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REVIEW: Zoom H5 Handy Recorder

REVIEW: Zoom H5 Handy Recorder

The Zoom H5 Handy Recorder is an important part of our business Photo: Zoom

Here at Atlas Phoenix, we’re big fans of technology that makes what we do as easy as possible. This includes technology that helps us keep organized, technology that helps us deliver great content to you, the reader and technology that helps us in our mission to backup landscapes digitally for future generations to enjoy. One piece of this technology is the Zoom H5 Digital Recorder.

Firstly, lets get all the boring technical stuff out of the way.  The Zoom H5 Handy Recorder features a detachable microphone capsule which consists of two unidirectional condenser microphones in a X-Y configuration. These two microphones include integrated shock mounts to dampen any sounds that might be picked up during recording from handling the Zoom H5. The Zoom H5 also allows for the attachment of a input capsule that doubles the number of XLR inputs on the H5 from 2 (that are inbuilt) to 4. The Zoom H5 also allows for the attachment of a shotgun mic capsule. The Zoom H5 allows for up to 4 track simultaneous recording, has a large backlit LCD and records directly to SD and SDHC cards with a capacity of up to 32gb. The Zoom H5 can record in up to 24-bit/96kHz in BWF-compliant WAV or a variety of MP3 formats. The two inbuilt XLR ports are able to supply phantom power to attached mics with each channel having an analogue gain control knob for easy operation and to give a slightly retro feel. The Zoom H5 can be powered by either 2AA batteries or an external power pack (3.5V). It includes built in effects such as compression and limiting as well as a chromatic tuner and metronome (which is handy if you’re a musician). The Zoom H5 also comes with a variety of auto recording options, playback looping, basic onboard editing features and variable playback speeds. The Zoom H$ allows the user to connect to a PC or Mac via a USB connection, with multi-track and stereo channeling available and is also mountable to DSLR’s (or similar) for audio recording of videos.

Now that we have the boring technical stuff out of the way, it’s time to talk real world performance. Part of the reason that Atlas Phoenix purchased the H5 was to allow for the recording of sounds in the field. With this generally being an outdoor pursuit, and these landscapes often being a bit off the beaten track as it were, finding a sound recording solution that was lightweight and portable was a must. It would be nice if we had a full sound recording desk that would make Jimmy Barnes sound amazing with us in the field, but that’s more than a little impractical. On the opposite side of the coin, it would be fantastic if we could simply use an iPhone or Android device to record in the field, but the sounds produced by this would make even the most dramatic of waterfalls sound like a leaky shower. We therefore chose the Zoom H5 as a compromise between size and sound quality.

Now we say “compromise on sound quality”, but the truth of the situation is this: the sound quality produced by the recordings from the Zoom H5 are outstanding. Atlas Phoenix had long heard good things about all the sound recorders produced by Zoom, despite there somewhat dated nature (more on that in a second), so we weren’t concerned to invest the money in the Zoom H5. We’ve recorded sounds from spectacular Tasmanian waterfall’s to storm force winds rushing through trees and have found the resulting files, without any post processing, to be outstanding in the range of frequencies recorded. For a recorder that is handheld in size and can be powered off a couple of AA batteries, it sure punches above its weight.

The other reason that we at Atlas Phoenix selected the Zoom H5 was its ability to fill a number of recording niches that we encounter in our work. Apart from its use as a field recorder for the preservation of sounds from landscapes, its range of features allows us to use it as the primary recording microphone with our Nikon D7000 (which has a terrible in-built microphone) while also recording a separate sound file to the D7000’s. The Zoom H5 also allows us to record podcast episodes, with the included X-Y microphone capsule (that one we mentioned in the boring technical info at the start of this article). It’s small enough to use as a handheld mic during podcast recording, or we can attach it to a tripod or mic stand using the inbuilt ¼ inch thread on the back of the H5 to make it a free standing mic. The ability to swap out the X-Y capsule for a XLR adaptor means that we can also hook up 4 XLR microphones for a multi-person interview setup. This is one of the features that drew us to the Zoom brand of recorders, as they are a recurring theme across a wide variety of industries that record podcasts. To give you an idea of how prevalent these handy recorders are, heres just a few names of people and groups that use them for interview and podcast recording: Tim Ferriss, Chase Jarvis, Adam Savage’s Tested.com…pretty heady group when you look at it. Granted, these guys tend to use the H6 model instead of the H5 (which is really a bigger version of the H5 with more XLR ports), but it gives you a really good idea of just how good these recorders are when big names in podcasting, YouTube and photography are using them.

Now I know what you’re saying: “this is all nice, but you said there was a bit of a dated technology issue with them a while back in this article”: yep, I sure did. See, unlike iPhones and DSLR cameras, these recorders aren’t updated with a new model every 12 months. It’s probably a indicator of just how good they are that Zoom doesn’t feel the need to constantly update them. This does mean that you get an outdated LCD screen instead of a more modern LED colour screen, and your limited to 32gb memory cards despite 128gb being a fairly common sight these days, but I think those tradeoffs are worth it when you consider that updating a model could result in a device that just isn’t as good.

From a practical point of view, the H5 has 4 separate channel buttons that allow you to switch different recording channels on/off, a stop button, a play/pause botton, a skip forward button, a skip backwards button and a record button (which feels different to the other buttons when you press it). The Zoom H5 has analogue dials to control gain for channels 3 and 4 (which are the XLR ports on the bottom of the recorded) with a metal bar over the top to prevent accidental knocks during recording. On the left side of the recorder, you’ll find a line out port, a headphones port (3.5mm), a volume button, a USB out port for connecting to a PC, Mac or smartphone and the on/off switch which requires a long hold to activate (no more accidental battery flattening episodes). On the right side of the recorder, we have the SD card slot (with a lovely little plastic door covering it), the menu button, a scroll button for going through the menu (pressing this button act’s as ENTER) and a port for attaching an optional remote (so you don’t have to press the buttons on the recorder, removing any chance of unwanted noise being recorded. The X-Y capsule, which came with our Zoom H5 as an included extra, has an analogue dial for controlling gain. It should be noted that when this capsule is attached, it uses channels 1 and 2 and this dial controls the gain for them simultanisously. On the bottom of the recorder, we find two XLR ports and on the back of the recorder, we find a ¼ inch thread for attaching to mic stands. The LCD is found on the front of the recorder above the buttons and gain control dials. We find this layout of buttons and ports to be quite user friendly and like how the on/off switch can’t accidently be knocked while in transport.

This X-Y Microphone attachment consists two unidirectional condenser microphones with a single gain control dial. This is the microphone attachment we use with the Zoom H5 at Atlas Phoenix Photo: Zoom

Recording with the Zoom H5, whether in the field or during a podcast is as simple at setting your desired gain level and pressing the RECORD button. Pressing the RECORD button again stops recording and the file is saved to the SD card. You can then either remove the SD and insert into your PC or Mac or attach the Zoom H5 and select it as a mass storage device, where it acts like a USB drive. You can also plug it into your PC or Mac and select it as a microphone input, if you want to use it to record straight into an audio editing program, or need a good microphone for a Skype call.

Overall, we at Atlas Phoenix really like the Zoom H5 Handy Recorder. We find it the perfect size to throw in our kit bag, find it very easy to use in all field situations and love the flexibility of features and optional extras that make it a true workhorse for our business. We recommend ditching the included plastic hard case (we found that it felt very cheap and likely to break in the field) and instead purchase yourself one of the many specifically made cases on the market. We personally use the PH-5 case which is a soft case with detachable hood for the microphone, Velcro side flaps for accessing the side buttons, a Velcro cover for the XLR ports, a clear front cover for seeing the front buttons and LCD and a Velcro back strap that allows for access to the ¼ inch tread and also allows the Zoom H5 to be attached to a boom mic pole (although we’ve never actually used that strap on a boom pole). We also recommend you get a microphone screen to cover whichever mic capsule you’re using; we have a Neewer brand one we pick up for around $20 AUD which makes a big difference in eliminating pops etc from our recordings.

Anyway, that’s our review of the Zoom H5 Handy Recorder. We totally think it’s a good investment, and we’ll let you know if anything happens that makes us rethink that point of view.

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