The world is full of portable audio recorders for capturing lectures, recording your garage band or helping you produce a podcast, but few products are flexible enough to do it all. The Zoom H4n is a welcome exception to the rule: a mobile recording jack-of-all-trades that includes built-in stereo microphones, professional XLR and 1/4-inch microphone jacks, a multitude of recording formats and a design that's intuitive and tough. Best of all, at around £330, the H4n doesn't have to break the bank.
If you're familiar with previous Zoom handheld recorders, the H2 and H4, you probably know that the company's excellent track record with creating value often comes at a price -- cheap-feeling design. For instance, its £150 H2 recorder includes useful features you won't find on high-priced competitors like the £260 Edirol R-09HR, but the H2's cheap, plastic body feels like it dropped out of a cereal box. Fortunately, the H4n looks and feels remarkably solid. Side by side with the £440 Sony PCM-D50, you'd never guess the H4n is the most affordable.
Measuring 70 by 165 by 38mm, the H4n isn't the most pocket-friendly recorder we've tested, but it's the smallest design we've seen that includes two full-sized XLR/instrument combination jacks. In fact, no feature is spared on the H4n. From the built-in multi-pattern stereo microphones on the top, down to the phantom-powered mic inputs on the bottom, the H4n packs in every conceivable option you'd want in a portable audio recorder. There are even extras such as a foam windscreen, mic stand mount, 1GB SD card, Cubase recording software and a power adaptor.
Design features such as microphones encased in solid aluminium and a spacious 51mm (2-inch) screen may be the first details to catch your eye, but its the small things that really make us love the H4n. Little details such as an offset record button that's easy to feel in the dark, or the built-in speaker on the back that lets you listen back to recordings without having to plug in a pair of headphones, demonstrate that the designers really did their homework with the H4n.
Our favourite unsung design feature is the H4n's menu-navigation system. Using a simple menu button and a scroll wheel off to the right side of the recorder -- where your thumb naturally falls -- the H4n offers the easiest menu navigation we've ever used on a portable recorder. Granted, the menus themselves offer a dizzying amount of options and features, but the ergonomics of jumping in and out of menus to manipulate those features are as smooth as can be.
Of course, not everything is perfect. For one, it seems odd that the mini-jack microphone input is on the back of the H4n, instead of on the side, as is the case with rivals. Placing the input on the back makes it impossible to lay the H4n on a table while recording with an external mini-jack microphone, unless you stand the recorder on its end. We also would like to have seen a dedicated track-divide button on the H4n, similar to the one found on the PCM-D50.
If you value simplicity over flexibility, you may find the hundreds of settings and configurations offered by the H4n overwhelming. For us, the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach feels refreshingly generous, offering more features than recorders that cost twice as much. The H4n comes with a 150-page printed manual that clearly explains each and every aspect of operation.
The H4n can be set in three main recording modes: stereo, four-channel and multitrack recording. Dedicated LED indicators for each of the recording modes are found just above the H4n's screen, making it easy to determine which mode you're using. By default, the recorder is set to stereo recording mode, letting users capture stereo-audio recordings from the H4n's built-in mics, or external microphone inputs.