Saturday, August 2, 2014

ZOOM H5 - Somewhere Between H4 and H6

This may be the longest review I’ve written in some time. No magazine I‘ve ever written for would allow me to put this much information in a review. There's just not enough space available. I felt obliged to cover the many features offered by the Zoom H5. If you begin to lose traction, swim to the edge of the pool and hold on until you get your breath. Then dive back in.

Don’t need six tracks that the Zoom H6 offers? (I know, who doesn’t need more tracks?) Like the idea of real level knobs instead of menu buttons? 

EXH-6 XLR/TRS Input Module
For $269, the Zoom H5 sits between the $229 H4n and $399 H6 and strikes me as a nifty little hand held 4-track recorder that’s capable of doing a number of odd jobs. Let’s see what it can do, and what it can’t. First off, no surprise - no SMPTE.

I was also sent the EXH-6 Dual XLR/TRS input module and SGH-6 Shotgun with furry, but not the MSH-6 Mid/Side mic or any other accessories. The H5 also takes the H6 modules. 

The H5 and all of the modules have a very solid feel; like professional tools. Metal bars wrap around the input gain controls to prevent them from being tweeked and to prevent them from being damaged in a fall.
SGH-6 Shotgun Module
MHS-6 Mid/Side Module

Unlike many manuals, the 115 page H5 manual is actually well written and has a good balance of words and diagrams. You may think you know how things work, but you may find new powers and helpful capabilities that you weren’t aware of unless you read the manual. 

The audio interface input settings alone require some pondering. Lo-cut, comp/limiter, 12, 24 or 48V DC Phantom Power, pad, Mid/Side matrixing, monitor mixing, loop back, internal mono mixing and line output level make it obvious that the H5 is a feature laden box. If you get lost and things aren’t working, you can restore the default settings. 

Did I mention you should read the manual?

Here’s a prime example of why you need to read the manual. There are three compressor and three limiter settings. The only adjustment you have is the input level. Used without some thought, your tracks will suck mightily. The specs in the manual are great for old schoolers who know what attack, release, ratio and threshold settings do. If you don't then my advice is simple; don't use the compressor/limiter or don't push the audio very far past the threshold until you know what that's going to sound like.

The “Standard Compressor” threshold is at -48.7 dB. It has a 9:1 ratio, a 7.2 mSec attack time and a 968 mSec release time. The “Compressor for Vocals” has a -8.4 dB threshold, a 16:1 ratio, a 1.8 mSec attack time and a 8.7 mSec release time. The “Compressor for Drums” has a -48.2 dB threshold, a 7:1 ratio, a 12.3 mSec attack time and a 947 mSec release.

The “Standard Limiter” has a -14.4 dB threshold, a 60:1 ratio, a 6.4 mSec attack time and a 528 mSec release. The “Concert Limiter” has a -13.8 dB threshold, a 32:1 ratio, a 1.9 mSec attack and an 8.5 mSec release. Finally, the “Studio Limiter” has a -12.0 dB threshold, an 8:1 ratio, a 6.5 mSec attack and a 423 mSec release. Much more friendly, but still watch the levels so you don't munch the audio. Many people like to leave dynamic range control for later. 

In my first attempt with the “Studio limiter”, I pushed the input levels a bit too far and heard the limiter action while tracking an acoustic guitar track. Next time I let the studio limiter just catch the peaks. I saw peak readings around -10 dB, maybe a little higher. The compressor or limiter you choose can be applied to either the X/Y or 1&2 inputs, or both. Respect the Comp/Limiter and it will respect your recordings! 

H5 Left Side with HS1 Camera Mount
The outside of the H5 is simple, but no less powerful than the inside. On the left side is an unbalanced 1/8” TRS Line Level out. The output is adjustable from -30dB (mic) to 0dB (line) in 5 dB increments. The 1/8” TRS stereo headphone jack is next and it’s loud enough to power my Sony MDR7506 headphones. 

A headphone volume rocker switch is next followed by a 5V DC USB jack and the On/Off/Hold switch. It allows the H5 to be turned on and off and it also has a HOLD function that locks out all button pushes but the ones on the RCH-5 hardwired remote control.
H5 Right Side

On the right side are the jack for the hardwired remote, an SD card slot, the menu button and menu navigation control. Obviously designed for right-handed (or right thumbed) people, the menu navigation controls quickly become natural to use. You push in and navigate with the toggle button and back out with the menu button. Simple and nicely done. 
H5 Back Side

On the back is a small speaker, the battery compartment for two AA batteries and a threaded nut for mounting the H5 on a camera stand or camera adapter like the HS1 or MA2. The HS1 allows the H5 to be mounted on a camera shoe. The MA2 acts as a handle which greatly reduces handling noise when you’re using the X/Y mics and is long enough to slip into most mic clips for mounting on a mic stand. These accessories are extra.

H5 Bottom

On the bottom of the H5 are two XLR/TRS jacks for inputs 1 and 2 for line, mic or instrument level.

On the face of the H5 is a smallish LCD display that remains backlit for a while. The LCD display is packed with information and status icons. Pages 10-11 in the manual do a great job of sorting the bits out, but I’m guessing it’ll take a while before you know what each one means. 

A little homework here will make your experience with the H5 more valuable and productive. Translation, “Read the manual.” There are also record level controls for channels 1 and 2, record enable buttons for all channels, Stop, Play/Pause, Rew, FF and Record. These inputs have minor zipper noise as you change gain from 0 to 7 and back, but none between 7 and 10. 

The manual says the H5 supports up to 32GB SD cards. I liked the 2GB micro and SD adapter card that came with the H5. They were tucked away in the same cubby hole with the foam windscreen; so unobtrusive that I didn’t even notice it and reached out to ask where they were. The H5 wouldn’t format one of my 64GB SD cards, but did format a 16GB (30MB/sec Class 10) SanDisk Ultra.

There’s also an SD Card Performance Test, but the manual says that even an SD card that passes the test does not guarantee error free operation. If you have older Zoom recorders, or SD cards that were used in older H4 and lower (3, 2, 1) Zoom recorders, the H5 will probably read them. It will not read H6 files.

The manual warns that you should power down before inserting or removing cards to prevent data loss. I read that after a week of blissful ignorance without data loss and continued to do so, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. In MULTIFILE mode there is a rebuild feature that may help with corrupted projects or files. Underline MAY

Within the REC menu your choices are STEREOFILE and MULTIFILE. In STEREOFILE mode you get 16 and 24 bit 44.1, 48 and 96 kHz, plus MP3s at 48, 56, 64, 80, 96, 112, 128, 160, 192, 224, 256 and 320 kbps. I’m not sure you need all of those mp3 rates, but you got ‘em. In MULTIFILE mode, you’re limited to 16 and 24 bit 44.1 and 48 kHz. 

REC and REC MODE are two separate menu entries and it took a few minutes of fumbling around to notice. I think I would have put the STEREOFILE and MULTIFILE choices within the REC MODE menu, but once you know where they are and how they differ, you’ll be OK. 

There’s a directory structure for both MULTIFILE and STEREOFILE. Each of these directories has ten folders and audio can be recorded to whatever folder you choose. While recording, use the menu toggle control or PAUSE/PLAY button to drop marks which can then be fast forwarded or rewinded to during playback. 

But wait! There’s More! You can rename, normalize, trim and divide files. You can record automatically and adjust the start/stop threshold levels. There’s a two second pre-record buffer. In MULTIFILE, you can overdub and even if the overdubbed track already had a recorded file, the original will not be overwritten. Instead, a new file will be created. I don’t know that I’d want to work this way, but if you’re on a desert island with a good supply of AA batteries and a lot of time on your hands, you'd probably due quite well.

MULTIFILE also allows you to record 128 kbps MP3 voice memos attached to a file using the XY mics. You only get one memo per file. Each time you press the Record button, the previous memo is overwritten.

The H5 also supports conversion from .WAV to a variety of MP3 rates from 48 to 320 kbps. Handy if you wanted to record full .WAV files, but needed to export an .MP3 for transcription. The H5 doesn’t convert as fast as iTunes, but it’s not bad. When you back out to the directory with the Menu button, you see your new file named the same as the .WAV file, but with an .MP3 extension.

H5 Mid/Side Decoding Software
The Main H5 web page is here. There are ASIO Drivers for the PC Platform and Mid/Side Decoder plugins for Mac and PC on a special page on Zoom's site. They also have manual downloads and if there's a firmware upgrade, you'll also find that on the Zoom site. 

2 + 2 = 6
But are there really just four tracks? No, there are actually six! You can enable a “Backup-Record” pair of stereo tracks that are set to 12 dB below the X/Y mics in case something gets UNEXPECTEDLY LOUD. You don’t get backup tracks for Inputs 1 and 2, just the top L/R pair.

I found the X/Y mics a little brighter than I like, but actually pretty nice. If you like the Neumann KM184’s brightness, you’ll probably like the X/Y mics. If you prefer the KM84, then maybe not.

If you don’t like the small diameter stereo X/Y mics on the top of  the XYH-5 module, there’s a 1/8” TRS unbalanced stereo jack on the side of the XYH-5 module that takes mic to line level signals. 

I tried this with the 1/8” unbalanced stereo line output of my Sound Devices 442 mixer and had to back off the input gain control of the XYH-5 to 1 (out of 10) to keep from overdriving the H5. This made me notice a nice feature of the H5; the red record meters blink when the inputs are overdriven, bringing your attention to the fact that you need to do something. Thank you Zoom.

I tried plugging in an Audio-Technica AT8022 stereo mic to the 1/8” TRS jack. It’s an electret condenser that can be powered by external Phantom Power or an internal AA cell. I had to boost the XYH-5 gain dial to at least 7 to get a good level and that’s where the hiss began to creep in. If the ambient noise had been as high as average street level, it would have masked the hiss. A mic with more sensitivity (or a louder source) would require less heavy lifting from the XYH-5 module and result in lower noise. There’s no zipper noise when raising or lowering the XYH-5 mic gain control.

EXH-6 Module
I swapped out the XYH-5 for the EXH-6 input module. It has two XLR/TRS connectors and a switchable 20 dB pad. Each input has a separate gain control. Again, using the Audio-Technica AT8022 mic in battery powered mode, this time with XLR connectors, I was able to get a very satisfactory recording with average noise and the EXH-6 gain controls set to 7-8 (out of 10). The EXH-6 sensitivity knobs don’t have the protective roll bars and although it does provide the 2.5V plug-in power some mics need, it doesn’t provide Phantom Power. Plug-in power is switchable in the Input/Output menu.

Next I plugged my semi-acoustic Telecaster into input 1 on the bottom  and an Audio-Technica AT897 battery-powered electret condenser shotgun into input 2 of the EXH-6, adjusted levels and had a blast recording a couple of tunes at 24-bit, 44.1 kHz, using the headphone feed from the H5 to power a set of Sony MDR7506 headphones. I pulled out the SD card and pulled the files into Pro Tools 10 using a card reader. I stuck the SansAmp PSA-1 amp simulator in the guitar track to make it a little nasty and did a quick mix. Good, solid sound.

The SGH-6 Shotgun Module is a mono mic and it records to one track. It’s OK, but would require the MA2 handle or something else to prevent handling noise. I guess you could mount it on a mic stand and set it up like a boom mic, but I’d want to be able to hear the output and that means a long headphone cord.

I probably wouldn't use all of the features on the H5, but you might like them. Take the tuner; no big deal, right? But what if its chromatic, guitar, bass, open A, open D, open E, open G and DADGAD? If you play in open tunings, that’s a plus. The tuner is not as fast as my Snark. It takes more time to re-register that I have moved on to the next string, but seems about as accurate. The tuner requires that you plug into inputs 1 or 2. 

PLAYBACK SPEED is an interesting feature. Its range is 50% to 150% with no pitch change. Glitching occurs pretty quickly as you slow down, as expected. Speeding up works better. In MULTIFILE mode the change applies only to each project. This is a per clip adjustment, not global. You select one clip at a time and change its playback speed with the thumbwheel. In STEREOFILE mode, the change is for all stereo files. 

KEY CONTROL changes the pitch but not the speed from six step below to six above normal pitch. In MULTIFILE mode, pitch change will affect the entire project. 

The H5’s USB port allows you to access files from any SD cards inserted. Just remember to dismount the H5 from your computer properly or you’ll get a warning that you didn’t do that correctly. 

The H5 may also be used as a computer audio interface. I had to restart the H5 for it to be recognized and then I was led through a series of screens after selecting AUDIO INTERFACE. First, STEREO or MULTITRACK, then BUS POWERED or BATTERY POWERED. The H5 front panel informed me that it was going to record at 48kHz until I committed to a new Adobe Audition session at 44.1 kHz. Then the H5 switched to 44.1 kHz.

Using Adobe Audition 6, I chose bus powered and multitrack and plugged in my D28S Martin. The manual says that input 1&2 will take an instrument like a keyboard, but not a passive guitar pickup. I have a passive Pure Western Mini from K&K, comprised of three piezos. Zoom is correct! Plugging directly into the H5 resulted in serious clacking and quacking and finger squeeks were huge. I tried both the XLR/TRS inputs on the H5 and the EXH-6 module and got the same results. I suspected an impedance mismatch because the Pure Western Minis like seeing a very high input impedance. I inserted my Red-Eye Twin DI between the guitar and the H5 and tamed the squeaking and clacking.

Then I ran into some sync and sound issues. While recording through the H5 to Audition, the guitar sounded chorused, just going in. There were also some ticks that I usually associate with clock errors. The H5 was chosen as input and output device from the Mac Audio Control panel. On the Audition preferences page, I couldn’t choose anything else. Master Clock was H5, Source was Internal. I thought that might be the problem but was unable to change it. Interestingly, the sound was chorused while recording, but not while playing back. I did hear ticks during playback though. The same was true for both the H5 XLR/TRS inputs and the EXH-6 inputs and bus powered or battery powered made no difference.

I finally got rid of the ripples and ticks by starting a new Audition session and choosing Pro Tools Aggregate I/O for the output. I was hearing the record through the H5 headphones, but playback from Audition came from the Mac Tower. Choosing the Digidesign 003R as playback didn’t work either. It locked up the Audition transport. Pro Tools can still be picky and sticky even though it's supposed to play nice from V. 9 on. Choosing H5 allowed the transport to run, but the chorusing was back in playback. I decided to write off the idea of using the H5 with Audition or Pro Tools and moved on.

I had friends, Kirby Storms and Don Armstrong, as Jazzmatazz playing at Cafe Troia, a local, upscale Italian restaurant. Flute and electric or acoustic guitar with some well recorded loops through a better than average PA.; Perfect! They were performing outside on a walled in patio. We got there just in time for the set and go a table about ten feet from the stage, with no one in between us and the action. There was the typical amount of table chatter, but it was mostly behind us. I didn’t bring headphones, so I wondered as I tasted Cafe Troia's amazing dark chocolate gelato, how much talking we’d get. The next day, during playback in my studio, I could definitely tell we were in a place with people talking in the background, but the H5 did a very nice job of capturing the PA sound. If you have a good PA mix and want a good simple recording of someone performing live through a PA, the H5 will give you that. 

The H5 runs on two AA batteries or external 5V USB power via a USB mini jack. You need to access the battery page and tell the H5 whether you’re using alkaline or rechargeable NiMH batteries. I put in two fresh Alkaline batteries. I put the machine into 6 track record with 48V DC phantom ON, using the two pairs of main tracks with the XYH-5 on top and a pair of Schoeps CMC641 on inputs 1 and 2 and the pair of backup tracks at 24-bit, 44.1 kHz and let it rip. 

An hour and 15 minutes later I came back to check and to plug in headphones and set them at an average listening level. Only one of the three battery power bars showed. I stopped recording briefly watched the timer take about 10 seconds to close the file. I then hit RECORD again because I wanted to completely dump the battery and find out what happened when the unit lost power while still in record. When I came back the batteries were dead. I transferred the files to my Mac. I got a total of ninety-three minutes and the recorder shut down properly, saving the last file I was recording at the time.

That’s somewhat shy of the 15 hours I had seen in other published reviews. I decided to waste another pair of alkaline batteries on a less strenuous test. Inputs 1 and 2 only, with the Schoeps and Phantom Power on, 24-bit 44.1 KHz. Headphones plugged in and raised to an average level. This time I got two hours and sixteen minutes before the batteries failed. Stunned by the unexpected under performance, I tossed a third pair of AA alkalines in, left the Phantom Power on but unplugged the headphones. Two hours and thirty-five minutes later the recorder stopped. The file was saved but still nowhere near 15 hours of recording. Could Phantom Power suck that much life out of a set of batteries? Maybe, but operating with Phantom Powered mics is not unusual.

Eight Hundred and Forty-Seven Minutes, Forty-Five and 282/1000 Seconds
Finally, in an effort to get to the bottom of the battery life issue, I put in another fresh pair of alkalines and recorded using only the XYH-5 mics that mount on top of the H5. Eight hundred and forty-seven minutes, forty-five point two eight seconds later, the batteries died. That’s a little over 14.1 hours of continuous recording at 24-bit, 44.1 kHz. Not quite 15 hours, but impressive, nonetheless. 

There were seven files, most of them 2GB in size and when butted together on the timeline, the playback was seamless. I’m going to presume that using the unbalanced 1/8” TRS mic/line input on the XYH-5 instead of its XY mics would yield the same record time.

It’s really difficult to believe how much Zoom packed into the H5 for how little it costs. I have no problems with the quality of sound, especially at its price point. I won’t be swapping out my Sound Devices 664 and buying an H5, but it is a very potent tool. Oh, right, and read the manual!

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  1. Would you care to elaborate which compressor/limitor settings you'd recommend, if any? Assuming I'm not an old schooler? The independent third party documentation I'm reading says anything with a ratio of over 5:1 is a limiter, and a hard one at that. Other sources recommend mainly ratios of around 3:1. Talking about the typical interview situation...

    1. Raphael, it depends on how hot you like to record and how "peaky" the person speaking is. The peakier they are, the more headroom you need. I think 3:1 is moderate for a compressor, depending on where the threshold is set. Also, a LOT depends on the design of the compressor or limiter. It's not just a numbers game in which the same setting sound the same on two different compressors.

  2. Very informative review. No nonsense, no gimmicks, neutral and good competent writing. I got 99% of the answers I wanted. The battery life was one of them. I am not too crazy personally about the interchangeable accessories. Some H4ns exhibit some phenomenal batteries draining, 30 min reportedly. The only way to figure this out is to collect reviews from owners one year into their experience. After all this read it feels like I don't need to go through the manual after all !

    1. So glad it worked for you! Please come back again and also please let me know what other audio gear interests you that I might review.

  3. Who knew audio could be so complex? Thanks so much for the post, Ty! I'm currently trying to get a job as a sound editor and this was really important information for me to know. I'm hoping to be able to learn these basics and more when it comes to audio and video. Thanks again!

    1. Tyrone, yes, good audio seldom happens by accident. :) Glad to know this was helpful.

  4. We are trying to find someone that fix the AV on my set. It has been very hard to film the past couple of days at my job. I hope that we get someone that can fix it soon.

  5. Thanks for such a detailed review, Ty. The short battery life is surprising. Perhaps the H6 fares better in those tests?

    I was hoping the backup-record would work with any input.

    1. Thanks Promod, Yes, I thought the battery life was an interesting experiment. With no Phantom Power and headphones off, you obviously use less electricity.