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

August 26, 2011 2:01 pm  /  Radio, Sound Design

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:


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.


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


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.


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:


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


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


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:


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:


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!)



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).


[ 30/08/2011 09:50 am ]

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.


[ 30/08/2011 11:39 pm ]

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

[ 31/08/2011 03:15 pm ]

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?

[ 31/08/2011 03:39 pm ]

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.

[ 31/08/2011 04:32 pm ]

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?

[ 31/08/2011 05:27 pm ]

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.

[ 01/09/2011 09:43 am ]

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

[ 07/09/2011 02:30 pm ]

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.


Boston Dave
[ 09/09/2011 07:47 pm ]

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.