READ ONLINE NOW
Online
Issue 81
8

Review: Zoom F3

Say goodbye to 24 bit and to gain pots. The F3 32-bit two-channel recorder throws all sandbags overboard without sacrificing performance.

By

23 February 2022

This review will be slightly different from my usual format. Firstly, I cannot comment on the unboxing experience because the preproduction unit has no box: no box, no packaging, no accessories and no manual. Normally I read the manual thoroughly prior to reviewing any device. In this case, I am fairly certain I have the only Zoom F3 in Australia and the Zoom website does not yet have an English version of the manual.

This unit was announced around late January 2022 and with an initial release in Japan only. The response to that announcement internationally was a flood of inquiries about when it would become available in the US; who would be stocking it; and how much would the unit sell for. I was lucky enough to temporarily get my hands on a unit for the purposes of this review.

Everything I read about the Zoom F3, and what it promises to do, shows why people are excited about the unit. 

WHAT’S THE FUSS ABOUT?

The F3 is a 32-bit float recording device. There are several other 32-bit devices on the market including models from Zoom such as the F6, the key difference is that the F3 is only 32-bit. This choice is significant for several reasons. Give it a few more years but I am confident that all devices will be 32-bit and the other formats will be phased out. Even so, it is surprising Zoom has made that leap so suddenly with the F3. 32-bit is such a massive advance in recording capability that once you have worked with it, it is different to go back. 

Locking the F3 to 32-bit means it does not need input gain controls. This keeps the device remarkably small and lightweight. Even so, it shares the F6’s design style and feels solid and sturdy. I would not want to launch the F3 off a cliff, but I am confident that if I accidentally drop it a few times it would be none the worse off. Any device that you are going to use regularly outside of a studio is going to get knocked around or dropped as you focus on your work, so a sturdy build is important. It has a standard screw thread hole in the underside that will connect to a tripod or let you attach it to a boom pole. I expect a lot of people are going to attach this thing to boom poles as it is such a logical approach to deploying it.

NEED TO KNOW

  • PRICE

    A$489

  • CONTACT

    Dynamic Music: (02) 9939 1299 or dynamicmusic.com.au

  • PROS

    Super small & lightweight
    Inexpensive 32-bit recording

  • CONS

    Be aware of battery consumption when using phantom power
    No fixed release date outside of Japan

  • SUMMARY

    The F3 is an extremely portable, professional two-channel recorder. It’s also a 32-bit-only recorder, offering more headroom than you will (quite literally) ever need. If you like the look of the Zoom F6 but it’s overkill for your purposes, you’ll love the F3 — compact, sturdy, quiet, and inexpensive. 

MORE ON 32-BIT

All digital audio recordings have two aspects to them: the sample rate and the bit rate. The sample rate is expressed in kilohertz and defines the maximum allowable frequency the device can capture. The sample rate must always be double the highest frequency you want to record. So 48kHz sample rate will capture sound frequencies up to 24kHz. The bit rate defines how effectively a recording device can capture sound energy or amplitude. Essentially, the higher the bit rate, the more cleanly a device can record loud sounds. With a low bit rate, you need to carefully monitor your input levels to ensure your recordings do not distort. 32-bit has enough dynamic range to readily deal with Krakatoa blowing its top — dynamic range will be limited by your microphone and not your recorder.

RETURN OF STEREO

I have not used stereo devices as my primary recorder for many years. I have multiple small stereo devices that I use for specific tasks, but I always need more inputs for my main projects. This was to avoid overloading channels. If I have a mono microphone plugged into a device and I am recording an aircraft that is off in the distance I will want to turn up my input to get as strong a signal as possible. If suddenly that plane surprises me and flies overhead, the massive increase in volume means I have to turn my gain down otherwise the recording will distort. This describes a real-world example. I was busy recording at an airfield and lost track of the plane, so when the Yak 72 surprised me from behind a line of trees and flew directly over my head my gain was too high and a potentially amazing sound was badly distorted.

This is why I have spent many years using two channels for each mono microphone channel. The mic cable splits into two inputs and I would set one very high to catch the quiet sounds off in the distance and the second channel gain was set low for those unexpectedly loud surprises. For a long time, my blimp mount had a stereo shotgun and a mono shotgun both mounted inside. This meant I was capturing three channels, needing six inputs with a high and low input for each mic channel. The ‘infinite’ dynamic range of 32-bit recording allows me to cut my channel needs in half. 

My current primary setup uses two mono Sanken microphones, and so for the bulk of my work I could use the F3 and mount it either on the boom pole or even attach it to the blimp system. I have gone from using an eight-channel device that weighs over 2kg to a 32-bit, two-channel device that weighs just over 200grams. When I am spending all day out in the hot sun chasing planes up and down a runway, I suspect I am going to appreciate that difference.

FUNCTIONALITY

The F3 uses standard AA batteries for power. Like all devices I regularly use, I would use rechargeable batteries, but the choice is yours. The published specifications state that the F3 should be able to record eight hours on a pair of AA batteries. The unit is capable of supplying 24V and 48V phantom power but obviously doing this is going to decrease your battery life. The unit uses micro-SD cards and can use cards up to 1TB capacity.

The F3 is 32-bit and, as such, has no adjustable levels, which means it also has no need for level meters, so the screen displays the waveform each channel is receiving. This is kind of cool.

BATTERY TEST

I performed a simple battery test to see how the F3 deals with AA batteries. I used a pair of Eneloop rechargeable batteries. Please note these particular batteries are getting a little old. Using the same mics I used for the sound test I had the device set to 48V phantom power on both channels and left the unit to record overnight. The result was less than four hours of recorded material. I am sure the age of the battery did contribute to a reduced time, but it is clear that phantom power it is going to significantly reduce the operation time of this unit. I always used non rechargeable alkaline batteries when I am doing important jobs or when I need a unit to record for as long as possible, and I would certainly recommend others do the same, but clearly powering microphones is going to have a significant impact on your overall power consumption. It is certainly easy to carry extra batteries and I always do even with the large and heavy L series batteries for the F6. The advantage of AA batteries is that they are small, light and you can buy spares almost anywhere.

The screen is small but well presented (about an inch by an inch and a half, in the old language). Its default display contains information for each channel and, as a reference, I do need to switch to my reading glasses to be able to read it clearly. Navigation is simple via a set of small buttons and because this device has a small but useful set of features you are unlikely to get lost in the menu system. There is a direct setup menu for each channel that allows for phantom power values per channel, setting the input between mic and line inputs and it even has a high-pass filter, phase inversion and delay per channel. The main menu has settings for file formats USB connection and standard system functions. Available sample rates range from 44.1kHz to 192kHz. The F3 is 32-bit and, as such, has no adjustable levels, which means it also has no need for level meters, so the screen displays the waveform each channel is receiving. This is kind of cool. 

External features include the standard 3.5mm headphone and line out plugs with two small buttons for volume for the headphones, a slot for the micro-SD card and USB, and a socket for the Zoom Bluetooth adaptor. I do like how the record activation switch is a slide toggle so you cannot accidentally press Record. Considering this unit is small enough to be stuffed in pockets and satchels etc, this is a clever failsafe. You need to intentionally slide the switch one way to get it recording and then slide it the other way to lock all the functions.

The Bluetooth controller allows you to control the F3 via a Zoom app, due to be released around March 2022. Interestingly, the information on this says that it will be an iOS and Android app and, if this is correct, I will be very happy as the Zoom control apps have been iOS-only up until this point. The Bluetooth adaptor can also be used to allow for timecode sync via the UltraSync Blue device, further expanding the options for users.

HOW IT SOUNDS

As an F series device from Zoom I suspect the F3 has the same preamps as the F6. It certainly captures a crisp and clean sound. My usual sound test involves some dialogue, a quiet ticking clock and some loud sounds. This time I also recorded one of our cats purring as I needed that for a project. This was recorded in a fairly standard bedroom with curtains closed, so deliberately not in studio conditions. All the dialogue was very clear and could easily be used for production without any processing or noise reduction. I was speaking in a calm quiet voice and even if I felt the need to boost the files by about 6dB there would be no noticeable noise in the recording. For the clock and the cat purrs I boosted the files by 20dB to get a good strong sound. This did introduce some noise, but a 20dB boost is a huge increase. The directional mic was cleaner than the omni, but that is also to be expected. Both microphones were good quality Sanken models.

In the reverse, I also did three very loud yells across the mic diaphragms (so I would not create wind noise). As expected, these were too loud and distorted when edited, but when I dropped the amplitude, they were all clean with no visible flattening in the wave form and no audible distortion. I needed to drop the yells by 20dB to get into a nominal range, so that is a huge amount of headroom. I am aware that most 32-bit recorders on the market are not yet fully true 32-bit, as real 32-bit is something like 700dB (I’m told the Death Star explosion was measured at ‘only’ 180dB on the forest moon of Endor) but the 32-bit range on the F3 is very solid and is going to cope with most sounds you’re likely to throw at it.

IMPATIENCE

My social media is already full of folks impatient for the F3, so it seems likely to succeed before it is even available to purchase. My guess is that this is based on the success and reputation of the F6 and also that when doing location recording, having small sturdy units can be a real advantage.

As a sound recordist I’m looking at the F3 through that lens, but this unit is so portable and so versatile that there’s no doubt audio people of all persuasions will find a nifty use for the F3 that I can’t even foresee.

The retail cost of the unit is still not confirmed but it looks like it will come in at around US$350 or A$500. Zoom has trimmed the fat on this unit. It is a ‘super stripped-down, no frills, only what it needs to do the job’ device. But at the same time, it is sturdy, inexpensive and 32-bit is the future of digital audio capture.

RESPONSES

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Thanks for doing this review! I don’t suppose you know or could test the frequency range of the mic inputs? I just want to know the maximum frequency it will pickup when recording at 192kHz.

    1. Well I used a C100K as part of the test and it captured that content cleanly
      So that is Frequency range up to nearly 100KHz which is as high as you are going to get with 192 sample rate

  2. Good review thanks. No MS decoded monitoring is a dealbreaker. For the market they are aiming at, it’s amazing this has been omitted. Let’s hope they add it in a FW update.

    1. I wrote an email to Zoom to ask for this feature as it is also important in my ears (and my MS rig..)

  3. I am awaiting arrival of a pre-order, looking forward to using this unit to the fullest. What I’m seeing complaints about no capsule mics ~ but I’m thinking the addition of a compact mount and two small diaphragm mics would not be at all difficult. I’m going to design and print a mount as soon as mine arrives.

  4. Thanks for the review. Amazing you could get your hands on one so quickly. Good to hear that it performs well in terms of self-noise. Any initial thoughts on using it as an audio interface?

  5. I just received my F3 today. It’s a great little unit, but I was bit disappointed to find that it abruptly cuts off ultra sonic frequencies over 70 KHz when recording at 192 KHz, 32 bit. My F6 does not do this. I am using Sennheiser MKH 8020 microphones, which are spec’d to capture audio as high as 60 KHz, but go much higher in actual use.

More for you

READ ONLINE NOW
Online
Issue 81
WP Twitter Auto Publish Powered By : XYZScripts.com