Remember mono recorders? If you used those to tape a lecture, it was so annoying to listen to the recording later on just one side of your headphones. Today’s smartphones come with voice recorder apps, and there’s always the option to video-record, but that really runs down the battery. If you want to record anything from nature sounds to lectures and live performances, you’ll want one of these Zoom portable digital recorders. Let’s look at these three and see which one is best for you.
Zoom H1 Handy Portable Digital Recorder
This is the least complicated and less expensive model of the Handy recorders that Zoom offers. There are no layered menus or mysterious buttons; it’s very simple to use. This is the one to get to record class lectures, interviews, music lessons, and even live performances if there’s no need for 4 channels or the special features on the other recorders.
The H1 is smaller and lighter than a lot of phones but it records a good depth of clean stereo sound in two channels at once. It has two mics in an XY configuration, and it also accepts input from an external mic or even USB audio from a computer. The low cut filter eliminates most low frequency background sounds so there’s less noise from vibrations. It can be set to auto record when triggered by sound, and the user can set cue points, or markers, when recording in WAV format.
There is a line-out jack for headphones with a separate volume control. The H1 also has a mono speaker built-in so the user can check the recording. It has a tripod mounting hole so it can be combined with a camera or stand alone.
Files are saved to a micro SD/SDHC card in either WAV (Broadcast Wave Format with time stamps) or mp3. The H1 records anywhere from high quality (WAV) 96kHz 24-bit to CD quality 44.1kHz 16-bit, or 48 to 320kbps (mp3).
The H1 runs up to 10 hours off just one alkaline or NiMH rechargeable battery. Zoom includes a battery, a 2GB SD card, an offer for free download of sound editing software, and a user manual. Some users have said that the SD card slot door seems fragile and they prefer to transfer saved files with the USB cable instead of repeatedly removing the card.
More features of the Zoom H1 digital recorder
- Uses 1 AA battery
- Weighs only 2 ounces and is about 5.3 inches tall
- Accepts up to a 32GB micro SDHC card
- USB 2.0 (compatible with 3.0 with the latest firmware upgrade)
- Headphone and line-in ports are 1/8”
- Software is Steinberg Wavelab LE
- 1-year limited warranty
Zoom H2n Handy Recorder
The Zoom H2n adds in extra features that makes it better than the H1 for recording music performances and even sound for video. It has 5 built-in microphones and so it has 4 recording modes. These include X/Y like the H1, as well as mid-side, 2-channel surround sound, and 4-channel surround sound. It has a line-in port and works with condenser mics, even those needing up to 2.5 volts.
This digital recorder is almost idiot-proof. If the user misses their cue, the H2n is always silently on and will save the last two seconds that happened before the record button is pushed. It also corrects corrupted data that can happen if the battery runs out or the SD card is removed abruptly. The H2n has a low-cut filter like the H1, and even more features for fool-proof recordings. It has auto gain, compression, and limiting. The on-board Mid-Side (MS) decoder takes care of automatically adjusting mic levels. There’s even one minute of built-in memory, just in case someone forgot the SD card.
Just like the H1, the H2n can act like a USB microphone. It has an on-board speaker and it has a jack so the user can listen to the stereo output with headphones. The playback speed is adjustable from 50-150% and it can change without distorting the pitch. There’s also an option for looped playback.
Finally, it has two extras that might come in handy: a metronome and a chromatic tuner for guitars.
More features of the Zoom H2n digital recorder
- Uses 2 AA batteries, and battery life is about 20 hours when recording at CD quality, double the life of the H1
- Zoom includes a 2GB SD card, USB cable, batteries, an offer for free Steinberg WaveLab LE software, and a user manual
- Jacks measure 1/8”
- Weighs 4.59 ounces and stands about 4.5 inches tall
- 1-year limited warranty
Zoom H4N Handy Portable Digital Recorder – 2009 Version
Now we’ve come to the most professional version of these three Zoom Handy recorders. It’s targeted at music industry professionals. There is a newer version of this model, but we’re reviewing the original H4n from 2009, which is still available new.
It has features in common with the H1 like the X/Y mics, the ability to connect external sound sources, and a low-cut filter to eliminate noise. It works as a USB microphone too. Like the H2n, it also has mid-side mics and it remembers the last two seconds before the record button is pushed. It has a tuner and a metronome. But instead of repeating all the specifications that make it the same, let’s look at what makes it special.
The H4n has a built-in mixer and preamp which is very convenient when recording a live show because the user can make changes on the fly. The Mid-Side Decoder combines mid and side channels into regular stereo right on the H4n. It records 4-channel surround sound (24-bit, 48kHz) that puts the listener right in the middle of the action especially when used with boom or lavalier mics to pick up ambient sound. The user can even connect the H4n directly to instruments with the line-in jack.
The built-in sound effects like reverb and compression help get the sound just right. The H4n can record at better than DVD quality with the additional high-resolution PCM WAV format, not just in Broadcast WAV and mp3.
Of course, there is a built-in speaker and headphone jack, as well as a tripod mount, so the user can check recordings on the go. It allows for cue points, or markers on the files when recording in Broadcast WAV. The battery life is up to 11 hours long in “stamina mode” when recording at CD quality, but average life is 6 hours.
More features of the Zoom H4n digital recorder
- Uses 2 AA batteries
- Larger than the other two recorders at 10 ounces and 6 inches tall
- Zoom includes a 2GB SD card, USB cable, batteries, an offer for free Steinberg WaveLab LE software, and a user manual (and may also include a foam windscreen, protective case, and mic clip adapter)
- Records in mp3, Broadcast WAV (format with time stamps), and PCM WAV (high-res)
- Playback at 50-150% without changing pitch
If you’re looking for a portable recorder for live music events, the H4n is clearly the winner with its handyfeatures for on-the-fly mixing and superior recording abilities. You can get professional sound for videos, too. Keep in mind it has a slightly larger size and weight and less battery life during high-res recording.
If you want an inexpensive recorder that’s very straightforward, lightweight and small in size, but still records superb stereo sound, the H1 is for you. It’s not the best for music performances but more than adequate for practice sessions or interviews.
If you want something in the middle, maybe for both a class lecture and the band session later, go with the H2n. It has great recording ability and it will help a less-experienced user get the job done well.