See how this recorder stacks up in our portable recorder comparison chart.

My favorite camping tool is something I wryly call "the Swiss Army Spoon." It isn't one of those multi-function tools with a zillion blades. My little wonder does only one thing, but it does it exceedingly well. It's a spoon. Period. Just try eating a bowl of soup with your multi-bladed wonder and you'll want one, too.

I was reminded of my aversion to multi-function tools when I opened the box containing the new Zoom H4 Handy Recorder. I'd expected another stereo field recorder, but I found a multi-function device worthy of an Alpine sergeant.

Not only is the H4 a stereo recorder with built-in mics, it doubles as a four-track portable studio with built-in effects. But wait, there's more: The H4 also serves as a USB audio interface for computer-based recording. How can one tiny device with a street price of under three bills possibly handle all of these tasks? There has to be a tradeoff, I thought. Either it will fail at basic recording tasks, it'll be impossibly confusing to use, or it will crash my computer every time I hook it up. When I reach for a field recorder, I don't need a corkscrew.

Zoom H4 in Hand

Fig. 1: The H4's face features an absurdly small display flanked by multifunction buttons, a friendly Record button, a four-way Menu/Transport switch, and LEDs indicating memory access and record mode. Metering is available only via the display. Note the large, dual-format input jacks at the bottom, which aren't available on the competition's models. (Click for closer view.)

Tour de Zoom

Looking like a Klingon depilatory device, the H4 doesn't inspire confidence at first glance. Sure, it has a pair of mini condenser mics angled in an X-Y pattern, nicely protected from bumps and shocks. But the display is tiny and the switches feel less than solid. Why are the display and controls so small when there's ample space? After using it for almost a month, I still have my doubts about the H4's long-term durability, but I've grown accustomed to the layout and tiny display. (Not that I'll be able to use it without my reading glasses!)

I've previously reviewed both the M-Audio MicroTrack 24/96 and Edirol R-09 recorders; like them, the H4 records both uncompressed WAV files and MP3s to inexpensive flash media cards. (Be sure to read the sidebar about MP3 recording.)

MP3 Upgrade

My first recording tests with the H4 were less than impressive. Although I had no problems with the various WAV files, some of the MP3s were hopelessly distorted. (Don't worry, I won't make you listen to them.) It turns out the H4 has a bug in the Version 1.0 firmware that screws up the encoding. Updated firmware is available on Zoom's Japanese support page.

The H4 is considerably larger than those recorders, but still small enough to toss in a jacket pocket. It runs on a pair of AA batteries—battery life is touted at around four hours for normal operation, though I consistently got five or more—or via the AC power adaptor. It will even operate from USB bus power when used as an audio interface. It has combo connectors accepting both 1/4" and mic inputs, complete with true 48 or 24V phantom power for external microphones. (See Figure 1).

When using the H4 as a four-track recorder, you've got a full complement of classic Zoom effects taken from the popular G2 pedal. Effects in stereo mode include compression, limiting, and microphone modeling. It even comes bundled with Cubase LE in case you don't have a digital audio workstation (DAW). Even better, the H4 includes a nifty foam windscreen for the mics, as well as a handy mini-tripod adaptor.

Holy Zurich, I'm starting to like it!

Navigation and Interface

On the top panel, four small multi-function buttons select between MP3 and the three WAV sample rates, or arm tracks for four-track recording. The relatively large Rec button does what you think. Press it once and it flashes to signify "standby." A second press starts recording (as long as you're in stereo mode). It operates differently during four-track operation. The tiny Menu knob toggles between menu, input, and the main screen and doubles as a transport control. You use an even tinier Scroll knob on the righthand side to move between menus and edit parameters (see Figure 2). This two-handed approach is counterintuitive. I can't count how many times I jumped out of a window or initiated playback when I pressed the wrong button!

Zoom H4 Side Controls

Fig. 2: Ironically, operating the Handy Recorder often takes two hands because of the way the controls are positioned.

One of the first things I noticed is the lack of input level controls. Instead, you select three rough values—Lo, Mid, and Hi—via switches. Fine-tuning involves navigating through several windows and selecting miniscule icons with the Scroll knob. I was able to get some pretty decent recordings, as you'll hear in the audio examples, but it's beyond me why Zoom would create a recorder without a simpler way to set input gain.

To enter—or leave—the menu, press the (Ta dah!) Menu button. Once inside, you can select between stereo or four-track operation, select sample rates and bit depths, perform basic file maintenance such as renaming audio files (tedious, but essential), and even engage a handy metronome. Here, too, is where you determine whether the H4 connects to your computer as a mass storage device or as an audio interface.

Pressing the four-way Menu button straight down accesses the Input menu. Here you select between the internal mics or line/mic inputs, engage phantom power, add effects and microphone modeling, set levels, etc. However, you can't jump straight to this screen from the main menu. You must first exit back to the main screen. The H4 uses cute little icons for most of the input menu choices, such as a little animated ghost to engage phantom power. With my old-guy eyes, I need a magnifying glass to make out their function.

The good news is that you can accomplish most basic recording tasks without diving into the menu. In stereo mode, four small buttons select between MP3 and 44.1, 48, and 96kHz WAV files. The recorder remembers the last selected sampling rate, making switching audio file formats a snap. In four-track mode, these same buttons select, mute, or arm individual tracks.

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