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Trying the H4N out with a few tracks of acoustic and slide guitar, I'm stuck by a) how awful my playing has become in the last few years and b) how horribly that comes through thanks to the H4N's high fidelity recording. Again, placement of the microphone and record settings are key to getting a good result - too near or too high and it's all boom, scrape and crackle - but it's possible to get a very good basic sound with a little experimentation. A little more fiddling with the built-in effects covered up for some of the errors in my playing, and you can get some nice sounds by mixing the natural sound coming from the mic with treated sounds if you like.
I'm sure that - in more capable hands - the H4N would be a godsend for the average small band or keen singer-songwriter. Sure, you can hook up a notebook and do everything the H4N does on that, but the H4N is smaller and more durable, and a lot less likely to give you any problems in a small rehearsal room or a typical cramped, overheated small town venue.
As far as battery life goes, the H4N will last you around six hours in normal mode, or 11 hours in stamina mode (though this limits you to straight stereo recording). The LS-10 was a little more generous here, with eight to sixteen hours depending on levels and sample rate, but then the Zoom has more processing to do, and that kind of work inevitably takes its toll.
Overall, I'm hugely impressed, both with all the things the H4N can do and how well it manages to do them. I haven't even found space to cover some of its other little tricks - the auto record feature which listens in and pauses in and out as the sound reaches a specific level; the pre-record feature that cleverly adds the last two seconds before you started recording to your recording; the built-in chromatic, guitar and bass tuners (complete with alternative tunings for guitar); the karaoke function. Nor have I mentioned the fact that you can hook it up via USB and use it as a PC audio interface for studio mics or traditional instruments. A copy of Cubase LE4 is even thrown in for this purpose. By now, you might have some idea of how feature-rich this thing is.
If you're in the market for a portable audio recorder, the big question you have to ask yourself is this: do I really need all this stuff? If you're mainly looking for something to record meetings, background sound, voices or podcasts, then the Olympus LS-10 is smaller, cheaper and easier to get a good result from. Would-be bootleggers might also note that the Olympus is an awful lot more discrete. If, however, you want a versatile device for the applications above, plus your own musical interests, then the H4N is by far the stronger and more versatile product. It's fairly pricey and its usability isn't perfect, but otherwise it's everything a 2009 recorder/portastudio should be.
Too big, bulky and complex to be a great all-round audio recorder, but as a versatile tool for audio professionals and musicians, it's very good indeed.
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