeks of various tests with different recordings was that the unit records loud sounds great BUT has some small issues when the source sound is quiet (such as crickets, wind or general ambience). The issue is that this recorder is in the cheaper price bracket and the amps are not real great. Once you increase the gain on the recording level you start to hear the background noise hiss from the op-amps which is quite noticable when recording something very quiet and then boosting the level in the studio. I would say when increasing the input gain, once you get past about 30% gain you would hear a noticable hiss. To overcome this I now use a SoundDevices MixPre (Mic Pre-amp) to Boost the level into the recorder and this works much better for external mics as well as adding an easy to operate gain control.

One other thing I noticed when editing was that though the recorder claims it can record up to 96Khz the audio does start to drop significantly at 20Khz and some of the higher frequencies are reduced. There is very little noticable difference from 48Khz to 96Khz in the quality of audio but the amps seem to be limited in the higher sub-sonic frequencies so some of the "air or crystal" sounds may not be quite as sharp as you would like. 

After 2 years of use with this recorder I have to say though that audio quality wise it has been great. With an external mic pre-amp it is nice and clear and has had no issues getting sounds or dialogue (though used with external mic's)

Battery Life

I use rechargable batteries when possible and a decent set of 2400mAh batteries lasts about 3 hours continous recording. Using decent Energizer batteries the recorder may last 4-6 hours. Battery life is pretty good and because they are just standard batteries (and the same as the MixPre, just 2 x AA) it is easy to have spares ready to go. Changing batteries is quick and simple though the battery door I can see busting down the track because the clips are so small.

I added an external 10,000mA battery pack that has 2 x USB connectors on it to power my Mixpre and the H4n for film recording. I found that on sets when recording you may be required to record for small stints all day. Sound recordists rarely get any care of attention from directors and you are needed when you hear "ready on set" which means you should be in place already. With the 15+ seconds it takes the zoom to startup it is just too slow and leaving it on all day drains batteries quick. 

The battery pack I have (custom modded for the task) will run the whole bag (mixer/recorder and attached mics) for 2 x 14 hour days continous so I can just take it off and leave it until needed... Now I am the quickest to be up to "speed" 

Summary After 2 Years

This recorder has a place in my regular kit. I have used it to record everything from fireworks to crickets to the sound of rain, thunder, wind and dialogue. It has not let me down once and I have even managed to take it on a plane to get cabin ambience on takeoff and landing (shhhh). Though the battery life is short and the inputs are a little noise for the price it could not be expected to offer anything more. It has worked recording dialogue for film no problem and is always in my car. I personally would love a higher end recorder and found that to get close to my target results I needed an extra mic and an external mixer but I suspected I would anyway. 

I can recommend this fully for anyone wishing to get started or needing a quality recorder. Remember this could be used easily to record instruments (even a guitar direct connected), DJ sets connected to the mixer, speeches or anything that needs to be captured. It does have limiters, low cut filters and some other enhancements and with all the other inputs and features it is almost too good to be true. Highly recommended.


Last modified on Friday, 06 November 2015 17:35

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