If you need a portable digital recorder that features XLR inputs, and you don’t have lots of cash to spend, there are two options that stand out: the Zoom H4n and the Tascam DR-40. I created this post to help you clearly understand the differences between the two, and to share my opinion as to which is the better choice.
At the outset, the Tascam has the advantage of being around $100 less expensive, which is a considerable sum. One can only assume the vast majority of people would see the lower price of the DR-40, and their decision would be made on cost alone. But, in case you’re wondering how these two models differ in form, function and user-friendliness, please read on.
From a sheer vanity standpoint, the Zoom H4n looks a little more impressive in your hand. There are more illuminated buttons on its face, and it just has a more polished appearance. From a more practical standpoint, the exterior of the H4n is coated with a slightly rubber-like substance, which won’t protect the recorder if you accidentally drop it, but it does help you keep a better grip on the device.
In contrast, the exterior of the DR-40 is just raw, run-of-the-mill plastic. In fact, before you put the batteries inside of it, the DR-40 feels like a nearly hollow plastic box. Remember, the DR-40 is notably less expensive, and fittingly, this comes at a price.
If you try to judge the sizes of these two recorders by looking at photos on the Internet, the DR-40 sometimes appears smaller. However, this isn’t the case in person. Both models are nearly the same size and shape. They’re too bulky to slip into a pocket, unless you’re wearing cargo shorts, which isn’t an issue if you live in North America, because you’re likely wearing them as you read this. If you live in France, these recorders will definitely not fit into your pants.
Even though these recorders look strikingly similar, the way you operate them is notably different. The majority of the commands on the H4n are carried out with a side-mounted push-button wheel and Menu button. These aren’t a common set of controls, and likewise, it feels unusual operating them. The other downside is that the push-button wheel has a cheap vibe.
An aspect that many people find confusing about the H4n is that it operates in three separate modes: 2CH, 4CH and MTR. 2CH stands for two channel, meaning that it’s a two-track stereo mode. You’re either recording with the two built-in mics or the mic inputs, but not both at the same time. 4CH stands for four channel. This mode is for people who want to record four tracks at a time, using both the built-in mics and the external inputs.
MTR mode stands for multi-track mode. This mode is for musicians who want to treat the H4n as a portable recording studio. In MTR mode, you can lay down a track, and then overdub another track on top of it. This mode doesn’t really have a purpose for people who use the H4n as an audio recorder for video productions.
Most of the controls on the DR-40 are carried out on the face of the device, and most of the buttons are labeled, which makes it slightly more intuitive. However, power is turned off and on by pressing and holding the Stop button. The Stop button has a third function as acting as the Home button. The sliding Power/Hold switch on the Zoom H4n is much nicer.
I used the DR-40 on a shoot, and I connected the XLR outputs of my Sound Devices 302 field mixer to the XLR inputs on the DR-40. One of the great advantages of the DR-40 is that the XLR inputs can be switched to accept a line-level signal. I’ve read threads on various forums where people claim that you can send an H4n line-level signals through 1/4″ cables on its combo-XLR inputs, but I’ve never tried this. Personally, I don’t want a workaround for this function.
Similarities both models share:
- Dual XLR inputs
- Built-in stereo condenser mics
- Ability to record four tracks simultaneously, using XLR inputs and built-in mics
- Can supply phantom power
- Both can record 24-bit 96kHz
- Record to removable SD cards
- Nearly identical size and weight
What makes them different:
- XLR inputs on DR-40 can be switched to accept line-level signals
- The H4n has a stereo 1/8th input for mics
- The DR-40 features locking XLR inputs
- The DR-40 takes three AA batteries, the H4n only takes two
- An AC adapter is included with the H4n, only batteries come with the DR-40
- The H4n can act as a computer audio interface
- The H4n comes with a very useful form-fitting plastic case
Cases exist that can protect these recorders as you use them, however, they’re kind of expensive. In the past, I made a post about how an inexpensive strap called the Canon Metal Neck Strap 1 can be used with the Zoom H4n, and I’m happy to report that the same strap works on the Tascam DR-40.
I did a simple shoot out of the built-in mics on both of these recorders. I set them both up in a quiet room, adjusted the input levels so that the meters were landing in the ideal spot (if you don’t know how to do this, be sure to read my How to Set Audio Levels post). I spoke into the mics, and played acoustic guitar and sang.
I listened back on my Sony MDR 7506 headphones, and both recorders sounded decent. At first I thought I liked the sound of the Zoom H4n better, but the longer I listened, the less I could tell the difference. Neither recorder is great. They’re pretty much equal in sonic performance, which is usually the case with these inexpensive portable recorders.
UPDATE – A few weeks after this article was posted, I had the opportunity to carry out a more extensive shootout between these two recorders. Check out the shootout video and article HERE.
If I didn’t own either of these recorders, I would probably buy the Tascam DR-40. It’s a lot cheaper, and for my needs, it does pretty much the same thing as the Zoom H4n. However, if I didn’t own any other audio gear, and I had no plans to every buy a field mixer, I would get the Zoom H4n. The Tascam DR-40 isn’t better than the Zoom H4n. The winning feature in my case is that it has a physical switch to use the XLR inputs to record a line-level signal.
Being able to record line-level signals is an important feature for anyone who uses a field mixer. I use a Sound Devices 302 when I record, and many HDSLR shooters use the Sound Devices MixPre-D. When you use a good quality field mixer as the front end, you only use the recorder as a “bit bucket,” which means that you’re not using its preamps or mics. You’re just plugging in a line-level signal, and recording a high-resolution audio file with the device.
Some of you have probably read this far into the article hoping to hear about the preamp performance between these two units. Welp, I didn’t really test them out. I just assumed they’re both subpar. I will likely make a little shoot-out video with these two recorders, and I’ll try to test their preamps out then, and see if I can hear a discernable difference in their noise floors.
So I’ll leave it at that for now. Remember, if you found this article helpful, you can support this blog simply by clicking on the links in the article before you make a purchase on Amazon.com. If you decide to pick up a Tascam DR-40, click on it. If you want to go with the Zoom H4n, click on that baby. Thanks again!