I’ve been using the Zoom H4n for a couple of years or so now when shooting with HDSLRs like the 5D Mark II and 7D. Tons of other users around the world have been using it as well.
The Zoom H4n has a lot of stuff going for it – it’s compact, it’s relatively inexpensive and it provides much better sound quality than you get out of your DSLR’s internal mic. However, the Zoom H4n isn’t the only game in town.
For the past month or so, I’ve been using the Zoom H4n alongside the Tascam DR-100 MkII and the Olympus LS-100 with this comparison in mind as I used them. What I’ve tried to do is use them in the way that I normally shoot video and consider the advantages and disadvantages for each based on how and what I shoot.
Generally, I capture audio almost exclusively with a shotgun mic, which requires phantom power – something all three recorders provide. I generally use either a Rode NTG-3 or NTG-1 shotgun mic mounted on camera with a shock mount or on a boom pole. Primarily, I’m either working on interviews or short-form narrative content. Unless I need surrounding ambient noise, I don’t use or like the sound reproduced from the built-in condenser mics on any of these recorders. I’m generally looking for directional audio with a very narrow polar pattern provided by shotgun mics like those mentioned above. So, if your needs or preferences are otherwise, some of what I have to say may not speak to your needs.
Below, I’ll address the features of these units that are important to me and how I stack them up against each other.
This is probably the biggest feature that users are looking at when they are shopping for recorders like these. XLR inputs provide a pro-grade and standard connection from a variety of mics.
All three of these recorders offer dual XLR inputs with phantom power available via an easily accessible switch. If you are unfamiliar with phantom power, condenser mics (like the shotgun mics noted above) require additional power that can be delivered via the XLR cable to the mic. Other condenser mics (like the Rode NTG-2) offer the option of using phantom power over an XLR cable or can be powered via a battery inside the mic housing.
In addition to the XLR inputs at the base of each unit, the Olympus LS-100 and Zoom H4n will accomodate a 1/4″ input. The Tascam DR-100 MkII comes up short and sticks with XLRs only. Note, however, that the Tascam is the only unit of the three that offers a locking tab on the XLR inputs. For me, this is a bigger deal than the 1/4″ inputs and is an easy trade-off if that is, in fact, the reasoning behind the exclusion.
Interface and Menus
In all cases, the recording setup is the same. Tap the record button once to monitor – you get a red flashing light. Tap record again to begin recording – the light goes solid red. Simple. The way it should be.
In the case of each recorder, you can adjust the gain of each XLR channel independently of the other. The Zoom H4n has up/down buttons on the side of the unit for clicking volume levels from 0-100. The Tascam DR-100 MkII and Olympus LS-100 offer dials on the side to roll the gain levels from 0-10.
My preference for gain adjustment is the dial arrangement for the DR-100 MkII and LS-100. The Zoom’s buttons “click” each time you press them, which makes it difficult to fine tune the gain while recording. Depending on the setting you are in, the light “clicking” from the Zoom H4n could end up and be noticeable in the captured product. Moreover, the need to push the gain up or down at any drastic rate is restricted by how fast your button pressing takes you. In most circumstances, it’s not an issue; however, when it is, it can be a significant one.
For the DR-100 MkII and LS-100, the dial allows you to quickly move from min to max gain at whatever rate you want to move. For my touch, I like the setup of the DR-100 MkII’s dials over the LS-100 – because I can get a grip more easily on the dials for independent adjustment. Ideally, I would prefer dials that are placed completely independent of each other; however, that’s not the case with any of these models.
The overall menu system varies in terms of usability and logic among these recorders.
The Zoom is about as basic as you can get. You hit a menu button on the side and then use a scroll when to drill down in a sort of folder-based arrangement. It works, but it’s not the prettiest thing around. Once you grow accustomed to it, you can fairly quickly get where you need to go.
The Tascam is a little more polished than the Zoom. It has a scroll wheel on the front with an “Enter” button in the center - reminiscent of the original iPod click wheel. All in all, the menu layout of the DR-100 MkII is very similar to the Zoom H4n; however, I find it to be a little more user-friendly thanks to the larger (and faster) scroll wheel and buttons that are right in front of your face instead of along the side of the unit.
The Olympus LS-100 is just plain pretty. The GUI is very polished and in full color. There’s a 4-way control dial on the front of the unit that’s much like the 4-way controllers we find on the back side of digital cameras. We use this dial to navigate up, down and side-t0-side in the LS100′s menu system.
While the LS100′s menu system is not fundamentally different from the other two recorders, the overall interface is just more polished throughout. If you’re accustomed to using a DSLR, you’ll feel right at home with the LS-100′s look and feel.
While I love the LS-100′s overall menu system, I prefer the fast scroll wheel on the Tascam DR-100 MkII over the 4-way menu dial that requires you to click for each move through the menu system.
For what they are and how they are priced, all three units are well-constructed.
The Zoom H4n is mostly plastic, but relatively tough. I haven’t broken one yet anyway. The exposed condenser mics atop the unit give me a little consternation; however, the Zoom comes with a hard plastic case so they don’t get bashed around in your gear bag. A direct hit a hard surface would likely do some damage to them though.
Both the Olympus and the Tascam feel sturdier overall. There is a lot more metal on both of these units. Tascam puts metal rings around its condenser mics; however, they are still somewhat exposed at the top of the unit. Unfortunately, that’s enough to allow a direct hit to sidewalk to take out one of the mics (something that actually happened to my unit on a recent outdoor shoot). To be fair, neither of the other two units were subjected to such punishment, so I can’t say for sure how they would fare in a similar accident. Finally, the Tascam includes a soft neoprene case for protection. It’s not the best case; however, it’s better than nothing.
The Olympus LS-100 seems to offer the most protection for the built-in condenser mics by attaching a metal guard along the entire top portion of the unit, while still allowing enough room for the mics to do their thing. Speaking with Olympus reps at CES 2012, I learned that the LS-100 was designed more so with musicians in mind, rather than video production folks – so, maybe that explains the slightly more robust build. Olympus also includes a nice, semi-hard and leather-wrapped case for stowing it in your gear bag.
Media Format and Storage
All three units support the SD card format. The Tascam DR-100 MkII and Zoom H4n accept SDHC cards up to 32GB in size – and this is all you get in terms of storage options for each of these devices.
The Olympus LS-100 offers compatibility with the SDXC format for storage sizes beyond 32GB. Of course, the SDXC support includes backward compatibility with older formats like SD and SDHC as well. For more on SD card formats and ratings, see my resource article Demystifying SD Cards.
In addition to SDXC support, the Olympus LS-100 also includes 4GB of internal flash storage. This internal storage is good enough for over 3 hours of audio at 48khz / 24-bit quality. If you happen to record to the internal storage and later want to transfer to an SD card, it is an easy enough task to accomplish.
All three of the devices capture .wav files at up to 96khz sample rates at either 16-bit or 24-bit quality. The low end of .wav recording for each recorder yields CD-quality 44.1khz sample rates at 16-bit quality. Additionally, all three units offer .mp3 recording at up to 320kbps variable bit rates.
We take the initial step toward pro-level sound with each of these recorders. For my purposes, I need an alternative to the internal mic on DSLRs like the 5D Mark II. I also use these units in conjunction with the Sony FS100, which offers built-in XLR inputs with phantom power. In each case, the pre-amps in these units more than outshine every DSLR on the market and, of course, allow us to use phantom powered shotgun mics. And, while the FS100 is so convenient to use the built-in XLR inputs, I still find these external units to provide better sound overall with less noisy pre-amps than the FS100.
I find the sound quality of the H4n to be slightly inferior to the LS-100 and DR-100 MkII. I’m not sure what the internal power and pre-amp structure is; however, it seems to me that the H4n has a less powerful pre-amp than the LS-100 and DR-100 MkII. In situations where I have the Olympus and Tascam units turned to a gain level of about 7, the Zoom unit will be around 85-90 with a noticeably higher noise floor. The H4n also seems to have a little less body to its sound, particularly noticeable in voices.
Each of these units performs extremely well for the price and size, and the Zoom H4n is no slouch considering the alternative of capturing audio in-camera with an HDSLR. However, for my money, I like the Tascam DR-100 MkII and Olympus LS-100 sound quality better.
Batteries and Power Sources
It’s frustrating that I even has to write a comparison about batteries and power. However, it’s a real issue that needs to be addressed because none of the manufacturers get it right in this department.
Zoom comes the closest to getting it right out of the box. The H4n is powered by two AA batteries or an (included) AC adapter. Simple enough. Pack batteries with your gear and you have power. When you run out, you either put a couple more AA batteries in, or you plug it into the wall if you have an outlet available.
The Tascam DR-100 MkII comes with a rechargeable Li-ion battery pack. In theory, this seems like a great idea since you get a reusable power source. However, when you have to recharge the battery pack, you use the USB cable that comes with the unit and plug it into your computer because Tascam doesn’t include an AC plug or a separate charger. Charging via USB takes forever. If you pick buy a DR-100 MkII, I highly recommend picking up the $20 AC adapter, which charges the Li-ion battery in about an hour. This should be included in the box, but maybe Tascam will do it right with the next version of this unit.
The saving grace for the DR-100 MkII is the ability to drop a pair of AA batteries in the back and power the unit off of these. You can set the primary power source in the menu of the DR-100 MkII and have it choose to drain the Li-ion or the AA batteries first before switching over to the other.
Finally, the Olympus LS-100 uses a Li-ion battery, and there’s no AA backup for it. If you’re in the field with a dead battery pack, you’re screwed. Olympus did bother to include an AC plug, which connects via a USB cable to the unit.
Of course, when you plug it into the wall it goes into USB-connect mode and, as a result, prevents the unit from recording anything. At least the Tascam unit has a proper DC power input for powering the unit properly from the (additional) AC adapter.
[UPDATE via Joonas' comment below: As an LS-100 owner, I’d like to mention that it is possible to fully operate the device while it’s connected to the wall. Just select Menu > Device Menu > USB Connection > AC Adapter, and you can record while charging the recorder. Alternatively, select ‘Optional’ in the USB Connection menu, and every time connected somewhere, the LS-100 asks you whether it’s been plugged into the computer or to the wall. -Thanks Ed.]
In the end, there are lots of problems in the battery and power department. For the manufacturers taking notes, here is my wishlist:
- Rechargeable battery
- Independent wall charger (i.e., I take the battery out of the unit and put it in a charger. This (1) allows me to make use of a spare battery while the other charges, and (2) allows you to sell more spare batteries.)
- Proper (i.e., non-USB) AC adapter included in the box
- AA battery back-up option (I consider this a bonus if the other things are done right in the first place)
I’ve said a lot of good and bad things about these individual units. Still yet, I hope you leave this review with the impression that they are all capable for capturing quality audio in a variety of scenarios. Each of these units are certainly professional audio recorders – even if they’re on the low end of the market.
Even though I’ve used the Zoom H4n the most over the past couple of years, it is my least favorite. A lot of that may be the fact that I’ve had more time to nitpick little things that I don’t like. That said, I would still have no concerns with taking it out tomorrow and using it in just about any scenario that I would be able to use the Tascam or Olympus units.
As you’ve gathered from my comments above, I think the Tascam DR-100 MkII and Olympus LS-100 best the Zoom H4n in a lot of areas. All else being equal, the DR-100 MkII and LS-100 are about even money in my book. But that’s just it, all else isn’t equal.
The one thing I haven’t addressed yet is pricing. The Zoom H4n and Tascam DR-100 MkII are priced at about $300 currently. The Olympus LS-100 is currently priced at $400. In a shootout scenario, where there can be only one winner, the pricing alone gives the Tascam DR-100 MkII a decisive edge over the Olympus LS-100. If the price comes down on the LS-100, things get a whole lot tougher in picking one over the other. In that case, for me, it comes down the power issue and I like the ability to back-up the Tascam unit with AA batteries (and even the AC adapter that you have to pay extra for).
If you’re in the market for a compact XLR recorder, I hope this comparison has helped you make a more informed decision.
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