The striking design isn’t the only talking point of this portable recorder, writes Jerry Ibbotsen.
I have to admit something. I’ve tested, reviewed, and used a range of Zoom products over the years but I’ve never quite ‘got’ them. Good? Yes. But deserving of their huge popularity? To me they were the Beats of the handheld recorder market: bestowed with some fine qualities but also highly marketed.
Before the lawyers start reaching for their phones let me state one thing: it may be a spoiler for the rest of the review but I really like the H6. The design is striking, looking like something Captain Kirk would hold on a trip to explore an alien planet. But its beauty goes much deeper.
Under the hood
Let’s start with the on-paper specs: it’s a portable recorder that can be hand-held, stand mounted, or fixed onto a camera hotshoe with a separate adaptor. It’s capable of recording six channels of audio through a combination of four Neutrik XLRs and a multi-use socket that takes a range of slot-in capsules from XY stereo to shotgun.
It can record in MP3 format (though I’d consider that a waste) or .wavs at sample rates from 44.1 to 96kHz and at 16/24 bit. Although it takes in six channels, it’s capable of recording an additional stereo backup as well. It can also be used as a USB audio interface on PC, Mac, or iPad.
Open the case and the first thing that strikes you is the unusual design. In a world of small recorders (most of which are on or under my desk) the H6 strives to be different, with a body that arches up and away from the user. The grey, rubberised chassis has a colour LCD screen, transport controls, and four small horizontal dials. These control the input gain for the XLRs. Sitting between them are -20dB pads for each input. They’re perfectly placed for quick operation and being ‘actual switches’ you can quickly register that they’ve been activated.
The H6 has a straightforward menu system that is accessed through a rocker button and I managed to alter the record settings to 48kHz/24-bit and record some material with the XY capsule without even getting the manual out of its bag (and I’m no genius). The range of features and functions is far too long to list here but you can record, edit, and mixdown on the machine as well as adjust a wide range of parameters in both recording and playback. There’s a graphical mixer you can tweak, adjusting levels of individual channels, for example. There are even VU meters which you can bring up on the screen during a recording, in place of the standard peak meters.
There is also a compressor and limiter, which can be applied to separate inputs/tracks and adjusted to suit via a range of presets. You can set the machine to pre-record, adjust the MS recording, tweak the level of the line out to suit a DSLR mic input… the list goes on.
But all this would be nothing without decent recording quality. I tried the H6 first with the XY capsule and recorded some speech. The process is simple enough but you have to remember to arm the inputs/tracks before you start. This is done by tapping the keys that sit just above the transport buttons. The small LEDs above each one turn red, then green when you start rolling. They also flicker if you reach peak on any channel.
Level is easy to set via the dials which sit on the capsule itself and are displayed on the colour screen. I found this a little small for my eyes but it does the job nonetheless. I listened out for handling noise, which is the weakness of virtually every handheld recorder. I know this is down to physics but it does seem a major flaw if a handheld recorder can’t be, er, handheld.
The H6 has the bonus of a large body which gives you the chance to keep your fingers further away from the capsules. There was some rattling if I moved my digits around but otherwise it was not too bad. Of course, plug in an XLR lead and use an external mic and the problem disappears.
The recording was pretty damn good (which is some of the finest understatement I’ve used in a while). It was clean and clear and had a real presence to it. I then packed the recorder in its little case and took it to show a few friends. One is a technician at a local university film school and the other is a BBC radio engineer. With both I did the same simple test: record some speech and play it back through headphones (there is also a small speaker). And with both the result was the same: a lot of shock and surprise at just how nice it was. I then plugged in my Rode NTG3 shotgun to XLR one and recorded some more speech. The result again was better than I’d expected. There was something to the recording, something hard to define, but it was clearer, more precise, and more ‘real’ than I’ve heard from a small recorder in a while. I haven’t had the time to carry out a more exhaustive test – yet. But there’s a project coming up shortly that will need a combination of external and internal microphones. With the prospect of using the H6 – a powerful, well designed and brilliantly performing audio tool – I’m looking forward to it.
Jerry Ibbotson has worked in pro audio for more than 20 years, first as a BBC radio journalist and then as a sound designer in the games industry. He’s now a freelance audio producer and writer.