Zoom H4n vs. Tascam DR40

Audio Test: Zoom H4n vs. Tascam DR-40

I recently published a post where I carefully explain the differences between the Zoom H4n and the Tascam DR-40, two competitively-priced portable digital recorders that both feature dual XLR inputs.

In this post, I compare the actual performance of these two models by testing the quality of their built-in mics, how well they perform with a phantom-powered external mic (a hyper cardioid Audio-Technica 4053b), and also how they sound when connecting directly to a camera using a Sescom attenuation cable (for more information on this technique, check out this post). I compare normal dialog, and how well they handle the sound of an acoustic guitar.

Please note, I connected the Sescom cable to a 10-foot Rode VC1 extension cable during that portion of the test, so I could position the built-in mics on the recorders close to the on-camera subject. Here’s the test:

My Impression:

I checked out a bunch of other people’s tests of theses two recorders before I made my own, and it seems like everyone concludes that the performance of the two recorders is pretty much equal. However, this is not what I experienced. To my ears, the Zoom H4n handily won the shootout.

During the Sescom portion of the test with dialog, I could hear a very faint, high-pitched whine in the audio from the DR-40. I figured perhaps the Tascam had a noisier headphone output, and that it would sound cleaner in the WAV file portion of the test. Unfortunately, the high-pitched whine was present in its WAV files as well.

Keep in mind that this wasn’t a terribly scientific test. I just booted up the recorders, got them into position, set the levels and went for it. I merely used them as a normal person would use them.

In Conclusion:

In my humble, little test, the Zoom H4n sonically out-performed the Tascam DR-40. You can save $100 by getting the DR-40, but the differences between these two units extends beyond the cheaper, more plastic feeling body of the Tascam. However, you should also keep in mind that the Zoom H4n is not a high-quality piece of gear. At the end of the day, it’s just an affordable consumer-level box that packs a lot of bang for the buck.

Purchase links:

Zoom H4n - Amazon USA, B&H PhotoAmazon.uk, Amazon.de, Amazon.fr
Tascam DR-40 - Amazon USA, B&H Photo, Amazon.uk, Amazon.de, Amazon.fr
Audio-Technica 4053B - B&H Photo, Amazon USA, Amazon.uk, Amazon.fr
Sescom Cable - Amazon USA, B&H Photo, Amazon.uk
Sescom Cable (with headphone jack) - Amazon USA, B&H Photo, Amazon.uk
Rode VC1 Extension Cable - Amazon USA, B&H Photo, Amazon.uk, Amazon.de, Amazon.fr

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Writer, musician, photo taker and video maker. When not writing somewhat longish articles for this blog, I write incredibly short things on Twitter: @SamMallery

9 thoughts on “Audio Test: Zoom H4n vs. Tascam DR-40”

  1. Hi Sam,

    Did you record the clips straight to the SD card as well? If so please post those files because they would be a more accurate representation of the two units.

    The reason I ask is because while the setup you use, i.e. audio sourced from the headphone jack, a long unshielded and unbalanced cable, and then into the camera via attenuation cable is common, it is probably the most sub-optimal setup you could use. The reason is you are passing through two preamps: the headphone out on each and the camera preamps as well. Both stages have separate gain structures and are points for the introduction of noise. Also, from the looks of your hookup you have an unbalanced, unshielded cable going from the headphone jack to the camera. That is guaranteed to be picking all sorts of noise, humm, buzz, etc.

    So if you could post the directly recorded WAV files that would great. Your labels in the video say “externally recorded WAV files.” Which is confusing because both units can record straight to the SD card in WAV format. That is internal of course. So did you take the output from the headphone jack and then record it to WAV with a laptop or something?

  2. In response to Gregory:

    Sorry my reply is over a year late. Doh! Anyhow, I may have the original files from this project sitting on a hard drive somewhere. I may update this post with download links at some point… but I’m not promising.

    The sound you hear in the video was recorded on two different devices: the camera, and the recorders themselves. Yes, when I recorded to the camera, I ran a Sescom attenuation cable from the recorder into a 10-foot, unbalanced mini-plug extension cable. I did this because I wanted to prove that you can use equipment like this and still capture good sound. People who know their stuff about audio will hear about a setup like this, and instantly shoot it down, saying that it will sound too noisy. True, a setup like this can sound noisy, however, it isn’t guaranteed to, and this video proves it.

    I understand and appreciate your concern about doubling up on preamps and running unbalanced extension cables, but the proof is in the pudding. My video is pudding.

  3. Are you sure the high-pitched whine is not caused by cell phone interference? I’m having trouble finding other people with this problem. People have mentioned cell phones interfering with dr-40 audio.

  4. I’m interested in the directionality of the built-in mics. Is there a preferred direction to record from? The design of the units suggests that possibly lying horizontal with the “top” of the mikes toward the sound source is the preferred orientation. I would like to see that tested and maybe front vs rear. You seemed to have tested rear recording. Also, it would be necessary to test in a sound-deadened room or outdoors, because it is hard to compare the mikes with room reflections which mask directional features. But thanks for doing this test, very helpful.

  5. Both recorders feature a pair of microphones with cardioid pick-up patterns. On the H4n, the mics can be rotated to pick-up either a 90 or 120 degree angle of sound. One the DR-40, the mics can be positioned in XY (which is more commonly used for stereo recording) or AB (which is better for ambient sound recording). Since both models have cardioid mics, the preferred direction is to place the recorder right in front of the sound source, typically as close as you can get it, while still being able to set proper levels.

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