Which Portable Recorder is Best? Sony PCM-D50 vs Zoom H4n Shootout

H4n and Sony Pair

This week we’ll continue our comparison of the Sony PCM-D50 and Zoom H4n portable field recorders. Last week we looked at how various features rated including construction, portability, interface, display, software and other random features.

This week we’ll look at how the D50 and H4n compare with actual sound recordings.

Let’s get started.

Comparison notes

I’ve included some raw, free sound effects downloads below. I’ve represented a variety of sound effects: atmospheres, specifics, narrow and wide microphone patterns, with and without wind screens, etc.

The idea is that you can download the sounds and listen to and analyze them at the comfort of your own workstation. Pass them through a spectrogram. Filter them with plug-ins. This will give you an idea of how the recorder quality will work for your personal projects.

I’ll describe each the sound effect. When listening to them, think about how well the recorders capture a sense of:

  • depth – are distant sounds captured well?
  • sound stage – do recordings seem flat, or can you place specific details at distinct distances?
  • frequency balance – are certain frequencies favored or shunned?
  • stereo imaging – although both recorders feature 90 and 120 degree patterns, how does the width for each recorder compare?
  • stereo pattern – does one recorder capture specifics or ambiences better at 90 degrees or 120 degrees?
  • density – how does the recorder handle dense verses isolated sounds?

Recording technique

The recorders were only inches apart. This means that it will be a good test for comparing stereo width.

I shot the recordings with a clapper, so they are completely in sync.

I did use windscreens for the exterior recordings. I used a Rycote for the Sony. For a few clips I tried an Olsen Audio windscreen on the Zoom H4n. Usually though I used a Rycote wind screen comparable to the one fitted on the Sony.

Other than being trimmed, the sound clips are completely unmastered. This will give you an idea of the native capabilities of the preamp, microphones and wind screens on each pocket recorder.

You can use the sounds freely on whatever you want. You’ll probably have to master them, since these are raw versions. Please just don’t distribute them, even for free. Thank you!

Sony PCM-D50 and Zoom H4n sound samples

King beer can opening slowly sound effect

Recorded closely.

King beer can opening slowly and carefully sound effect, D50

King beer can opening slowly and carefully sound effect, H4n

Water sputtering from a faucet sound effect

Air trapped in water pipes spitting as water is turned back on.

Water sputtering from faucet sound effect, D50

Water sputtering from faucet sound effect, H4n

Paper shredder working sound effect, 1 sheet

Paper shredder working, 1 sheet sound effect, H4n

Paper shredder working, 1 sheet sound effect, D50

Jackhammer working sound effect, narrow and wide POVs

The jackhammer was at medium distance. You can hear a few worker voices in the background. The microphones were set to 90 degrees. Compare these with the following recordings, which are at 120 degrees.

Jackhammer working sound effect comparison, D50 and H4n

Crowd in a Chinatown food court sound effect

I recorded this in an area with chatter mixed with oppressive fans. Notice how each microphone deals with the fan and low end. Do the voices, which are at close range, cut through the fan and low end and room wash? How much low end does each recorder absorb?

Crowd of Old Men in Chinatown Chatting Sound Effect, D50

Crowd of Old Men in Chinatown Chatting Sound Effect, H4n

Crowd in Chinatown playing a boardgame

A small group of old men were playing a board game and shouting and calling loudly. Pay attention to how the background mall cuts into the track.

Crowd of Old Men in Chinatown Playing a Board Game Sound Effect, H4n

Crowd of Old Men in Chinatown Playing a Board Game Sound Effect, D50

Metal hatch opening and closing sound effect

This is a clothing donation bin with a squeaky metal hatch. Think about how each recorder picks up the shrill frequencies. How does each recorder respond to the sharp, sudden attack when the hatch slams?

There is background fan at this location. How well does each recorder do picking up or avoiding the background?

Metal Hatch Creaking and Groaning then Slam Sound Effect, D50

Metal Hatch Creaking and Groaning then Slam Sound Effect, H4n

Scanner sound effects

I recorded a scanner at very close perspective. Compare the 90 degree pattern with the 120 degree pattern. How well does each pattern do recording specifics? How well do the recorders reject background at each pattern?

Also, you can notice a difference how each recorder responds to high frequencies. The first pair of takes are at 90 degrees. Two 120 degree takes follow.

Scanner scanning sound effect, narrow and wide POVs

Three freight train cars passing sound effect

A slow pass of two locomotives towing three freight cars. A bell rings throughout.

Three freight train cars passing sound effect, D50

Three freight train cars passing sound effect, H4n

Freight train cars passing slowly sound effect

A locomotive passes followed by a very long line of cars. It begins slowly and accelerates slightly.

Freight train cars passing slowly sound effect, D50

Freight train cars passing slowly sound effect, H4n

Subway station entrance crowd, thick sound effect

I recorded this at St. Patrick station in Toronto, near the entrance. The crowd is constant, you can hear some vent, coins, turnstiles. At one point a train arrives in the distance.

Subway Station Entrance Crowd, Thick, Sound Effect, H4n

Subway Station Entrance Crowd, Thick, Sound Effect, D50

Strong steam whistle sound effect

This is a whistle from my Paderno kettle. There are some initial clunks as it settles on the burner, screams, then dies as I lift it from the burner. You can hear water crackling off inside the kettle.

Strong steam whistle sound effect, D50

Strong steam whistle sound effect, H4n

Intersection traffic at a hill sound effect, wide POV

These and the following traffic tracks were recorded just north of downtown Toronto. I choose an intersection at the base of a hill because it would get some great sounds from trucks struggling up the hill. That rippling sound you hear is tires driving over streetcar tracks.

These next two takes were recorded at 120 degrees. The final two takes are recorded without a windscreen, for reference.

Intersection traffic at a hill sound effect, narrow and wide POVs

Brush chipper sound effects

A gas brush chipper working chewing up branches. Some worker movement.

Gas brush chipper working sound effect, D50

Gas brush chipper working sound effect, H4n

Conclusions

Well, once again I’ve run out of room.

I’ll conclude the post next week with observations between the recorders, pro and cons and some thoughts on just how usable these recorders are for portably recording sound effects.

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