Recording resolution ranges from a maximum of 24-bit/96kHz to as low as 48Kbps MP3, with selections for just about everything in between (such as 320Kbps MP3, or a Pro Tools-friendly 24-bit/48kHz). Microphone gain adjustments are made using a clearly labelled rocker switch on the right side of the recorder, and features such as auto-level adjustment, multiple compressor, and limiter settings help to prevent recording levels from overloading.
While most people will only use the H4n's stereo mode, the recorder's four-channel mode distinguishes it from the competition. With four-channel recording, the H4n lets you record from the built-in microphones and external microphone inputs simultaneously as two separate stereo files.
In the real world, this means you can record the stereo sound of a music performance and the direct sound of an instrument (say, a closely-mic'd acoustic guitar, or the line output of a keyboard) all at the same time. The result is a more professional-sounding recording that leaves some creative wiggle room when the files are mixed together later on. To hear a comparison between two-channel (stereo) and four-channel recording, take a listen to the sample recordings in the performance section of this review.
The third recording mode of the H4n is multitrack recording. This mode is similar to four-channel recording, but treats each channel as a distinct track, with individual settings for panning, volume and effects. In essence, multitrack mode lets musicians layer compositions in multiple passes (first drums, then guitar and so on). Some users will find value in the H4n's ambitious multitrack mode but, from a general usability perspective, we feel that the mixing board-style interface of this mode is awkward to operate using the included controls.
Other useful features of the H4n are an SDHC-compatible memory-card slot, support for phantom-powered microphones, and a low-cut filter with several frequency selections (from 80Hz up to 237Hz). To see the full list of features, pay a visit to the Zoom H4n product page.
During testing, we found the H4n's controls just as responsive and easy to operate as those of any competitors. Information is crisply presented and easy to read on the recorder's bright screen, and quick adjustments to recording and headphone levels are a cinch.
Rumbling noises caused by handling the recorder are minimal, and disappear almost entirely if you attach the included mic mount and use it like a pistol grip. Note that this also makes you look awesome. Soft rubber pads on the back of the H4n help to isolate the recorder from noise when placed on a table.
The H4n runs on two AA batteries, and includes internal settings to maximise performance from either alkaline or rechargeable batteries. At its default setting, you can expect around 6 hours of continuous WAV recording. For longer recording times, you can switch the H4n into a stamina mode that offers up to 11 hours of WAV recording. No matter how you cut it, though, you're still not getting the 12 hours of recording promised by the PCM-D50.
We could spend paragraphs trying to describe the sound quality of the H4n and the benefits of its four-channel recording feature, but, instead, we'll let the audio do the talking. Agents Del Futuro let us sit in on a rehearsal session, where we captured sounds ranging from acoustic guitar to African thumb piano. We recorded these audio snippets using the H4n's four-channel mode, set at the default 16-bit/44kHz resolution. Both two-track and four-track versions of the recordings are included, to give you a sense of the sonic advantages of four-channel recording.
Several of these recordings also take advantage of the H4n's internal compression and limiter settings. Aside from volume adjustments and fades, no post-production processing has been applied to the recordings, except to convert them into constant-bit-rate 256Kbps MP3 files using LAME encoder version 3.97. The samples are short, but hopefully convey our satisfaction with the H4n's recording quality and capabilities. If these players don't work for you, there's an alternative version here.
(stereo mics with limiter)
(stereo mics with limiter, direct piezo mic with compression, 3-channels)
(stereo mics only with no compression, 90° mic pattern)
Click through to the next page for more recording samples.