My previous portable recorder (an M-audio Microtrack II) is on its death bed, and I’ve spent some time researching what device ought to replace it.

(Though it’s discontinued now, I really couldn’t recommend the Microtrack to anyone.  I originally got it because it could work with 48-volt phantom-powered XLR mics via XLR to 1/4″ TRS cables, with 1/8″ mics, line-level inputs or digital SPDIF devices; it was a flexible device, portable, not too expensive, and the sound was…acceptable.  Paired with my Rode NTG-2 shotgun microphone, it saw me through several years of interviews, though its internal battery stopped holding a charge for more than an hour or so.  Long after the warranty expired, I tore it open to replace the internal rechargeable battery with a new iPhone battery, giving it a temporary new lease on life. But a couple weeks ago it simply stopped recording altogether. Time for something new.)

 

So… I’ve done a lot of research, agonized over price vs. features vs. sound quality, and I have to say I’m a little surprised by where I wound up.  It seems like the more you learn about these portable recorders, the more you realize there is no good one-size-fits-all solution. Even if price were no object, there’s just no portable recorder out there at the moment that can do everything I want it to.  In the ~ $500 and below price range, it seems like you have to decide which is more important: connectivity/features or audio fidelity.  (Zooms devices are packed with features, but they don’t have the most pristine preamps.  The Sony PCM-D50 sounds great, but doesn’t have XLR jacks or many of the bells and whistles that appeal to my engineering side. If pressed, I’d say the Zoom H4N is probably the best compromise/best value in this price range even if the sound isn’t amazing.) But in short, if you need to record in a lot of different situations, chances are you’ll want more than one recorder–perhaps one for professional work and one for spur of the moment recordings. And having a small backup recorder is always a good idea.

When I first looked into the Zoom H2N, I was thinking of using it mostly as a backup for my “main” recorder, and as a knock-around portable recorder that I could carry with me wherever I go.  For one, it doesn’t have XLR mic jacks to use with professional microphones.  Furthermore, the device’s predecessor (the Zoom H2) had a reputation for great internal mics (particularly for recording acoustic music) but suffering when recording through its 1/8″ mic/line-in jack.  After playing around with the new H2n, I’ve found that it not only sounds great for its price point (the preamp on the external input, while not miraculous, is pretty darn good) but the device’s internal mics can also be set up in a number of interesting configurations, including as monaural cardioid–perfect for recording radio interviews.  But at the core of what makes the H2N so compelling to me is its ability to record in mid-side stereo.

If you’re not familiar with mid-side (MS) stereo here are the important things to know:

1) MS is a recording technique that uses two microphones, a “mid” mic with a cardioid pickup pattern and a “side” mic using a figure-eight pickup pattern. The mic elements are positioned perpendicularly so the null point of the cardioid coincides with the null point (the “waist,” if you will) of the figure-eight mic.

2) Rather than panning each mic to the left and right side sides of a mix as in conventional stereo recording, you mix MS recordings through a unique method, called a mid-side matrix.  Once you’ve set up the MS matrix in your DAW or mixer (or inside the recorder itself as is possible with the H2N), you can control the amount of stereo by mixing more or less of the “side” mic relative to the mid mic.  This means you can change the stereo image after the recording.

3) When you sum a MS stereo recording to mono, the the left and right “lobes” of the figure-eight side mic cancel each other out, leaving you with only the mid cardioid mic.  This means your stereo recordings will translate very well to monaural radio broadcasts or podcasts. (BTW, it surprises me how many podcasts out there are in mono–presumably to cut bandwidth in half?  I’m looking at you, TAL. You too, Snap Judgement.)

In addition to the MS mode, the H2N can record in conventional X-Y stereo as well as in “4 channel surround” mode.  Surround mode simply means it simultaneously records the X-Y and MS mics as two discreet stereo pairs.  Plugging in an external mic, however, overrides the X-Y pair, which means you can record with the internal MS mics (in whatever stereo or mono configuration you want) AND an external mic or stereo line input at the same time.  This opens up all sorts of interesting engineering possibilities–say, recording an interviewee via the external mic while capturing your own voice with the built-in mics, or recording an interview in an interesting-sounding location and  being able to capture background ambience while still getting a solid voice recording.

Audio Examples

What you’ve been waiting for…Here’s a test of the mid-side mic using only the mid mic:

Audio MP3

 

And now with mid and side mics together.  Listen to how the stereo image and the balance between my voice and the organ shifts. It sounds like I’m moving the mic, but I’m not; that’s all done in post production by playing with the mid-side matrix.

Audio MP3

 

Here’s a test with the typical 90 degree X-Y stereo configuration:

Audio MP3

 

Now here’s an excerpt from a tape synch I recorded earlier today. The side mic is cancelled out, leaving me with a pretty solid monaural voice recording.

Audio MP3

 

Now listen to the width of the stereo image as I add some of the side mic back in. Here it is with side mic at half volume:

Audio MP3

 

And here it is with mid and side mics at equal volume:

Audio MP3

 

And now with the side mike a bit louder the the mid mic:

Audio MP3

 

And if you were to sum any of those recordings to mono, it would sound like the first excerpt.  Cool!

OK, now a test of the external mic input. Here’s my trusty Rode NTG-2, powered by its internal battery, going into the H2N via a impedance-matching XLR-to-1/8″ cable:

Audio MP3

 

Interestingly, I noticed is that if plug-in power in set to “on” on the H2N, the Rode sounds quite trebly, and not as full sounding. I’d recommend keeping plug-in power “off” until you need to use a mic that requires it.

And here’s a dynamic cardioid mic via the same cable:

Audio MP3

 

And just for fun, here’s a test with another new toy, the Roland CS-10EM binaural mic/earphones.  (The earphones aren’t great, but being able to record AND monitor binaural audio at the same time is pretty slick!)

Audio MP3

 

Conclusion

Though I didn’t intend to buy the H2N to use as my main recorder for interviews, I think it’s going to be.   The internal mics sound excellent, and I can set them up to work as a mono cardioid, which is perfect for voice recordings. Though the mics are susceptible to p-pops and plosives, a foam windscreen pretty much eliminates the problem.  Of course, you need to be careful about handling noise as is the case with all recorders using built-in mics. My biggest complaint is simply that it’s sort of awkward to hold during an interview, but hopefully the screw-in mic-clip adapter/handle thing will help with that (which, in a totally lame move by Zoom, is NOT included but is available as part of a $40 accessory kit).

 

 

36 Responses to A new audio toy! (Reviewing the Zoom H2N recorder.)

  1. Fran Guidry says:

    Just for your info, it is easy to adjust stereo width in post production regardless of the mic configuration used for the initial recording. With digital audio we can encode any stereo pair to a mid-side pair, adjust the balance between mid and side, even apply effects separately to mid and side, then decode them back to a new stereo image.

    My H2n is supposed to arrive today. I can’t wait. Thanks for sharing your impressions.

    Fran

  2. Brendan says:

    Absolutely true! Any stereo signal can be encoded, processed, and decoded, giving a lot of control over the image in post (regardless of whether it was originally recorded via MS).

    And here’s a free (!) plugin (AU, VST and RTAS for both Windows and Mac) that helps tweak and visualize a stereo image: http://www.fluxhome.com/products/freewares/stereotool

  3. Cesare says:

    Hi! Many thanks for your review. Really helpful. Could you please confirm me that it is possible to use simultaneously both an internal mic and an ext mic? In your last three audio examples you just used the external microphones right?

  4. Brendan says:

    Yes! If you select 4-channel surround mode AND plug in an external mic (or any other 1/8″ input) the H2N will record two files, each as stereo pairs–one through the MS mics and one through the external input. (Note: you can only use the MS mics at the same time as the external input, as the X-Y mics are disabled by plugging in the external input.)

    There are a couple caveats, though:
    1) There’s only one gain knob for the entire device, so you can’t adjust the levels for the external input and the built-in MS mic independently. (So obviously you have to set your gain for whichever signal is hotter.)
    2) For reasons that aren’t clear to me, you can’t record the MS mics in “raw” mid-side mode. This means that the stereo pair recorded by the internal mics aren’t encoded as MS coming directly out of the H2N. (Though, as Fran mentioned below, you could re-encode them in post.) You can still adjust the stereo width of the MS mics on the device itself before actually hitting “record,” and you can select anywhere from mono cardioid to 150 degree stereo. I suspect the folks at Zoom simply didn’t intend for people to be using the 4-channel “surround” mode for anything other than surround recording with the internal mics. Recording via the external input and the MS mic feels sort of like a serendipitous hack. (And the manual doesn’t seem to mention it.) I’m glad to have it, though, and have already found it useful for recording a concert direct from the mixing board and via the internal mics. It would be nice if Zoom enabled RAW mode in 4-channel mode in a future firmware update.

  5. Cesare says:

    Thank you for your prompt and exhaustive answer. I was undecided in buying this or the h4n but maybe the h2n is better for me, at least for what I will use it, mainly live music reharsal recordings and as an audio interface between guitar and/or voice and a daw software.

    I think the h4n is more complete though, even especially for the direct multitrack capability and the various “onboard quick” effects, as well as better external quality (xlr in) and the ability to select 2 different gains for each stereo input (internal and external) and other little options. Well the included accessories add one more point to the h4n… writing all this stuff I’m realizing that maybe the 90 euros difference are worth it…

    By the way, in conclusion I think that maybe the h2n is more practical and immediate for “on the go” recordings and maybe its 5 mics offer more versatility (and maybe better quality too) than the 2 of the h4n…

    mmm… guess I’ll take little more meditation before my purchase.

    Have you ever used it as an audio interface? does it have any latency?

  6. Brendan says:

    Yeah, I agree with your conclusions. Before the H2N I hadn’t considered any device without XLR jacks, and my big surprise was that I could use the H2N to record “broadcast-quality” interviews without needing to use my external XLR mics. But If you want to use it as a computer audio interface or as a DI with guitar, the H4N is definitely the better tool for the job. Having played around with a friend’s H4N, I’m not terribly thrilled with the sound (hiss!) of the XLR combo jacks, but simply having them as a connectivity option is a huge plus, particularly if you’re lining-in a healthy signal. And being able to adjust each input’s gain independently on the H4N is another huge plus. The H4N really wins on features and flexibility, if that’s what you’re looking for.

    I did try the H2N in audio interface mode and though it works just fine, ultimately it’s a lot less useful as an interface without the XLR or 1/4″ inputs. Latency on the H2N was pretty typical for a USB audio device (on a Mac, at least), which is to say “good” but of course highly dependent on your buffer settings.

    One other thing I noticed about the H4N was that the boot-up and menu navigation speed seemed a lot slower than the H2N, which is another reason the H2N makes a better “on the go” recorder. The H2N boots up and is ready to record in about 1 – 2 seconds.

    It’s a different kind of recorder, but have you looked at the Zoom R-16/R-24? If you’re wanting a recording interface more than a portable 2-track recorder, it could be an interesting option: a battery-powered portable 8-track field recorder+audio interface+control surface. I’m skeptical about the preamps, though, having never used one myself.

  7. Cesare says:

    I already took in consideration the zoom r16 or r24 option, but I don’t like them so much, plus I already have a mixer and a control surface. In the end I don’t need portability so much, guess I will buy just a simple audio interface so I can have zero latency, and maybe in the future a good microphone.
    Thank you for your time and suggestions

  8. David says:

    Hi Brendan,

    Thank you for such a great review, didn’t expect the sound quality to be that good, sounds absolutely amazing.

    I was considering a MXL USB.009, but your demos have made me think differently. Particularly given that its half the price of the USB mic, and also portable, wow!

    Take care and thanks again.

    David

  9. Boston Dave says:

    Thanks for the review. A question for you: The problem some others and I had with the original H2 was that it usually distorted when recording loud rock music (read: snare drum) in small rehearsal spaces – no matter how we set level/gain/limiter. If you check the forums, this was a common issue for many. Do you know if the H2N gain wheel and/or limiter functions have solved this problem for those of us in LOUD bands? Any feedback would be appreciated.

  10. [...] اکسترنال مختلف رو به رکوردر وصل کردن و رکوردر گرفتن: A new audio toy! (Reviewing the Zoom H2N recorder.) | Drive-By High Five پاسخ با نقل [...]

  11. Gail says:

    Thanks for the detailed review. I also have a dying Microtrak II, and use it for many of the same purposes as you. I went to J&R intending to buy Zoom H4N, but came home with the H2N (before I came across your review) and I think it’s going to be terrific.
    Thanks!

  12. John Odgers says:

    Brendan, Thanks for a review that was so much more thoughtful, in depth and USEFUL than any others that I have read to date. I recently purchased my new baby, the H2n, and although I haven’t had the opportunity to record any musical situations yet, all my ‘getting to know you’ time spent with H2n has been quite satisfying and enlightening. Your review came the closest yet to explaining Mid/Side mic configuration. To make it just a little clearer: Think of the ‘Mid’ mic as hearing Left PLUS Center PLUS Right and the ‘Side’ mic as hearing Left MINUS Right or Right MINUS left, depending upon how it is passed through the internal matrix processor. We used to do this with a pair of dual-secondary transformers but life is so much simpler now days. So the simple arithmetic amounts to (L+C+R) + (L-R) = 2L+C or (L+C+R) + (R-L) – 2R+C. In actual practice I suspect the H2n actually uses a pair of side mics that it can use out of phase with one another rather than the traditional dual cardioid or ‘figure of 8′ pattern. That’s why, I believe there are five mics aboard rather than four. (Maybe someone at ZOOM will confirm this theory). Hope this explanation doesn’t muddy the waters too much. JFO

  13. Great review! How’s the wind protection? I am using a EV RE-50 mainly because I can use it outside for interview. Using it with Sony D-50 which is a super clean recorder I must say.

  14. Hi Brendan,

    Thank you very much for the review. Very helpful.

    I’m a radio reporters. And I’ve just purchase an H2n. You said: “monaural cardioid–perfect for recording radio interviews”. What setting would that be on the H2n?

    Marc

  15. Brendan says:

    It’s the MS mode and then you change the stereo image to “mono” via the selection switch on side before you hit record (just keep pushing the switch “up.”) It will still create a stereo file (so you don’t get the advantage of having a smaller file size), but it’s the same mono cardioid signal on both channels. You can sum it or split it in post production.

  16. Gary says:

    The organ… Sounds like a Farfisa Pianorgan, ha. Very nice review, and the sound samples are excellent. Cheers

  17. Jeff says:

    Hi Brendan.

    Thanks for the review, good job.
    I am thinking of using the H2n in place of the H1 from zoom on a DSLR. Would it have the range, would it make sense to use it this way?
    How would you use the H2n when recording a 3 piece Acoustic band?
    Could you use this with a ipad somehow into GarageBand?

    Thanks, Jeff

  18. Brendan says:

    Hey Marc,
    It would be MS mode but with the stereo width set to zero/mono. It will still be a stereo file but with the same mono signal on both left and right channels.

  19. Brendan says:

    Good ears. It is indeed a Pianorgan.

  20. Brendan says:

    As far as “range” goes (gain before noise, in audio terms?), I don’t think there’s any difference between the H2n and the H1. For use with a DSLR, you’d probably want to stick with your H1. The advantage of the H2n is having the different pickup patterns and stereo width options. I think the H1 is pretty good for what it does, though.

  21. george says:

    Hi,

    wow lots to read, but no clear winner as to h2n or h4n,
    I am a singer songwriter, trying to make some decent music,
    no aspirations to become a rock star, but do love making music, good music, I have a zoom R16 and it’s been great, do like the versatility and extra phantom power features of the r24, + it has
    drum simulator that sounds quite impressive,,, but anyhoo,
    what would you techies/music fellas recommend for music applications, does either one stand out as better for writing acoustically, then transferring to the 16 for more production,
    then on to pro tools for smoothing and finishing???

    George

  22. Jon says:

    I’ve used the R16 in many modes with a good number of microphones and have to say that the preamps are pretty good but the inbuilt condensers are absolutely fabulous; equal in many respects to the 1″ condensers I’ve been using.

    The noise is virtually non existent and the imaging very good. My only complaint is that the positioning of them rather presumes that the operator is recording himself or herself. Difficult to record e.g a live band or choir, as the meters are facing away from you. But in terms of flexibility and capability, a brilliant machine.

  23. Harry Ramsden says:

    Is there any Zoom equivalent of the Roland ‘BR’ decoding software which allows direct decoding of the SD card multi-tracks in a PC? I’d like that option as backup in case the USB connector failed for any reason.

  24. Harry Ramsden says:

    BTW I noticed 5 mics are mentioned. Presumably the S of the MS is 2 capsules wired OOP to get the OOP of S but unrestricted S pickup vs a conventional mic placed sideways.

  25. Harry Ramsden says:

    Is there any way to fire up the H2n into play mode without initially playing the most recent file? Ditto switching between previously stored ’4ch’ files and stereo files without changing the recording mode selection dial and a power down/up?

  26. Tom Burnside says:

    Brendan, Wow! My H2N arrived yesterday and to put it mildly it blew me away. That said I was/am confused, the manual gives the “newbee” no basic stepping off point on how to do a basic reordering session… Please give me a “how-to” correctly setup the H2N for a recording session—the settings… Bottom line I would like to be able to record both “at home” and “at concerts” once the basics are under my belt. Thanks!

  27. Chris says:

    hey thanks for sharing that awesome review and sound samples, the H2n sound pretty fantastic, especially like the RAW recording option and the last of tests you did with the woman that lived in the West Side was a great mix, you voice was pretty similar to hers in volume.
    I too had the micro track 2 terrible, it was an upgrade to my Edirol R1 and I’ve recently given my Edirol R09HR away, I thought I was through with Flash audio recorders with built in mics and noisy preamps but this gives me hope so does the news of the H4nMKII.

  28. Jason Chen says:

    First of all, thanks for providing the sound examples because I’m looking to get a H2n. But I stumbled across your Roland CS-10EM binaural mic/headphones, may I ask how did you record with them? Because they have two 1/8″ jacks. And also would you recommend these? Or is there better valued ones out there? Thanks. -Jason

  29. VC says:

    Hi Brendan,

    Thanks for a great review! I am looking at the H2n for recording sound for a short film we are making. Can you tell me if it is possible to record the sound onto a camcorder media and also listen via a headphone at the same time?

    Thanks.

  30. Daniel Clay says:

    Thanks for the thorough review. Going to Indonesia this spring (I see you studied Gamelan) and have been looking for a small recorder to take with me for making binaural recordings. Definitely gonna check out the h2n. Thanks again and cheers,

  31. I bought my H2n two months ago, and love it. I use it exclusively for spoken word interviews. I am still struggling with the best settings in a noisy environment.

  32. Jonathan says:

    Thank you for this amazing review !

    I have quite an important question :

    I just found that there’s no way to do an onboard monomix with an external (1/8 – line in) microphone on the h2n : “When a mono microphone is plugged to the H2n, only the left channel will be input and recording will result in stereo tracks with silence in the right channel.” – from zoom website)

    On the h4n, you can easily do a monomix onboard if you’re in 4ch mode with an xlr microphone. (there’s a lot of options in the INPUT menu).

    As I’m doing a lot of “voice over” comments on orchestra/band playing (audio adjudication), I want my voice track to be on both left and right side.

    As I’m pretty new to audio recording, I have a question :

    Let say I’m recording (with the h2n) in 4ch mode with an external microphone in the 1/8 line in. Is there a way that I can do a monomix of the external microphone wav file after importing the 2 wave files in an audio software (audacity, wavelab, etc.) ?

    Thank you very much,

    Best regards

  33. Berke says:

    Hi Brendan,

    I really enjoyed reading your review. I am a proud owner of a H2N too, mainly using it for my rehearsals and live performances.

    Well done.

  34. Rich says:

    Could someone contact me to confirm thst the zoom H2N is able to simply connect to a DJ’s mixing console in order to record music from a conventionl stereo system ( records & Cds and even cassettes ) )then with a USB cable connected to my pc , upload the recorded music and reduce its size to mp3 format. Can the Zoom H2N do all that???

    richmck7@yahoo.com

    Very grateful to anyone who answers, I would really like to get one of these devices but don’t want to make the mistake of buying the wrong product for the wrong job…

  35. Philip Joy says:

    Hi,

    Hi, I just bought the H2n (to replace my M-audio microtack 1 which i loved), because the shop said that audio quality had improved tenfold since the microtrack came out. But am worried about the hiss.

    PLEASE put my mind at rest – are you bothered by the hiss on the H2n? Can it be reduced? Do you find it worse than the microtrack? (I had a 1.00 version).

    Can you recommend something with higher fidelity and less gizmos? I’m a classical musician so hiss during silence is unbearable!

    Thanks,

    Philip
    ESSEX
    UK

  36. Sergio says:

    Hello!
    I need a portable recorder for two things:
    1) I make music and I have lot of ideas while I walk. I need a multitrack portable recorder so that I can record something, then add a beatbox, then other things, and wherever I am I can make a demo.
    2) sampling sounds, supposing I am somewhere and there is an intereting sound/noise which I think I may use in some song/theme, well, I want to be able to do that.

    Is the H4n the best solution or there are other portable multitrack recorder options (eventually without mic and then please suggest me a mic) which can do both those things better than h4n?

    Thanks!

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