Zoom’s H2 is for a frugal breed of creative adventurers. The four microphone configuration opens up infinite options for recording applications, yet the price remains incredibly low.

Following the success of the H4 digital recorder, Zoom drastically changed its direction in design. The H4 looks like an alien rocket ship. The button placement isn’t bad but it seems to put style over substance. Zoom’s H2 is just the opposite; it couldn’t be more practical. It has the look of a rectangular broadcasting mic with a high-tech interface plopped on top. Button placement is logical and reminiscent of the controls on a remote control.

The bubble type buttons aren’t as easy to press as hard buttons and can be unpredictable. Build quality is decent but not on the level of something like the Edirol R-09. Keep in mind however that the Edirol has very comparable sound quality and is about twice as expensive.

Typically portable digital recorders have two stationary mini condenser microphones. The mics either cross, with each directed 45 degrees inward, or are directed 45 degrees outwards to maximize stereo separation. Some of the pricier models allow you to adjust the direction of the onboard two mics.

The four microphones inside are what really set the H2 apart from the pack. With all the mics in the W-X/Y configuration enabled you get true 360 degree imaging (convertible to 5.1 surround sound). For more common applications you can record from the front of the H2 to pick up 90 degrees of audio or from the rear to pick up 120 degrees.

Sound quality is very impressive when using the internal mics and downright fantastic when you reach for a quality external microphone. Recording resolution goes up to 96 kHz/24-bit resolution as a WAV file. When card memory is scarce you can also opt for MP3 recording at bitrates up to 320 kbps.

The display is smaller than average, making the level bars tougher to view than I’d like. If push comes to shove you can use the H2 to record directly into your computer and view the meters in Audacity. This way you won’t have to drag the audio files onto your computer afterwards for editing.

This time Zoom doesn’t skimp on the extras. Out of the box you get earbuds, stereo adapter cable, mic clip adapter, tripod stand, USB cable, AC adapter and a 512MB SD card. The SD card is pretty tiny by today’s standards so you’ll probably want to get one with a larger capacity out of the gate.

Two AA batteries give you a mere 4 hours of battery life. Chances are you’ll want to use the AC adapter whenever possible.

Review Verdict

The Zoom H2 is probably the most flexible portable recorder currently on the market. On top of recording sound sources in front or in rear, the device can record a full 360 degrees. That is a lot of value for a recorder costing a mere $160.

The small display screen, sometimes cryptic interface, and tendency to drain batteries fast keep the H2 from being an absolute all-star.

For years Zoom has excelled at making cheap, useful audio gear. Often the product designs looked like plasticky alien technology (and not in a good way) but because the price was so good struggling musicians flocked to their devices.

With stiff competition from Tascam, Zoom portable digital recorders are sporting some pretty slick designs these days; the H1 is no exception. The body of the unit is strikingly sparse and slim. A big record button, LCD screen, LED light and stereo X/Y microphones are the only physical properties to speak of on the front.

Zoom decided to place the majority of the controls along the side of the body. Although it makes for an attractive gizmo, I’m not sure I’m a big fan of this approach. After recording an audio file chances are you’ll tilt the unit on its side to get a better look at the button layout. Granted, once you get used to the feel of the buttons you won’t need to look anymore.

To further clutter the right profile of the H1, Zoom also placed the mic line in and mini-USB jack near the buttons. Oddly enough there isn’t much going on when you flip it to the opposite side. There is a headphone/line out jack, volume level plus microSD slot.

At the bottom of the body there is a tiny reference speaker for listening to playback. Chances are you’ll be using headphones most of the time but I found this to be useful for playing sound clips to a group of people.

One way the H1 trumps the comparatively priced Tascam DR-05 is the microphone setup. The X/Y configuration is more flexible and more in line with how people use a portable recorder. It accepts sound from 180 degrees in front of it and filters out audio from the rear. The H1 handles pretty well any application you throw at it, from band practice, songwriting sessions, seminars, interviews or just as an audio journal.

Recordings from the H1 sound impressive, especially when you attach a quality external mic or lavalier to get closer to the sound source. You can record either broadcast WAV (96kHz/48kHz/44.1kHz at 16-bit or 24-bit) or MP3 files (from 48 to 320kbps). Although I like to stick with uncompressed WAV files for maximum sound quality, the MP3 option can come in very handy for long, drawn out events like lectures. Files are stored on the included 4GB card, which you’ll probably want to upgrade. A 32GB microSD card can store over 50 hours of audio at 16-bit/44.1 kHz.

The H1 doesn’t come with much in the box which is to be expected at this price point. You get a 4GB microSD card, one AA battery and a manual. Zoom offers an optional accessory package which includes a windscreen, AC adapter (USB type), USB cable, adjustable tripod stand, padded-shell case and a mic clip adapter.

Review Verdict

The Zoom H1 is a flexible, good sounding device at an extremely cheap price. The only things holding it back are the concentration of important buttons on the side of the unit and the cheap feel of the plastic body.

If you need a bullet-proof digital recorder to capture the sounds of the Jakarta jungle, you need to spend more money. For the rest of us doing a lot of recording indoors the H1 will get the job done just fine.

The affordability of the latest generation of basic recorders like the Tascam DR-05 and Zoom H1 make them tough to resist. Let’s face it. Most people don’t pick up a portable recorder, thinking they’ll make a hit record or feature film with it (unless hopelessly deluded). It is a thought of as an audio sketch pad that can quickly pick up anything from on-location interviews, song ideas, music rehearsals or voice-overs on the fly. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to opt for the fanciest model when your needs are so modest.

I hate wrestling with technology, especially when I feel the desire to start a creative project. Any recorder worth its weight in gold needs an intuitive interface. My mind needs to be focused on the content about to be created, so operation needs to be close to idiot-proof. This is where the DR-5 shines. The button layout isn’t much different than a remote control. You have a play button dead-center, with jogging controls to the left and right; these alternatively control microphone sensitivity. Plus and minus buttons set the volume output. Four menu controls are embedded among the main navigation buttons which is pretty brilliant design-wise. Record and stop buttons are placed out of the way to avoid being pressed accidently.

Onboard mics are placed in an X/Y pattern for maximum stereo separation. This can be a good or bad thing depending on the application. It’s good for recording bands, interviews or capturing all the sounds in a room, but less than ideal for solo podcasters or people looking to do voice overs. It would be nice if you could adjust the angle of the microphones.

The DR-05 was bigger than expected. Placed next to the similarly priced Zoom H1, it is notably wider and bulkier. Tascam offers a thin compact model called the DR-08 that costs an extra $35. The plus side of the DR-05’s size is that it feels more substantial in your hands than the H1.

Included in the box is a USB cable for connecting the device to your computer, a pair of AA batteries, manual, and a 2GB micro SD card.

To cut costs Tascam doesn’t include an AC adapter. This wouldn’t be so annoying if the mythical PS-P515U adapter it requires wasn’t so hard to track down. Luckily you can use USB bus power if you don’t have batteries. Although this is a cool feature, you’ll probably be limited to using AA batteries when you don’t have a computer nearby. I have a good amount of rechargeable AA batteries around the house so I like how the DR-05 uses AA batteries and not AAA batteries like other slim models.

Review Verdict

The Tascam DR-05 is a solidly made portable recorder with limited applications. To sum it up, it’s better suited for musicians and interviewers than people that want to capture solo dialog.

The interface is wonderfully designed, making the DR-05 a simple recorder to use.

There isn’t much competition in this super low price range. For this reason it’s hard to find fault with a device offering so much value. Only the Zoom H1 comes close.