ZOOM H1 Handy Recorder – A microphone shootout.

by Doc Coleman - Nifty Tech Editor on November 22, 2010 · 35 comments

in Featured, Hardware

This is a review that has been a long time in coming. For some of you I’m sure it seems like it was too long. But we won’t review something on The Nifty Tech Blog until we have had a chance to work with it for at least a month, so if you’ve been waiting anxiously for this review since we posted the Zoom H1 Unboxing back at the beginning of September, we’re sorry for the wait. We’ve spent that time learning the Zoom H1 thoroughly and determining how it stacks up against other products. We hope that you’ll agree that the wait has been worth it.

First, the basics. The Zoom H1 is made by Sampson Technologies. After a couple of delays this summer, it was released on August 20th and almost immediately sold out. Several resellers found that they couldn’t complete all of their pre-orders until they received their second shipment of units. There are a number of places online that you can buy the Zoom H1, and while the list price is often quoted as being $159.99, it appears to be universally “discounted” to $99. We put discounted in quotes, because the listed price for the Zoom H1 in the original press release from Sampson Tech said $99. To us, the rest of it looks like marketing hyperbole. We bought the H1 along with the H1 Handy Recorder Accessory Package, which has a street price around $25. The H1 is compatible with any computer that can read SD cards or USB drives.

Next, it is important to remember that the H1 is not a microphone. The H1 is a complete recording system. It is incredibly light and portable. The entire unit, with flash card and battery weighs about an ounce and fits easily into a pocket with room to spare. The H1 ships with a AA battery and a 2 GB micro SD card in the box, so you are able to get the unit out of the box, set it up turn it on, and get it running in under 10 minutes. All without even looking at the instructions. Just look at the unboxing video again. I did just that.

The H1 is aimed at providing near professional quality in a package that is simple enough for the average consumer to use easily and effectively. For veterans of Sampson’s previous Handy Recorder line, the H4, H4N, and the H2, the H1 has a few welcome surprises. The H1 only records a single input source. That source is either the built in stereo condenser microphones in the XY configuration at the top of the unit, or an external input that plugs in on the right side of the unit with a 1/8th inch stereo jack. Recording starts and stops with a single press of the big button on the front of the unit, a departure from the H2 and H4, which required a double press of the record button to get things started. Input levels are easily adjusted with the buttons just underneath the input jack, allowing you to adjust the sensitivity of the unit to the level of the sound you’re recording.

If you want to monitor what you’re recording, plug in your favorite set of headphones on the left side of the unit and adjust your output volume with the buttons just underneath it. Or, if you don’t have your headphones with you, you can review recordings you’ve made on the built in speaker on the underside of the unit.

The H1 comes with a 2 GB micro SD card, but can take micro SD cards up to 32 GB in size. The H1 uses the FAT file system and will format the micro SD card appropriately. How much recording time you get out of your SD card depends on what settings you choose. You can record in either MP3 for WAV format and at varying levels of quality. For our testing, we got a 16 GB micro SD card, and when recording in WAV format at 44 Khz and 16 bit sound, that gives us over 24 hours of recording time. And that isn’t the highest quality setting the unit has, just the highest practical one to use.

One selects between MP3 and WAV formats via one of three switches on the back of the unit. The other two switches activate the Lo Cut features, a form of onboard noise reduction, and the Auto Level feature, which adjusts the sensitivity of the mic according to the level of ambient sound in the area. Auto Level is useful when recording in areas where the sound level will rise and fall without warning, such as an airport or a bus terminal. The one issue with the Auto Level is that it tends to adjust the level in steps which you can hear in the playback. The advantage is that you can record audio that progresses from a whisper to a scream and have all of it perfectly understandable without ever overloading the listeners ears. In our tests, we were actually able to hear the sound of air moving through the air ducts from across the room. This unit really has a lot of range.

It is also fairly energy efficient. The H1 comes with a single AA battery, which provides all the power that it needs for 10 hours of recording. If you already carry a few rechargeable AA batteries and a charger, you should be good to go with the H1. If not, you can power the unit with the AC adapter and the USB cable from the accessory kit, or pick up new batteries from your local convenience store.

If all you get is the H1, you will have a few hurdles to overcome. While the unit does have a USB port, it doesn’t come with a USB cable, so if you want to copy your recorded audio to your computer you’ll need some kind of SD card reader. The micro SD card that comes with the unit also comes with a micro SD to SD adapter, so you’re good there. The H1 also lacks a wind screen, so you’ll have to be careful to avoid pops and breathing across the microphones as they will pick it up.

If you pick up the Accessory Pack like we did, it really solves a lot of issues. The accessory pack comes with a small tripod, a Padded shell case that fits just the H1 and a spare SD card, a foam windscreen, the AC adapter, a USB cable, and an item they describe as a mic clip adapter. This is really just a handle with a screw protruding out the top. This fits into the standard camera style tripod fitting on the back of the H1. This lets you aim the H1 pistol style, which could be handy for mounting on a camera or recording a distant audio source. The USB cable and power adapter are worth the price of the kit in my opinion. While the H1 will not recharge a battery through the use of the charger, being able to power up the unit from the computer to copy off sound files or from available wall power when recording, will help preserve your battery life. When the H1 is connected to a computer by the USB cable, it starts up in USB mode, making the micro SD card available to the computer. In this mode you can’t record, unfortunately. If instead of plugging into a computer, you use the USB cable to plug into the AC adapter, you can run the unit from wall power while recording. The windscreen does a great job of cleaning up incidental noise from wind and breathing and ours now pretty much lives on the H1. The tripod is sadly a pretty cheap unit. You will probably be better served by finding an inexpensive camera tripod on your own if you need something like this. The case is a bit of a toss-up. it is nicely made and will go conveniently on your belt, but since it only accommodates the naked H1, we are left wanting space to carry the windscreen as well.

The shape and the size of the H1 make it very tempting to treat it like a normal microphone, and for mobile applications, you can pretty much do that. But it doesn’t work in the studio, since the H1 doesn’t have any sort of digital output for your audio. You can use the analog output from the unit to patch it into a sound board but that would mean that you’re going from analog to digital to analog to mixer to digital in order to get the sound onto your computer. This may work well enough for your particular applications, but it doesn’t really make for accurate sound recording.

And in the end, the real question you have to ask yourself is “What kind of sound recording quality am I getting for my $100 when I buy the H1?” To answer that question, we went and talked to John Taylor Williams, aka @Wryneckstudio, a professional sound engineer and podcaster (http://livingproofbrewcast.com/), and got his help comparing the Zoom H1 against several other professional and consumer grade microphones. To give you an idea of what each of these mics sound like, we recorded parts of our conversation so you can listen to them and judge for yourself. To get the full effect of these audio files, your best bet is to plug in your best set of earphones and listen through them when playing back each file.

We started off with the MXL-991. This is a small diaphragm condenser mic routed through John’s sound board. A condenser microphone uses capacitance changes to convert sound into electrical impulses, or in this case, digital data. Condenser mics are usually very small and can be found in everything from telephones to high end microphones. Condenser mics require a power source in order to record sound. John added an external pop filter to this mic for our recording. This is a professional quality microphone, but if you listen to the audio, you should notice a certain background hum of floor noise, and that the quality of the sound drops off quickly unless the speaker is close to the mic and directly in front of it. Floor noise is the level of sound picked up by a microphone when recording a silent room. Literally it is the sound of silence, and it is different for every microphone. The noise floor is the level of floor noise that a particular microphone picks up. It sounds a little confusing at first, but when we started talking those terms, it quickly makes sense. John describes the 991 as a great podium mic because it will give good sound at a fixed distance, but drops off external noise.

Next up was the MXL-990. This is a large diaphragm condenser mic, with a built in windscreen. The 990 has a very similar level of floor noise, and also tends to drop off quality when the speaker isn’t directly front and center on the mike, although it doesn’t drop off as quickly as the 991. This mic required more gain to get the same results as the 991. This either means the speaker must project more into the mic, or the output level of the mic must be raised in comparison to everything else. Since this mike didn’t drop off as quickly as the 991, it was better for use as a single mic for recording a conversation with two or three people.

Then we tried out an Audio Technica DR-VX1. This is a dynamic microphone. Dynamic microphones use electrical induction to convert sound to electrical impulses, and they work much like a loudspeaker in reverse. These mics are usually tuned to a particular band of sound and are good for stage applications because they don’t feedback as easily. This mic had an odd issue that the floor noise when the stand was on the table was much higher than when it was being held. You can hear the background hum drop away when John picks up the mic. This mic also has a sweet spot very close to the microphone so the speaker pretty much has to address the mic directly, or crank up the gain so high that the floor noise becomes a palpable presence. This mic appears to be more suited for use in studio situations where someone can speak directly into the mic.

We followed that up with an EV-ND Dynamic mic. This was a mic that John had been using for about 15 years and which is still going strong, although somewhat battered about the edges. This mic did have a pronounced background hum that we would have had to remove in post-production had we been using it for any kind of straightforward voice work. In our off-mic conversation, John indicated that he still had use for this mic when recording in more intense environments where the background hum would either be overwhelmed, or where background noise would need to be removed in post anyway.

At this point we broke out John’s Zoom H4 Handy Recorder. The H4 and the H4N have been popular products for Sampson Tech for many years. One advantage that the H4 has is that you can plug in two XLR style microphones as inputs. On the H4, these input will override the onboard condenser microphones, but on the H4N, you can record up to four separate tracks simultaneously, the condensers, the two XLR inputs, and a separate line in input with a standard 1/8 th inch jack. This also makes the H4N a choice unit for field recording where portability and versatility is important. We found the H4 to have rich clear sound and a noise floor that didn’t require any post production correction. John even said that the silence from the H4 was good for using as a base track to create an ambient feel in a more heavily edited and noise-reduced compilation. An excellent recording unit, and a high mark to shoot for.

Now we came to the H1 at last! We started recording with the H1 without using the wind screen and we got the same kind of rich sound that we had gotten from the H4. We noted that the H1 had an even quieter noise floor than the H4. And then we put the wind screen, aka the mic afro, on the H1 and lowered the noise floor even more. We also noted that the H1 gave the best sound for speakers outside of the direct line of focus, making it an ideal unit for recording interviews or small discussion groups. The H1 is somewhat limited in that you can only record from the built in microphones or from the line in port, but some people are looking at that as a feature, allowing them to replace expensive wireless microphone setups with the H1 and an inexpensive lavaliere microphone. When all you need to record is a single source, the H1 does it well.

We took one more swipe a the H1 with the Auto Level function on to show how it would adapt to the available sound level and adjust the sensitivity of the mic. You can hear some of the transitions as the H1 adjusts in this recording. Of course, what got to us was the fact that no matter how loud or how quiet we got, everything was clear and understandable.

Lastly, we rounded things out with the Blue Snowball. The Snowball is a USB mic that connects directly into your computer, so this was the first mic we used (not counting the H4 and H1, which recorded internally) where we recorded audio without going though the mixing board. The Snowball has three condenser mikes inside the ball, and has three settings that determine how they are used. The first is a standard cardioid deployment which gives good sound for a speaker directly in front of the mic. The second is the same deployment with built in noise reduction, which tends to lower the ambient levels across the board for some reason. The last is an omni-directional setting, which provides good sound from any direction. The Snowball provided a decent sound and didn’t have any odd hums in the noise floor, but it did have its own oddities. I had worked with the Snowball previously, and found it difficult to get good audio levels from the Snowball when recording in Garage Band on my Mac. It wasn’t until I tried the Snowball with Skype that I determined that the issue was in Garage Band and not the Snowball. John found that the Snowball had a hollow sound to it. It is a respectable consumer level microphone, but it still didn’t match the quality of sound available with professional mics. We did ramble a bit and go back and forth with the Snowball settings, so this recording is a bit long.

After some analysis of the waveforms of the different audio tests and the quality of the recordings that each one produced, the verdict was that the H1 does indeed deliver professional quality sound at a consumer level price. For the same price as the Snowball, you get a unit that is light, easy to use, has long battery life, and gives superior sound. We found the H1 to be a great value all around. If you need a portable recorder, we think you’ll love the Zoom H1.

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