Zoom (distributed by Samson), with its line of portable digital audio recorders, has made high-quality handheld recorders more affordable than they once were. With the H1 Handy Recorder—a $160 device available for $99 just about everywhere—the company has gone from more affordable to downright inexpensive.
This unit includes many features that will appeal to budget-minded podcasters, broadcasters, reporters, and musicians—up to 24-bit/96kHz WAV and 320kbps MP3 recording, built-in X/Y mic placement for stereo recording, external mic/line-in input, headphone/line-out output, storage up to 32GB on MicroSDHC cards, reasonably intuitive display and controls, power from a single AA battery, and a compact design. But with its plastic case it’s a recorder that should be handled with a measure of care.
Each side of the candybar-sized H1 has some variety of button or switch on it. Along with a small LCD that displays the left and right recording levels, a battery level meter, the recording format, and recording time remaining on the media card, the front features a single red Record button, which you use to start and stop recordings. Unlike Zoom’s larger and more expensive H4n recorder (street price $300), the Record button on the H1 acts in a simple On/Off mode. Press it once and you start recording. Press it again to stop. The H1 monitors levels continuously whenever it’s switched on.
The left side offers the 1/8-inch (3mm) headphone/line-out jack and a volume rocker switch. Farther down the side is the slot for the MicroSDHC card. This slot is covered by a piece of plastic that, I imagine, will break off if not treated carefully.
The back of the H1 sports the battery compartment; a plastic tripod mount; and Lo Cut (a filter for reducing noise), Auto Level, and Record Format switches. The right side is the most densely populated part of the device. Here you find a mini USB port for moving audio files from the H1 to a connected computer; Power/Hold switch; Delete button; Rewind, Play/Pause, and Fast Forward buttons; the Input Level toggle switch; and a 1/8-inch microphone/line-in jack. On the bottom of the H1 is a small mono speaker. The speaker is anything but high-fidelity, but it’s loud enough so you can preview files. At the top, shielded by a plastic grid, are the two microphones, set at 90-degree angles.
Although there are a lot of buttons and switches, the layout makes sense. Hold the H1 in your right hand and all the buttons you’d need during recording or playback are under your thumb.
The H1’s Auto Level function is far less subtle than the same function on Zoom’s more-advanced H4n. I used both devices with auto level switched on (each recording at 44.1kHz/16-bit WAV) to record a piano across my living room using the built-in microphones. In the quiet passages the H1 very obviously pumped up the gain. The H4n didn’t, thus capturing far more musical results.
I then switched off auto level on each and recorded the piano at 70 percent gain. The results were better—the two devices recorded at the same level, though the H1’s recording was a bit louder in the right channel (the two devices were placed side-by-side, pointed at the piano so they should have exhibited the same balance). I then jacked up the gain to 100 percent. At this level each recording was distorted.
The character of the sound when auto level is switched off, however, is quite similar. Listen to files from each device and you’d be very hard pressed to tell one from the other.
Providing the basics
The H1 is for those podcasters, broadcasters, reporters, and musicians who want a good sounding handheld recorder at a very reasonable price. Thus, it doesn’t include professional/musical features as XLR/Hi-Z inputs, phantom power, 4-channel recording, mixing, playback speed adjustment, DSP effects (compressor, chorus, delay, and reverb), auto record, tuner, or metronome—nor is the H1 as sturdily built as its more expensive sibling.
Macworld’s buying advice
The Zoom H1 Handy Recorder is unquestionably a bargain. Whether it’s a good fit for you depends very much on your need for extra features found on more expensive recorders such as the H4n and your ability to treat plastic gadgets with some respect. The Auto Level feature needs some work, but you can easily work around it by switching it off and manually setting levels. Do so and you can record some impressive-sounding audio.