Zoom H4n

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Size of the Zoom H4n digital recorder.
 Contributed by Nathan Statezni

General Overview

The H4n has been recommended for survey over the Marantz PMD 661 on the basis of price and bang-for-buck. Although the H4n has very good sound quality and is certainly better than the Zoom H2, it is not the best.

Note that although online reviews will often talk a lot about onboard features and connections, they often do not describe the pre-amp well, if at all. This is the part of the recorder that boosts the microphone signal to something usable. Most cheap recorders have poor, cheap pre-amps. Either you can't boost the microphone up well, or if you do, there's tons of background noise and the subject sounds like they're sitting in a well. The pre-amps on the H4n are in a class above the H2, just as the pre-amps on the 661 are in a class above the H4n. Often that's where the extra money goes.

There is a detailed manual online (CAUTION: large 17 MB file)

Transferring to computer

There are two ways to transfer to the computer. One is to turn off the Zoom H4n, remove the SD card and insert the SD card into your computer. From there, you can locate your files and transfer them.

You can also use the USB cable to connect the Zoom H4n and your computer.

  • Press Menu.
  • Go to USB.
  • Choose Storage


Features of the Zoom H4n digital recorder.

* It has built-in stereo microphones. You can convert stereo recordings to “mono” on the unit although this is typically "dual-mono" which basically writes a stereo file -2 tracks- with the identical waveform in each track. It's an annoying waste of memory space. The PMD-661 can write to true mono - single track - files.

  • built-in speaker
  • It uses 2 AA batteries. Recording time is around 6 hours. In a special Stamina mode, it can supposedly last for around 11 hours.
  • It has a ¼” mic jack (that fits the mics used for Minidisk recorders) but it is on the back of the unit, so a little awkward for where to place the recorder when recording There is also an 1/8" stereo mic jack on the bottom of the unit, just behind the built-in mics. You may either use it or the built-ins or the 1/4" jacks.
  • Tracks can be divided during recording or playback. During playback when tracks are divided, then STE-000 becomes STE-000a and STE-000b. If you want to extract an utterance to its own file out of an original file, you would take STE-000 and divide it as before at the beginning of the utterance. STE-000a then contains data before the utterance. Then you divide STE-000b at the end of the utterance to create STE-000ba and STE-000bb. The former is the utterance you want and you should rename to something meaningful. The latter is the remainder of the data after the utterance you wanted. This whole procedure is much more elegantly done in the 661 by putting 'in' and 'out' markers on the utterance you want and simply copying that to another file.
  • Tracks can be played one track at a time (nice for playing RTTs)
  • Playback can be slowed down (to 50%) without changing pitch, which might be nice when transcribing RTT stories on the field
  • It has a built-in speaker (but probably not loud enough for a group RTT session), so you don’t always have to use headphones
  • Uses SD cards. However, if you choose to record at higher bitrates or use 4-track simultaneous recording (by recording both through the built-in mics or 1/8" stereo jack and the XLR/ 1/4" jacks at the bottom) then you will want the faster Class 4 SD cards.
  • It comes with a plastic case, but it’s not clear from pictures how durable the case might be


  • The built-in microphones are placed precariously on top with no cage, so they might break if the unit dropped. They are not known for their durability. You buy them as a consumable expecting to have a 3~5 year life cycle. But you should expect that they will not take abuse of any kind well. Frankly, in use, I found the cage on the old H4 (ancestor to the H4n) to be unnecessary. Insure your toys and have a backup/secondary recorder like an H2.
  • large, heavy, and ostentatious. size & weight are big cons especially on a lengthy backpacking survey.
  • Do not allow tracks to be rejoined (although by making backup copies, you could simply use a copy to redivide the track), which the MiniDisc Players allow.
  • the automatic record volume feature is terrible! All of the recordings turn out extremely quiet.
  • The Zoom H4n will not copy sections of files, but you can divide files in two, rename, move files and make copies of them. This makes the on-board RTT processing a little more tedious, but still doable, and much less tedious than patching 2 Zoom H2s together, and with better sounding output.


The easiest way to record is to simply use the built-in microphones. If the Mic button is shining red, then it will record using the microphone. When using minidisk recorders, most surveyors use the automatic volume adjustment when recording. However, the Auto Recording Volume setting on the Zoom H4n does not work well with the built-in microphones. The recordings are always too quiet. With the manual settings, 85-92 tend to be good settings. It is important to learn what the displayed levels mean relative to the actual waveform before using the unit in field situations and to check the levels periodically. This ensures that the volume level will be correct.

To use automatic volume for recording on the Zoom H4n (only in Stereo mode),

  1. Press Menu.
  2. Choose Input
  3. Choose Level Auto
  4. Turn On.

Normally, the file names are generic and not very clear (STE-xxx.wav). A more clear system is to show the Date (a track recorded on 15 Aug 2010 would be called 100815-xxx.wav (yymmdd-xxx.wav)). To change the file names to show the date (for Stereo mode),

  1. Press Menu.
  2. Choose Rec.
  3. Choose File Name
  4. Choose Date.

You can also plug in a microphone like the minidisc recorders used into the back in the Ext Mic hole. If you plug in a microphone, it will not record with the built-in microphones, but will only use the one that you plugged in. The 1 and 2 below the Mic button are for the big XLR microphone jacks at the base of the unit.

See our Tips for Audio Recording for more info.

See also Nathan's Zoom H4n RTT Guide and Zoom H4n Word List Guide.

Links: Equipment Reviews | Equipment User Guides