FIG. 1: The pocket-size Zoom H2 has four onboard microphones and records 2- or 4-channel audio at rates as high as 96 kHz. Most controls and the backlit graphic display are on the front panel.
During any creative process, there comes a time when you must start saying no to new ideas. I'm guessing that the Zoom H2's design team postponed that moment as long as possible. This little device has more features than any similar product I've tested. It offers 2- or 4-channel recording using built-in microphones. It records MP3 or PCM audio with up to 24-bit, 96 kHz resolution. It has a metronome, a tuner, a prerecord buffer, plug-in power for external mics, a USB audio interface, and more. And its street price is under 200 bucks.
About the size of a fresh bar of soap, the lightweight H2 sits easily in your hand (see Fig. 1). It has a few switches and buttons along the side, but Play, Record, and most other controls are clustered on the front panel as seven raised buttons on a membrane switch. With practice, it is possible to find the Record button by touch, although it would be easier if the button were a different shape or size.
The H2 has a small but readable backlit LCD that provides level metering, an elapsed time counter, the file name and type (MP3 or WAV), the folder name, and the remaining recording time based on the currently selected audio format and resolution. The recorder has no digital audio input or output jacks, but you can transfer digital audio from the H2 via USB 2.0 or a removable Secure Digital card; a 512 MB card is included.
Battery life is excellent, with a pair of AA 2,650 mAh NiMH cells providing well over 6 hours of recording time. I'm a big fan of AA batteries; their small size, light weight, and ready availability are all big pluses for a field recorder.
Included in the box are basic earbud headphones, a stereo-to-RCA cable, two single-use AA batteries, an AC adapter, a foam windscreen, and a small tabletop stand. You also get a conical piece of plastic that screws into a plastic threaded hole (with camera-tripod threads) in the H2's bottom panel; it attaches to the included mic-clip adapter and then slips into a standard mic-stand clip.
Get Up and Go
Though the H2 has a lot of options, they won't get in the way of making a quick recording. From power-on to recording takes less than 10 seconds. The H2's menus are generally well organized, and the harder-to-find options aren't mission critical.
Out of the box, the H2 will default to recording from the front pair of its internal mics — the ones facing you as you hold the recorder in your hand (more about the four internal mics in a bit). One press of the Record button puts the deck in record-ready mode, which enables the level meters and the record-level buttons. Holding the up or down button for record level scrolls through a range of 0 to 127 (for fine-tuning levels), taking a longish 21 seconds to complete the trip. The more immediate Mic Gain switch has low, medium, and high settings.
The record-level meters feel sluggish; a loud transient registers on the meters a few hundred milliseconds after you hear it. In addition to the LCD level meters, the recorder has two red clip LEDs that respond faster — one for the front mics and another for the rear mics. The LEDs do double duty, glowing continuously to show which mics (front or rear) are active, and flickering immediately when clipping occurs in the analog mic preamp.
Press Record a second time to capture stereo audio at resolutions ranging from 48 kbps MP3 files to 24-bit, 96 kHz WAV files. During recording of WAV files (but not MP3s), pressing the Play/Pause button drops markers. Pressing the Record button a third time ends the recording and closes the newly created file.
If you want to trim unwanted portions of a recording in the field, you can split a stereo file in two — or, more accurately, take one longer file and copy it into two shorter ones, divided at a point of your choosing. A short prerecord buffer (from 1 to 2 seconds, depending on the currently selected resolution) is helpful when you're waiting for a sound but you don't know exactly when it's going to start. The menu lets you enable a low-cut filter, but you must stop recording before you can toggle it in or out.
FIG. 2: The H2''s side panels provide a stereo mic input, stereo line input, and stereo headphone output, all on 3.5 mm jacks, as well as connections for the included AC power adapter and USB 2.0.
The sound quality from the built-in mics is adequate for voice, rehearsal recordings, or other casual applications. Compared with the more expensive Edirol R-09, the H2 has less top and bottom and displays a somewhat narrower stereo image. The internal mic preamps are reasonably quiet, measuring nearly identical to the R-09 in terms of self-noise.
The best-sounding recording I made with the H2's internal mics was a close-up acoustic piano and solo vocal recording of a bandmate. With some firm EQ and compression applied in my DAW, a decent-sounding, no-apologies-necessary demo recording was the end result.
You can also connect an external mic to the 3.5 mm input (see Fig. 2). Plug-in power, a conceptual cousin but not equivalent to phantom power, can be switched on or off for the external mic. This helpful addition widens your choices for external mics. The H2's red clip LEDs apply only to the internal mics.
The H2 has an assortment of Automatic Gain Control (AGC) modes, which are descriptively named (Speech, Drums, and so on). These modes determine both the record level and the mic gain, so you should ensure that you select the mode tailored to the sound source to avoid clipping the mic preamp. I didn't thoroughly test the various AGC options, but attack times for the various modes were in the 10 to 20 ms range, whereas release times varied from a quick 50 ms (Limiter modes) to a longer 300 ms for the Drum Compressor mode. As always, you're better off setting your record levels manually, but AGC can be useful, and the H2 has many more options than are typically provided.
Making Sound Files
The H2 stores stereo recordings into your choice of ten separate numbered folders. Four-channel recordings end up in their own single folder. Individual stereo recordings are named STE (for stereo), followed by a hyphen and a sequential number — for example, STE-014.WAV.
Oddly, it's possible to end up with files sharing the same name, differing only in their extension (STE-009.WAV and STE-009.MP3). Also, if you delete lower-numbered recordings in a folder, new recordings will be named to fill those gaps in the numeric sequence. As a consequence, the highest numbered file isn't always your most recent recording (though a few button presses will show you the date and time each file was recorded). I got confused by this system once and accidentally deleted recent recordings on the assumption they'd already been backed up.
Your computer can work with the H2 in two different ways. First, you can use your Mac or PC to transfer, rename, or delete sound files from the SD card inserted in the H2. The device can also serve as a USB audio interface for your Mac or PC. In this mode, you can use external mics or the H2's built-in mics (optionally with AGC to set your input levels). USB supplies power to the H2 when it's connected, allowing you to transfer files even if your AA batteries are spent.
Surround in Your Pocket
The H2's built-in mics provide four different recording options. You can record through the front pair only (with 90-degree spacing), or you can record through the rear pair only (with 120-degree spacing). Option three is to record two tracks through the front and back mics simultaneously. Option four is to record four channels, using all four mics, to a pair of stereo WAV files. You cycle through the four options using dedicated left and right arrow buttons on the front panel. Four tiny LEDs, as well as the dual-function mic active/analog clip LEDs on the front and rear sides of the recorder, indicate which mode you're in.
When you select 4-channel recording mode, the LCD shows four level meters, all of which are set by a single master record-level control. I made an assortment of 4-channel H2 recordings and then used Minnetonka's Disc Welder Steel program to create discrete 4-channel DVD-A discs for playback. The surround experience generated by the H2's internal mics is immersive but yields somewhat ambiguous imaging (for details, see the online bonus material at www.emusician.com). Still, if you're interested in exploring the world of multichannel field recording and reproduction, I can't imagine a simpler or less expensive way to get your feet wet.
The H2 Handy Recorder lives up to its name. Though feature rich, it is straightforward to operate. The quick-start tutorial will get you recording in 5 minutes, and the manual (which includes a thorough index, thank you very much) presents the unit's wealth of features in a clear fashion.
The H2 is a good choice for recording rehearsals and documenting performances. With its low cost and AGC modes, it's also appropriate to use for interviews, gathering oral histories, and so on. Although I'm not thrilled by the sound of the internal mics, considering the H2's price point, their performance is acceptable. And as I mentioned before, the inclusion of true 4-channel recording on a deck with a street price of under $200 is pretty impressive. You won't find a field recorder that has more features at a lower price than the Zoom H2.
Rudy Trubitt (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a musician and audio producer in the San Francisco Bay Area. He thanks Bruce Koball for his assistance in the preparation of this review.
compact digital recorder$199
PROS: Good value. Packed with features. Excellent battery performance.
CONS: Adequate but uninspiring tonality and imaging from the internal mics. Sluggish metering.
FEATURES 1 2 3 4 5 AUDIO QUALITY 1 2 3 4 5 EASE OF USE 1 2 3 4 5 VALUE 1 2 3 4 5
Zoom/Samson Technologies Corp.