March 2013

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Tool Review: Zoom H1

Unboxing and initial review of the Zoom H1 digital recorder.

Links to USB charger teardowns:
  • Music: Hot Swing and Guiton Sketch by Kevin MacLeod used under Creative Commons 3.0 (
  • Sound effects: for free use
  • Photo: Zoom H4N by Mark Turnauckas used under Creative Commons 3.0


One man's toy is another man's tool. Regardless of what you call them, today we're going to open up a box of new toys... tools... whatever.

Hi Makers, Builders and Do-It-Yourselfers, Harley here. Today on the House of Hacks we're going to unbox and do an initial reaction to some new audio equipment.

All the videos to date, I've taken using the internal microphone on the camera. I've actually been surprised at how well they've worked. I've done some clean-up in post-processing and in the last video I actually did quite a bit. I was surprised at how well it turned out. But I did want to take it to the next level. So, in order to accomplish that, I got some new audio gear.

I looked at a number of models, did some searching and reading reviews and such. Based on my budget and what I had available, I ended up getting a Zoom H1, an accessory pack and a lavaliere mic.

The lav mic I got from Amazon and including shipping this was about $15. Try to get the box open here. The reviews were fairly favorable even in spite of the low cost. I'm sure it's not as good as a more expensive model but hopefully it'll be better than the built-in mic in the camera. We've got here a little instruction flyer, and that looks like that's about all there is to it. So, this kind of clips on here like so. It's obviously a mono microphone. And that's it for the mic.

The Zoom was available on Amazon and I did some checking around. I wanted to pay by PayPal and Amazon doesn't take PayPal so I did some more searching and found the same model available at B & H Photo for $10 more but it included the accessory pack. Normally the accessory pack is another $20 purchase. So it cost me a little bit more, shipping was equivalent, but I got all the accessories with it too.

In this package, looks like a plastic thing with an instruction manual and a micro-SD card and an adapter to be able to put into your computer for the regular SD card size. The Zoom itself and a battery that is not for retail sale. Probably just a cheap alkaline battery that won't last very long I'm guessing. That's pretty much it for the box on the Zoom. Not much in it but about what you'd expect.

And the accessory pack. I'm not quite sure what's in here. There's a picture on the back that we'll open up and see what it has in it. So, it has a cheap, well I don't know how cheap, an AC adaptor, basically just a USB thing. Based on some of the teardowns I've seen on some of these, I don't know if I'd really trust it. I might do a teardown on this as a separate project just to see how well built it is. Some teardowns I've seen, they're actually dangerous. Here's a windscreen that's designed to go around the whole top of the unit. And looks like a USB cable. Probably bog standard cable, USB A on one side and B on the other. Yeah, looks like the little micro side for one and the side you plug into the computer for the other. This is a little carrying case. Looks like some sort of vinyl case to store it in. It has a little belt clip on it. And a little hand strap. That's kind of nice, it has elastic on it so you can have it on your belt and it won't flop open. That's a nice little detail. This looks like some sort of stand. It looks like it has a 1/4-20 screw on one side, for like a tripod mount. I'm not sure how this goes together. Then there's a little mini-tripod, also with a 1/4-20 mount on it. This looks like it might be useful for things other than just the recorder. Little tripod, you could use it for a small camera too. I'll have to look at the manual see how this is supposed to be used. Oh. Maybe it's supposed to be used like a handheld thing. Yeah. I'll have to look at the manual on that one.

That's it. $10 more than this by itself at Amazon. I got this at B & H Photo. Seems like a fairly good deal.

Ok. So this is what came in the box. This was in the H1 package and this is all the accessories that came in the second package. I'm going to go set everything up and do some initial tests and report back.

Many consumer devices these days use a general purpose LCD graphic display for displaying information and a handful of buttons in order to navigate through a menu system and choose options and control the device. Zoom has chosen not to go down that route and I'm really impressed with the user interface on this thing. The front panel has a LCD display that is unique to this device. It's custom made and everything is displayed in a particular location for that particular function. The only other thing on the front panel is this single button you push it once to start recording and push it again to stop recording. It's that simple. They've made the basic primary function of operating the Zoom very, very easy and I really like that in this device.

On this side of the device there's a headphone jack or a line output jack; it'll work either way. There's a volume control. And the micro-SD card slot.

The top of course are the microphones. And it has this nice little protective plastic to keep the microphones from breaking. Some of their other models have the same configuration on the microphones but they don't have this plastic cover and I've heard reports that they have a tendency to get broken through accidental dropping and normal handling.

The bottom has a very tiny speaker that you can use for just basic monitoring. It's really low fidelity. You can't get a good read on good the quality is of the output because it's so limited by the speaker. But you can tell if you actually got what you were trying to get or not.

This side of the device is all the input functions. It has the microphone input or line input, either way. It has the manual input level controls if you're using manual gain control. It has playback buttons. Forward and back buttons for moving through files, or if you're playing back, it'll do fast forward and reverse to scan through the audio. The middle button is a combination of play and pause. And this button is to delete the file you currently have selected. Moving on we have the power button. You push it down and hold it to turn it on and then when you want to turn it off, you push it down again and hold it and it'll turn it off. You can slide it the opposite direction and it'll stay in that position for hold and, what that means is that all the other buttons are deactivated so you can't accidentally push something, change something, in the middle of recording. And then finally there's the USB connector for the computer.

On the back of the device there are three switches for options. There's a low cutoff switch that will, if enabled, will cut out low frequency noises such as air conditioners or traffic outside, that type of thing. There's the auto level control, you turn it off for manual control in which case the input levels will control the recording level. Or you can turn it on and it will try to figure out the recording level. Auto level control has never worked, it still doesn't work, for decades it hasn't worked, and it still hasn't been figured out and so the recommendation is to leave it off and always use manual control. And finally on the back there's the recording format. WAV for when you need high fidelity or MP3 for a lossy recording. But of course with MP3 you get much greater recording time on any given card. There's a 1/4-20 tripod mount so you can put this on top of a tripod or any other standard device holding mechanism. And then finally the battery connector. It takes a single AA battery.

So that's it for the overview. Beautiful user interface. I love it.

So now let's cover some of the real basic, simple operations of the Zoom.

To turn it on, you hold down the power button and after a second or two it comes on and it's ready to record at this point. You can see all the different functions on the screen and when you press the button it goes into record mode. And you can see it now starting to count up that says you're recording. You have the options of the bit rate it's recording at and whether the low pass filter is on or off. You can see the current recording levels, the battery status, all these nice and nifty little things. When you're done recording, all you have to do is push the same button again and you're done. It's that simple. It's really nice.

So, to do some of the option setups, they're on the back here. You've got the WAV and MP3 are the two primary things you'd probably be changing on a fairly frequent basis. For the WAV format, you switch it over to WAV and the forward and back buttons allow you to change the bit rate. Here you can see on the front panel it's 48k with 16 bit depth and you have 2 hours and 24 minutes of recording time on this particular SD card. If you press the button, it changes it to 44k and 24 bit depth and now it drops to an hour and 44 remaining. You can cycle through all the different options by pressing these buttons and seeing the changes in the record time. The same thing happens when you switch it to MP3 format. Now instead of having the sampling frequency and bit depth, now you simply have the standard bit depth settings for MP3s.The low is 48 kilobits per second and it will cycle all the way up to 320 on the high side and it also shows the recording time for each bit depth. So, you can kind of make a balance between the quality you need and the recording time that you need. You can see here 320 for MP3 format gives us over 11 hours of recording time on this particular SD card. If I switch it to WAV format we're down in the hour and 44 minute range; even less if we go up to 96k samples per second. At the highest density WAV format we have less than an hour of record time. So, MP3 format definitely does have a higher recording density.

The input jack is a stereo input but if you plug a mono microphone into it, it will only record on the left channel. Of course you can take care of that in post by duplicating the channel and putting it on both sides, but it is a limitation on here. You need an adapter for mono to stereo if you want to record on both channels.

When you're all done, you again hold down the power button until it says "Good-bye" and it turns itself off.

So that's it for real basic operation of the Zoom. Let's go over to the computer and see what it looks like when you connect it to the computer.

When you plug the Zoom into the computer, it comes on with the screen flashing between "Audio" and "Card." If you press the button when it says "Audio," it will appear to the computer as an audio source. If you press the button when it says "Card" then it will appear as an external drive. You can use the normal filesystem utilities, for example Finder on the Mac or Explorer on Windows, to manipulate the files on the Zoom. Typically you'd probably move them somewhere for further use. When done, you can simply eject the drive and disconnect it.

I'm going to read a short speech now and record it using both the onboard microphone on the camera and also the new lav mic with the Zoom and in post-processing I'll switch between the two so you can hear the difference and do a side-by-side comparison.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

As you can tell, the audio from this sounds much better than the audio from the beginning of this video. Overall, I'm pretty pleased with the way this turned out and looking forward to using it on future videos.

So, that's about it for this show.

Other than the unboxing, I forgot to say anything about the accessory pack. This video's already long enough, so I'll take care of that in another video.

Until next time, go make something, it doesn't have to be perfect, just have fun.