Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The First Real Zoom H2 Review On The Internet

I've been fielding questions about the Zoom H2 Handy Recorder since it was announced over half a year ago. Questions like, "Will it sound as good as the H4?" and, "Is it true that it will record in 360-degree surround sound?" Now, I don't mind answering questions about gear... it's just that this piece of gear never really existed, and I'm always hesitant to simply affirm what a manufacturer's advertising department decided to say about a product that hasn't been produced yet.

But this morning, I was witness to the official launch of the H2: the first in the country to see it as it will ship. And after its debut, I stayed behind and spent an hour of one-on-one time with it.

Now, in case you haven't heard of this little thing, it's basically a handheld recorder that looks a bit like a communicator from the original Star Trek series. Very portable, very powerful, and very coveted. Why? Two main reasons: it's going to be a hundred bucks less than the hot-selling Zoom H4, and has been advertised as having three mic capsules for mid-side recording.

Well, sorry to disappoint you folks, but it's doesn't have three mic capsules. It has FOUR. Yes, you read that right. Apparently, the engineers at Zoom made the first production run of H2's and concluded after listening, "This thing sounds terrible. Back to the drawing board." Fortunately for us, what they ended up with was a gem.

In response to the question, "Will the H2 be as good as the H4," I can say it certainly seems so. Wonder of wonders, the mic capsules in the H2 are the SAME MICS as the H4! Yes, those same mics that can handle 120db of SPL and have a pretty flat frequency response across 70Hz to 20kHz. (There is admittedly a bit of a boost around 6kHz.)

How can they fit four of those mics into this little guy? Well, believe it or not, all that metal isn't all mic. The H4's mics are actually pretty small. And they're tightly packed into the H2 in a W/XY pattern (NOT the mid-side design that was originally developed): a 90-degree stereo pair in the front, and a 120-degree setup in the rear. That doesn't provide a true 360-degree omnidirectional recording device, but it sure makes for convincing surround sound. Setting it up in the middle of a band rehearsal or orchestra recital will yield some great recordings.

How would you do that? Quite easily, because the H2's mounting options are great. Not only does its 2.5" x 4.3" x 1.25" size fit perfectly into your palm for single-handed operation, but it also can be left alone using either the stand or mic stand adapter.

Both accessories screw into the threaded hole at the bottom. The mic stand adapter is especially ingenious in its simplicity: It's an extension shaped like the barrel of a microphone, easily mounting into any available mic clip.

Speaking of accessories, the H2 comes as a complete package. In addition to the stand and mic stand adapter mentioned, it also includes a 512Mb SD card, a windscreen, a USB cable, a 9vDC adapter, earbuds (necessary because there's no speaker built in), and a stereo RCA to 1/8' cable (for connecting to a home stereo system for example). Contrary to what all the music retail websites are reporting, the H2 does NOT come bundled with Cubase LE.

That's hardly a deal-breaker, considering how much benefit you're getting for a street price of two hundred bucks. Consider what you're getting:

USB Interface
The H2 can be plugged into your computer's USB port and serve as both mountable storage for file transfer and as a two-channel audio interface - functioning as a USB mic! Just plug in the USB cable and select either "Storage" or "Audio I/F". (By the way, it is USB 2.0-, Mac OSX-, Windows XP-, AND Vista-compatible.)

High Resolution, Long Recording Time
It can record either WAV or MP3 files. WAV resolution is from 44.1kHz/16 bit to 96kHz/24 bit. MP3s can be from 48k to 320kbps or variable bit rate. (Just decide what you want in advance, because there's no on-board conversion after the fact.) With a slot in the bottom of the unit, the H2 can take SD cards (including SDHC) up to 4Gb, and record a max file size of 2Gb. That equates to 380 minutes of recording 44.1kHz/16bit stereo WAV files or 68 HOURS of stereo MP3's encoded at 44.1kHz/128kbps.

Light Weight and Long Life
The H2 weighs just four ounces before you put in the two AA batteries, and will run for 4 to 4 1/2 hours on them.

Inputs and Output
In addition to its four mics, there is an external stereo mic input (using this disables the built-in mics), and a line in for devices with line-level output like a CD player. Output options are both USB and line out to headphones or other monitoring options.

Metronome and Tuner
The H2 has a couple benefits for players: a five-sound metronome with pre-count, adjustable from 40-250 BPM, as well as a built-in chromatic, guitar, and bass tuner.

Date/Time Stamping and Markers
The H2 is capable of date/time stamping your recordings, as well as adding markers to your audio file. Whether you're indicating when the next song in the set started or when your interviewee uttered some un-airable profanity, you can just hit the play/pause button while recording to insert a marker. These markers will be exported as Broadcast Wave Files (BWF), readable by any DAW that can read the metadata in BWF files.

All these features and benefits really make the H2 attractive. Even better is the fact that recording couldn't be simpler. This is due in large part to the fact that Zoom seems to have really listened to people's input about the H4's shortcomings. The new H2's display is backlit, with a resolution of 128 x 64 dots. They've made the font larger than on the H4 for easier readability. And the user interface is much easier than its larger cousin's. The 92-page manual is well-written and comprehensive.

But I didn't need to crack the manual before beginning to work with the H2. I quickly figured out how to power on and start recording. There's a three-level mic gain switch, fine-tunable using the on-screen menus, as well as choice of four recording modes: Front (90-degrees), Rear (120-degrees), 4-channel surround (which records two stereo channels of Right Front, Right Rear and Left Front, Left Rear), or simple two-channel surround of Left and Right.

Listening to 4-channel recordings in the headphones doesn't quite do it justice, since the H4 is having to sum to a stereo monitor. However, if you load these tracks into your DAW, you will have four independent tracks of audio (technically, they are two stereo tracks, but you can easily split them to four mono). And don't forget, the markers will import as well, if your DAW supports BWF.

You may need to consult the manual for some of the more technical features, like the Auto Record start and stop, which allows you to set the H2 to start recording from 0-2 seconds before the sound in your area rises above the db level you set. And you can also set the Record Stop level to stop 0-5 seconds after the sound drops below your defined level (individually programmable from the record start db level, by the way).

There are lots more things I don't have room to cover, most prominent being the 3D panning adjustment screen. This allows you to adjust the Front/Rear/Left/Right balance of a file pair recorded in four channel mode. Suffice it to say it's just plain COOL, and you have to see and hear it.

As for the inevitable audiophile questions: No, I didn't get to take it into the studio and analyze every nuance of the mic pres and frequency response. All I can tell you is that I recorded some ambient room noise, conversations, and a good bass player (thanks, Biscuit!) with the H2, and later was fooled by the authentic sounds coming through the headphones (I thought he had started playing the same song again). My brain bought it... I'm guessing yours will, too.