Zoom has always been a major player on the portable recorder scene. The Zoom H2 was a small, inexpensive recorder that did a remarkably good job of recording music and ambiences. The original Zoom H4 was the first affordable flash recorder with XLR mic inputs. Its successor, the Zoom H4n, has dominated the video documentary world, because of its flexibility and good-sounding built-in mics.
But competition had gotten tough, with the Tascam DR-40, DR-100mkII, and DR-60D making a direct assault on the Zoom H4n’s position. Zoom’s response was to make some significant design changes, and increase the capabilities of its new models.
The Zoom H5 is a clear successor to the H4n, and it has some distinctive improvements. Most noticeable are the big knobs dedicated to controlling input volume. On earlier models, the up/down rocker switches for adjusting gain were always annoying, so it’s a great relief to see a more intuitive way to adjust the input levels. They work well: they’re smooth and quiet, and allow precise volume adjustments. They’re even protected from accidental bumping, or damage in transport, by metal bars. The only downside is that if you’re holding the recorder in your hand, it’s difficult to adjust the volume with that same hand; it usually takes a second hand to adjust those knobs.
The next big change is the intuitive track-arming buttons across the top of the recorder. The L-R buttons put the built-in mics into record, while the 1 and 2 buttons do the same for the XLR/Quarter-inch combi jacks for external inputs. Switching between inputs used to be a chore, but can now be done quickly and easily from the top panel.
The up/down rocker switch remains as a control for the headphone level, and while a knob would be preferable there too, that’s less of an annoyance. There’s a stereo minijack line out that can feed a video camera, or a backup audio recorder when doing those really important interviews. The level can be attenuated in 5 dB increments if the external device needs a mic level signal. That adjustment is made in a menu, which is not as smooth or flexible as the “camera-out” level knob on the Tascam DR-60D, but it gets the job done.
There are still times you’ll need to dive into the menus, and navigating those still uses Zoom’s weird combination toggle-switch/button on the side, and yes, it’s still hard to press in to select an option without accidentally toggling one direction or the other, but at least the menus are simpler and easier to move through.
The built-in stereo mics have a new look too: they are suspended in shock mounts, and no longer twist to change their angle of pick-up. The shock mounting is a slight improvement over the previous design. Handling noise from the recorder body is still a problem, though a little less so, and vibrations that would be transmitted through a tripod or stand are reduced somewhat. The problem is that the shock mounts are not especially hardy; I managed to break one while carrying it around in a bag with other gear, as I’ve done with many other recorders with no ill effects. Thankfully, it doesn’t seem to impact the sound quality, although I’m sure its isolating capabilities are reduced.
And finally, the H5 has added the capability first introduced in its big brother the H6: interchangeable mic capsules. The H5 is sold with the basic X/Y mics, and those will very likely remain the most popular option. But you can also buy additional mic attachments. The various mic modules can be removed by squeezing together two buttons on each module’s base, and are attched by simply pressing the new module into place. The standard X/Y stereo mics can be replaced with a mono shotgun mic, or a M/S Stereo mic, or with a module that adds two more XLR mic inputs. It’s a pretty clever system, and the connections feel secure and solid. It’s too early to say how well that interface will hold up over time, but then, I can’t imagine that you’d be changing those modules all that frequently.
The X/Y mic module also has a mini input jack that can be used for an external mic or line input. Plugging a cable into that jack diverts the signal flow to the minijack, and the built-in mics are disabled.
The X/Y module is the best sounding, and most useful of the options. There are sound samples below that illustrate the situation: the alternate modules exhibit some additional background noise that’s not really noticeable with the X/Y mics. The M/S module is the worst offender, but the shotgun mic attachment has some whooshy background noise too. The shotgun attachment might be handy for quick run-and-gun interview situations, but will not sound as good as a decent external shotgun mic. In the sound sample, I say it’s not a “terrible” level of background noise, but I go back and forth about that: the background “whoosh” is pretty noticeable; the context of your recordings will reveal whether that’s a problem or not. If you’re recording conversational dialog in a quiet room, you’d be much better-off with an external shotgun mic. If you’re recording a loud news conference with lots of background ambience, you probably won’t notice it so much. The M/S Stereo attachment creates so much hissy noise that I can’t imagine how one would use it successfully.
If you ignore those optional attachments and stick with the stock Zoom H5, you’ll find that it’s a very versatile, good sounding, and easy-to-use recorder. Paired with an external mic, in particular, a dynamic omni mic, it’s not quite as quiet as the Tascam DR-100mkII or DR-60D, or even its big brother, the Zoom H6, but the difference is not dramatic. The H5 performs much better with condenser mics, getting nice clean recordings from the external inputs. My initial impressions were influenced by the fact that there’s a bit of hiss on the headphone output, which is not all that unusual on small portable devices. The actual recordings are a bit cleaner than they seemed while monitoring through headphones.
The built-in X/Y mics sound very good too. I’ve never been a fan of using those kinds of mics for interviews; an external mic designed for voice recording usually offers several advantages. But the built-in stereo mics are excellent for recording the sounds of an event, for collecting ambience, or capturing musical performances.
The built-in X/Y mics are very wind sensitive, but Zoom provides a hefty foam wind cover that does a good job controlling low-level breezes and protecting from P-Pops if used to record voice. The foam is not secured to the recorder with anything other than friction, so be careful not to lose it when moving it around. The optional shotgun attachment comes with a furry windcover that is very effective, and also secures to the base of the attachment with elastic loops.
Sound Sample: Zoom H5 – RE50 (external dynamic omnidirectional mic)
Sound Sample: Zoom H5 – Rode NTG2 (external shotgun mic)
Sound Sample: Zoom H5 – Sennheiser K6/ME66 (external shotgun mic)
Sound Sample: Zoom H5 – Built-in Shotgun mic optional module
Sound Sample: Zoom H5 – Built-in M/S Stereo optional mic module
Sound Sample: Zoom H5 – Built-in X/Y mic module: voice
Sound Sample: Zoom H5 – Built-in X/Y Stereo mic module: music (spontaneous improvisation by Jeff Pearce and Michael Teager in a small stone church in Philadelphia, as concert set-up crew talks in the background. Recorded from approximately six feet away from each musician.)
Sound Sample: Zoom H5 – Built-in X/Y Stereo mic module: rain ambience
The H5 maintains a very useful capability that was first introduced on the H4n: the ability to record from the internal mics and the external inputs at the same time, and save those recordings as two discrete stereo files, to be mixed together later. This allows you to use the built-in mics to record the live sound of a band, while taking a feed from the soundboard into the external line inputs. Or you could point the built-in mics at some vegetables being chopped, or a sizzling pan, while using the external mic inputs for a lavalier mic and a boom mic to better pick up a chef’s voice. Or you could point the built-in mics at an audience to record their reactions, while feeding a podium mic or table mic, or both, into the external mic inputs to record a lecturer or storyteller.
Or – if that level of complexity is dizzying – you can ignore the 4-track capability and simply use it with the built-in mics, or an external mic, and still be able to quickly switch between the two, even if you never use both at the same time.
It also has a handy trick that allows you to record a backup file, reduced in volume by 12 dB. This can be very helpful if you’re confronting unpredictable levels, allowing you to record at a healthy level, and still have a lower-level backup in case a loud peak clips your main file. Other than the lower level, the backup file sounds the same as the original, with no loss in audio quality. There are a couple of significant limitations to this feature, the biggest being that it only works on the L-R inputs (the built-in mics.) This backup function cannot be used on the external XLR or line inputs. Also, the volume reduction is fixed at 12 dB. The Tascam DR-40, DR-60D and DR-70 can make backup recordings from any of the inputs (only two at a time, not in 4-track mode) and the gain reduction can be set at several user-defined increments. Still, it’s a nice thing to have available when recording from the built-in mics, although, of course, using this mode eats up twice as much disc space, because you’re making two separate recordings.
In multifile mode, you can even record only one external microphone as a mono file, saving disc space. Or you can link the external inputs 1 and 2 so that they always record as a stereo file. (In mutifile mode, press the 2 button while holding the 1 button, to link inputs 1 and 2. Do the same again to un-link.)
Evaluating Overall Design
The H5 is a little slimmer and more comfortable in the hand than the H4n or the H6, and it’s slightly smaller than the Tascam DR-100mkII as well. But it’s not quite pocketable either. The built-in mic module could be removed to make the recorder lighter and smaller, if one were only using external microphones, but you’d want to cover that socket where the mic modules go, and I don’t think there’s currently a secure cover made for that purpose.
The display is a decent size, and fairly easy to read when the backlight is on, except in very bright sunlight; with the backlight off (to save battery) it’s more of a challenge to see. However, that light can be set to stay on, or off, or on for varying lengths of time after any button push, and can be activated by flicking the menu selector. The screen shows you most vital information without toggling a display mode: in stop, it indicates remaining available record time, in record mode it can be set to show elapsed record time, or remain in “count down” mode.
Recordings can be made in “multifile mode” at 16- or 24-bit, 44.1 kHz or 48 khz, which is more than sufficient for most purposes. “Stereofile Mode” adds the 96 khz sample rate, but I find that to be overkill on a small recorder such as this. You can also record at many different MP3 resolutions, but I advise against recording directly to MP3 unless it’s absolutely necessary (or sound quality is not your main priority).
There are built-in compressors and limiters that can be adjusted in the menus, but they’re tricky to set correctly without creating audible artifacts of the processing, so I’d advise leaving them off, and making any adjustments in your computer at the mix stage.
As with most Zoom recorders, you can also use the H5 as an audio interface to your computer. There’s a menu setting that toggles between interface mode and data transfer mode. I usually just remove the SD card and use a card reader, but you can move the data directly from the H5 via a USB cable if you wish.
The H5 runs on two AA batteries, and battery life is widely variable, depending on your recording configuration. Using the built-in mics, recording WAV files, and not using headphones, you could get perhaps as many as 14 hours of record time, as mentioned in some literature. But if you’re using external mics, especially if they need phantom power, or multitracking, or recording to MP3, or keeping the display light on more than absolutely necessary, your battery life will be less. I think it’s always crucial to wear headphones, so that’s going to reduce battery life somewhat. Count on 3-4 hours in basic set-ups, less with multiple tracks and phantom power. Maybe you’ll get lucky and get longer life.
Maybe we'll get lucky and you'll...
Help Transom get new work and voices to public radio by donating now.
Overall, the Zoom H5 is a worthy upgrade to the H4n, with significant improvements on almost every front. The hardware gain knobs and improved track-arming scheme make it easier to use, the mic preamps are cleaner than before, and the shock-mounted mics make it (marginally) less sensitive to handling noise. It’s not quite as flexible in its capacity to feed audio to a DSLR or budget video camera as the Tascam DR-60D or DR-70, but it bests those recorders on the quality of its built-in mics (the DR-60D has none, the DR-70 has two basic omni mics.) The optional mic modules are a mixed bag: it’s nice to have the option to switch to an interview-friendly shotgun mic, but it’s noisy; M/S stereo is a versatile stereo mode that retains mono compatibility, but that module is almost unusably hissy.
I did not get a chance to test the module that substitutes two additional XLR combi jacks for the built-in mics, to allow the connection of two additional external mics or line-ins, but I can imagine that this could be handy for panel discussions and other multi-mic environments. (Note – this add-on module does not provide phantom power to condenser mics.)
The competition among field recorders for audio and video documentary use is fierce these days, and users have benefited from dropping prices and additional features on reasonably priced recorders. The Zoom H5 certainly can hold its own among this field. If you use built-in stereo mics often, the H5 might be preferable to similar Tascam recorders. But if you primarily use external mics, and feed the audio to a video camera, the Tascams offer some small advantages. The good news is that either option is much better sounding, easier to use, and cheaper than what was available only a few years ago.