Zoom’s modular approach makes this unique portable recorder far more versatile than others.
Believe it or not, Zoom have now been in business for 37 years, and the technology and expertise built up in the company over that time is readily evident in its current extensive range of audio interfaces, LiveTrak digital mixer/multitrack combos, sophisticated professional F‑series field recorders, and semi‑professional H‑series handy recorders. It’s the latest addition to the H‑series that I’m reviewing here: a portable multichannel recorder called the H8.
The H8’s styling is unique: with the stock mic module, it looks uncannily like a robotic insect! The included mic module is reminiscent of shiny antennae on its head, joined to an octagonal thorax, where connected cables mimic legs, and it’s all completed with a square abdomen below that lights up! Zoom, though, claim that the design actually results from ergonomic practicality. In that respect it largely delivers, though there are some scenarios in which I feel the form factor can be problematic, as I’ll explain later.
Although part of the ‘handy recorder’ range, that label is a bit of a stretch in this case, since the H8 is actually quite large — it is far more naturally suited to placement on a table‑top or mounting on a camera tripod (there’s a quarter‑inch threaded insert on the base for that) than handheld use. The basic recorder measures 116 x 49 x 163 mm and weighs 354g (without batteries). If fitted with the supplied XYH‑6 stereo microphone module the depth extends another 60 to 223 mm, and the mass increases by 130g, taking the fully loaded weight (with batteries) to just under 0.6kg.
Ins, Outs & Controls
Regardless of the physical configuration, Zoom have managed to squeeze an awful lot of capability into a very compact, lightweight, and remarkably affordable little recorder. Impressively, the H8 is able to record up to 12 tracks simultaneously, configured as 10 ‘iso’ tracks of individual inputs plus a stereo mix. The core unit has only six physical inputs, plus the mic module — so up to eight sources as supplied. An optional module, the EXH‑8, has four XLR inputs and can replace the stereo mic module, to give you the maximum 10 physical inputs (see the ‘Optional Modules’ box).
In the box with the review H8 itself were the surprisingly heavy XYH‑6 stereo mic array module, four AA batteries, a Quick Guide manual, and an access code to download Steinberg’s Cubase LE DAW software. A full 150‑page PDF manual is available for download too, and that’s required reading if you’re to get the most from the H8.
In a departure from the previous H‑series operating paradigms, the H8 comes pre‑configured for three different modes, selected via ‘apps’ on a 2.4‑inch colour touchscreen. These are identified as Field, Music and Podcast, and the chosen app determines which of the recorder’s facilities are made available, and how the virtual controls and graphics are displayed. I’ll cover their differences in a moment.
As so many functions are controlled using the touchscreen, there are relatively few physical controls. A recessed and spring‑loaded slide switch on the unit’s base has to be held for a couple of seconds to power the unit on/off, and if moved in the opposite direction (Hold) it disables all switches and the touchscreen to prevent accidental operation. There’s a trio of transport buttons (Stop/Home, Play/Pause, and Record) below the screen, illuminated track‑arming buttons and ‘soft’ gain knobs. Input conditioning switches (20dB pads or Hi‑Z mode, depending on the channel) are located in the octagonal section alongside their corresponding inputs.
Additional software functions for each physical input include a gain trim (which interacts with the rotary control), a second‑order high‑pass filter with adjustable corner frequency (10‑240 Hz), and a dynamics processor, which is configurable as a compressor, limiter or noise‑gate, with adjustable threshold (‑16 to ‑2 dBFS for the compressor and limiter, and ‑80 to ‑2 dBFS for the gate), attack (1‑4 ms) and release (1‑500 ms) times. There are also options for the channel/track’s fader level and pan position feeding into the stereo mix.
Around the sides of the base section are an unbalanced 3.5mm stereo line output, a 3.5mm stereo headphone socket (whose volume is controlled only through the touchscreen), and a Micro‑B USB port. This last connection allows the unit to be powered from an external 5V USB supply (not included). It also allows connection to a computer for file transfers, or to serve as an audio interface. It is compatible with Mac, Windows and iOS platforms in either 2‑in/2‑out (44.1 or 48 kHz), or 12‑in/2‑out configurations (44.1, 48 or 96 kHz). An ASIO driver is required for Windows.
A removable cover reveals a multi‑pin socket for Zoom’s optional BTA‑1 Bluetooth adaptor which, when installed, allows the H8 to be remote‑controlled via an iOS smartphone. Track metering information is relayed back to the phone’s screen, too. A couple of bar‑slots on the base are provided for attaching a lanyard, and there’s a built‑in mono speaker for checking playback. On the opposite side, a single SDXC memory card slot is compatible with SD (up to 2GB using FAT16 formatting), SDHC (‘high capacity’ from 4‑32 GB with FAT32), or SDXC cards (‘extended capacity’ from 64GB‑2TB with exFAT, although the maximum capacity currently supported by the H8 is 512GB).
The octagonal section carries three input sockets on each side, the middle ones being combi XLRs and the others standard XLRs. The latter, labelled 1‑4, are equipped with switchable 20dB pads, while the combi XLRs are labelled A‑B and their switches activate a high‑impedance (instrument) input mode. Rotary controls adjust the input levels for each input (but can be overridden by the software trim controls), and illuminated buttons arm the associated tracks for recording. Phantom power is individually selectable for each XLR input, but globally switched between 24 and 48 Volts. In my bench tests, the P48 mode comfortably delivered the correct voltage and maximum current required, which was reassuring.
At the top of the ‘thorax’ is a push‑on plastic cover for the Capsule System 2.0 connector, and I was delighted to see that a couple of slots underneath the H8 are provided to store the cover when a module is installed — a thoughtful design feature. A battery tray under the base section accepts four alkaline, NiMor Lithium AA cells. An option in the Settings menu allows the battery type to be logged so that the ‘remaining life’ display is as accurate as possible. Naturally, the battery life depends on screen brightness, phantom current draw, and so on, but I managed just over 10 hours on a set of ordinary Alkaline batteries, when using a single phantom‑powered mic along with the XYH‑6 module. The unit can also be powered for extended periods in the field using a ‘power bank’ connected via the USB socket.
As mentioned above, there are three pre‑configured user modes. The first is the Field app, which is intended for location sound recording. In this mode, the display shows large horizontal bar‑graph meters for all the armed tracks. These change from dark to light green at ‑12dBFS and to yellow at ‑6dBFS. Touch the mic icon and a new menu appears, with options to select the different physical inputs/tracks and access options for track on/off, input level, phantom, low‑cut filter, dynamics, fader/pan, and stereo linking. For the XYH‑6 module there are options for a backup recording onto separate tracks at ‑12dB (to reduce the risk of clipping), and plug‑in power can be turned on/off for the module’s 3.5mm input.
The Settings menu allows a six second pre‑record option, automatic recording (start/stop triggered by input signal level), sound marker tones for post‑sync, and stereo mix recording. A memory card icon accesses a menu that selects the recording format in Broadcast WAV at sample rates of 44.1, 48, or 96 kHz, and at 16‑ or 24‑bit word‑lengths. Up to 12 tracks can be recorded (mic module plus backup or four separate inputs from a suitable module, inputs 1‑4, A‑B, and L‑R stereo mix). There are also options for stereo recording in MP3 at 128, 192 or 320 kbps. Files are automatically split at the 2GB limit and up to 99 markers can be added when a recording is paused. This is the only app that allows 96kHz recordings.
The Music app’s screen shows four mix faders, each with a vertical input meter alongside, but although the faders respond to touch they aren’t suitable for real‑time mixing. Touch a track button below the fader and the screen changes to show the gain controls for a three‑band EQ, as well as pan and effects‑send controls, and a track‑routing function. In this mode, up to eight inputs can be recorded (mic module, inputs 1‑4 and A‑B), in the BWF format at 44.1 or 48 kHz, and 16‑ or 24‑bit. Recorded tracks can subsequently be overdubbed using a manual punch‑in/out process.
Oddly, the effects option is only available at 44.1kHz sample rates, but any channel can be routed through the internal effects processor, with up to three effects in the chain. Many effects are geared towards guitar applications (crunch, chorus, auto‑wah, etc), but there are also reverbs, delays and double‑tracking for vocals. There’s also a sophisticated metronome function
The third and final mode is Podcast. When activated, the screen shows four ‘sound pads’, along with a stereo vertical meter for the stereo mix, plus a dial to set the pad playback level, and icons for input and settings configurations. Up to eight external tracks can be recorded (mic module with backup, 1‑2, and A‑B), plus the stereo mix, while tracks 3‑4 capture stereo audio from the sound pads. Recording formats are BWF at 44.1 or 48 k (16‑ or 24‑bit), plus stereo MP3s at 128, 192, or 320 kbps. The H8 comes pre‑loaded with 13 music beds, stings, and effects which can be assigned to the four sound pads, although other sound files on the SD card can be used.
The price and facilities suggest that the H8 is intended primarily for podcasters, videographers and musicians who prefer to record using hardware rather than a computer. But while the H8 is clearly a ‘prosumer’ device and lacks some features that might be important to professional users, it sounds good, the touch‑control side of things works very reliably without needing to be ultra‑precise, and for the most part the whole thing feels solid and well‑built.
Where the application suits desktop use, or mounting on a camera tripod (ie. indoor music or podcasting) it works well. Prospective owners should be aware that connecting any cables will make it unworkable as a handheld device, but it can be used that way if just capturing something through the XYH‑6 mic module. For outdoor field recording, I’d want to protect it in a shoulder bag and sadly the location of the connectors means that’s impossible using any conventional bag — I wonder if Zoom might consider making a tailored bag available. Also, while the screen brightness is fine for most indoor uses, it’s really not bright enough for outdoor work.
With the gain flat out, it delivered a clean, quiet, signal.
My previous experience of H‑series recorders suggested that the H8 might not cope well with low‑output mics, but actually it managed perfectly well with a Shure SM7B in a podcast situation: albeit with the gain flat out, it delivered a clean, quiet signal that peaked reassuringly around ‑6dBFS. The gain range spans around 68dB (‑12.5 to +55.5 dB) and at maximum gain a ‑66dBu input signal peaks at ‑10dBFS, hence making an insensitive mic like the SM7B quite usable. I measured the EIN figure around ‑124dBu (A‑wtd, 150Ω source) which is not pro grade, but is good for an affordable portable recorder such as this.
Monitoring is via the internal mono speaker unless headphones are plugged in, the volume of either being controlled by a virtual slider accessed at the top of each app’s home screen. The maximum headphone volume is pretty good with low‑impedance phones, but there’s only the one output. While that might be fine for field and music recording, it’s rather restricting for podcasting, since the guests won’t be able to hear any stings or effects played in, even if they can hear each other acoustically. Yes, a headphone splitter or standalone amp could be used, of course, but its more boxes, wires and inconvenience.
I was very pleased to find that the line output facility has its own test‑tone function. At full level, it emits a tone at around ‑10dBV, which corresponds to recorded signals around ‑15dBFS (0dBFS = +3dBV or +5dBu). If using the H8 to feed a DSLR, for example, this test‑tone makes aligning the two systems child’s play. One feature that’s lacking, which would make a big difference, is being able to configure the line output as a ‘mix‑minus’ for a selected input. That would make it practical to hook up a remote podcast contributor via a phone or computer without risk of howlrounds!
Although basic, the signal‑conditioning functions (the high‑pass filters, the three‑band EQ in the Music app, and the dynamics processors) all worked as expected. The limiter is purely protective, with a very high ratio, while the ‘over‑easy’‑style compressor has a very soft knee and progressive ratio, with up to about +12dB of automatic make‑up gain. Other very nice features are the built‑in chromatic/guitar/bass tuner and comprehensive metronome. Although I didn’t explore it, the H8 also integrates with Zoom’s Guitar Lab via a USB connection to a host computer.
Given the H8’s remarkably low cost and extraordinary capabilities, there really is very little to complain about. The physical design, the way different apps restrict functionality, and the (current) feature sets won’t appeal to everyone, but Zoom could easily enhance the H8’s feature set through future firmware releases, of course. Overall, the H8 is an impressively capable and versatile recorder, and I enjoyed using it. Files I transferred to my usual DAW all worked exactly as expected, and the sound quality was generally very good indeed.
Everything about the H8 is unusual, and that’s what makes it worth serious investigation if you’re seeking a portable multitrack recorder.
Zoom currently offer six interchangeable microphone modules:
- The supplied XYH‑6 provides an X‑Y cardioid stereo array. The capsules are cunningly angled and rotatable, which allows them to be arranged with mutual angles of either 90 or 120 degrees. This module has a rotary gain control to set the recording level, as well as a 3.5mm input socket which overrides the mic signals.
- The optional XYH‑5 module is broadly similar but the two cardioid capsules are fixed at 90 degrees and mounted in rubber shockmounts, and the circuitry has extended headroom to handle up to 140dB SPL.
- The optional MSH‑6 is a Mid‑Sides array module with a cardioid Mid mic, and although it features an onboard decoder the Sides level (stereo width) can be adjusted through the recorder’s software.
- For video work, the SGH‑6 is a mono short shotgun capsule.
- The SSH‑6 is a similar‑sized stereo short short‑gun mic, using the Mid‑Sides principle.
- Finally, for the standard modules, the EXH‑6 has no microphones but accepts two external inputs via combo XLRs.
All of the above capsules will work with Zoom’s H5 and H6 recorders, but the H8 is also compatible with the new four‑channel Capsule System 2.0 interface, and Zoom have announced three new modules in this format (though none were shipping at the time of writing):
- The XAH‑8 is a two‑channel (stereo) cardioid array, with movable capsules to allow either 90‑degree X‑Y or a near‑spaced quasi‑ORTF format.
- The VRH‑8 is a first‑order Ambisonic array, with four capsules mounted in the A‑format and an internal decoder.
- Lastly, the EXH‑8 is a larger version of the EXH‑6, with four external XLR inputs, taking the H8’s total of physical balanced inputs to 10.
- Capable of recording up to 10 inputs, plus a stereo mix.
- Six high‑gain, low‑noise preamps, two with hi‑impedance modes, and all with capable phantom power.
- Apps preconfigure functionality for field, music or podcast applications.
- A range of additional input modules.
- Calibration tone on line output.
- Bluetooth remote control and metering option.
- Impressive battery life.
- Built‑in effects and podcast stings.
- Some restricted functionality between different apps.
- Only a single headphone output.
- No mix‑minus for phone recording.
The Zoom H8 is a very unusual‑looking portable multitrack recorder, but a very capable and versatile one at a remarkably low price.
£419 including VAT.
Sound Service Gmb+49 (0)30 707 1300
Zoom North America +1 631 542 5270.