Zoom H1 sound test vs. H4N recorder

My $99 Zoom H1 arrived yesterday, and as expected based on early reports, it IS flimsy. But nevermind – the tiny size and killer price makes it possible to overlook that. The more immediate concern is: how does it sound?

I did a simple side-by-side comparison of male dialog (my voice reading the first paragraph of Origin of Species) recorded in my office, in three configurations: a Tram TR50 lav (run through a Sennheiser G3 wireless transmitter), built-in stereo mics, and Rode VideoMic. I didn’t do any post processing on the files except to reduce gain slightly on a couple files so they roughly were the same level for the comparison. Here’s how it sounds (WAV files recorded at 48khz 24bit):

NOTE: I just discovered that the wordpress plugin I installed yesterday to steam these only serves the WAV version of the file if you have an HTML 5 compliant browser. Otherwise, it serves up an mp3 (no good for comparing audio.) So to be safe, I’ve posted direct links to the WAV files in the comments.

http://www.danmccomb.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/h1-built-in-stereoH1 with built-in stereo mics

http://www.danmccomb.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/h4n-built-in-stereoh4n with built-in stereo mics

http://www.danmccomb.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/h1-with-tramh1 with tram

http://www.danmccomb.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/h4n-with-tramh4n with tram

http://www.danmccomb.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/rode-with-h1h1 with Rode VideoMic

http://www.danmccomb.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/rode-with-h4nH4N with Rode VideoMic

Conclusion: The Zoom H1 records solid dialog. But if you were hoping for the same H4N quality in a smaller package, you will be slightly disappointed. To my ear, the H1 delivers dialog that is flatter and less rich, especially in the higher frequencies, than the H4N. It’s not such a radical quality drop that it’s a dealbreaker, though. Far from it. Until now, all we’ve had in this size and price range has been crappy mp3 recorders that cost the same or more and sound like shit. The H1 can record dialog that’s quite usable, from a tool that’s affordable, and ridiculously small. I call that a winning combination.

I plan to use the H1 two ways: mounted on my dslr for recording dual sound, and as an inexpensive alternative to purchasing another expensive wireless lav. For the latter combo, it’s small enough that I can hide the recorder on the subject along with a wired (instead of wireless) lav. One drawback to this: no ability to monitor while recording, since the recorder is on the subject. And, I haven’t been able to find a self-powered Tram TR50 lav that has a 3.5mm jack (but that’s nothing that a pair of wire strippers and a soldering gun can’t cure) UPDATE: I’m using this adapter to make it work.

Random observations:

  • In general, to get roughly the same recording level from the H1 as the H4N, I found I had to set the recording level on the H1 around 10 db higher than I did on the H4n.
  • MicroSD cards are TINY. It would be very easy to lose one of these – it’s literally smaller than my little fingernail. And if you’ve got big fingers, you’ll have a hard time fishing the thing in and out of the card slot. I found myself wondering if the next step in this evolution will be a micro card that is permanently embedded in your forearm, which wirelessly transmits the data whenever you need it.
  • With a little EQ matching in Soundtrack Pro, I was able to get the clips to match well enough that they’d cut virtually seamlessly.

49 thoughts on “Zoom H1 sound test vs. H4N recorder

  1. Dan

    Here’s the direct links to download for those of you without HTML 5 browsers:


  2. Pingback: Zoom H1 as “wireless” lav = 4x cheaper | Dan McComb

  3. Matthew

    Thanks for taking the time to post this. Really useful and informative. I love the h4n and was looking for a backup mic but didn’t want to spend another $349 for the mic. Keep up the good work. You’re the number one ranked page for when I searched “zoom h1 vs h4n”

    1. Dan

      Glad you found it useful Matthew. I took a couple minutes to check out your site – one word: beautiful. I love the way you can explore the images to discover what’s happening at the edges. Nice work.

    1. Dan

      Hi Mark,
      Sorry, I hadn’t thought it through and gave you some bad info there. The problem is that any modifications have to happen downstream from the power module that supplies phantom power, because without the phantom power, the mic won’t work. So you’re absolutely correct, you need an adapter cable of the type you’ve shown in the link. Then, as long as you’ve got a powered Tram, like this one, you’re good to go. If, however, the Tram you have is not powered, you’d need to add the TR-79 power supply between the mic and your adapter.

  4. steven

    I have the Zoom h1 and the recording are really quiet, even on a 60 input, any ideas on what i can do, thanks

    1. Dan McComb

      Hi Steven,
      I’ve noticed that you have to bump the recording level on the H1 about 10 db higher than you do on the H4N. So if you’re at 60, go to 70. I routinely record audio on the H1 at 85. But be careful – there’s no limiter on the H1, and you never want to exceed 0 db.

  5. Alex

    Very great resource. Thanks a lot for this comparison Dan! I got a question: I want to record a dialogue between two actors (make a demo reel) , what set up would you recommend if being on budget? From what I heard on here H1n with Rode VideoMic is good

    1. Dan McComb

      I’m actually not a big fan of the Rode VideoMic – it’s a little too boomy sounding for my taste. And the rubber shock mounts wear out really fast and introduce unwanted squeaking sounds. If you want a shotgun mic that’s small enough to mount on camera, you might take a look at this new mic from Hosa Technology: http://www.dslrnewsshooter.com/2010/09/28/hosa-technology-mini-shotgun-mic-a-perfect-fit-on-a-hddslr/. I don’t own it myself, but I keep hearing rave reviews about it.

  6. Alex

    That’s the only video there is there about this Hosa mic, I didn’t find any test samples.. Basically I just plan to record a dialog between two actors , what others options would you suggest, something that you know works and tried it yourself…

  7. Dan McComb

    I have two boom mics that I’m very happy with for different reasons: The AT875, which is a relatively inexpensive option (around $200) that is easy to handle and resists handling noise well.

    And I’m also very happy with Octava MK012. It’s my favorite mic in terms of sound quality, which is rich and full. But you absolutely must use it with care – it is very sensitive to handling noise. So you’ll need to get a baby ball gag even for indoor use. If you’re using it outside, you’ll need a full windscreen enclosure.

    Both of these mics require phantom power, so you’ll need to use dual-system sound (or, if you want to mount the mic on your DSLR, you’d need something like a Beachtek or Juiced Link box).

    I use mine with a Zoom H4N and they work great, although the Octava requires 48 volts of phantom power, which the Zoom will provide, but it drains the batteries instantly. I’ve had much better battery life using the AT875, which requires only 12v phantom power. In fact, I only use the Octava with the Zoom H4N when I can plug the H4N into wall power.

  8. Torley

    Dan, my gracious thanks for your comparison. I’m very happy with my H4n but it serves as my computer audio interface, so I’ve been looking for something else to go mobile with on short trips. The lack of a capable stereo mic for the iPod Touch 4 (which I use so much) has led me to consider standalone alternatives like the H1, but limitations like lack of a limiter are a serious drawback for me.

    1. Dan McComb

      I’ve had good luck with the H1, but you’re right – its lack of a limiter can be a real bummer. I end up setting the audio levels lower than they probably should be because I’m paranoid about clipping. But all in all, the H1 is a heck of a flexible recorder for $100.

  9. Joshua Hoover

    You’ve written so many informative posts, I’m really impressed. How is the sound (noise?) from the Tram TR50 going into the Zoom H1, as you use it in http://www.danmccomb.com/posts/678/zoom-h1-as-wireless-lav-4x-cheaper/? I guess I’ll find out soon enough, but would love to hear a sample of that. I’ve scoured the web for at least one sample of a higher quality lav going into an H1 without any luck. At the very least, how does the sound compare between the G3 into the H1 and the TR-50 into the Zoom? Is there a difference in noise?

  10. Dan McComb

    Hi Joshua,
    There certainly is a base background layer of noise when you use the H1, which is particularly noticeable in quiet recording environments. The preamps simply don’t measure up up to those on the H4N, understandably. And nowhere close to the preamps on my MixPre. I was curious after your question, so I recorded myself reading a paragraph from “The Writer’s Journey” as follows. The difference is palpable:

    Here’s the recording made with Tram TR50 into MixPre and recorded on H4N: http://www.danmccomb.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/tramwithmixpre.mp3
    Here’s the recording with Tram TR50 recorded directly to H1: http://www.danmccomb.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/tramwithh1.mp3

    My feeling is that an H1 with a good mic like the TR50 is “good enough” for lots of things. But I record with my MixPre whenever possible, because the sound quality is pristine.

  11. Joshua Hoover

    Hi Dan,

    Thank you for doing this test! I’m going to get some blog posts together and will include links to your post here and the comment for samples of these two setups.

    I can’t say the results are surprising, except that I was pretty amazed the Tram TR50 to the H1 sounded as good as it did. You can definitely hear a bit more noise there (compared to the TR50 to MixPre recorded by the H4N) and the sound isn’t quite as “pristine” but it’s not bad. At least not to my ears. 🙂

  12. Joshua Hoover

    Hi Dan,

    I have the Zoom H1 now and a Sony ECM-77B lav mic that I got at a good price. Maybe too good of a price? This mic is similar to your Tram in that it is XLR and has the battery power option. My problem is (so far, in early testing), no matter how high I put the level on the Zoom H1, the sound is fairly low. Seems to never go much over -24db. This is with the battery powering the mic. Take the battery out and the sound goes faint. What level do you use with your Tram into the Zoom H1? I’m wondering if it’s a problem with the mic itself or maybe this pairing isn’t a good one (the Sony ECM-77B and the Zoom H1).



  13. Dan McComb

    Hi Joshua,

    I find that I have to crank the levels pretty high as well when I’m using the wired Tram TR50 with the H1. Today I was recording with it and getting good results at level 95. If you’re not getting past -24db, it does seem to be a problem.

    I’m planning to purchase the new Rode Lavalier as soon as it begins shipping (they’ve had horrible delays in shipping these mics which were promised late last year). The nice thing about this mic is that it’s powered by plug-in power, which the H1 provides, so you won’t need a battery with it, and the levels should be great.

  14. Martin

    re Zoom H1 & Sony ECM-77B lav
    I’m in the same boat and just found there’s small power adapter called the Eumel (EMP3.5 $116) available for a number of lavs, including the 77B which supplies the required voltage.
    I’m about to order one from Trewaudio.com

  15. Gotgoproductions

    Hey this is really good info and will read through every one these entries in the next couple of days. Just wanted to open up the discussion a little more—having a really good boom pole(the one thing no one wants to spend money on) is really essential, like a VDB carbon fiber boom pole, and having someone who can and wants to boom well can really solve a lot of sound problems fast, also have a Cstand with the proper yoke that fits in to a Cstand knuckle this can be great where your “talent” is trapped in a room, in a chair and you can boom in to get audio.

    Other thoughts, getting phenomenal results with Edirol(by Roland) R-09HR 24bit 96kHz Wave/MP3 Recorder—-also am very interested in using “non-standard” mike in place of
    traditional shotgun to be specific an AT-822, this is an Audio-Technica omni-directional mike, so it will give you shotgun-like sound, but is not a shotgun. The upside is that it is
    phenomenal sound as this is an old mike you would have to find the current equivalent
    in stereo mikes on the market today. Also I remember using the old Samson wireless
    mikes and while no where near as good as a professional SONY wireless had an
    unbelievable price point and seemed to work pretty good everytime I used them, but
    you do get what you pay for.

    1. Dan McComb

      I would totally go for one of those little Edirols, except they don’t have XLR in. So I can’t use it with a proper shotgun mic that requires phantom power. Thanks for the tip.

  16. Gotgoproductions

    Dan thanks for posting my comment, sometimes if you go too low on
    scale of equipment you dont have options(and become limited), the AT822 is battery powered
    and can output to XLR or a mini-(a Walkman style jack to XLR is included as part of the original purchase)-as I mentioned in
    my first post this is “non-standard” and alot of people just aren’t going to
    want to go this route.
    Thanks for the info on the WordPress Audio plug-in I will check it out and
    see how far I can get with it.
    Heard you were going to be at Souk in Portland Saturday from 630 to 830
    i have to work will you still be in Portland Sun?

  17. Dan McComb

    Yes, we were at Souk for a screening of Shine yesterday. Today we’re heading back to Seattle. Would have been fun to meet up. Ping me next time you’re in Seattle for sure.

  18. Buzz

    How do you think a dynamic mic like the Shure SM57 would sound plugged into the H1 via an XLR to 1/8 adapter cable? Do you think it would sound comparable to an SM57 plugged into an H4n via a regular XLR connection?

  19. 'Jj

    How quickly can you begin recording with the H1 from a cold start? I’ve belive it takes some 20-3rd one’s for the H4n to power on for use…

  20. Jesse

    No way, Dan did you have a tracking number with the carrier you used to send the h1 back thats crap, actually forget that I see that this post was over a year ago, anyway hope it had a nice outcome for you in the end.

    I’m about to buy a zoom h4n a little late in the game i know and there is a rebate now and hints that the successor H4x is out at the beginning of July someone saw it in the wild recently, (rebate ends June 30) but looks like at the moment anyway the h4n has great resale, i need something now, went to a dealer and checked out the r26 which is like a boss effects pedal ery unnatural sounding (built in mics anyway) Dr100mkii not bad but didnt like it and the ugliest of the bunch that i was never interested in the H4n sounded the best and now i actually like the design its grown on me, I know people moan about things about it but there are plentyof competing devices in it’s price and the masses have gone for the h4n, it’s the best selling – so that says something, zoom owns the consumer end of recorders and sound devices owns the pro end.
    I like that h4n mixpre setup youre using and your latest videos sound like Hollywood produced them, h4n may not have a true line input but I don’t care I want the Dan Mccomb sound, mixpre and h4n and maybe that new sennheiser shotgun of yours, your docos look very slick very Morgan spurious, nice work.

    1. Dan McComb

      Hi Jesse, thanks for the props. We pride ourselves on recording great audio to go with the awesome visuals that DSLRs are capable of producing. And using an external recorder is key to getting that. I’d go with an H4N – it’s solid, proven, and inexpensive. There’s always something better coming over the horizon, but we’re only talking about $300 bucks here, so it’s not like buying camera. Go for it!

  21. Fabio Salas

    Hi Dan,

    I’m new on dslr filmmaking, so I’d like to know if I could use the h1 to pick up dialog nearly as a shotgun like the rode videomic does. What do you think? thanks for answer.

    1. Dan McComb

      Hi Fabio,
      Yes, you can use the H1 mounted on top of your camera in the same way as a videomic. However, you will need to always start and stop it manually every time you roll. That will become very annoying very fast, I think you will find. The H1 is also less directional than a videomic, and is stereo, rather than mono. I prefer mono when recording dialog. You can always mix down the stereo to mono in post after the fact, though.

    1. Dan McComb

      Get the mic as close as possible to the subject. Even closer than you think is reasonable. Like 6-8 inches. Then you can reduce the signal to noise ratio and you’ll get the best possible sound out of it.

  22. Bob

    Hi there,
    Can anyone here confirm that the H1 has a faint pulsing tone/sound recorded when using the internal mics on high gain? I recorded a few insects last night on a hike and in editing the recordings there is a faint but very obvious tone/pulse sound (maybe writing to card or REC led?) My batt was low and was using the internal mics. For years i have only used it for live shows and other music recording and never noticed this before.

    ALSO- be sure to upgrade the firmware to latest off the Japanese site- it shortens boot time =drmatically= and also allows the unit to be used as a usb input for recording software which is actually a really nice feature.


    1. Dan McComb

      If you have that faint pulsing sound, it’s a defective unit. However, when I returned mine, I never heard another word from the company. It just disappeared. So please send it registered mail so you have a paper trail.

  23. Jason

    Hi Bob, I can confirm that there is a constant, low-pitched rumble on my H1. With a rechargeable NiMh battery at 1.25 volts the rumble peaks at around -57db, With a brand new Energizer alkaline battery with 1.59 volts, the rumble peaks around -63 to -66db which is far less noticeable. The noise measurements were obtained by viewing the playing back meters on SoundForge 10 software of a recording of background noise in a very quiet room with the Zoom H1 record volume set to 21. This rumble has marred many recordings. You won’t hear it on cheap computer speakers, only on a good sound system, especially if it has a subwoofer. The rumble is the same with original and latest firmware. My guess is the rumble is caused by write cycles to the memory card, which cyclically lowers the supply voltage to the preamps. Does anyone have a schematic? Could probably be fixed by bolstering the capacitors in the power supply.

  24. Vladimir

    My newly bought H1 also makes this rumbling noise, both to the headphone output and to the recording. The noise most likely comes from the poorly filtered output of the DC/DC boost converter, because its character depends on both the battery voltage and the load (whether the backlight is on or off, whether the device is recording or idling, sampling frequency etc). The noise is perfectly centered, and, thanks to having tonal components, clearly stands out from background noise (ambient and mic/preamp). I sent the device for repair with the supplied alkaline battery, but they refused to repair, claiming the problem was not reproducible. The battery voltage has dropped from 1.6 V to 1.3 V when the device came back. I need to check, if operating the device with undercharged Ni-MH battery could work around the problem (e.g. by preventing the DC/DC converter from going into power-saving mode where it lowers switching frequency or skips cycles).

    1. Vladimir

      Well, using a Sanyo Eneloop cell, charged to 50% or 75% (shows 1.25-1.26V under load of 100-200 mA) seemed to solve the rumbling noise problem at first sight. But when doing a recording in the field, the problem came back again (as soon as BL goes off). Of course, I did home testing with headphones connected, and, well, they also increase current draw from the battery, by about 40 mA, about the same as the backlight. When doing test recording with headphones disconnected, the rumbling noise reliably comes back as soon as BL goes off. Any combination of battery voltage drop and powered up units, that rises the battery current consumption above something like 170-190 mA, seems to prevent the rumling noise.

      In order to work around this prolem, I tried to add a 180 Ohm ballast resistor between the 3.3V bus (pad marked TP38) and the ground. It solved the problem as well, as connecting headphones does, however, I quickly found out that the 3.3V bus is powered even when the recorder is off, and the ballast resistor was draining battery (so THAT is why they need a fancy DC/DC converter with power saving mode!).

      The better solution was, instead, to solder a 100 Ohm ballast resistor between the 1.8V bus and the ground (pads marked TP2 and TP3). This bus is, fortunately, powered only when the recorder is on; however, it probably feeds analog unit, and thus uses a linear regulator, and so it is unclear, how much extra load it can tolerate. This appears to solve the rumbling noise problem in all modes with the 1.25V battery, but permits the rumbling noise in the lowest power consumption mode with a 1.5V battery (no headphones, BL off). Still to be confirmed with field recordings, though. The drawback is, of course, a shortened recording time, by about 25-30% in the lowest power consumtion mode. Undercharging battery also shortens recording time somewhat, and is a hassle.

  25. Pingback: Zoom H1: un registratore per cominciare – Videoreflex.org

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