When you’re looking for a budget-friendly yet capable audio recorder, three models will likely show up on your radar: the Zoom H4n, the Tascam DR-40, and the new Zoom H5. All three feature good sounding stereo microphones, dual XLR inputs for external microphones and signals, and, most importantly, entry-level price tags. In addition to how you feel about the layout of their various controls, and the overall vibe of each recorder’s design, it’s important to determine which model sounds best to your ears. This last differentiator is the reason I created this post.
I put together the following video so you could hear how the H5, H4n and DR-40 preform in a side-by-side shootout. You will hear a test of their stereo mics, a test using an Audio-Technica AT4053b hypercardioid microphone, you will hear how they handle external shotgun microphones (the Rode NTG-3 and NTG-2), and finally, you will hear how they each handle a line-level signal from a Sound Devices 302 field mixer. I chose the Audio-Technica AT4053b because it’s one of the best “budget” microphones to use on a boompole when booming dialogue indoors. I chose the two Rode shotguns because they’re both popular choices for video production. I performed the line-level test because I was curious if I could hear any difference, and it proved to be pretty interesting.
My Impressions of the Stereo Mic Tests
Audio shootouts are typically very subjective. If something sounds great to one person, there’s no guarantee it will impress the next. To my ears, in this particular test, the Zoom H5 (with its included XYH-5 microphone capsule) was the winner. Its overall tone was cleaner, clearer, and the most natural sounding of the bunch. The Tascam DR-40 had a relatively boxy and narrow sound in comparison, and the Zoom H4n sounded noticeably better than the DR-40, but with a less natural overall feel compared to the warmth of the Zoom H5.
Among the three recorders in this test, the Zoom H5 stands out price-wise, because it costs over $50 more than the other two. In addition to providing better sounding stereo mic performance, the slightly-higher price of the H5 gets you additional capabilities that are not available on the H4n or DR-40. Its interchangeable microphone module port enables you to attach other kinds of mics and inputs, such as the separately available SGH-6 shotgun capsule, and the EXH6 module, which adds two additional XLR inputs to the H5. Dual outputs are also not found on the H4n and DR-40, but are available on the H5, which makes it especially useful when you’re recording the sound for a video production. I thoroughly explain all of the additional benefits that the H5 brings to video production in my article and hands-on video entitled Zoom H5 Review + Why It’s Good for Video Production.
My Impressions of the External Mic Tests
I didn’t hear a great deal of difference between how the Zoom H5 and H4n handled the external microphones in this test. The DR-40, on the other hand, had a noticeably higher noise floor, especially with the AT4053b hypercardioid microphone, and most prominently when used with the Rode NTG-2 shotgun microphone. The NTG-2 is the least expensive microphone in this shootout by a substantial margin, which explains why it’s a bit noisier. But still, I was a bit surprised that the Tascam DR-40 struggled as much as it did in this test. Especially considering how much better it seemed to perform in the last shootout I conducted with it. It’s worth noting that the DR-40 sounded just fine with the Rode NTG-3.
When I closely analyzed the audio from the recorders as I was editing the shootout video, I was worried I had somehow short-changed the DR-40. But here’s the thing: I didn’t. When I was shooting these tests, I did my best to make the levels equal on each recorder. I had the on-screen subject say her lines, and I adjusted the gain on the recorders so that the audio meter was bouncing around -12dB. (I clearly explain how to set audio levels in this post.) I also did my best to position the microphones in the same spot for each take. This test isn’t scientifically perfect, but it’s fairly accurate. I certainly didn’t try to sabotage the DR-40. I was fair.
My process for handling the audio in post-production should be taken into consideration as well. The audio files from the DR-40 and the H4n for the external microphone tests were mono. In order to make sound come out of both of the speakers, I copied and pasted them on two separate tracks in Final Cut Pro 7, and panned one to the left, and the other to the right. Now, by doing this, I realize I doubled the noise floor of each recorder. But, that’s how I did it. The preamp in the DR-40 was noisier than the one in the H4n, and you can hear it in the tests. Sorry Tascam, you lost this round. Don’t be totally depressed, though. Read on, you guys win the last test. If you want to beat Zoom in the next mic shootout, up your game.
My Impressions of the Line-Level Tests
I conducted the line-level tests for two reasons:
- I was curious if I could hear any difference in sound quality between the recorders.
- I was curious if the Zoom H4n could handle line-level audio at all.
What proved to be interesting is that the real difference between these recorders isn’t how the recorded line-level audio sounds—it’s how difficult or easy it was to adjust the settings on the recorders to handle line-level audio. In case you’re not familiar with line-level audio, just think of it as an extremely loud audio signal. You have to make major adjustments to the input levels on the recorders in order to capture it without distorting. Where would you encounter line-level audio signals in the real world? If you’re shooting video at an event, and you want to record the feed from a mixing board, or an output from a DJ mixer, you will most likely need to be able to adapt your recorder to handle a line-level signal. For this test I sent the recorders a line-level signal from a Sound Devices 302 field mixer.
The line-level audio I recorded with the Zoom H5 sounded fine, but setting the recorder up to handle it was a pain in the butt. It required me to fiddle around with the menus, find and activate its -20dB pads, and gingerly adjust its two gain control knobs. If I didn’t know as much about audio as I do, it would have been really difficult to figure all of this out. This was also an instance where I didn’t like having big rotary knobs to control the gain. When I record in the field, it’s often in rough-and-tumble environments. I would be really worried about accidentally bumping and changing the levels with those big knobs. Even with the H5’s “roll bar” in place protecting the knobs, this would give me stress.
The Tascam DR-40, on the other hand, makes the process of recording line-level audio drop dead easy. There’s a physical switch on the side of the device labeled “EXT IN.” You just slide it over to “LINE” and you’re done. Bravo, Tascam. You handily won this test. It sounded great and it was easy to do.
I was curious if the Zoom H4n could handle line-level audio at all, because I had tried this in the past and had difficulty. I read on the Internet somewhere, long ago, that if you plugged 1/4″ cables (as opposed to XLR) into the H4n, you would get better results. Well, I finally gave this a try, and it proved to be true. While it’s nice that this workaround exists, it’s totally lame that you need a workaround at all. I always prefer gear that makes my life easier out there in the field, not the other way around.
So, which recorder is the best of the three? Sound wise, the winner, in my opinion, is the Zoom H5. It’s also the most versatile of the three. Is it worth spending a little extra dough on the H5? For the most part, yes, it is. Is the Tascam DR-40 a piece of junk that people should avoid? No, it’s not. While its built-in stereo mics didn’t sound as good as the H4n or the H5, they still sound nice. The DR-40 is a decent little box. If you end up shooting at a wedding and you want to record the feed from the DJ booth, this is the best recorder to have of the three.
As silly as it may look, I really like the SGH-6 shotgun capsule that you can use on the Zoom H5. I love how you can mount it to a shoulder rig, attach the SGH-6 to act as an on-camera shotgun mic, and plug in two wireless receivers to its XLR inputs. I explain the virtues of this ability in great detail in my review of the Zoom H5.
Here’s a breakdown to put this thing to bed:
- Zoom H5 – great sounding, removable stereo mics, decent preamps for external mics, kind of a pain to record line-level audio
- Zoom H4n – good sounding stereo mics, decent preamps for external mics, recording line-level signals is unnecessarily challenging
- Tascam DR-40 – decent sounding stereo mics, you need to be careful of noise floor issues with external mics (I had a little trouble this time, but it’s worked for me just fine in the past), drop dead easy to record line-level signals
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.
Learn how the Zoom H5 is useful in video production, and the features it offers that are not found on the Tascam DR-40 and the Zoom H4n 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 NTG-3 - Amazon USA, Amazon.uk, Amazon.de, Amazon.fr
Rode NTG-2 - Amazon USA, Amazon.uk, Amazon.de, Amazon.fr
Audio-Technica 4053B - B&H Photo, Amazon USA, Amazon.uk, Amazon.fr
Sound Devices 302 field mixer - B&H Photo
Zoom SGH-6 Shotgun Capsule - Amazon USA, Amazon.uk, Amazon.de, Amazon.fr