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Zoom H5

Handheld Recorder By Jon Burton
Published December 2014

Zoom’s H4 has been hugely popular, and with the H5 it seems its few shortcomings have been ironed out.

Like many FOH engineers, I capture ‘desk recordings’ of my shows, and to that end I bought a Zoom H4 solid-state recorder several years ago. The appeal of that model was the four-track recording, as it gave me the ability to record a stereo feed from the desk while using the built-in mics to capture some audience and room sound. I’m fond of my old H4, but it’s not without shortcomings: the lack of a pad on the ‘combi’ jacks has often made it impossible to record line-level signals without distortion; while the mics may be OK, they’re not stellar; and handling noise can be an issue. But any negatives have been outweighed by the convenience of recording to an SD card, and the ability to read the recordings either via a card reader or by hooking the H4 up directly to a computer via USB.

An unanticipated need to produce quickly a recorded mix of a show at this year’s Sonisphere Festival recently had me in a panic — and in need of a recorder. My H4 was at home, and my laptop was tied up on other duties. Luckily, Rick Lowe from Zoom was backstage in the Tour Supply cabin, so I grabbed the latest model from Zoom’s ‘Handy Recorder’ range, the H5, and set to work.

Zoom H5The H5 incorporates many of the facilities of the H4 and more recent H4N, but adds improvements and innovations that were introduced with their more sophisticated H6 (reviewed in SOS Nov 2013: The H5 has fewer on-board I/O connections than the H6, and is more affordable — so have they just given the H4N a makeover, or is this really a new and improved unit?

I’m glad to say that it is a much more practical and flexible device than its predecessors. The H5 has the look and feel of a decent piece of location kit. It has a nice, rubberised finish, which makes it easy to grip, and the metal bars protecting the level controls lend it a sturdy, rugged feel. It’s not something I’d want to drop down a flight of stairs, but it does feel like it could stand up to pretty rugged on-the-road use. Just to make sure, though, there’s a plastic case that should keep the recorder secure in the bottom of your kit bag.

When it came to the recording side of things, my first question was, “Can it handle line-level inputs?”. The answer is yes; there’s now a pad on the combi inputs, so you can run a reasonable level into the device without problems. Importantly, it remains easy to use. I only needed to look at the manual once, to check that the compressor and high-pass filters could be switched on just for the mics. As I was recording a live open-air show, my main concerns were capturing some of the crowd ambience as well as a basic mix of the show. This was to be used for an upcoming video, and a stereo mix would be needed urgently, in order that the video editing could be done on time. The ambient mics weren’t needed, but I wanted to take the opportunity to test them, and to combine them with the multitrack we were capturing of the on-stage performance.

One of the great steps Zoom have taken is to provide physical level controls, rather than limit you to a menu-driven approach. This makes a big difference, as being able to control levels quickly and easily is essential in situations where you need to make adjustments on the fly. There are knobs for the two line inputs on the ‘front’ of the unit, and these are protected by a bar that should stop them being knocked accidentally. The level control for the on-board mics is placed just above these knobs, making it is easy to see what controls what. Importantly, the metering is reasonably clear and easy to see in the dark, making it a device that’s easy to use when you’re in a panic!

The transport controls are on the front, and it’s easy to see when you’re in record mode, as red LEDs illuminate to show which of the four tracks are being recorded. There’s a headphone socket on the side, for monitoring. The small screen can be illuminated, and it’s clear and easy to read. The menu system is easy to navigate, with different well-titled sub-sections. In short, it’s not hard at all to access any feature with just a few button presses.

Zoom’s major innovation in this range was the introduction of interchangeable heads. Pressing a pair of buttons either side of the unit disconnects the top section that houses the microphones and their level control. This can be replaced with one of a selection of more specialist mics. The range includes the stereo pair X-Y of mics I used, and which come with the unit; a mini stereo ‘shotgun’ mic; a large ball-shaped mid/side head; another pair of tighter pick up X-Y mics, reminiscent of those found on my H4; and a handy pair of extra XLR ‘combi’ sockets, which caters for both line-level sources and external mics, and includes a pad and level control. (This module doesn’t offer phantom power, though.)

The modular approach greatly increases the unit’s flexibility. I’ve used my old Zoom H4 for location recording and it worked well, but I think the H5, like the H6, has taken the versatility to a new level. For film work in particular, the addition of the shotgun and ability to record a couple of lavaliers at the same time, all with different levels, will be welcome.

After the concert, I removed the SD card, reluctantly handed back the recorder, placed the card in my laptop’s slot, and quickly bounced the four WAV tracks to a stereo pair and uploaded it for collection by the video crew: job done. Listening back to the tracks, I was pleased with the result. The desk lines were clean, with no sign of distortion. The mics, likewise, had handled the SPL well. They’re shockmounted in this design, another new feature which seems to help with handling noise. The recordings included some slight wind noise, but it was, to be fair, a very windy night — and I neglected to use the included foam windshield! If you’re doing a lot of outside work I’d recommend investing in a Rycote windshield, which should fit the H5. Jon Burton

£249 including VAT. $269.99