Don’t be deceived by the F3’s diminutive form — there’s a seriously useful recording device lurking in this box!
There’s been a steady flow of useful little devices coming from Zoom in the last few years, and the F3 is one of the most portable. This two‑channel solid‑state recorder can run for up to eight hours off two AA batteries — though you can, if you prefer, power it from an external supply, such as a battery pack or phone charger, over the USB connection. (It worked just fine with my Samsung Galaxy phone charger, for example.) Of course, as with other Zoom devices, the USB connectivity also caters for file transfer and stereo audio interfacing.
When paired with the company’s Bluetooth adaptor, the F3 is also capable of wireless operation (iOS at the time of writing, with an Android version promised soon). And when partnered with a third‑party Bluetooth master clock device, you can also sync recording of multiple F3s and/or some other Bluetooth devices; Zoom’s UK distributor recommended the Atomos AtomX UltraSync Blue to me for that purpose, and it supports up to six devices used within 10m of the clock. I didn’t have the adaptor or an UltraSync Blue available for the review tests, though I have used Zoom’s BT adaptor with other devices, and it worked just fine.
Arguably, the F3’s headline feature is the 32‑bit conversion. At heart, it’s the same dual‑converter approach that we’ve seen in recent years on a handful of other devices, including portable recorders by Zoom, Tascam and Sound Devices, and some studio interfaces, such as Audent’s EVO range. Essentially, quiet signals are handled through one A‑D converter and louder ones through another, and the benefit of this clever approach is that signals with a vast dynamic range can be accommodated. Greater, in fact, than any mic is capable of throwing at the conversion stage, and that’s why there’s no input gain control: you just don’t need one.
32‑bit conversion could be a real boon ‘out in the field’, where levels are more likely to be unpredictable, your monitoring setup less than ideal, and time of the essence.
While 32‑bit conversion is of arguably more limited benefit in the studio — a helpful fail‑safe for novices, but in such a controlled environment levels are usually easy to predict, making gain easy to judge — it could be a real boon for professionals working on location, where levels are more likely to be unpredictable, your monitoring setup less than ideal, and time of the essence. Since you don’t have to (and can’t!) concern yourself with setting the preamp gain, you can get up and running quickly, capture a clean signal easily, and tweak the levels in post‑production without the risk of clipping or the noise floor ever becoming problematic.
The review unit arrived in a cardboard box, inside which were the F3 itself (securely cushioned in cleverly designed cardboard packaging), a printed Quick Tour guide and a couple of other bits of paper such as safety precautions and international distributor details. There was also a pair of AA batteries, which I thought a nice touch. (On the flip side, there was no USB cable or supplied media.) The physical design is neat, compact and thoughtful, with four chunky corner ‘columns’ providing a useful degree of impact protection, and two robust metal bars attached to the rear to facilitate mounting on a belt or, with a Velcro strap (not supplied), anything else. You could fasten it to a wrist, a mic stand or a boom arm, for example.
You can read the physical dimensions elsewhere but they don’t quite convey just how dinky this thing seems ‘in the flesh’. Other than those protective columns I mentioned above, it’s barely wider than the two XLR input sockets which are arranged side‑by‑side on the top panel, and it’s only marginally deeper than that; I managed, at a stretch, to sit the whole ensemble in the palm of my hand and wrap my thumb and all four fingers around it so that they touched the front.
Those two XLRs each cater for a mic or line‑level input. Opposite, on the bottom panel, you’ll find a line‑out mini‑jack, a headphones mini‑jack, and associated volume up/down buttons. The right side panel has a power on/off button and a Hold/Rec slide‑switch on its top bevelled edge, while on the left side are a USB‑C connector, a Micro SDXC card slot with protective cover, and play/pause, stop and menu buttons on the bevelled edge. The rear panel hosts the AA battery compartment and a camera‑style tripod mounting thread.
Finally, there’s the front panel, on which sit the screen and four navigation buttons. Inevitably, given the size of this device, the display is very small compared with the phone screens to which most of us are now accustomed. But it’s crisp and clear, whether in darkness or bright daylight, and not bad even if viewed from an angle. The screen provides status information about the recorder as well as the various setup menus, none of which have so many levels that they eat up time or you become lost. The buttons, used to navigate and make selections for the on‑screen menus, are small and close enough together that I couldn’t consistently use my thumbs without pressing adjacent buttons, though I had no such problems using my fingertips. (My fingers aren’t especially small, but someone with particularly gargantuan digits could perhaps find operation a little fiddly.)
On first powering up, you choose the operating language and can set the time/date, then you must format your SD card, which takes only a couple of seconds.
Each input can be set independently to operate at mic or line level and have phantom power switched on/off; the phantom voltage is set globally (24 or 48 Volts). The line‑plus‑phantom option is presumably intended to allow the preamp stage to accommodate ‘hot’ phantom‑powered mics when capturing loud sounds such as gunshots.
Unlike with some recorders, you have the choice of capturing one or two mono files (ie. recording a mono file from only one input, or one file each from both inputs) or a single stereo file, which could make importing to your DAW software easier.
Having plugged in your mics and set up as above, recording is a simple matter of sliding the Hold/Rec button. To stop, do this again or press the stop button on the left panel. To play back, select the file, and use the buttons below the screen or the transport ones on the left panel’s bevelled edge.
The main screen shows a waveform history for the connected input sources, which was a pleasant change from the usual level meters (which are pretty much rendered redundant by the 32‑bit conversion). As you play back recordings, you again see the waveform, along with a play head. While you can skip forward or backward to the next file (or marker — these can be created using the remote app), there’s no provision for fast‑forward/rewind, which I’d have found helpful, particularly when assessing longer recordings.
Recording and playback was trivially easy, though, and the same can be said of using the F3 as a file‑transfer device and as an audio interface — it performed flawlessly for me in those roles. While the line output can be useful in the latter context, it’s an unbalanced TRS feed; its primary purpose is to send a line feed to a camera using a TRS mini‑jack cable. This makes it a breeze to sync the F3 and video recordings in post, without tying up your headphone monitoring feed as you record. I tested this by using the F3 alongside my (ageing but still capable!) Canon EOS 550D DSLR; aligning the audio tracks was really simple.
The audio recording quality is every bit as good as I’ve come to expect from Zoom in recent years: the noise floor is low, and the recordings come across as sounding pleasingly clean and detailed. To test the 32‑bit recording capability, I captured some (deliberately) very dynamic snare drum parts and whispered vocals on the same recording, and I wasn’t disappointed. The default recording format is 32‑bit/48kHz floating‑point WAVs, but you can set it to 44.1, 88.2, 96 or 192 kHz — but for reasons I can’t fathom, it’s a maximum of 96kHz when using the F3 as an audio interface rather than a stand‑alone recorder. Handling noise was minimal too: when reasonably careful to avoid bumps and pulling on cables, I could hold the F3 in one hand while using the other to hold a mic to my mouth, for instance. Obviously, when two mic cables, a USB cable and headphones are all attached, you’ll want to dress those cables appropriately to keep noise to a minimum.
A few features came as pleasant surprises. The six‑second ‘pre‑record’ mode, for example, could combine with the hassle‑free approach to preamp gain to be a life‑saver. A Sound Marker mode plays a beep to let you know recording has commenced. And you can set the line output and headphone levels separately, and put a limiter on the line out if you wish, as well as specifying a delay, either to the recording or to the line out to facilitate easier sync with other devices/recordings.
If you’re in need of a high‑quality, compact two‑channel recorder, whether for music or sampling, or to upgrade the audio quality on your DSLR shoots, the F3 comes highly recommended. It doubles up as a good‑sounding 32‑bit USB audio interface too (though if that’s all you need it for there will be better options). There’s perhaps room for improvement in terms of playback navigation, but on the whole it does what it sets out to do, does it to a high quality and makes everything incredibly easy for the operator. The Bluetooth adaptor should extend the F3’s versatility considerably; while I was unable to test the remote functions and associated app on this occasion, I’ve used other Zoom devices with the Bluetooth adaptor without problem, and for ‘normal’ mono/stereo recording applications you won’t need those wireless functions at all.
In summary, this device has to be one of the simplest, easiest‑to‑use stand‑alone recorders I’ve had the pleasure of testing, and it sounds decent too.
An incredibly small and lightweight device, the Zoom F3 is nonetheless a serious and seriously capable recorder.
£299 including VAT.
Sound Service MSL Distribution Ltd +44 (0)207 118 0133.