Zoom just announced the new H4n Pro Handy Recorder, and I wanted to share my initial thoughts on it. The original Zoom H4n has been a popular choice for many, many years, so an update is important news and merits deep analysis.
The first thing you’ll notice about the new Zoom H4n Pro was how closely it resembles the original. The overall shape, as well as the buttons and controls all look very familiar. It’s clear that the significant changes to this device largely apply to what’s inside.
One of the most notable changes to the exterior of the Pro are the locking XLR inputs. The original H4n doesn’t have these, and it was one of the major distinctions between it and the competing Tascam DR-40. Locks are nice to have, because without them, your XLR cables can accidentally get unplugged. These kinds of recorders often get mounted to video cameras and placed in audio bags and get jostled around in use, so locks are important.
The new Pro also has slightly more ergonomic looking grips on its sides, and the style of buttons have been updated. The LED indicator lights have been refreshed as well, and the screen is different. Instead of an orange-colored backlight, the display is blue.
The built-in microphones look very similar, and they still can be swiveled to record at a wider or more narrow stereo field, but they’ve been updated, too. They have a higher SPL rating, which means that they can handle louder sounds without distorting (compared to the old H4n).
What’s nice is that people who used the old H4n will be able to pick up the new one and already know exactly how to use it. However, the “jog wheel selector” control on the right side of the unit has always been one of the weaker parts of the design. It feels a bit clunky and cheap, and using it to navigate menus isn’t the best experience. I haven’t had a chance to try the new H4n Pro yet, so I’m hoping that they improved the feel of this control, at the very least.
The new Zoom H4n Pro has the same preamps that are used in the Zoom H5 and the Zoom H6 recorders. This is great news. The lower noise floor of those two recorders was one of the most attractive things about them. What does this mean, exactly? Simply put, everything you record with the new Zoom H4n Pro is going to sound slightly cleaner and clearer.
The difference in sound quality between the original H4n and the new H4n Pro isn’t going to be substantially different. It’s going to be subtle. You can still make excellent sounding recordings with the original Zoom H4n. While the new one is going to sound cleaner, this doesn’t mean the old one is suddenly poor sounding.
What does “noise floor” mean, exactly?
All electrical devices have noise floors. When it comes to audio equipment, having a low noise floor is important, because the lower it is, the cleaner sounding your recordings and playback will be. Higher-quality audio gear is typically designed to have a lower noise floor. Lower-quality equipment typically has lower-quality circuitry, which brings the noise floor up.
You can easily hear the noise floor of a stereo system or a TV by raising the volume all the way up (without any media playing). If you don’t have anything playing, it’s supposed to be silent, however, if you turn the volume all the way up, you will likely hear a static hiss sound. This sound is the noise floor.
Why is the low noise floor of the new H4n Pro significant? It gives you additional headroom. Say you are recording an actor, and they unexpectedly start whispering their lines. With a low-noise floor recording device, you will be able to boost the sound of their whisper up more in post, without it sounding fuzzy. Lower noise floors give you more room to boost things up in post, and they make normal recordings sound just a little cleaner.
One of the weaker aspects of the original Zoom H4n was how it handled line-level inputs. Again… I haven’t had the chance to try out the new H4n Pro, but it appears that the way it handles line-level signals has not changed.
Ironically, the screenshot from Zoom’s website above makes it clear that the new “Pro” cannot handle “professional” line-level signals. A +4dBu signal is the standard line-level signal from a professional piece of equipment. Consumer audio gear uses a weaker -10dBv signal, which the Pro assumably can take.
Hang on a second… What is “line-level”?
Audio stuff gets confusing quickly, doesn’t it? Basically, there are two primary types of audio signals: Mic Level and Line Level. Mic Level signals are very faint, quiet signals. That’s why they need preamps, so they can be boosted up louder, and be heard on a recording.
Line-level signals are much stronger. They typically don’t need to be boosted. Examples of line-level signals:
- Headphone outputs
- The RCA outputs on the back of a TV
- The outputs on a DJ mixer or a sound board
If the new Pro is anything like the original H4n, it will be tricky to properly feed it a line-level signal. The original can only accept line-level signals from its 1/4″ jacks (not XLR).
Which portable digital recorder should you get?
The Zoom H4n Pro is a nice, new option, but, it does further complicate the process of choosing a portable audio recorder. There are a lot of good recorders available these days, and the prices are excellent. To be frank, if you blindly purchased one of the popular models without any research at all, it would likely serve your needs nicely.
But, if you’re anything like me, you’ll commit time to researching this decision anyhow. :)
Let’s see how the new H4n Pro fits into the current landscape of prices…
Please note, I’m only looking at recorders with XLR inputs, and, these prices are pretty much guaranteed to change in the future (they often change daily):
- Tascam DR-40 = $150
- Tascam DR-44WL = $179
- Tascam DR-60D MKII = $183
- Zoom H4n = $200
- Zoom H4n Pro = $220
- Tascam DR-70D = $236
- Zoom H5 = $260
- Tascam DR-100 MKII = $280
- Zoom H6 = $387
- Roland R26 = $400
This isn’t every recorder on the market, but it gives you a good idea of what’s out there, and the costs. Also note, the Tascam DR-60D MKII doesn’t have built-in mics, but I included it anyhow because it’s a good, inexpensive option.
This is a crowded field. Will the original Zoom H4n soon be discontinued, and will the price of the new H4n Pro drop because of this? I think this will happen eventually, but, when Zoom came out with the H2n, it took them a long time to discontinue the super-popular H2. If history is any indication, the original H4n will be hanging around for a while longer.
Is the new H4n Pro worth $20 more than the H4n?
Even though I haven’t touched the new H4n Pro yet, I feel comfortable saying yes, it’s absolutely worth $20 more than the old one. I tested out the Zoom H5 throughly, and I could hear an improvement in sound quality over the old Zoom H4n. Since the new H4n Pro features the same, low-noise preamps as the Zoom H5, it’s definitely worth a little more money.
Is the Zoom H5 worth $40 more than the H4n Pro?
This question gets a little trickier. Even though the built-in mics on the H4n Pro sound good, I think the XYH-5 microphone module that comes included with the Zoom H5 will outperform them. They both have the same preamps, but the mics are different.
Plus, the connector on the Zoom H5 enables you to use a number of different kinds of mics on the unit, including the XYH-6 module, which likely sounds even better than the included module.
One downside of the module connector on the Zoom H5 is that the mics are not hard-wired to the unit. So, if it gets bumped the wrong way, or if you happen to misplace the mic module, you’re in trouble. Hard-wired, built-in microphones aren’t going anywhere, and you can’t lose them (unless you lose the whole unit).
As I noted in my hands-on review of the Zoom H5, I appreciated how I could remove the mic module, because it made the overall size of the recorder much smaller, which is nice in situations where you don’t need to use built-in mics.
The bottom line is that it’s impossible to decisively tell anyone the H4n Pro is better than the Zoom H5, or vice versa. They’re both great. Decide which features you want more, and get one.
Is the H4n Pro worth $70 more than the Tascam DR-40?
Ouch. Tricky question. The Tascam DR-40 is good recorder, and it’s significantly less expensive than other options. However, the corners that were cut in order to make it inexpensive are noticeable. For example, there is no dedicated Power On/Off control. This task is shared with the Stop button, which makes common functions more confusing.
On the other hand, the Tascam DR-40 handles line-level signals much more confidently than the Zoom H4n models, and its overall sound quality is very good (even though the new circuitry in the H4n Pro likely gives the Zoom a meaningful edge). If you’re on an ultra-thin budget and you’re not intimidated by a piece of gear that isn’t completely obvious how to operate, the DR-40 is probably the better choice.
Guitar effects and other stuff in the H4n Pro
The Zoom H4n Pro is filled with varied features. The new model has guitar effects, which may be useful to some, but certainly not all users. Even though I play guitar and I like to make multi-track recordings with overdubs, I will likely never use any of these features. I have other equipment to do that stuff with. However, one of the perks of the Pro is that it can handle louder sound sources, so it could be handy for recording a loud drum set or other high-volume instruments or singers.
One of the great things about the Zoom recorders is their ability to act as audio interfaces for computers. This is great for podcasters and video production people (voice-overs, looping dialog, etc.). You can use the Zoom as a field recorder, and then when you’re at a computer, you can plug nice mics into it, connect it to a computer via USB, and record directly to the computer. Tascam recorders simply cannot do this.
Final first thoughts
The new Zoom H4n Pro offers upgraded sound quality, a new, grippy exterior, and some new features like guitar effects and the ability to handle louder sound sources. What’s great is that the core benefits that made the original H4n so appealing are still intact: Its low price and its high bang-for-the-buck ratio.
The introduction of this product is a positive thing. I look forward to checking it out.
Zoom H4n Pro - Amazon USA, B&H Photo, Amazon.uk, Amazon.de, Amazon.fr
Zoom H5 - Amazon USA, B&H Photo, Amazon.uk, Amazon.de, Amazon.fr
Zoom H4n - Amazon USA, B&H Photo, Amazon.uk, Amazon.de, Amazon.fr
Tascam DR-40 - Amazon USA, B&H Photo, Amazon.uk, Amazon.de, Amazon.fr