Best Zoom Field Recorder: Review and Comparison of H1, H2n, H5, H6

I recently decided to upgrade the audio quality of my YouTube videos by investing in a dedicated field recorder. I quickly learned that the Japanese audio equipment company “Zoom” is the dominant player in the space, but I couldn’t decide which model I needed… I decided to buy four different models and try them out for a few weeks.

I ended up with the H1, the H2n, the H5 and the H6, and I compared them with a couple additional external mics: the Giant Squid Audio lavalier mic, the SSH-6 Mic Capsule and the Shure SM58. After a few weeks of testing and careful listening, I’ll be keeping the Zoom H1 and the Giant Squid Audio lav mic. In this video I walkthrough a comparative review and explain my choice.

If you prefer to read, I’ve also gathered my detailed thoughts in writing…

Audio Quality (Home Studio Scenario)

A-   H1, H2n, H5, H6 (tied)

When I first began testing, I expected the Zoom H6 and H5 would have much higher audio quality than the less expensive models, especially when recording with upgraded mics (the SSH-6 and SM58). Online you can read about the higher quality digital-analog conversion, the delicate frequency response of high-end mic capsules and external XLR mics, but does it matter if you can’t hear the difference?

Here you’ll find video comparisons of all the recorders mentioned in three different scenarios: lavalier mic plugged-in, tabletop recording and camera-mounted recording (8-10ft away). As you can hear in the videos, the lavalier mic and tabletop scenarios sound much better than the camera-mounted scenario… but there was not an obvious difference in quality between field recorder models or microphones (at least not to my ears). I’ve set up the videos so you can listen “blind” and draw your own conclusions.

It’s likely the Zoom H5 and H6 (and upgraded mics) would begin to shine with a higher quality signal — like a trained vocalist singing in a recording booth. But this is not the scenario I care about. I’ll talk more about advanced recording scenarios later in the post.

For my common scenario (recording spoken vocals in an imperfect, reverb-y home studio), the audio quality was difficult to distinguish. Buying your first field recorder (and putting it close to your speaker) is a dramatic leap in audio quality from recording through your camera’s internal mic. The differences beyond that are marginal in the most common recording scenarios.

Build Quality and Appearance

A   H5 and H6

The H5 and H6 feel like much higher quality items than the H2n and H1. Both are significantly heavier, with the H6 weighing in at over a pound with the included XY capsule (1lb 2.6oz to be exact, weighed myself). The H5 weighs 11.6oz, the H2n drops by almost half to 6.6oz and the H1 drops by more than half again to 3.2oz). The weight alone gives one the immediate impression that the H5 and H6 are “professional” gear, while the H2n and H1 feel more like gear meant for amateurs.

The finish on the H5 and H6 is also greatly superior. Both feature a solid rubberized, grippy plastic around the sides, while the H6 adds a cool black metal sheet to the top. All buttons respond with a satisfying click, while rotary dials turn with a steady, continuous resistance. Mic capsules attach with a satisfying “snap” and feel locked quite securely. Even the tripod mount 1/4″ hole feels sturdy, with a solid metal socket.

B / C+   H2n and H1, respectively

The H2n and H1 feel like cheap consumer hardware by comparison. Both feature a thin, lightweight plastic enclosure that’s slick to the touch (not rubberized). Both units feel like they’d probably break badly if dropped. The thin plastic “cage” around the XY microphone in particular feels destined for breakage over years of use.

Most of the buttons on the H2n are quite familiar to the H5 and H6 (though the plastic has a shiny finish on the H2n and a matte finish on the larger models). Unfortunately, the mic selector unit on top of the device feels squirrelly and difficult to use. In testing, I found myself looking at the indicator lights to see whether the mic was actually activated, because I did not trust the mic selector.

The H1 buttons are smaller than the other units, and all have a satisfying click to them. There is no menu system and there’s only one mic, so you won’t find a menu rocker or squirrelly mic selector.

In terms of appearance, the H2n finish is a nice shiny “piano” black, which matches my other camera gear nicely. Before picking up the device, you might even think it’s a metal housing. The recorder features a nice big black metal mic cage that makes the whole unit look a little like a larger, higher-quality studio mic.

The H1, meanwhile is even more plastic-y looking. The “black” color is actually a unique speckled dark gray, though it’s also available in other colors including white, blue, red and a lighter gray. The microphone itself appears to be chrome-painted plastic, and it lives in the aforementioned thin plastic cage.

Ease of Use

A   H1 

The H1 is hands-down the simplest field recorder of the batch, but it also features smart design decisions that make it even easier to use.

For example, the H1 opted to have *no* menu system (unlike all the other models). That means every feature you might need is accessible via a dedicated hardware button along the sides, front, or back of the device. This is quite an impressive feature considering the small size of the recorder.

Zoom made smart decisions about where they placed each button on the H1. There’s only one button on the front of the device: “record.” This is quite satisfying and offers no resistance in the middle of a shoot. The right side of the unit features your transport controls for audio playback, the “mark” button, your input gain and the on/off/hold switch. All Zoom models feature the same thoughtful on/off/hold switch which take up minimal space and yet offer confidence you won’t accidentally turn the unit on or off.

The back of the unit has three switches to toggle recorder formats (WAV/MP3), auto-level (on/off) and lo-cut (on/off). I appreciated that these less-often used features are on the back, can you can choose to set them and “forget them.”

My only complaint about the layout so far is that the “line out” and “line in” jacks are perfectly symmetrical. I have accidentally plugged my lavalier mic into the “line out” on three or four occasions now.  If one of these jacks was on, say, the bottom of the device, I’d be less likely to make this mistake.

B+   H2n

The H2n adds a considerable set of features on top of the H1, so it should come as no surprise it adds a bit of complexity as well. However, given the feature set, Zoom have done a great job making the interface as simple as possible.

Most notably, with the H2n Zoom adds a large screen and menu system. The menu means you need fewer buttons on the device, but you’ll need to look at the screen to perform many functions available via hardware on the H1 (this includes changing recording format, auto-level settings, lo-cut settings and deleting recordings).

The H2n also adds additional microphone options (MS, XY, 2CH, 4CH), enabling better integrated microphones for different recording scenarios. A single wheel on top of the device enables you to choose your microphone configuration, and LED lights clearly indicate which direction is active. This design is incredibly clever and I’m sure saves many users from recording into the wrong side of the device — I only wish the dial itself was a little taller and easier to adjust.

Other marginal features (beyond the H1), live in the menu system. These include recording folders, basic file editing, compression and limiting, input monitor settings, additional “auto gain” settings (for scenarios like “meeting” and “concert”), the ability to turn off plug-in power for lav mics, additional recording format options (including HD audio), a feature called “auto record,” and metronome and tuner tools. While you may find some of these features handy, each adds additional complexity and the potential to screw up your recordings… for example, if you turn off plug-in power and record into a lav mic that requires it… that recording is garbage.

B   H5 and H6

The H5 and H6, like the H2n, add additional features, and thus, additional complexity, but they also do so gracefully.

Both units add a system of interchangeable mic capsules, which while easy to use, are one more thing to think about and plan for. Each adds additional tracks for recording, which means you need to make sure you have the right tracks active when you’re recording. XLR connectors bring with them new settings for phantom power and 20db pads.

Portability

A+   H1

The H1 is the clear winner for portability, which matters both while you’re in transit and while you’re recording. At just 3.2oz, you can bring it with you for a weekend getaway in a backpack and not think twice.

The H1’s tiny size enables it to easily support many common recording scenarios. It’s the only recorder of the bunch that feels good in your pocket or in a holster on your belt. That means you can use it like a remote lavalier mic. Drop it in your pocket, attach a lav mic, and you are completely free to walk and talk wherever you’d like. In my testing, this was the most appealing recording method. It was so simple and flexible, and I wasn’t constantly connecting and disconnecting to a mic setup.

With the H1 in your pocket, you can forget you have it and walk around in the studio all day, 100% ready to record at a moment’s notice. You can film cooking videos with both hands free, and walk around between the pantry and the refrigerator without worrying about your mic setup. You can even take it out for a hike and record audio all along your route.

The H1 is also small enough to mount on your camera’s hot-shoe for flexible camera-mounted recording. I did a video comparing how each of these recorders look mounted to my camera, and the H1 is the clear winner here again.

B   H2n

The H2n is small and you won’t worry about bringing it with you in your backpack, but it’s not small enough for your pocket. In a pinch, you can definitely find a belt holster and use it that way, but weighing more than twice as much at 6.6oz, it won’t be as comfortable and light as the H1. It also looks and feels fine mounted to your camera.

C   H5

At 11.6oz, the H5 is much bigger and heavier than the H2n or H1. While it includes a nice small plastic travel case, you’ll definitely think twice before bringing it with you for a weekend getaway.

If you remove the mic capsule, you drop that weight to 8.2oz and make it perhaps small enough to carry in a belt holster while using a lavalier mic, but you’ll definitely feel like you have a big piece of gear on your waist.

The H5 is a beast mounted to the top of your digital camera. Think twice before mounting with XLR cables in particular, because those XLR cables will run out the back and block features on the back of your camera (including the camera screen).

D   H6

At 1lb 2.6oz (1lb 6oz with both included mic capsules), the H6 is the largest of the lot. The included travel case is nice, but it’s about twice as large as the case that comes with the H5. Bringing it with you will fill up about half of a typical backpack.

While technically possible to attach to your belt and use with a lavalier mic, this would not be comfortable.

While technically possible to mount to your digital camera, you’ll probably only be interested to do this in a studio environment where your gear isn’t moving much. It’d be quite uncomfortable and awkward to carry for long with an extra 1lb+ on your camera.

Advanced Scenarios

A+ / A   H6 and H5, respectively

Where the Zoom H5 and H6 really shine is in their ability to mic up more difficult recording scenarios. For example:

  • Professional musical recording: you could use them as a mobile recording studio to separately mic each individual member of band recording in their garage, or playing live
  • High-fidelity vocal recording: you can combine them with the most expensive vocal mics to record professional singers to a high degree of fidelity
  • Long-range recording: You can attach a shotgun mic and attempt to get decent focused recordings of your subject from a distance
  • Detailed surround recording: You can attach 4 (or 6) mics to record directional sound for use in film or VR.

If you need to record a challenging scenario to a high degree of quality, you may need to jump to the H5 or the H6. The primary reason to jump to the H6 is if you need six inputs (instead of only four).

C+   H2n

The H2n can’t handle nearly the range of scenarios supported by the H5 and H6, but it does support some scenarios you can’t manage with the H1. Notably:

  • Basic surround sound for film or VR: The H2n allows you to record four channel surround sound, which may be particularly interesting if combined with a VR camera
  • Separate focused and ambient sound: The H2n MS mic makes it easier to separate ambient sound (the “side”) from the subject of your recording (the “mid”). This can provide higher quality audio in situations where you might want to try and eliminate or enhance ambient sound after recording.
  • Record basic omni directional sound: The H2n four-channel recording is also a simple way to record sound from all directions in an environment like a dinner party, or out in nature, where you might want to ensure some ability to record in all directions.

D   H1

The H1 can’t handle nearly the range of scenarios as the other recorders in the bunch, but it handles a couple just as well (or better), notably:

  • Single speaker in a studio environment: All microphones performed similarly in my extensive testing.
  • Mobile recording: Drop it in your pocket and record on a lav along a hike or walk. The most convenient recorder for this scenario.
  • Two speakers at a table, for a field interview: The XY mic is a great simple way to get a little separate of two speakers.

Conclusion

Grade slides for recorder video (4)

Each Zoom field recorder has something to offer, but for my usage I decided to go with the Zoom H1 and the Giant Squid Audio lav mic. While the H1 doesn’t have the nicest build quality and it doesn’t support as wide a range of recording scenarios, the sound quality for my use-case is great, it’s incredibly easy to use, and it’s exceedingly portable. In particular, the H1 opens up a range of possibilities for recording while walking or hiking, cooking in the kitchen, etc. It’s the only mic I’d really want to drop in my pocket and take with me, and that makes it the only mic I’ll be keeping (for now).

Meanwhile, adding the popular Giant Squid lav mic gives me a bunch more flexibility. It lets me walk around while shooting solo, and it even opens up some additional possibilities for recording multiple subjects. It even sounds great recording directly into my camera, so I can run a cable into the camera and have a second speaker talking into the H1.

If you have more advanced recording needs like recording for VR, surround sound for film, high-fidelity audio recording of bands or musicians, or difficult scenarios like long-range recording or recording complex scenes like parties or other extemporaneous social gatherings, you’ll want to opt for the H2n, H5 or H6.

I hope you found this review and comparison helpful. If so, please do follow a link to Amazon to get the lowest price and help support my blog (H1, H2n, H5, H6, SSH-6, Shure SM-58, Giant Squid lav). I’ll get a tiny commission on sales through the Amazon Affiliates program. Happy recording!

 

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