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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.