There are several budget-friendly audio recorders available that are capable machines for recording sound in video productions, and the Zoom H4n and the Tascam DR-40 stand out as popular favorites. The new Zoom H5 recently arrived on the scene, and I finally had the chance to use it. On paper, I was aware of the new features it offered video people before I ever touched the thing. When I used the H5 for an extended period, I discovered a few more things that make it more attractive for video production, and I found some things that could be improved as well.
For starters, the most obvious thing that sets the Zoom H5 apart from the pack is its interchangeable microphone module port (a feature also found on the Zoom H6). You likely already know that you can attach a separately available Mid-Side or shotgun microphone capsule to this port to capture sound suitable for certain kinds of video productions—but its greatest virtue doesn’t require an extra purchase. What I love about the removable capsules is that I often don’t need to use onboard mics at all (I just use the XLR inputs), so I remove it altogether. This gives me a much more lightweight and compact device to work with. Without a capsule, the H5 is easier to mount to my shoulder rig, and it’s easier to fit into my audio bag, too.
Another obvious aspect to the design of the H5 are the two physical input level dials on its front panel. As you would assume, they are indeed easier to adjust, especially when compared to the lone, rocker-style, side-mounted gain control on the Zoom H4n and the Tascam DR-40.
There is a slight downside to the rotary dials on the H5. When you have a microphone capsule attached and you want to record with it, the dial that controls the level of the capsule is attached to the capsule itself, which means that it’s located in a completely different place from the two built-in dials on the H5. It’s not a big problem, but it did throw me off a little bit once or twice when I was working with the recorder.
A much less obvious feature on the H5’s front panel are the four buttons that arm its separate tracks for recording. Each one has a dedicated red LED that let’s you know if a track is armed or not. These buttons and lights are exactly the kind of simple audio controls that I appreciate most.
One of the most beneficial features on the H5 for video production are its dual outputs. This is something you won’t find on the Zoom H4n or the Tascam DR-40. The Zoom H5 is equipped with a dedicated headphone output, and a separate “line” output. The reason this is important is that it enables you to connect a mini-plug cable to the line output on the H5 in order to record directly into the mic input on your camera. You can connect your headphones to the headphone output, so you can listen to the audio you’re recording into the H5 as you shoot. You can adjust the volume level of your headphones without changing the audio level you’re outputting to your camera.
Utilizing dual outputs to record sound in video production is a practice that can easily confuse beginners, as well as experienced video people who aren’t as well-versed in audio. Don’t let this stop you from learning this technique. It’s a little confusing, for certain, but even simple things involving audio can get confusing. If I can figure it out, you can too.
The reason you can connect the line output of the H5 to the mic input on a camera is that the H5 allows you to turn the level of the line output down by -30dB. Again, this is confusing goobledeegook, but bear with me. A “line-level” signal is much stronger than a “mic-level” signal. If you plugged a line-level signal into the mic input on a camera, the audio would be an overdriven, distorted mess. You can’t damage your equipment by doing this, but the audio you record would be useless. This is why you can go into the menu on the H5 and turn its line output down by -30dB.
If the Zoom H5 didn’t let you turn down its line output, you would need to use a Sescom cable to properly tame the line-level signal down to a camera-friendly mic-level signal. I fully explain the Sescom cable workflow in my video review of the Zoom H5, and in an older video of mine called How to Use a Zoom H4n as an On-Camera Mic.
Even though having a dedicated line output that you can turn down by -30dB is a great feature for video people, I do have one gripe. Let me explain… I performed a shootout that pitted the Zoom H5 against the Zoom H4n. I tested both recorders with their XY stereo mics, and with external shotgun and hypercardioid mics. I recorded 24-bit 48kHz WAV files internally, but I also connected the recorders to my GH2 camera with cables. On the H5, I connected its line output to my camera with a standard mini-plug cable. On the H4n, I used a Sescom cable to connect the headphone output of the recorder to the mic input on my camera. My gripe is that, when recording directly into the camera, the audio from the H4n with a Sescom cable was clearly superior to the audio from the line output on the H5.
When I was doing the test, it was obvious that the audio coming from the line output of the H5 was hot, even with it turned down to -30dB, and the mic input on my GH2 turned all the way down. I was worried that the audio was clipping and distorting, but when I played the footage back on my computer, it was okay. However, the noise floor was much higher than the audio from the H4n + Sescom cable combination. In layman’s terms, the higher noise floor means that there was an audible hiss in the audio that the H5 fed to the camera, whereas the audio from the H4n + Sescom cable was clean.
Why did this happen? It’s likely that the mic input on the Panasonic GH2 camera is on the hot side itself, or, to put it another way, it’s like a volume knob that only turns down to 4, instead of all the way down to zero. There’s a chance that the GH2 is more sensitive than other cameras, and you might get better sounding results using another model of camera.
If I had been able to turn down the line output of the H5 to -40, -50 or -60dB, I could have recorded better sounding audio. If you already own a Sescom cable and you’re shooting with a GH2, you should continue to use your Sescom cable when you work with the H5. If you use another kind of camera, it’s worth your while to conduct a test of your own to determine what method yields the best sounding audio.
The video below demonstrates the difference in sound quality between recording to the SD card in the H5, and recording to the mic input of a Panasonic GH2 though the line output of the H5 using the SGH-6 shotgun capsule. It also compares how the Zoom H5 sounds when recording with an external hypercardioid microphone and feeding the GH2 through its line out. This is compared to a Zoom H4n using the same external hypercardioid mic, but recording into the GH2 through its headphone output using a Sescom cable. It’s best to wear headphones when watching it to hear the difference in noise floor:
While it’s a bummer that the audio I recorded with a Sescom cable sounded cleaner than the audio from the line out of the H5, it doesn’t diminish how I feel about the device on the whole. If I were to buy myself a new recorder right now, I would get the Zoom H5. I like the size. It doesn’t have a totally cheap, plasticy feel. The audio I recorded with it sounded good. The user interface makes sense to me. There’s a lot to like.
In the spirit of not letting compliments go unpunished, allow me to point out a shortcoming: it’s a bummer that the dual XLR inputs on the H5 do not have locking mechanisms. This is one area where the Tascam DR-40 outshines both the Zoom H4n and the H5. When I was setting up my shoulder rig with the H5 and two Sennheiser G3 wireless lav systems, I was never inspired with confidence when I attached the output cables of the wireless systems to the H5. Without the locks, you just never feel certain that everything is hooked up properly, period.
I admit that I found the SGH6 shotgun capsule to be a bit of an odd novelty at first. Then, when I heard what it sounded like, I was pleased. When I saw it mounted on my shoulder rig, it suddenly made total sense to me. With the SGH6 attached, the H5 becomes a recorder that handles the duty of the on-camera shotgun mic, in addition to handling two wireless receivers. It’s a solution for on-camera audio that’s pretty hard to beat. When I moved the H5 to the top of my shoulder rig with the SGH-6 attached, using the included “hairy” windscreen, I was pretty impressed with the how useful of a solution it was for on-camera audio capture.
What you need to build this rig:
- Revo SR-1000 Shoulder Support Rig – $79
- Revo Counterweight for SR-1000 – $29
- Two Sennheiser G3 receivers (single complete EW 112P wireless kit – $550)
- Impact 1/4-20 Spigot (to mount rear receiver) – $5
- Impact Short Double Male 3/8″ to 1/4-20″ Spigot + Manfrotto 015 Adapter (to mount front receiver) – $9
- My dual shoe mount isn’t available, but the K-Tek KTBAR can do the job – $39
- F&V Z96 LED Light Panel – $70
- Zoom H5 – $269
- Zoom SGH-6 Shotgun Capsule – $129
- Sescom Cable – $32
- My old Panasonic GH2 – $300 to $500
As I mention in my video review, you should use a shockmount when you’re using any of the mic capsules with the H5 while mounting to a rig or a boompole. The only compatible shockmount I know of at this time is the Rycote Portable Recorder Suspension, and it costs $95. I didn’t have time to carry out extensive testing of how much handling and vibration noise the H5 picked up when hard-mounted to a rig or a boompole without a shockmount, but I did get to do some minor testing.
From simply walking around my apartment with the Zoom H5 + SGH6 combo hard-mounted to my shoulder rig, I can say that the amount of noise I picked up wasn’t too bad. It seemed to pick up more handling noise (mostly the sound of my hands gripping the handles of the rig) than vibration noise from walking around. It just might be workable without the $95 Rycote shockmount. But, getting that shockmount is probably worth it.
The Zoom H5 comes with a 2GB micro SD card, and an adapter to full-sized SD, because its built-in card slot is for a full-sized SD card. It’s odd, but it works. Like the H4n, the H5 comes with a form-fitting plastic case, which is useful. The case fits with the XYH-5 capsule attached, and it also holds the H5 snugly when it doesn’t have a capsule attached. Zoom gets points for attention to detail for that one! The SGH-6 shotgun capsule is sold separately, but it comes with a ”hairy” windscreen (that’s what it says on the box). The H5 runs on two AA batteries, which are included. There’s a bunch of functionality baked into the H5 for overdubbing and recording music, and you will likely never need or use any of it.
- Compact with capsule removed
- Included XY mic capsule sounds nice
- Optional SGH-6 shotgun capsule sounds good
- Rotary level controls are nice
- Illuminated track arm buttons rule
- Separate line and headphone outputs
- Optional module for adding two more XLR inputs
- More expensive than the Zoom H4n and Tascam DR-40
- The line output fed audio that was too high of level for my GH2 (may not be an issue with other camera models)
- XLR inputs do not have locks
At the end of the day, this is a low-budget, entry-level device. This is not a subsistute for a Zaxcom or Sound Devices recorder. That’s what the Zoom H5 isn’t. It is, however, a pretty cool recorder that’s affordable, and it’s a solid choice for budget-conscious video work.
Hear what the Zoom H5 sounds like in a shootout against the Zoom H4n and the Tascam DR-40 in this post.
Hear how the Zoom H5 sounds with the SGH-6 shotgun capsule in a shootout against the Rode NTG-3 and NTG-2 in this post.
Zoom H5 - Amazon USA, Amazon.uk, Amazon.de, Amazon.fr
Zoom H4n - Amazon USA, Amazon.uk, Amazon.de, Amazon.fr
Tascam DR-40 - Amazon USA, Amazon.uk, Amazon.de, Amazon.fr
Rode VideoMic Pro - Amazon USA, Amazon.uk, Amazon.de, Amazon.fr
Revo SR-1000 Shoulder Rig - B&H Photo, Amazon USA, Amazon.uk
Revo Counterweight for the SR-1000 - B&H Photo, Amazon USA, Amazon.uk
Short Mini-Plug cables - Amazon USA, Amazon.uk, Amazon.de, Amazon.fr
Sennheiser G3 Wireless - B&H Photo, Amazon USA, Amazon.uk, Amazon.fr