It was easy to write-off the original Zoom H1: it was small, plastic, felt a little flimsy, and had very few controls for customizing the recording process. But that recorder, which generally sold for under $100, quietly became a very popular recorder among low-budget filmmakers, students, and beginning audio producers. It turns out that the H1 was not as fragile as it appeared, and delivered decent-quality sound — from either the built-in stereo microphones, or from external sources via the stereo mini input jack.
Now Zoom has released the H1n, and it has several noteworthy improvements over the original. The sound quality is a little better, but the more dramatic changes are in the controls. The recorder itself is approximately the same shape and size, and although it’s still made of plastic, and very lightweight, it somehow feels a bit more solid. The top of the recorder, where the built-in stereo mics are, has a more robust protective basket. Many controls have moved to the top of the recorder, so there are no more switches on the bottom.
The left side is largely unchanged, with a stereo mini jack for headphones, its volume controlled by an up/down rocker switch.
The right side is dramatically simplified, with only the power/hold switch, a USB jack, a micro SD card slot, and a stereo mini jack for external microphone or line input. The tiny transport controls on the original H1 have been moved to the top of the recorder, where they’re much easier to see and control.
Both versions have a troubling “trash” button, which serves to delete the most recent recording. It’s not quite as dangerous as it sounds because the delete function requires pressing a second button as confirmation. That said, I still dislike having a button that’s easy to press accidentally and that threatens to delete a recording (which I’ve done many times). I’d much rather invest in a larger memory card, and never delete anything when in the field: it seems way too easy to accidentally lose something valuable.
The most dramatic change to the controls is the input gain control. This is a huge improvement: it’s so much easier to set levels accurately with a knob than with an up/down rocker switch like the original H1 had. If you’re using the built-in stereo mics, it’s still hard to adjust the input gain without making noise that the mics pick up, but with some practice, it’s possible to adjust that gain quietly. The old rocker switch ALWAYS made noise that you could hear on the built-in mics.
Like the original H1, the H1n does not have a complicated menu structure, most adjustments are made through hardware switches. The H1n adds four small buttons right under the screen, and pressing those buttons toggles through several helpful settings. You can choose from various record formats: turn a low-cut filter on or off, and adjust its frequency; turn a limiter on or off; and set the input gain to manual or automatic. These buttons are very easy to use: scrolling through the options is much more efficient than digging through multi-level menus.
The display itself is much improved. The bright blue backlight makes it easy to read in all lighting conditions. It’s significantly brighter than the original H1’s orange backlight, and even brighter than the display on Zoom’s larger, more expensive recorders, like the H4n or H5.
Zoom has been upping the sound quality of its recorders in the last few years. The handheld recorders H5 and H6 have very good sound, and the new F4 and F8 recorders have sound quality that approaches the best pro-level recorders. The H1n’s sound quality is not quite in those ranks: it’s not dramatically better than the original H1, but it IS better. The noise floor is lower, and the overall character of the sound is more open and pleasing. But it’s still a very inexpensive recorder with only a minijack for external input, so the sound quality is not quite as good as, say, the Zoom H5, but then, it’s less than half the price.
And the sound is good enough for many situations. The built-in mics are very good, and so this recorder excels at recording stereo ambiences, musical performances, and other immersive events. The sound is not quite as clean or rich as its larger brothers, the H5 or H6, but it’s still quite good. With its size and weight, it can serve as an efficient back-up recorder, or just one that you carry around all the time, ready to record quickly, in a low-key way.
The built-in mics are very sensitive to handling noise, wind noise and P-Pops, so ideally, you’d want to use an external mic for interviews. As is the case with most small, inexpensive recorders, the sound quality is much better with a condenser mic than with lower-output dynamic mics. But keep in mind that the H1n cannot send “phantom power” to condenser mics, so if you want to use that type of microphone, you need to pick one that can supply its own phantom power, from an internal battery. If you intend to use the H1n’s built-in mics, you’ll want some wind protection — it’s absolutely crucial outdoors, but would also be helpful indoors, to reduce wind noise that gets created by simply moving the recorder, or from ventilation, or especially, P-Pops. Zoom makes a furry windscreen called the WSU-1 that can fit on most of their handheld recorders, including the H1n. A simple foam cover would probably suffice indoors — something like this should fit.
Many low-budget filmmakers embraced the original H1 as a solution for recording lavalier microphones. Instead of using expensive wireless lavalier systems, they connect a lavalier mic to the H1’s external mic input, set the input gain, then engage the “Hold” button so no controls can be changed. Then they’d place the recorder in the presenter’s pocket. The audio track recorded on the H1 would be synced-up with the video later.
The H1n can also be used this way, but the input gain knob is NOT locked by the Hold button, so there’s a risk of the gain settings accidentally getting changed. But even more to the point, Zoom has released a recorder that’s custom built for this use: the Zoom F1. You can even attach optional Zoom microphone modules to that recorder, making it a very compact alternative to small recorders like the H1n.
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But — the F1 is more expensive, about $200 USD, while the H1n sells for approximately $120 USD. That’s more than the original H1, which generally sold for under $100 USD, but it’s still a bargain.
For those folks using it to feed audio to video cameras or DSLRs, the H1n added a couple of nice features. It can output a test tone, which makes setting levels in the camera much easier. That test tone can also be set to “bloop” at the start and end of takes, which can help in syncing audio recorded directly on the H1n with the scratch track recorded on the camera.
if you already have a Zoom H1, or a similar small recorder, such as a Tascam DR-05 or DR-07, the H1n is not a huge improvement, so you may not feel the need to upgrade. But if you’ve been frustrated by some of the aspects of those small recorders (like the up/down rocker switch for input level) the H1n might be worth the investment. Or if you need a small, lightweight back-up recorder for when your more professional rig misbehaves, the H1n could be a good choice. Or if you’re just getting started in audio recording, are on a tight budget, or just want a small, light recorder to carry with you, the H1n provides good sound quality at a very affordable price.
It’s the best sounding, and the easiest to operate of the various $100-ish audio recorders. If that’s your budget, the H1n is a good choice, and does offer a few advantages over the other options.
There are a couple of minor downsides. For some reason, Zoom changed the recorder’s powering from a single AA battery to two AAA batteries. That’s not a big deal, but almost all portable audio gear can run on AAs, so it’s a little annoying to have to remember to keep spares of both kinds of batteries. Even with AAAs, the battery life is pretty impressive: I was able to leave it in record for close to 10 hours.
Similarly, Zoom changed the USB port from a mini to a micro. Again, not a major crisis, but if you had a few spare mini-USB cables to use with your original H1, you need to buy some new cables to transfer data. Or you can take the micro SD card (up to 32 GB in size) out and load it into a card-reader on your computer. But be careful: as is true of the original H1, the spring-loaded slot for the memory card is capable of shooting the card out with some force. I’ve occasionally found myself searching the floor for a tiny micro SD card after it launched itself out of the card slot.
There’s no function to record a “safety track,” where a duplicate track is recorded at a lower level to protect against unexpected peaks (which some other Zoom, and Tascam, recorders can do). So you’ll have to set your levels carefully. The limiter works pretty well to control spiky levels, but it can add noise, which might or might not be a significant problem, depending on the microphone you’re using, and the recording environment.
Overall, the H1n is indeed a “Handy Recorder” as Zoom calls its H-series recorders. It could be a very good first recorder for folks on a budget, or an affordable backup. It feels a little too fragile to be an ideal recorder for kids who are interested in audio recording or journalism, but it might possibly survive. The plastic cage over the microphone elements does inspire some confidence in the device’s ability to endure rough treatment!
The H1n IS easy to use, so it could be a very good learning tool, even though the more-robust XLR jacks for external mics, cleaner preamps, and more sophisticated controls make something like the Zoom H5 a better choice for a working journalist. But sometimes something small, light and inexpensive is what you need, and in that case, the Zoom H1n is a solid choice.