See how this recorder stacks up in our portable recorder comparison chart.

My favorite camping tool is something I wryly call "the Swiss Army Spoon." It isn't one of those multi-function tools with a zillion blades. My little wonder does only one thing, but it does it exceedingly well. It's a spoon. Period. Just try eating a bowl of soup with your multi-bladed wonder and you'll want one, too.

I was reminded of my aversion to multi-function tools when I opened the box containing the new Zoom H4 Handy Recorder. I'd expected another stereo field recorder, but I found a multi-function device worthy of an Alpine sergeant.

Not only is the H4 a stereo recorder with built-in mics, it doubles as a four-track portable studio with built-in effects. But wait, there's more: The H4 also serves as a USB audio interface for computer-based recording. How can one tiny device with a street price of under three bills possibly handle all of these tasks? There has to be a tradeoff, I thought. Either it will fail at basic recording tasks, it'll be impossibly confusing to use, or it will crash my computer every time I hook it up. When I reach for a field recorder, I don't need a corkscrew.

Zoom H4 in Hand

Fig. 1: The H4's face features an absurdly small display flanked by multifunction buttons, a friendly Record button, a four-way Menu/Transport switch, and LEDs indicating memory access and record mode. Metering is available only via the display. Note the large, dual-format input jacks at the bottom, which aren't available on the competition's models. (Click for closer view.)

Tour de Zoom

Looking like a Klingon depilatory device, the H4 doesn't inspire confidence at first glance. Sure, it has a pair of mini condenser mics angled in an X-Y pattern, nicely protected from bumps and shocks. But the display is tiny and the switches feel less than solid. Why are the display and controls so small when there's ample space? After using it for almost a month, I still have my doubts about the H4's long-term durability, but I've grown accustomed to the layout and tiny display. (Not that I'll be able to use it without my reading glasses!)

I've previously reviewed both the M-Audio MicroTrack 24/96 and Edirol R-09 recorders; like them, the H4 records both uncompressed WAV files and MP3s to inexpensive flash media cards. (Be sure to read the sidebar about MP3 recording.)

MP3 Upgrade

My first recording tests with the H4 were less than impressive. Although I had no problems with the various WAV files, some of the MP3s were hopelessly distorted. (Don't worry, I won't make you listen to them.) It turns out the H4 has a bug in the Version 1.0 firmware that screws up the encoding. Updated firmware is available on Zoom's Japanese support page.

The H4 is considerably larger than those recorders, but still small enough to toss in a jacket pocket. It runs on a pair of AA batteries—battery life is touted at around four hours for normal operation, though I consistently got five or more—or via the AC power adaptor. It will even operate from USB bus power when used as an audio interface. It has combo connectors accepting both 1/4" and mic inputs, complete with true 48 or 24V phantom power for external microphones. (See Figure 1).

When using the H4 as a four-track recorder, you've got a full complement of classic Zoom effects taken from the popular G2 pedal. Effects in stereo mode include compression, limiting, and microphone modeling. It even comes bundled with Cubase LE in case you don't have a digital audio workstation (DAW). Even better, the H4 includes a nifty foam windscreen for the mics, as well as a handy mini-tripod adaptor.

Holy Zurich, I'm starting to like it!

Navigation and Interface

On the top panel, four small multi-function buttons select between MP3 and the three WAV sample rates, or arm tracks for four-track recording. The relatively large Rec button does what you think. Press it once and it flashes to signify "standby." A second press starts recording (as long as you're in stereo mode). It operates differently during four-track operation. The tiny Menu knob toggles between menu, input, and the main screen and doubles as a transport control. You use an even tinier Scroll knob on the righthand side to move between menus and edit parameters (see Figure 2). This two-handed approach is counterintuitive. I can't count how many times I jumped out of a window or initiated playback when I pressed the wrong button!

Zoom H4 Side Controls

Fig. 2: Ironically, operating the Handy Recorder often takes two hands because of the way the controls are positioned.

One of the first things I noticed is the lack of input level controls. Instead, you select three rough values—Lo, Mid, and Hi—via switches. Fine-tuning involves navigating through several windows and selecting miniscule icons with the Scroll knob. I was able to get some pretty decent recordings, as you'll hear in the audio examples, but it's beyond me why Zoom would create a recorder without a simpler way to set input gain.

To enter—or leave—the menu, press the (Ta dah!) Menu button. Once inside, you can select between stereo or four-track operation, select sample rates and bit depths, perform basic file maintenance such as renaming audio files (tedious, but essential), and even engage a handy metronome. Here, too, is where you determine whether the H4 connects to your computer as a mass storage device or as an audio interface.

Pressing the four-way Menu button straight down accesses the Input menu. Here you select between the internal mics or line/mic inputs, engage phantom power, add effects and microphone modeling, set levels, etc. However, you can't jump straight to this screen from the main menu. You must first exit back to the main screen. The H4 uses cute little icons for most of the input menu choices, such as a little animated ghost to engage phantom power. With my old-guy eyes, I need a magnifying glass to make out their function.

The good news is that you can accomplish most basic recording tasks without diving into the menu. In stereo mode, four small buttons select between MP3 and 44.1, 48, and 96kHz WAV files. The recorder remembers the last selected sampling rate, making switching audio file formats a snap. In four-track mode, these same buttons select, mute, or arm individual tracks.

Here Today, Gone to Maui

As fate would have it, I received my review unit just days before I left for Maui. What a stroke of luck! Now I could test the H4 in exactly the same conditions as the MicroTrack and R09.

One day I wandered down to the beach to capture the sound of the surf. The usual gentle trade winds were blowing, so I popped on the windscreen and hit Record. I chose 44.1kHz at 16 bit resolution. The file is big, but listen to it with good headphones and you'll think you're there. I like the sense of space the little internal condensers give and the nice balance between the low rumble of the waves and the hiss of the sand:

Robyn Mahealani Kneubel

Fig. 3: Robyn Mahealani Kneubuhl of the Hula Honeys.

Next I visited Robyn Mahealani Kneubehl (Figure 3) for an afternoon jam session. Thanks to the mini tripod adaptor, positioning the recorder was fairly easy, though I would have liked a real mic-stand socket so I could move the recorder closer to her voice. (Roland makes an adapter for the R-09 recorder that should work.) I recorded the following example as an MP3 with a bit rate of 128kbps. At that resolution, the bundled 128-meg memory card offers an impressive 133 minutes of recording time.

Robyn handed me a guitar and I fumbled along, playing her beautiful song "Pua Pakalana." I recorded this in 44.1/24-bit WAV format but converted it to an MP3 to save space here.

My next test involved some stealth taping. Slack-key guitarist Kevin Brown was filling in at the Royal Lahaina luau. He invited me along and I offered to record the show for him. (See Figure 4.) Given the H4's size, it was obvious what I was doing. (If you're considering a career in audio piracy, look elsewhere.) Fortunately, I'd asked permission. Here again, I was glad for the huge amount of data you can cram on a memory card using MP3s. (See the "Maximum Recording Time" table.)

Fire Dancers

Fig. 4: Fire dancers at the Royal Lahaina Luau. Ah, the things I put up with to bring you these reviews.

Effects in stereo mode are pretty basic: You get models of a handful of popular microphones plus a limiter and an extremely heavy-handed compressor. This last is more like an old-fashioned auto-gain control—best used for voice recording around a conference table or similar applications. The mic models won't win any awards, but they offer quick and dirty tonal adjustments.

Despite the H4's large size and unwieldy navigation, I'm really impressed with it as a field recorder. The large variety of recording resolutions lets you make the most of the memory cards, and the internal mics give a nice stereo image. Of course, you have the option to use better mics through the H4's XLR jacks (connectors the MicroTrack and R-09 lack), but phantom power will greatly reduce battery life. Both the batteries and the memory are fairly easy to access, though you'll have to de-Velcro the little tripod adaptor to do so. It'll handle SD cards up to 2GB.

Four Tracks, No Waiting

One day a huge rainstorm blew in so I was stuck inside, the perfect opportunity to check out the H4's multitrack capabilities. Once again, operation is simple once you know how. I had to read the somewhat disorganized manual a couple of times before I got the hang of it.

To begin recording, select Overwrite or Always New mode. Overwrite is just like using tape. Every pass erases the previous one. Always New creates a new virtual track each time. Although it's not immediately obvious, you can change modes in the middle of a Project, Samson's name for a multi-track song. For instance, you can record a passel of vocals using Always New mode, choose the best, and then switch to Overwrite to auto-punch in a fix on a guitar track.

Oddly, the basic transport functions operate differently for each mode. In Overwrite, you need to use the transport controls after pressing Record. In Always New, pressing the Record button once puts the recorder in standby while a second press begins recording.

The effects in four-track mode are considerably more varied than the stereo choices. You get everything from guitar multi-effects to bass amp simulations to vocal effects. What's more, each effect offers fairly deep editing possibilities.

A rudimentary mixer helps bounce down your opus to stereo. (Check out the example below.) All the effects you hear are from the H4. (Sorry, nothing could help my vocal.) Some of the grunge you hear is the sound of rain pelting the palms outside; some is a result of the effects. As with most of the other audio examples, I've converted it to MP3 here to save you download time.

Sadly, common track-editing features such as splitting, moving, copy, paste, and fade-in/out are missing. And only 44.1, 16-bit WAV files are supported. But for more mixing options, you can drag the files over to a computer.

Four-track recording on the H4 points out the shortcomings of the Swiss Army Knife approach. Just like those tiny little saw blades nestled between the screwdriver and scissors, it'll get the job done...after a fashion. I wouldn't suggest buying the H4 solely for this feature; there are far better mini studios on the market.

Studio Paradiso

Using the H4 as a USB audio interface is another kettle of fish altogether. Even better, all of the multi-effects patches from the four-track mode are there for your pleasure.

Not only can you record via the H4 to the DAW of your choice, you can use either the internal mics or mic/line inputs with phantom power. Because the H4 will run off USB bus power, you can toss it in your laptop bag for a truly portable recording rig (Figures 5 and 6). This is extremely cool.

H4 as audio interface

Fig. 5: Using the H4 as a USB audio interface is a piece o' cake. It shows up as a new set of inputs and outputs on Mac and Windows.

As with four track mode, you can't take advantage of all the audio file resolutions; in this case only 44.1 and 48kHz at 16 bits. I don't consider this a serious limitation, however. For me, the convenience of having a bus-powered interface with built-in mics far outweighs the limited sample rates. Hey, remember DATs?

Here's a little ditty I concocted in GarageBand one afternoon. Once again, all the effects come from the H4:

One Size Fits All?

Once home from Hawaii, I did a bunch of tests with the same AKG mics and guitar I'd used to test the MicroTrack and the R-09. How does it stack up? Listen to this 24-bit, 44.1kHz WAV file and make up your own mind:

After spending the better part of a month with the H4, I have to conclude that it's handy indeed. It does a fine job as a field recorder, though level setting is a chore. I like the convenience of the built-in mics, and the dual-purpose inputs are a solid plus. Even better, Zoom includes both a windscreen and a groovy little mini-tripod mount, features you might otherwise pay extra for.

Laptop Studio in Paradise Fig. 6: Is this the ultimate portable studio?

On the downside, navigation is just plain clunky. The display is too tiny and the two-handed approach gets confusing. Basic recording functions operate differently depending on which mode the recorder is in. It's difficult to check levels with the mics pointed at your instrument. In addition, I consistently had problems getting enough gain with external mics. I boosted some of the examples in my DAW to bring them in line with the other audio files. The mic pres are not up to professional standards, but then, look at the price.

The four-track mode is plainly weak. You'd do better with any one of a dozen mini studios. But the USB audio interface is terrific. To tell the truth, I'm considering buying an H4 just for this feature. I can't tell you how many times I've wished I had something like this when I was away from home.

As a field recorder, it's dandy for capturing tunes or environmental sounds. And it has some surprisingly sophisticated features—for less than three hundred bucks.

In spite of its quirks, the Zoom H4 Handy Recorder is a winner.

Buying Advice Redux

OK, so now I've reviewed three flash recorders that all cost about the same. As I said at the end of my review of the Edirol R-09, I don't do buying advice. I regard each review as an independent entity. So please don't ask me to make direct comparisons, play favorites, list pros and cons, or—horrors—tell you which one's best to record your toddler's audition for Baby American Idol.

There are just too many factors involved. Only you know which recorder will work best for your needs. Don't forget to factor in your experience, your budget, and your personality.

Here's my best advice: Read all the reviews you can. Listen to the audio examples—I've taken great pains to duplicate the same conditions with each of the three recorders, right down to using identical mics and the same guitar when I could. Heck, I even took all three to Maui! (There's a sacrifice for you.) Look carefully at the specs. Talk to your friends. Visit an actual music store where you can get one in your hands. Start a discussion below. Listen to the podcast I did with O'Reilly Digital Audio editor David Battino.

And by all means download the manuals, because if you can't understand the manual, chances are you won't be able to use the device.

But no emails please. I really don't have a clue. But then, you've probably figured that out already.


Zoom H4 Handy Recorder

MSRP $494.99

Stereo Mode

WAV formats 16/24-bit, 44.1/48/96kHz
MP3 formats Bit rate: 48/56/64/80/96/112/128/160/192/224/256/320kbps/VBR, sampling frequency: 44.1kHz)
File Editing Rename, Delete, Size check
Other Function A-B repeat
Effects Microphone modeling, compressor, limiter

Four-Track Mode

Simultaneous Recording Tracks 2
Simultaneous Playback Tracks 4
Projects 1,000 per card
File Editing Rename, Delete, Size check, Copy, Import
Other Functions A-B repeat, Punch-in/out, Bounce
Effects 2 Modules; 47 Types; 60 Patches
Tuner Chromatic, Guitar, Bass, Open A/D/E/G, DADGAD
Recording/Playback Format 16-bit, 44.1kHz WAV

General Specs

Metronome Yes
A/D Conversion 24-bit, 128X oversampling
D/A Conversion 24-bit, 128X oversampling
Signal Processing 32-bit
Recording Media SD memory card (16MB–2GB)
Display 128 x 64 pixel, backlit LCD
Balanced/Unbalanced Input combo 1/4"/XLR jack
Input Impedance balanced input = 1kΩ balanced/pin 2 hot; unbalanced input = 480kΩ unbalanced
Input Level balanced input = –20/–30/–40dBm, Unbalanced input = –10/–30/–40dBm
Phantom Power Supply 48V/24V/off
Built-in Stereo Mic Unidirectional condenser microphone X 2 (Gain switch: +6/+20/+30dB)
Line Output 1/8" stereo phone jack
Headphone Output 1/8" stereo phone jack
USB Interface Mini-B type (USB 2.0 Full-speed compatible), Mass Storage Class operation/audio interface operation (16-bit, 44.1kHz/48kHz)
Power Requirements AA battery x 2, or supplied AC adaptor
Battery Life (with alkaline batteries) 4 hours recording, 4.5 hours playback
Dimensions 2.75" (w) x 6" (d) x 1.38" (h)
Weight (without batteries) 6.7oz
Supplied Accessories AC adapter, USB cable, 128MB SD memory card, wind screen, tripod adapter, Cubase LE

Maximum Recording Time (in minutes)*

Stereo Mode

Data Format Memory Size**
128MB 256MB 512MB 1GB 2GB
MP3 64kbps 266 533 1,066 2,083 4,166
  128kbps 133 266 533 1,041 2,083
  192kbps 88 177 355 694 1,388
  320kbps 53 106 213 416 833
WAV 16 bit, 44.1kHz 12 24 48 94 188
  24 bit, 44.1kHz 8 16 32 62 125
  16 bit, 48kHz 11 22 44 86 173
  24 bit, 48kHz 7 14 29 57 115
  16 bit, 96kHz 5 11 22 43 86
  24 bit, 96kHz 3 7 14 28 57

4-Track Mode (mono tracks)

Data Format Memory Size**
128MB 256MB 512MB 1GB 2GB
WAV 16 bit, 44.1kHz 24 48 96 188 376
*Recording times are approximate. Actual times may differ according to recording conditions.
**A 128MB SD memory card is supplied.

Mahalos to Robyn, Ginger, the Hula Honeys, Kevin and Ikaika Brown, and the Royal Lahaina Luau band.

Which One's for You?

See how this recorder stacks up in our
portable recorder comparison chart.