About a year ago we looked at the Olympus LS-10 digital recorder, a sort of super Dictaphone that, with its advanced built-in stereo microphones and 24-bit/96KHz sampling rates was ideal for budding podcasters, sound recordists and amateur musicians in need of a quick and dirty way to record rehearsals and live gigs. Today's subject, the Zoom H4N, can be seen as a larger, but more advanced version; a little more difficult to use, but packing in a range of features that will be handy for the same kinds of user but practically essential for musicians.
We described the LS-10 as the audio equivalent of a bridge camera, offering a higher level of sound capture than the average Dictaphone or voice recorder, but retaining a compact shape and some ‘point and shoot' ease of use. With the Zoom H4N we're treading more into digital SLR territory. The Zoom can do a lot more than the LS-10, but it takes a bit more time and practice to get your head around, and it's more bulky and not always so practical to boot.
Whereas the LS-10 felt like a scaled up Dictaphone, and could just about be crammed into a pocket, you'd need some extra-large combat trousers to pack the Zoom in. Roughly six inches long, three inches wide and over an inch thick (70 x 156 x 35mm in more accurate, metric terms), it weighs a hefty 280g without the two AA batteries installed. The microphones sit at the top, but whereas the LS-10 placed its stereo condenser mics in a sort of Y formation, the H4N uses what Zoom calls an X/Y formation, with the two microphones crossing over to capture a stereo signal in a 90 degree arc. The LS-10 had a function that enabled you to focus or spread the angle of capture, but the H4N takes a more physical approach. By rotating the two microphones you can spread the arc outwards from 90 degrees all the way up to 120 degrees, making it easy to capture multiple voices in a meeting or a wider range of sound if you're, for instance, recording birdsong, a band on a larger stage or an orchestra.
While the LS-10 had 2GB of internal memory which you could then supplement with SD/SDHC cards, the H4N has no internal memory and so records onto SD/SDHC cards only. Luckily, a 1GB card is included in the box, and let's not forget that even large capacity SDHC cards are pretty cheap these days. You'll need one if you want to record in the H4N's top-end 24-bit/96KHz linear PCM WAV format, as 1GB will only hold about 28 minutes, but if you're willing to accept a small hit in audio quality you can step down through CD quality 16-bit/48KHz to 16-bit/44.1KHz in WAV format, or 48 to 320Kbps MP3. As 320Kbps will get you nearly seven hours of recording on a 1GB card, this gives you a decent range of very workable options.