After tantalizing hints and a more tantalizing shipping delay, the Zoom H2 is finally here, promising digital surround-sound recording in the palm of your hand for only $199. Was it worth the wait? Well, let me say that it certainly lives up to its moniker: this is one Handy Recorder.
At half the price of competing flash-RAM recorders, but with double the number of mics, the Zoom H2 is just 2.5 x 4.3 x 1.3 inches.
Whereas the earlier H4 resembled an alien grooming device, the H2 looks more like a vintage studio microphone. The designers took advantage of every inch of its meager surface area: a 1/8-inch stereo output for headphones (with a dandy rocker switch for volume), the on/off switch, and the power receptacle line up down one side. On the other you'll find 1/8-inch stereo inputs for line-level sources and an external mic (with plug-in power), a three-position mic gain switch, and a standard mini USB socket. A large sliding door on the rear accesses the battery compartment; the H2 runs on two AA batteries.
Not even the bottom is spared: there is a small door hiding the memory slot and a threaded metal insert for attaching either a tabletop stand or a clever, barrel-shaped microphone clip adapter (both supplied). The threading fits a camera tripod—nice!
All of the transport and navigation controls are mounted front and center below the tiny but serviceable display. The six membrane switches did not inspire a great deal of confidence at first touch, but after working with the recorder for a while I found them fairly solid.
I'll explain what those switches do in a moment, but first I want to mention a few other things you'll find in the box. Zoom obviously wants you to go out and use the recorder, because it included everything you need. Not only do you get the power supply and the two nifty stands, but you'll find a 512MB SD card (big enough to record several hours of high-quality MP3s), a miniphone-to-RCA cable for connecting stereo line sources, a drawstring carrying bag, and even a decent set of earbuds.
The included tabletop stand screws in to the tripod socket on the bottom of the H2. Click for a 3D view (1.9MB Flash movie) at Zoom's website.
However, the bundled accessory dearest to my heart is the windscreen. Why? Because without one, recording outdoors is nigh on impossible. And, to tell the truth, the H2 is just so dang cute when you put it on. (See photo.)
H2 D2? With its windscreen and stand, the Zoom H2 looks almost human. I considered attaching little eyes and a nose, but then I'd have to test how they'd affect the recordings, wouldn't I?
The H2's two mic patterns make it unique among portable flash recorders.
Unlike previous portable recorders I've reviewed, the H2 has four condenser mic capsules, arrayed as front and rear X-Y coincident pairs. The front pair is angled 90° apart and the rear pair is angled 120°.
So why have two stereo pairs in a two-track recorder? For one thing, by selecting either the front or rear mics, you can tailor the pattern to the source, choosing the 120° pattern for a live band, say, and the narrow array for acoustic guitar. Or record stereo tracks using both the front and rear mics—great for interviews or jam sessions where everyone is seated in a circle. The output of all four mics is mixed down to stereo in this situation. That's too bad, because sending the front and rear mics to individual mono tracks would even better for interviews.
However, that is not what is causing the blog-o-buzz. The H2's original specs called for three mics, set to record mid-side (MS) stereo. Zoom felt three mics didn't cut it, so the company came up with the current four-mic setup, which opens the door to recording in 360°. (See the Surround 101 sidebar.) Press a button and the H2 becomes a four-track recorder of sorts, capturing the front and rear mics to two stereo WAV files. Ah, but is it Surround with a capital "S?" And how do you play it back? Let me leave you in suspense for a moment as we dig in to the interface.
I define field recorder as a small device that can record far from an AC outlet. It should be rugged enough to withstand bouncing around in a backpack, it should run on batteries or accept an external battery pack, it should be easy to use, and it above all it should make decent recordings wherever I point it.
As I said, the H2 runs on AA batteries. A menu allows you to indicate whether you are using standard alkaline or rechargeable Ni-MH batteries. (That option is only to calibrate the battery-usage meter; it doesn't affect performance.) The H2 fits easily into a shirt pocket and you can record through its onboard mics, an external stereo mic, or the stereo line input. Score one for portability.
Many of the important functions are accessible without digging through menus. A pair of membrane switches chooses which mic array is active—front, rear, front and rear stereo, or "4 channel surround"—red LEDs indicate your choice. Choose one of the three basic gain settings (low/medium/high) and use the Rewind and Fast Forward buttons to fine tune recording levels. A single press of the Record button puts the H2 in "record ready" mode; a second press starts recording. Score one for ease of use.
The H2 accepts both SD and SDHC memory cards up to 8GB—enough for several hours of 24-bit, 96kHz recording. (There's a list of compatible cards on Zoom's Japanese site.) I already mentioned the windscreen and tripod and mic-stand adaptors, both features I consider essential for field recording. Score another one for convenience and completeness.
|WAV||16bit / 44.1kHz||48||94||188||377|
|24bit / 44.1kHz||32||62||125||251|
|16bit / 48kHz||44||86||173||347|
|24bit / 48kHz||29||57||115||231|
|16bit / 96kHz||22||43||86||173|
|24bit / 96kHz||14||28||57||115|
4-Track Mode (mono tracks)
|Data Format||Memory Size|
|WAV||16bit / 44.1kHz||24||47||94||189|
|24bit / 48kHz||15||29||58||116|
*Recording times are approximations. Actual times may differ according to recording conditions. 8GB times are approximately double 4GB times.
As with most portable recorders, getting deeper into the interface requires a bit of finesse. To set the recording type (WAV or MP3) and resolution (see the table for file types and maximum record times), you press Menu, use the Rewind and Fast Forward buttons to move around, and then hit Record to select an option. Backing out of a menu requires repeated presses of the Menu button. It is not the most intuitive scheme on the market, but it gets the job done. I wish the display were larger, but then my days of recording without reading glasses are long gone.
Because entering record-ready mode locks out the menu items, it's impossible to hear the effects of any menu selections in real time. But all is not lost: a "monitor" mode allows input monitoring regardless of the recording state, so you can listen to how the filters or dynamics-processor choices affect your recording.
Naturally I auditioned the two Auto Gain Control (AGC), three compressor, and two limiter settings. My verdict? Although I suggest saving any dynamics processing for after you have uploaded your audio to your computer, the less extreme AGC and compression might be useful in some cases. Limiting was just too slow—and too drastic—for my taste. If you're concerned about clipping, choose a lower mic gain setting and appropriate levels so your peaks do not get near zero.
Remember, without a pad (external level attenuator) in front of the input, nothing will prevent clipping at extreme sound levels. I made a number of recordings of very different sources—including very loud brass and bagpipes—and I never experienced clipping at the input. However, your experience might be different. If you need to record a piano hitting the bottom of a mineshaft from six inches away, use an external mic and preamp and pad them down. (Might be a good idea to duck, too.)
This chart from Zoom's site shows how the H2's four mics might record three sections of a band.
Powering up the H2 takes anywhere from 2 to 10 seconds, depending on the size and type of card inserted. That's long enough that you might want to keep the recorder on so you don't miss a critical recording. Fortunately, battery life is a respectable four hours or more. Need more confidence? "Pre-record" stores one or two seconds of sound in a recirculating buffer, which is handy if you miss that clap of thunder.
A nicely implemented auto-record function commences recording once the sound exceeds a user-selected threshold and stops when it falls below a lower threshold. Note that this is a one-shot deal; once recording ceases, the H2 will not begin again automatically. Still, it beats recording long silences waiting for the drummer to finish adjusting his throne.
One night a thunderstorm blew through, so I grabbed the recorder and headed out to the porch. Listening to playback, I was very pleasantly surprised how well the H2 captured both the boom of the thunder and the gentle sounds of the falling rain:
After the storm subsided, I tried to record the cricket chorus. I found that using the "Hi" gain setting and high levels brought out unacceptable preamp noise. Ramping down the level made a huge difference, but I would be wary of using the Hi gain setting. To be fair, maxing the gain on just about any preamplifier, including my vintage rack gear, yields a fair amount of noise, so I am not going to dwell on this. Overall, I am quite happy with both the mics and the preamps. You can always use an external mic, either directly or routed through an external preamp into the line input. Both inputs are well within acceptable noise levels for a recorder in this price range.
The H2 fared surprisingly well with my challenging brass and bagpipe band.
The next day I recorded a bit of my band's sound check. (See photo.) I set up the H2 about 12 feet in front of the stage and used the rear mics for a wider stereo spread. I used the Mid gain setting, and set the levels so the peaks were well below clipping. Considering that I just guessed at the levels, the resulting recording was pretty good—braying bagpipes, ecstatic drummer, loud saxophone and all:
Bluesman Michael Hawkeye Herman hosts a weekly jam when he's not on the road, so I fell by after my gig. Everyone was seated in a big circle on Michael's back porch—the perfect time to test using both front and rear mics. I recorded the following blues jam as a stereo file, with the H2 set to mix all four mics internally:
Notice that although the drums were behind the H2, in the recording both the drums and the instruments in front appear to come from the same place. In addition, singers and instrumentalists seated directly in front of the mics came through loud and clear, while those to the side sound more distant. That's to be expected when using cardioid (directional) mics.
Nevertheless, I like the option to record from both the front and rear. I was able to capture more of the jam than if I'd simply set up a standard stereo pair pointed at one end or the other.
The H2 doubles as a USB mic and basic audio interface for your computer.
Like most new digital recorders, the H2 communicates with your computer via USB, showing up as an external drive. That makes uploading audio files a snap, but be aware that the speed of your memory card might slow things down. Worse, the transfer rate is USB 2.0 "Full Speed," essentially USB 1.1 with a new name and considerably slower than USB 2.0 "Hi-Speed." (12Mbps vs. 480Mbps. Holy molasses, Batman!) For sanity's sake, invest in a Hi-Speed card reader.
Like its big brother, the H4, the H2 doubles as a USB audio interface. You can use either the front or rear mics (or both, but they're mixed to stereo) and choose 44.1 or 48kHz sample rates at 16-bit resolution. Even better, it runs on bus power so you can save your batteries. Both the external mic and line inputs function as advertised, making the H2 a handy recorder indeed!
I ran tests with every bit of software I could get my hands on and it worked flawlessly—at least on my Macs. I'm afraid I did not run any tests with PCs, but I haven't heard of any problems there. The H2 won't replace a full-featured audio interface, but I would be happy to have one in my laptop bag whenever I travel.
Enough with the suspense! What happens if you record to four tracks using the H2's front and rear mics? Is it surround sound?
Well, yes and no. Surround as we have come to know it involves a complicated encoding and decoding process to ensure playback compatibility. Even though many DAWs and plugins support some form of surround mixing, you will still need the proper speaker array and amplifiers, not to mention dedicated authoring software to encode the data and burn DVDs or DTS CDs.
If it sounds expensive and difficult, it can be. But don't despair: you can still cobble together a system that plays back the four tracks. I used a multichannel audio interface, a mixer with both main and auxiliary outputs, and four speakers. Here's how I did it. (O'Reilly Digital Media Editor David Battino discovered an alternative approach that uses less gear, but it requires a Mac and some software spelunking.)
I set up a pair of powered monitors directly behind my usual listening position and connected them to a pair of aux outputs on my mixer. I did my best to calibrate everything so I would hear equal volume from both sets of speakers. Next, I loaded the four tracks into my DAW and set them so one stereo pair ("Front") played back through outs 1 & 2 and the rear pair played through outs 3 & 4 on my MOTU 828 audio interface. By sending the rear tracks to the aux instead of the main outs, I could hear playback in 360°.
My jury-rigged quad setup sounded surprisingly lifelike with the H2's four-track recordings.
Boy howdy, does it sound cool. The first thing I listened to was the thunderstorm recording. In stereo, it sounds like your average sound effects track—not much excitement, not a great sense of place. When I unmuted the rear tracks I found myself reaching for an umbrella! Now I could hear the thunder moving across the sky while the rain drummed on my tin roof.
I have uploaded two short WAV files so you can hear it yourself. Be sure to line up the beginning of the clips in your DAW so they play in sync.
Four-track recordings I made in the middle of the blues jam were less convincing, if only because the drums leaked into all four mics and ruined the sense of placement. That's a real problem when the mics are so close together. Recordings where I pointed one pair at the band and used the rear mics for ambience—a standard way to record live bands for surround—fared better, particularly after adjusting the relative front and rear balance.
Incidentally, depending on how you point the H2 relative to your listening position, the left/right balance from the rear mics could be reversed. For instance, in the clip we heard of my band's soundcheck...
...the soundstage is correct relative to my position on stage, but is reversed from what the audience would hear; Zoom has posted a firmware update that addresses this issue. Nice!
To check for phase problems between the four microphones, I strummed my ukulele as I walked around the H2 in my studio. Playback on my improvised four-channel system sounded like, well, a ukulele walking around the room. That was a surprise, because I expected the levels to drop dramatically when I got to the sides of the H2 and moved away from the mic's sweet spot:
I collapsed each of the stereo pairs to mono and listened for audio frequencies dropping out (a clear sign of phase cancellation) as I moved. I then did the same for all four tracks. In no case did I hear any significant problems. Even bouncing the tracks down to a mono track did not hurt them. I don't know how Zoom did it, but they managed to build a recorder that captures 360° of audio without significant phase anomalies. Moreover, they did it for less than the cost of a decent stereo mic!
Remember, this is not necessarily the same as movie surround—for that you need to encode the tracks to one of the common surround formats before they will play back properly. As a quick test, I ran my four-track thunderstorm recording through Immersive Media Research's Vortex Surround Encoder, which encoded it into a 5.1 DTS stream. (In order to feed the missing two channels, I created two silent dummy files, which I routed to the Center and LFE channels in Vortex Surround Encoder.)
Vortex Surround Encoder, just $50, takes any number of inputs and spatializes them to any number of outputs. It can also create DTS files, allowing you to burn your own 5.1 CDs.
The resultant DTS file is a two-channel WAV file that you can burn to CD, but it will sound like white noise if you play it back on a normal stereo. Play it through a DTS decoder, though, and it expands back to 5.1. The CD I burned played back great through my home-theater system.
[Ed. Note: With the necessary software, such as ffmpeg or Apple Compressor (part of Final Cut Pro), you can also create a 5.1 Dolby Digital AC3 file and burn it onto the soundtrack of a standard video DVD. You'll first need to convert the H2's dual stereo WAVs into six mono ones. Free plug-ins mentioned in the Surround 101 sidebar can do that, even adjusting the spread of the signals to better match a standard 5.1-speaker setup.]
If you bounce down inside the H2, you can set the balance between the mics.
I would hate to try to mix a surround production on my jury-rigged setup; nevertheless, it does prove you can make 3D recordings on the cheap. That is really something.
Oh, and to answer the $64,000 question: the H2's headphone output is stereo, so it automatically mixes all four tracks to stereo in real time so you can hear them on your 'phones. Alternatively, you can create a stereo mix file internally. There is even a nifty little four-way panner to set relative levels.
As with the H4—and almost every other small recorder I have looked at—not every feature on the H2 is 100% solid. I am hard to impress when it comes to dynamics effects. The H2's various AGC, compression, and limiting settings lack control, though the less drastic presets could prove useful. At extreme gain settings, the mic presets are far too noisy. The good news is that Zoom appears to have eliminated the mysterious battery noises some people heard in the H4. [Ed. Note: Samson, Zoom's US distributor, replies, "The 700Hz pulsing is caused by the DC-DC converter when the H4 is working by battery. While this is not a 'mystery' per se, our engineers have only been able to duplicate the issue using very high gain levels [while] recording essentially silence."]
All of the editing and mixing functions are far easier—and faster—when done inside your computer. However, if you are stuck outside of Timbuktu and you have to upload your podcast via satellite uplink, you will be happy to have them.
Mark and I tried an experiment with this review and the results were astonishing. Five months ago, I announced the H2's imminent arrival on my blog and asked what features you wanted us to check when it finally shipped. From a trickle of questions about the sound quality (my favorite: "IT'S THE PREAMPS!!!!!!!! THE PREAMPS!!!! DID I MENTION THE PREAMPS?"), the number of comments just exploded. During the last week, that blog has been the top entry on the entire O'Reilly Network.
Before this review even published, we had more than 200 passionate questions from people ranging from classical recording engineers to photographers who simply wanted to make better slideshow soundtracks.
The wonderful thing was that when the H2 finally shipped, the readers started to add their own reviews, audio examples, and discoveries. One even wrote a custom program to transcode the H2's unique dual-stereo files into a 5.1-ready format. (See below.) From a collection of questions, it had turned into a community.
Check it out. It's a rich resource, and we're excited to have been in the midst of it, learning alongside you.
—David Battino, Editor
Is it the best sounding field recorder on the market? Of course not. But keep in mind that it costs a fraction of what the pro units go for. The H2 does a very respectable job of capturing stereo and even front and rear "surround." Even if you don't use the four tracks to create real surround, they offer a great way to capture live music or environmental sounds.
The internal mics are more than adequate and with care you can make very acceptable recordings. Here is a recording of the same guitar I used for all the other reviews, recorded as a 16-bit, 44.1kHz WAV file with the front pair of mics. Take a listen, and compare it to the other similar tests I have made.
Don't forget that the H2 will record at a variety of MP3 and WAV resolutions, though I'm not sure choosing the 96kHz settings is really worth the memory hit. I am a big fan of recording MP3s for learning songs or checking band rehearsals, so I was happy to see Zoom included a lot of flexibility there.
Then there is the gee-whiz factor: Zoom's engineers just cannot seem to build a simple recorder. Need a guitar tuner? There is a surprisingly good one inside. Not to mention a metronome. I didn't look, but there's probably a Pong game in there, too. Joking aside, I think the USB audio interface is a fine addition. But mostly the H2 does one thing, and it does it quite well.
I have said it before and it bears repeating: if you want professional features, prepare to pay professional prices. If you want a dandy little recorder that won't break the bank, fits in your pocket, and does a fine job, take a look at the H2 Handy Recorder.
I vividly remember sitting in a darkened theater in L.A., waiting for the premiere of a new movie called The Empire Strikes Back. In the darkened theater, waves of heads swiveled backwards and then forward, tracking something moving above us. The moment the starship appeared on the screen the entire theater burst into applause. Like everyone who has heard great theater sound, I wanted it in my home. Getting it there is harder than you might think.
Mention "surround" to most folks and they'll probably come back with something about "5.1." However, the terms are not interchangeable: the numbers refer to a particular array of speakers; "surround" means reproducing audio so it appears to envelop the listener. If you are old enough to remember the first coming of bell-bottoms and paisley shirts, you will remember Quadraphonics, an early attempt at 3D sound reproduction.
The standard 5.1 speaker setup uses different angles than the Zoom H2's mics. Here are the four common speakers.
Truth be told, engineers have wanted to capture sound in three dimensions from the beginning. Over the years, various surround systems have come and gone, spurred mostly by the motion picture and gaming industries. All involve various numbers of speakers placed around the audience.
You might expect that each speaker would be fed by its own audio track; after all, that is how stereo works. But video is such a bandwidth hog that manufacturers had to implement special data encoding to cram the audio into the movie, disc, or game. The signals are then decoded at playback.
As I mentioned, there are other ways to get at surround. One of the most interesting, Ambisonic recording, is independent of the position of the playback speakers. Ambisonics not only reproduces audio from the front and rear of the listener, but also up and down. However, it has not been widely supported. That might change, though, as computer processing speed increases.
For a number of reasons, mixing in surround requires quite a bit more than simply routing individual tracks to the various speakers. Subtle changes in EQ or effects or panning can have ripple effects all up and down the line.
Finding a mix that will translate to the huge variations in home theater systems is not easy, either. One standard technique for music assumes that the band is arrayed left to right on a stage, just like stereo. The rear speakers are used primarily for audience ambience and other effects.
Many engineers ignore the center speaker, since anything panned midway between Right and Left will appear in a "phantom center" and because improperly calibrated center speakers in the listener's home might skew the mix. The same goes for the LFE, or ".1" channel—do you really want your kick drum to sound like Godzilla stomping through Tokyo? OK, bad example. I would kill for that kick. But you get the idea. LFE stands for low frequency effects. It's not meant to be rumbling all the time.
The good news is that surround mixing and encoding hardware and software are beginning to appear at prices we home studio owners can afford. Heck, there's even freeware! Now that there is a recorder that makes it easy to capture front and rear surround, there's not much stopping you, is there?
If you'd like to learn more about recording and mixing for surround, check out these resources:
You Are Surrounded — A terrific nine-part feature from British recording magazine Sound On Sound. You must read this.
Surround Sound — Wikipedia's considerably shorter take on the subject.
What Is 5.1? — Good basic info on surround and the major formats.
Speaker Setup Guide — Advice from Dolby Labs on proper 5.1 and 7.1 speaker placement. Be sure to check out the very cool animation.
Mixing in the Round — An easy-to-follow surround-mixing tutorial.
Stereo Microphone Technique: the coincident crossed pair — Record Producer.com offers a concise explanation of X-Y mic technique. Be sure to check out the other features, too.
The Quad Page — Everything you ever wanted to know about quadraphonic sound.
Stereo-to-Surround Conversion Guides — A list of some of the methods for converting stereo files to surround. Techie to the max.
Ambisonic Studio — Daniel Courville's suite of free processing plugins for Mac OS X, including an H2-to-5.1 transcoder inspired by this pre-review discussion.
H2-Zoo — This free Windows plugin also converts four-track H2 audio to the six tracks needed for surround encoders. Check out the author's many other surround plugins as well.