Promising power and flexibility, the Zoom H5 claims to have set a new standard in portable recording, but does Andy Coules agree?
As a live sound engineer I’m often asked to make reference recordings of live gigs for the scrutiny of the musicians involved. While the purpose is a quick and simple recording I’ve never been fully satisfied with the results from either recording the desk mix or capturing the ambient sound using microphones. I got good results using a four-track to combine the desk mix with ambient microphones, but this proved too unwieldy to take on the road.
So I was quite excited in 2005 when I heard news of the Zoom H4 handheld four-track recorder. Unfortunately that first model was unable to record four channels simultaneously so I had to wait until the H4N (the ‘N’ denoting the ‘next’ version) in 2009 to attain the functionality I craved – and I’ve used mine to record hundreds of gigs since.
Now we have the H5, which seeks to improve on the H4N, and brings some of the functionality of the top-of-the-range H6, so let’s see how it stacks up.
My first impression is that it’s slimmer, taller and slightly lighter than the H4N. At the base it has the familiar pair of XLR/TRS combo inputs (which can provide phantom power and a 20dB pad) and the front panel features the transport controls, four input selector buttons (and indicators), input volume controls (protected from accidental knocking by a metal bar) and the display screen. The most obvious departure from previous models is the detachable mic capsule (a feature borrowed from the H6).
By default it comes with the XYH-5 X/Y microphone capsule, which features two matched unidirectional condenser microphones set at a 90º angle, as well as a protected volume control and a 3.5mm mic/line input jack (which supports plug-in power). There are four other capsules available: the MSH-6 mid/sides microphone capsule, the XYH-6 X/Y microphone capsule (which closely resembles the H4N microphones with its switchable 90/120º pick-up pattern), the SGH-6 shotgun microphone capsule and the EXH-6 dual XLR/TRS combo capsule – which gives two additional balanced inputs as well as separate volume controls and a pad. This provides a useful range of recording options, which can be swapped as quickly and easily as changing a camera lens.
The left side panel has a 3.5mm line out jack, a 3.5mm headphone jack, a volume rocker, mini USB socket and a power/hold slider switch. On the other side is the menu button, the scroll button, the remote control jack socket and the SD card slot. On the underside is the speaker, battery compartment and screw mounting hole. They’ve done away with the power supply input, opting instead to power it via USB (via an optional AC adapter), however a pair of AA alkaline batteries should last up to 15 hours, even when recording continuously. The USB socket can also be used to connect to a computer so the H5 can act either as a card reader or an audio interface.
Basic operation is straightforward – you turn it on, select which inputs you want to record, set the level and press record, all of which is done using the front panel controls. The level meters start working as soon as you select the inputs and the protected volume controls make it easy to set the levels and get going. The screen is compact but uncluttered with all the information you need readily available, such as available recording time, battery status, file name, level meters (from -48dB to 0) and the chosen recording format (which defaults to 16-bit, 44.1kHz wav files). They’ve done away with the multi-track record mode and the effects unit, which, when used together, made the H4N a powerful multi-track recorder with various amp models and effects. My initial reaction is that this is a pity, but on reflection it’s sensible as very few people utilised this functionality.
You have a choice of two common file formats – MP3 and Wav. Wav files can be 16 or 24-bit with sampling rates of 44.1, 48 or 96kHz, although 96kHz is only available in stereo recording mode, as are MP3 files (which allow bit rates from 48k to 320kbps). Wav files are automatically time stamped and are thus Broadcast Wave Format (BWF) compliant. The H5 utilises SD and SDHC cards for storage and supports anything up to 32 gigabytes. The included 2GB card can store about 14 hours of stereo MP3s at 320kbps, three hours of stereo 16-bit/44.1kHz or an hour of stereo 24-bit/96kHz Wavs.
The pre-record function, when enabled, is continuously recording such that it can capture the two seconds before you press the record button, as well as an auto record function that can be set to record when the volume exceeds a user-defined level (and stop when it drops below a set level).
And then there’s the potentially life-saving Backup-Record feature, which automatically records a duplicate set of stereo tracks that are 12dB lower than the original pair – although this only works when recording stereo Wav files at 44.1 or 48kHz.
In operation the recordings are clean and clear. The default X/Y microphone capsule includes rugged rubber shock mounts, which help isolate handling noise and the X/Y configuration enables the capturing of a detailed stereo image while ensuring centre sources are clear and well defined; it can also handle sound levels up to 140dB SPL.
The line inputs use the same high-quality preamp as the H6, and support professional line level input (i.e. +4dBu), which is an improvement on the H4N, whose balanced input was configured for -10dBV operation, which often meant you had to pad the output from professional gear (such as mixing desks) so as to not overload the inputs.
So overall it’s a very capable and straightforward portable recorder, equally comfortable perched on a mixing desk, in the palm of your hand or sitting on top of a DSLR camera (via the optional hot shoe mount adapter). The interchangeable capsules provide new levels of versatility and flexibility and the lengthy battery life make the H5 a very worthy successor to the much-loved H4N and a powerful handheld recorder in it’s own right.
Andy Coules (andycoules.co.uk) is a sound engineer and audio educator who has toured the world with a diverse array of acts in a wide range of genres.