ZOOM H6 Portable Handheld Recorder
When Zoom released the H4n, it woke up a whole generation to sound. The H6 is only slightly bigger, but a whole lot better.
Review: Mark Davie
The Zoom H4n, and the rest of the Zoom portable recorder family has grown at about the same rate as the DSLR revolution. For all its failings — a bit noisy, push buttons for gain control, no timecode, or any other serious ENG capabilities — it became, and still is, the go-to recorder for any DSLR videographer remotely serious about capturing anything more than camera audio. And why? Well, Zoom did the one thing that other portable recorder manufacturers were unwilling to do at the time, figure out how to cram XLRs into a small form factor. It may not have been the professional practitioners tool, but it sure felt closer than plugging shotguns into a 3.5mm jack. That, and a keen price/features ratio, firmly cemented its dominance.
And it wasn’t just the DSLR community that adopted the Zooms, they made their way into rehearsal rooms around the globe, and into the hands of location recorders without the budget.
But as the DSLR revolution stormed on — and people began taking them into territory they were never intended to go — the performance expectation from peripherals also rose. The nub of it is: if a DSLR can be used to shoot the final episode of hit TV drama House, how far can my Zoom recorder stretch?
There’s a big gap between the job the H4n fulfils, and the professional location recorder/ENG kit from the likes of Sound Devices or Nagra. Reliability is perhaps the biggest issue: professional connectivity is a lot more than just XLRs, multiple outputs for interruptable foldback is a must for ENG, then there’s sync and timecode.
Roland, Fostex and Tascam have done an admirable job of filling the middle market, but has traditionally stuck to one of two form factors. Handheld recorders come with a couple of inputs, but anything above that and you have to carry it over your shoulder. There’s been nothing with four or more XLR inputs you can cradle in your hand, until now. Just like DSLRs have given every videographer a shot at getting a great picture, Zoom’s new H6 gives you a genuine shot at getting great sound.
The scenarios where more than two XLR inputs might be required on location are many. For instance, a simple interview might require two lavalier mics and a shotgun, or three omni handhelds if you’ve got two interview subjects. Capturing sound for a short film on location? You’ll need at least a handful of inputs for that. But best of all, the H6 can double as a multiple input interface back in the studio.
In the editorial office, we’ve been using the H4n for years now and there were a few frustrating niggles that we hoped would be looked at on the H6. Firstly, the power slider. While handy, in that it requires you to hold it in position to either turn it on or off, on the H4n the switch was glued/snapped on from the outside of the case, meaning it could fall off. The H6’s slider looks firmly located within the case and unable to be dislodged. Good start.
Secondly, gain for each channel was only accessible via a single plus/minus push button control on the side — usable, but not a great level of control, and adjusting gain while recording resulted in audible clicks in the recording. The H6 has independent rotary gain controls for each channel, including one on each of the interchangeable capsules, with enough resistance to hold their position and side guards so you can’t easily bump them off settings.
Another issue with the H4n was a lack of pads, combined with the gain on the XY stereo mic going from +7 to +47dB. This meant that if the mic pickup was too hot for the preamp, there was nowhere to go. On the H6, Zoom has implemented -20dB pads on each of the combo inputs, so the preamps can receive a maximum input level of +22dBU without clipping. Better yet, the gain control on each of the capsules now goes down to -∞dB. While it does make it tricky to set low gain levels with such a steep rolloff at the bottom end, it does at least give you a chance of capturing any extremely loud sounds. This also means you can send line level signals to the H6 with the pad engaged. Saying that, be aware that it doesn’t bypass the H6’s preamps, so isn’t quite the recording solution sound operators who already owned mixers were hoping for.
The fourth concern was bootup time with bigger cards. Some people were reporting bootup times in excess of a minute with 32GB SD cards. The H6 has no such issues. Whacking in a random 8GB card, as soon as the H6 booted up (a couple of seconds), it was immediately ready to record. The card already had other data on it, but the H6 just plonked its file structure amongst it and was ready to go, no re-format required.
Another big bummer, and one more specifically related to the DSLR crowd was the combination headphone/line level output. You had to choose whether you’d use one or the other. On the H6, these have been separated. The line level output is still on an unbalanced 3.5mm stereo minijack, but it’s designed to plug into a DSLRs audio input, which are typically the same.
Handling noise is still a major issue with the H6. While it’s possible to adjust gain with the rotary dials, you have to be careful not to wreck the take by bumping the unit.
Battery life has jumped up markedly. The H6 can go for almost 10 hours with all six inputs recording, whereas the H4n could only manage about six with less inputs. And while the H4n seemed to frequently achieve less than that mark, the H6 was still on two out of three bars after using the recorder on and off for a couple of weeks.
SWAP ’N’ GO
The most noticeable addition to the portable recorder is the option to swap out microphone capsules. The standard near-coincident XY pair is reprised with bigger capsules, and can be swapped out for a mid-side configuration or a shotgun. Rounding out the lineup is the option to clip on two extra combo jack/XLR inputs, taking the input count to six.
It’s these choices that demonstrate Zoom’s dedication to spreading its wings as far as the user will take it. A mid-side configuration is great for a singer-songwriter to capture a guitar in stereo with a separate vocal mic plugged in. And a shotgun is perfect for the DSLR market. Or if you need more inputs just grab the extra input module. (The H6 comes with the XY and mid-side capsules, while the shotgun and input module optional extras.)
The capsules clip into the body securely with side pushbuttons to release them. It all feels very solid except for the plastic connecting the MS capsule ball-grille housing to its base. It feels like it would be the first thing to go in this configuration, but I wasn’t game to test its rigidity. When the mid-side capsule is plugged in, apart from being able to adjust the overall input level with the main gain knob, the menu navigation toggle automatically senses the different capsule and becomes a secondary adjustment over the amount of side information captured. You can go from ‘off’, which gives a simple cardioid pattern, through -24dB, up to +6dB for ultra-wide, or just switch it to a raw capture into the left and right streams (cardioid on left, bi-directional on right) to be decoded later. As you toggle through the values, the size of the figure-eight overlay changes to suit, which is a nice touch.
NO NOISE IS GOOD NOISE
Functionality aside, the main hope for the H6 was that it would improve on the preamps of the H4n. The H4n specs never quoted a noise figure, but it’s appreciably high. The H6 has greatly improved on this, quoting an equivalent input noise of -120dBu or less on each of the XLR inputs. It is significantly less noisy at higher gain levels, especially noticeable when using shotguns or low level handhelds.
The XY mic capsules on the H6 are noticeably larger than the H4n’s, with 14.6mm diaphragms. It’s still well in ‘small diaphragm’ territory, though, and there’s not a major difference between the two. If you had to split it, the H4n was a hair’s breadth more responsive to transients, the H6 a little more subtle.
The mid-side capsule works a treat, and the extra flexibility of adjusting the sides or sticking with a mono capture in post is handy. Unfortunately, the shotgun capsule wasn’t shipping at the time of the review, so we couldn’t test it. It’s an interesting design, though, using three capsules and digital signal processing to yield a hypercardioid pattern instead of the standard interference tube design.
The H6 is a dramatic improvement on the H4n. It’s obviously not meant as a strict replacement, as Zoom continues to sell the H4n and it serves a big slice of the market. That said, Zoom has managed to give a dedicated following more of what it wants, and it’s hard not to see people upgrading. The interchangeable capsules are a real value boost in an already packed unit — well worth it if you need more inputs and flexibility, especially without sacrificing much size.