New field recordists are faced with important questions when beginning their craft: what is the best portable field recorder to buy? Can you record strong sound effects inexpensively?
When starting recording sound effects, you often won’t have thousands of dollars to spend on top flight professional audio recorders and microphones. What field recorder is the best to buy on a budget? Is there a field recorder that balances features, usability and sound quality while not sinking you into debt?
In the last five years the amount of portable of recorders has blossomed to fill this gap. There are models by Roland, Olympus, Yamaha, Tascam and more. Two recorders, however, appear as favourites more often than others. They are the Sony PCM-D50 and Zoom H4n.
While there are enthusiastic reviews of Olympus and Fostex recorders and others, the Sony D50 and Zoom H4n are the most commonly contrasted. Unlike other portable audio recorders, these models seem to attract vocal advocates. It’s common that field recordists will choose either the H4n or prefer the D50.
While these recorders have features in common, in many other ways these two recorders are more different in price, form and function than they are similar.
And this is one reason why it’s important to compare them. Does one have more value than the other? And how do they sound?
In this article I’ll compare these two popular portable recorders. I’ll look at how they rate in features, function and form. Next week I’ll post free sound effects downloads you can listen to and contrast. I’ll wrap up with pros and cons for each and share conclusions about how usable the recorders actually are.
Which recorder should you choose? How do they compare in sound quality? Can you record good sound effects with a pocket recorder for less than $550? In this series we’ll find out.
How to compare Sony D50 and Zoom H4n
The best place to begin comparing portable recorders is by thinking about how exactly you’re capturing sound. The truth is a single recorder won’t be perfect for every situation. Choosing a recorder depends on what you’re recording and how.
In an article on the Jetstreaming blog I listed these broad concerns in the purpose section. Are you using a recorder in the field or in a studio? What features do you need? Does the recorder need to be portable for travel?
If every recorder is made for a different purpose, how then do we start comparing them? After all, The Sony PCM-D50 lists for $469. The Zoom H4n is $299. Is it even possible to compare recorders at such different price points?
I’ll begin with a nod toward the Jetstreaming article and look at these features:
- sound quality – preamp quality, microphone ability
- basic and advanced features – connectivity, media, software, start time, usability and more
- construction – interface/controls and design, portability
- price – how much each costs and whether the recorders are worth the money
- usability – how well the recorders work for the price, and as a portable recorder concept
At Airborne Sound our favourite field recordings are ambiences made while stealth or guerilla recording. The goal of this kind of recording is to capture the spirit of the environment without disturbing it. When we’re recording this way we need responsive, discreet and portable gear. Observations here may have a slant toward this kind of recording. However I’ll make the information broad enough that it can be applied to field recording in general.
What about sound quality? We’ll look at that last with free, downloadable unmastered sound effects recordings from both recorders.
Comparing D50 and H4n features and form
During the last few weeks on the Airborne Sound blog I’ve reviewed the Sony PCM-D50. I’ve looked at how it fits field recording sound effects in a stealth or guerilla recording environment.
I won’t get into every stat or the tiny feature. I’ll focus instead on how well these recorders perform in the field recording sound effects. These are features you’ll notice immediately or must have. I’ll also share major unique features on either recorder.
The first thing you’ll notice between the recorders is the construction. The D50 feels classy. The H4n is chunky and heavier.
This difference comes from the construction and partially the interface.
The D50 has a slick aluminum housing. The H4n is plastic, although the plastic doesn’t feel fragile. I feel this works in the H4n’s favour. For years I’ve been tossing the H4n into a bag with me where ever I go. It’s been battered and scratched but still works perfectly. I feel like the D50 needs more care. It just doesn’t feel as rugged. The D50 has 7 toggle switches as opposed to the H4n’s single switch (power). For the rest of its functions the H4n uses dials, buttons and rocker switches which are more resilient. I’d be wary of using the D50 in the rough-and-tumble scenarios during stealth recording.
One area where the D50’s durability is superior to the H4n is in the microphones themselves. Both recorders allow you to record in either a 90 or 120 degree stereo pattern. You can switch between the recording breadth. The Zoom H4n requires a twist while the D50 slides the microphones to either side.
This is definitely a weak link with the Zoom H4n. The microphone housing rotates loosely on weak plastic. I don’t change the pattern often yet the housing wobbles on the arms.
The D50’s mic housing is also plastic but it sits on the frame more securely and is bordered by a metal roll bar cage. This cage protects the microphones from being bumped. Selection between mic patterns is firm and reassuring. At this point I expect the H4n’s microphones to fall off the plastic frame. Construction here could be much better.
The Secure Digital memory card door on the H4n has also become pretty loose and floppy after a few years.
This is contrasted by the Zoom’s interface buttons, which, while plastic, have a firmer, solid action. I actually prefer these over the D50’s transport panel, which feel more high end yet fragile. This is fine of course for regular use. I just don’t think they will take the same beating that the buttons on the H4n do.
This isn’t to say the D50 has poor construction. It just feels like it’s made more for desktop use than rough, random portable environments.
These recorders are marketed as portable recorders. Does this just mean they’re small? Or are they actually easy to use on the go?
Portable recorders need to be compact, durable, light and in some situations, unobtrusive.
The D50’s aluminum construction and the H4n’s blocky frame are both sufficiently durable but in different ways.
Both are compact enough to fit in a pocket. The Zoom H4n fits in your hand easier. Note that the H4n seems to pick up handling noise more than the D50 if you’re recording with it in your grip.
The D50 is heavier, likely because it uses four AA batteries instead of the Zoom’s two. It’s not a huge issue though.
Are these recorders obvious? They’re definitely less obtrusive than a blue Portabrace rig, of course. While the D50 appears more conspicuously hi-tech, it’s a bit more subtle when recording. The H4n’s interface’s illuminates the input and record buttons boldly. The D50 shines more subtly and the display backlight can be toggled quickly with a dedicated front-facing button. The H4n will catch the eye more when trying to record in discreet sessions.
Let’s get into more detail. As far as interface is concerned, how easy is it to operate these recorders?
Most commonly you’ll be recording. Both recorders use an ‘arm-then-record’ system. The H4n requires pressing record twice. The D50 requires pressing two buttons: record, then play. In addition the D50 allows instant recording by pressing play and record at once.
At first I didn’t like this, but I now prefer it. The reason is that using the H4n’s double-press punch-in method can lead to mistakenly thinking you’re recording when you are not. A quick double-press doesn’t always do the trick. In studio environments, this won’t be a problem. It’s happened to me a couple of times stealth recording when pressured though.
Aside from that, the H4n’s transport buttons I find are generally more responsive. They feel more solid and the action is deeper.
Some situations call for recording ‘blind,’ or recording without looking at the interface or display. This is common with stealth or guerilla sessions. The H4n’s transport and button layout is better for this. There’s no way you can miss the record button by touch alone. It feels different and is off to one side.
The D50’s interface is more random. The transport’s buttons are sized differently but in practice it’s not that easy to determine this by touch. Also, while it’s appreciated to have the low cut, limiter and other switches on the exterior, these buttons are scattered. They can also be flipped accidentally. The H4n uses a software menu to operate the same functions.
The Zoom H4n uses a single dial to navigate menu items. Pressing the dial inwards selects. The D50 uses four. A transport button activates the menu (press and hold) and the fast-forward and rewind buttons to navigate. The play button selects. The H4n’s method takes some practice but is simpler with just one button.
The D50 wins out with its analog volume and recording level dials. Both dials are protected but metal guards which means accidental changes are not common. The H4n uses a rocker switch for both volume and levels, which is fine, but the smooth resistance on the dials feels superior. I’d say setting levels on the D50 is quicker and better.
The Zoom H4n’s display is large, simple and clear. It displays only what you need to know: recording levels, sample rate, file name, battery life, duration and recording time remaining.
The D50’s display by comparison is cluttered. Just the same I prefer it. One reason is that the recording levels are more fine and accurate. The level is also displayed as numerical dB, which is helpful.
Both of the recorders have a display backlight. Both are fine. You can see in the photo above, though, just how bright the the H4n’s display is compared to the D50.
Both the H4n and D50 offer similar software tools: playback speed, navigating folders, deleting and renaming files, setting preferences and so on.
The D50’s menu system feels more modern than the H4n, and looks better. It is simpler and relies less on sub-menus.
Part of the reason for this is that the Zoom’s software has to do more. Its functions are set in software instead of buttons. The D50 uses external switches to set things like limiter and lo cut instead of specifying this in software.
In one way, the D50 makes operating these functions easier. On the other hand, it’s useful to leave these things to software, since code can be improved and new features can be added later with firmware updates. On the other hand, once you have added a physical switch it can’t be moved or changed.
A few other random differences:
- The Zoom H4n can be used an audio interface. It ships with Cubase LE 4. Attach the H4n via USB to your computer and your recorder has changed to an audio interface.
- The D50 has a power-saving method where it falls asleep gracefully when not in use.
- The Zoom H4n has a speaker. While it’s not spectacular quality, it can be useful to verify what you’re recording.
- The Zoom H4n has ‘stamina mode.’ This allows batteries to last longer while recording with fewer features. For example, sample rates beyond 44.1 kHz 16-bit aren’t available in this mode. I’ve found this useful when on my last batteries but still must record.
- The Zoom H4n has pro inputs. The D50 accepts external microphone inputs from mini-jacks. The H4n has combined XLR/1/4″ input jacks that allow you to use pro connections. Unfortunately they don’t lock in the socket. This allows more options for external, better microphones without using cumbersome adapters.
- The Zoom H4n can record four tracks at once: two from the on-board microphones, two from the input jacks. Recording at this rate is limited to 44.1 kHz, 16-bit.
- The D50 uses 4 AA batteries. Because of this, and also likely better engineering, you can record with the D50 for ages.
- The D50 comes with 4 Gb of internal memory with an option to expand with the Memory Stick format. The Zoom H4n ships with no internal memory but a 1 Gb Secure Digital card. Note that the D50’s internal and external memory are seen as two separate devices. You need to specify in the menu which you record to.
So now we know the broad features these recorders have. We’re left with perhaps the most important question: do they record quality sound effects?
Read more next week when I’ll post a diverse range of free downloadable sound fx. I’ll also share conclusions on how these pocket recorders rate overall on usability. I’ll post a pro and cons list for each. Stay tuned!