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Review: Zoom H4N

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By Ron Dawson

If you want to be a serious DSLR filmmaker, it’s imperative that you capture high-quality audio to a separate device, like the Zoom H4N, one of the most widely used digital audio recorders by DSLR filmmakers.

The H4N records to the popular SD/SDHC card format and comes with a 1GB card. It can record up to four separate channels of audio in formats from low-quality .mp3 or high-quality 96k, 24-bit .wav files for true audiophiles. If you’re using it for video, record at the 48k/16-bit setting. That is the sample rate and bit-depth of digital video, and a 1 GB SD card can hold just under 90 minutes of audio at that setting.

The Zoom is not a device you can just pick up and start using. I am pretty adept at gizmos and gadgets, but even I had to pick up the manual to figure out how to access and use the various menus. Give yourself 30 minutes to an hour to peruse the main parts of the manual and get familiar with the H4N. Once you’ve done that, using it will be a breeze.

The H4N has built-in mics at its top and is designed to take two XLR audio inputs at the bottom for higher quality microphones. It also has a mini-jack mic connection. I use the Sennheiser Evolution G2 (or G3) series microphone. It’s rugged, with a metal casing, and a favorite among my colleagues.

What’s great about the H4N is that you can connect headphones to monitor sound. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is. Always monitor your audio to make sure everything sounds okay. Sometimes mics short out, or the recording level dips in and out, and you need to hear that. Also, you have to hit the H4N record button twice: once to get it in standby mode (the red record button will blink and you’ll be able to hear audio) and once again to actually start recording. If you’re not hearing anything in your headphones, it could be you forgot to hit the record button. Once you do start recording, double check the screen to make sure you see the time counter progressing and that you are actually in record mode and not just standby mode.

The H4N has a great form, too. At 6 inches long and just under 2.5 inches wide, it's easy to handle and is compact enough to attach to your DSLR shooting rig. It’s powered by either two AA batteries, or with the AC adaptor that comes with it. WARNING: if you are using the device to capture a long, uninterrupted event like a bar/bat mitzvah, corporate speech, or seminar, make sure you have plenty of power. If the power runs out before you stop recording, the audio file won’t write to the card. For lengthy recording, use the AC adapter if at all possible. If you must use batteries, use fresh ones.

I absolutely love my Zoom H4N and won’t go to a gig without it. At just under $300, it’s a great investment.