Zoom's H4N audio recorder has been very well received. Can the new Q3 repeat that success by throwing in video as well?
In recent times, Zoom have produced an extremely popular solid‑state audio recorder, the H4N, which is often seen attached to DSLR cameras, providing high‑quality four-track audio recording. The more recent Q3 offers video and audio recording in a relatively small form factor, at a slightly higher price than the Zoom H2 audio recorder. It is aimed squarely at the musician or blogger who'd like to make simple videos of themselves for on‑line promotion but also requires the kind of high‑quality audio recording that's not available from most portable video devices.
The packaging is very nicely designed and takes a leaf from Apple's book. The device hides behind a pair of cardboard doors bearing the motto 'Sound makes the movie'. After opening these doors you're presented with the phrases 'A little bit of video...' and 'A whole lot of audio', which fairly accurately describe the relative quality at which the Q3 records the two media. The only problem I can envisage with such nice packaging is that it may encourage another one of those fetishistic and ever‑so‑slightly scary 'unboxing' videos on YouTube!
The package also includes a 2GB SD card with Zoom HandyShare software pre‑loaded (see box opposite), two alkaline AA batteries, a foam windshield, a 3.5mm TRRS jack to component audio and video lead, and a soft carry-case.
After plucking the Q3 from its polystyrene bed, the first thing you'll notice is how light it is, weighing in at just 120 grams without batteries. The body is made of blue plastic with a metallic finish, and it feels relatively robust. Even in the space of the review time it got a few knocks, and none of them left a mark or affected its function.
The front panel of the Q3 is dominated by a 320 x 240 pixel, 2.4-inch backlit LCD used for view‑finding and video playback purposes. The front‑panel controls are very simple: there's a square, four‑way navigator for volume, zoom and file selection, with a silver and neon‑orange record button in the centre, which also serves to stop recording. Above this are dedicated buttons for playback, Menu and delete. The left‑hand side panel hosts a switch to set either audio only or audio and video recording, as well as a three‑position switch for audio gain setting, marked 'L' for low, 'H' for high and 'Auto' for automatic gain adjustment. This side of the unit also features a 3.5mm combined headphone and line‑out jack, and an input for a 5V DC adaptor, which is not included. The right‑hand side panel sports a 3.5mm jack socket for the TRRS jack to component AV cable, as well as the SD card door and slot and a nifty USB connector that pops out of the body. The rear of the unit features a small, fixed lens, which is protected from surface damage by a raised metal ring. Just under this is a classic record light, which glows red when the Q3 is capturing audio or video, and off to one side is the mono speaker for connection‑free audio preview. Finally, the base of the unit features a standard tripod thread, for tripod or monopod mounting. There is no input of any kind for an external microphone.
Where the Zoom H4N used a pretty deep menu system for the wide variety of settings available, the Q3 has a very simple system, which incorporates some slick transition effects between pages. All six options appear on a single screen, and selecting one of these with a press of the right-hand part of the navigation button brings up a single setting (with the exception of the time and date). The simplest settings include 'Lo Cut', which brings in a preset high‑pass filter to reduce low‑frequency rumble; 'Battery Type', which lets you select Alkaline or NiMH rechargeable AA batteries; 'Beep', which switches audible button-press indication on or off; and 'TV Out', which sets either PAL or NTSC format for the 3.5mm TRRS jack output. The date setting is applied in US style (month, day, year) only. When selecting sound quality, there are quite a few more options. WAV recording is available at 44.1, 48 or 96kHz and 16‑ or 24‑bit, though you get the 96kHz settings only when recording just audio (not video). MP3 settings are also selectable in standard steps, from 48 to 320kbps, and the video format is fixed at 30fps MPEG4 SP, at VGA resolution (640 x 480 pixels). As an example, the supplied 2GB card will store 42 minutes of video with accompanying 16-bit, 48kHz audio.
As outlined on the packaging, the video is best described as a 'little bit'. The VGA video is recorded progressively at a variable bit‑rate, averaging between 4Mbps and 5Mbps (Megabits per second) depending on the complexity — movement, colour and brightness — of your scene. The sensor itself is a CMOS one, and suffers from the usual 'rolling shutter' and 'jello' effects found on such units, but offers a longer battery life and copes better with strong light sources than an equivalent CCD sensor. The Zoom 'Mic Clip Adaptor', sold separately, or some kind of simple monopod, comes highly recommended (as with nearly all CMOS video devices) if you intend to move around while filming. The tiny, fixed lens is the most limiting factor of the unit, capturing a wide‑angle view equivalent to roughly 24mm in 35mm‑camera terms. A 2x zoom function is included, but it's digital, not optical, so the unit is simply stretching the image from the centre of the sensor, something that's easy enough to do after the event in any decent non-linear editor. That said, the zoom transition is smooth, and its single speed is appropriate for most tasks.
All video settings are automatic. The focus is locked to infinity, and with such a small sensor and wide field of view, the focal field is invariably very deep, with the closest focus distance being around 8cm. Exposure is adjusted automatically, and automatic shutter speed and gain settings appear to compensate for the amount of light present. This automatic control does lead to the usual 'blooming' effect seen with automatic video devices when moving from a dark area to a light area, as the settings adjust to keep up with the changing lighting conditions. This isn't such a problem, as these flashes can look very nice at particular points of an appropriate edit, but if there are a lot of different light sources on location, the automatic adjustment should be kept in mind, especially when panning or moving through different areas.
With regard to light, the unit displays the same thirst for luminance as most devices with small sensors (such as mobile phones). Filming in broad daylight is fine, and indoor scenes with bright lights or stage lighting can work well too, albeit with unavoidable noise in the darker areas of the shot. Problems arise when you try to take a moody, lower‑contrast shot with subtle lighting; here the resulting image can be very noisy. The dynamic range of recorded footage is, as expected, relatively low, and colour correction using the native CODEC will show noise and artifacts very quickly. Colour itself is rather muted compared to many of the mini HD recorders on the market, though these competitors are often accused of excessive saturation: at least on this device bright colours are less likely to clip. One issue I did notice was that the footage appears far brighter on the Q3 screen than it does when played back on a well‑adjusted computer monitor. This is probably due to the Q3 backlight being very bright, to make the LCD usable outdoors in the daytime, and with no dimmer to be found, it's something you'll have to account for when filming and colour correcting.
The stereo mics use the capsules from the Zoom H4N, and are hidden beneath plenty of protective plastic and metal. They are arranged in a 120‑degree X-Y configuration pointing away from the screen, providing a wide sound‑stage with a solid centre image. Given that the capsules are the same as those in the H4N, I decided to put the two units as close as physically possible (without obstructing one another's microphones) and record the same performance using both. The differences are small, but noticeable to those with an ear for subtle nuances, and the H4N records a slightly richer and more 'present' rendition, probably a testament to both the higher cost and the fact that it is a dedicated solid‑state audio recorder. Since the cost of the Q3 is lower than the H4N (and that cost is split between audio and video recording), any number of components could lead to this difference but, that said, the two are close in quality terms. Due to the different mic positioning, the Q3 picks up a little more sound from the rear than the H4N. The H4N is more susceptible to vibration from the surface on which it's placed, as it must be rested on its largest side, unlike the Q3, which can stand upright. Using a tripod to mount the Q3 removes almost all of this vibration, and eliminates handling noise.
The Q3's mics are rated for 130dB maximum SPL, and handle loud environments well when set to the 'L' gain setting. There are some excellent example Q3 videos on YouTube already, which help to demonstrate the huge headroom of the Q3. The live recordings of some extreme metal artists, the kind of bands who can hurt you even through your earplugs, are a testament to an impressive SPL rating! There are, however, some types of performance that fall into the no-man's land between the 'L' and 'H' gain settings, where the 'H' setting clips repeatedly and 'L' gives quite a low peak level. As long as 24‑bit recording is specified, you should end up with a decent signal‑to‑noise ratio using the 'L' setting, but manual control would be nice. The Auto setting can be used if a soundcheck is available and as long as the highest peak in the soundcheck equals that of the performance. If not, sudden bursts of high volume will clip the recording, with the software backing off the gain quite a lot in response. The best bet is to do a quick soundcheck at the high setting, and if in doubt use the low setting, unless you're recording a very quiet performance.
When it comes to outdoor work, the provided windshield is moderately effective, and when tested on blustery Brighton beach it brought the wind noise down from clipping to around ‑7dB , cutting a lot of low-frequency noise in the process. This is by no means the most effective windshield available for a portable recorder but it's a good freebie, and it may help soak up accidental drink spillage before it hits the mic capsules, too!
The built‑in mono speaker is a little too quiet even at maximum volume, unless, of course, your source was recorded at a constant level close to the 0dB mark, which is unlikely, especially given the preset gain levels. Even with a very loud recording, the speaker is difficult to hear if there is substantial background noise in the area. You'd be better off connecting some headphones for playback in most situations, as the headphone output is loud enough for even the most gig‑worn of engineers!
The Zoom Q3 is an easy‑to‑use, good‑quality audio recorder with simple video functionality thrown in for good measure. Those looking for video‑only recording can find a large number of portable HD recorders in the current market, but the Q3 stands alone at this price point when it comes to audio quality. The majority of recorders rely on tiny omnidirectional mics and automatic gain control, making for an extremely unpleasant timbre. But perhaps most importantly, as anyone shooting a mobile video at a gig will have found out, they have very low SPL tolerance. The Q3 handles loud environments very well, though it's disappointing to have to make do with two preset gain levels. Replacing the current switch with separate 'up' and 'down' gain buttons would be a more elegant system, and a couple of pixels on the audio meters could easily point out the current setting. Perhaps a future firmware update could solve this issue, since the 'up' and 'down' directions of the navigator are set to control the internal speaker or headphone volume during recording, something that isn't that useful compared to manual gain setting. Having the three‑position switch as 'Volume', 'Gain' and 'Auto Gain' and allowing the selected setting to be adjusted via the navigator button might be more useful.
It is somewhat disappointing to be limited to VGA‑sized video, given how common portable HD video recording devices are in the current market. Including HD recording would allow for an extremely cheap multi‑camera setup to be put together using the Zoom Q3 as audio recorder and still-shot camera, with a variety of other HD mini‑cameras for cutaways. As it is, those other sources will either need to be Q3s, equivalent low‑resolution digital recorders or DV equipment shooting 4:3 screen ratio, with a little zooming and format juggling needed in the edit. The 30fps limit is also a niggle, and a PAL 25fps setting would be a welcome firmware addition. Other than the above, any further criticism of limitations would be slightly misplaced, given the price point, as the Q3 does a good job of live performance recording, which is exactly what it's designed to do. What cannot be faulted is the simplicity of the Q3's menu system, and even if a few more options and higher resolution video were included, the menu system would still be far from cluttered, being incredibly easy to navigate and use even for someone with little or no knowledge of AV recording.
The audio recording itself is not, to my ears, quite as smooth as that of the H4N, which gives a slightly richer and more detailed sound, but I was probably hoping for too much, given that the Q3 squeezes stereo 96kHz, 24‑bit A-D conversion and VGA video capture, conversion and encoding into one box, for half the price! Given these facts, the Q3 gets very close indeed, and anyone feeling that such a small sonic difference is important is likely to be happy spending the extra money anyway. This unit has been manufactured to an amazingly low price point with audio as the priority, and still gives you enough video functionality to get music videos on-line quickly and easily. As the expense of video sensors decreases, it might not be too long before we see a similar unit with a larger, more sensitive, HD‑resolution sensor and decent audio as well. It'll be nice to see what happens with similar products in the future, but that depends in part on public demand and the success of units such as the Q3. So if you're performing live and want to prove your ability to the world without too much effort, why not take a punt!
The included HandyShare software performs only a few simple functions. Upon opening it, you can browse either the host computer or the Q3's memory, selecting video and audio files for editing. The editing consists of selecting 'in' and 'out' points, and that's it! After setting the start and end points, you can save the video, then select 'Upload' to automatically send it to a YouTube or MySpace account. You can also save the audio. I'm quite happy using editing software and encoding and uploading my own videos, so I didn't really find HandyShare useful, but it's good for those who literally want to shoot, upload, and be done with it.
- Excellent sound quality.
- High SPL handling.
- Easy to use, with simple menu systems.
- Incredible value for money.
- No HD video recording.
- Fixed 30fps video frame rate.
- Preset audio gain settings.
- Digital zoom only.
This easy‑to‑use, high‑quality audio recorder with simple video functionality is something of a ground-breaking product at this price point . Video quality and options are limited, but are sufficient for musicians wanting to make quick, simple promos without having to worry about using separate mics and audio recorders.