Review: Zoom H1 Handy Recorder

Working on the Full Circle Podcast and various other audio projects, I thought it expedient to pick up a handy-size portable audio recorder to take the place of a laptop or net-book with microphones and cables.

There are dozens of solid-state personal data recorders around, in all price ranges and all qualities. As usual I set myself a budget and settled on the Zoom H1, baby brother of the more capable H2...

This is a very small, light-weight gadget. A solid-state recorder, the H1 records on micro-SD cards and comes with a 2GB micro-SD card in a side-mounted and rubber-covered slot.  You get format flexibility from 16-bit/44.1 kHz to 24-bit/96 kHz Broadcast WAV (BWF), or MP3 from 48 kbps to 320 kbps and enough tools on-board to make manage recordings on the SD card. A single AA battery lasts for 10 hours of recording time.

The Zoom has a Hi-Speed USB 2.0 port which allows for fast transfer of audio files to other devices. It also includes a 'reference speaker' in the base to use as a monitor to check back recordings, although this is so small and tinny, I seldom bother with it, using headphones instead. The speaker is barely adequate for a small, quiet room but useless in a convention hall.

The front of the device has a small backlit display, that will show recording levels, file format, time elapsed, remaining battery life and recording time. It displays enough to allow you to navigate and delete audio files.

Unlike it's more expensive peers, the H1 puts all its functions at your fingertips; all the controls are physical switches on the side and back with no menus to pick through on the screen. There's a large record button on the front below the display. The rec/peak LED light on top of the display will flash when the input source (mic or line-in) is above the recommended recording level. Playback and pause, marker, forward and rewind buttons are all accessible by thumb operation. Volume for playback and monitoring can be adjusted using your index finger.

A 3.5mm stereo line input is located on the right side with the USB port, power on and hold switches. On the left side, you can replace your micro-SD card by folding down the rubberised hatch, common to digital cameras and phones. There’s a 3.5mm stereo line/headphone output with adjustable volume control for monitoring playback.

On the back, there's a single AA battery compartment; low-cut filter, auto-level setting and recording format selectable switches. Usefully it has a standard threaded tripod mount. There’s also a convenient mount for a strap or lanyard clip.

Although the body of the Zoom H1 looks professional it is made of extremely lightweight  plastic and does feel like a toy. The body creaks under pressure. the mic guard and mic mounts feel flimsy and I'm not sure how robust the whole thing is. 

The most important part is the microphone. The Zoom H1 has stereo X/Y microphones on the top surrounded by a plastic cage. This is not a windscreen. The H1 has an optional accessory pack which includes the windscreen, mains AC adaptor, USB cable, mini tripod, padded case and a mic clip adaptor which I didn't go for. I've jerry-rigged my own wind-shield over the cage and here's why.

The Zoom H1 does a reasonable good job at stereo recording, as long as you can use it in controlled conditions. As a personal memo recorder it's it’s fine for amateur recordings, for a blog or trade show. If you want to use it for anything else, it is far from a professional recorder that you might use at a concert or press event. The issue I have is finding that sweet spot for getting strong audio into the mikes without extraneous noise. For that a wind shield is essential. Signal strength is always an issue as you angle the device toward your subject - if that includes yourself then you likely won't be able to see the display on the front.

Since the recorder is made of such lightweight plastics, the mics pick up any noise of your fingers handling the case and any noise through a table or solid tripod. You might want to consider plugging in an external battery powered condenser mic. Headphones for monitoring the signal are also a good idea.

The quality of the finished audio varies immensely. When you're used to a balanced USB cartoid mic with that warm Radio 4 sound, the H1 will always sound tinny and cheap by comparison on all but the highest settings in the best conditions. You can always do some clean-up in post, but be aware of the silk purse/sow's ear scenario.

A decent multi-purpose personal recorder that's easy to setup and use, but needs care to get the best results. The simplicity of it is a strength - no wandering up and down software menus to find what you want. However the flimsy feel of the construction is off-putting. It's better than a cheap digital Dictaphone, but definitely way below an H2 or the cheapest Tascam. RC

Zoom H1 Features:

  • Stereo X/Y mic configuration captures stereo audio
  • Same frequency and SPL handling as popular Zoom H2
  • Records Broadcast WAV (BWF) at 96kHz/48kHz/44.1kHz at 16-bit or 24-bit
  • Records MP3 from 48 to 320kbps for maximum recording time
  • Hi-Speed USB 2.0 port
  • Built-in reference speaker
  • Includes 2GB micro-SD memory card and one AA battery
  • One AA size battery allows 10 hours operation
  • Accommodates up to 32GB micro-SDHC memory cards
  • Track marker function
  • Low cut filter
  • Built-in tripod mount
  • 1/8-inch external mic input
  • 1/8-inch stereo line output
  • Auto record level
  • Optional accessory package (APH-1) includes windscreen, AC adapter (USB type), USB cable, adjustable tripod stand, padded shell case and mic clip adapter