Friday, May 1, 2015

Zoom Q8 - Like A Q4, But More

 On the face of it, if you thought the Q4 was a good deal at $299, but lacked some features, maybe the Zoom Q8, at $399 is the answer. I like the Q4 for the price and found it easy to use. The picture was good for this kind of small camera. If you missed my review of the Zoom Q4, you can find it here. 

The Q8 came with foam pop filter for the X/Y mics. It's OK for indoors, but you really need a dead squirrel for outside work. The kit also includes a USB charging and file transfer cable, lens hood and lens cap.

The Q4 and Q8 are color balanced only for daylight. The lack of adjustable white balance for both cameras means, if you shoot under incandescent lighting, everything looks too red. If you shoot under fluorescent things look green and yellow and you can not correct that in the camera. You can, of course, in post, if you know how.

The Q8 doesn’t seem to make automatic exposure adjustments as well as the Q4, but perhaps thats because the LCD viewer panel makes most shots look blown out even when they aren’t. 

I don’t recall seeing the 24 Mbps 2304 x 1296, 30 fps video resolution on the 
Q4, but the Q8 offers it. Quicktime will play it, but when I imported some of these files into FCP X, I got this text box: The Video Properties of this clip are not recognized. Click OK to use the settings below or click Cancel to choose another clip to automatically set your properties from. Format 2K, 2048x1152 29.97p. Final Cut X had to re-render them before they played on the timeline.

In addition, while the clips played back in the camera, they dropped frames when played back from a USB card reader and also when played back from my computer's internal HD using Quicktime 10.1 player. Curiously, Quicktime 7 was able to play without dropped frames. I was using a SanDisk Extreme 80 MB/s 10 SD HC I SD card. 

The smaller, 24 MBPS 1920 x 1080 30P files opened right up with no problem. While most of the Q8 video settings are 30 fps, it does have 1280 x 720 and 800 x 480 modes at 60fps for shooting higher action subjects. 

It should come as no surprise to anyone who’s dealt with SD cards that each device has its favorites. Blindly showing just any SD card into the slot is asking for pain and disappointment. The Q8 records directly to SDHC, and SDXC cards, up to 128GB. There’s a document on the web site that shows which cards to get. It didn’t show any 128 GB cards but that chart was put up in December 2014. Here’s the link.

The Q4 only has two settings for video, standard and wide angle. The wide angle, of course had fish-eye curvature. The Q8 has a five step digital zoom, accessed by touching the LCD touch screen and then the + or - markers on the left side of the screen. If you don’t touch them fast enough, you have to touch once to activate the switch and then again to zoom in or out. The double touch is a little annoying. Five steps is probably more than you'll use, but they are nice to have for critical framing.

The Q8 uses a 1/3”, 3 megapixel CMOS sensor and records to MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 MOV. It uses the Ambarella AVC Encoder. Like the Q4, the lens is fixed-focus (36cm to infinity) F 2.0 with a 16.6 mm focal distance. There are HD settings, or you can shoot in standard definition (SVGA) when space or streaming bandwidth is at a premium.
The flip-out, full color touch screen LCD display is not removable as it was in the Q4. It does rotate, allowing selfies, but is not as true as the Q4 LCD. Images appear over lit or blown out on the LCD panel that aren’t when viewed on a computer monitor. 

If you can twist to exactly the right angle from the monitor, you may be rewarded by a more accurate view, but maintaining that angle is very difficult. Although you can playback clips in the camera, the LCD problems make that a questionable practice because you can’t really be sure of what you shot unless you use another monitor. I suspect that over time you just get used to it. 

Also, the surface of the LCD screen is very reflective and that makes shooting outside in daylight a worrisome process. You just can’t be sure what your getting. The micro-HDMI Type D port comes to the rescue if you have another monitor that takes HDMI.

Connecting the micro HDMI output from the Q8 to the HDMI input on my flat panel TV resulted in a much better picture. I also tried going from Q8 to a Black Magic UltraStudio Mini Recorder box, and into my MacBook Pro via Thunderbolt running Black Magic Media Express software. That was a disappointment. 

There are three exposure settings, concert, night time and auto. While there was some difference among them, I was surprised at how similar the exposure was during playback on the SD card on my computer. I think the auto exposure circuitry works very hard to keep the picture as well exposed as it can regardless of which exposure setting you’re using. Below is some test footage. I took the Q8 outside and shot with the three exposure levels; Auto, Concert Lighting and Night. 



 Night Vision

Then, in an effort to get a handle on the low light capabilities. I did something similar down in the studio, in the near dark. Again, here's Auto, Concert and Night.



 Night Vision

There are four different Recording Modes; MOV, MOV + WAV, STEREO AUDIO and MULTI Audio. Each one handles audio differently. Get lost here and you’re, well, Doomed! (My way of saying, “Heads Up!”)

MOV Mode
In this mode audio and video are recorded and you can use all four audio inputs. The audio is routed through the mixer and is saved as two track mono or simple stereo and is attached to the video file. In this mode you can choose to record audio as high as 24-bit, 96 kHz. 

MOV + WAV Mode
In this mode audio and video are recorded. The audio tracks are double routed. That is, one route brings all four inputs through the mixer to a two channel mix attached to the video file. In addition each track is saved as an individual file before it goes through the mixer. The on-board LR, XY stereo mics will be saved as a single stereo LR WAV file. Inputs 1 & 2 can be linked to create one simple stereo file or unlinked to create two separate mono files. In this mode, the highest audio rate is 24-bit, 48 kHz. 

In this mode, no video is recorded. All four inputs are recorded through the mixer as one mixed stereo file.

In this mode, no video is recorded. The audio does not pass through the mixer. You get one stereo file from the on-board LR mics. In addition, you get either one linked stereo file from inputs 1 &2, or unlinked, two separate mono files. Again, in this mode, audio may be saved only as 44.1 kHz or 48 kHz and 16- or 24-bit.

To help you from making mistakes, when you’re in a recording mode that does not record video, the LCD panel shows a graphic of a microphone instead of showing you what the camera is seeing. Once you decide which mode you want, you simply push the LR and/or 1, 2 buttons under the flip out LCD viewer, on the side of the camera. A red LED next to each of the four inputs light to let you know it’s chosen. 

The red LED clip lights flash to let you know the level is too high, as does the Red/Green LED mounted on the edge of the camera lens. This is a very useful feature because the headphone level is not easily adjustable. You have to muck about with the LCD to get to the adjustment and if you’re using the camera-mounted mics, they will pickup your manipulations. In a loud sound field, maybe a live band performance, you may not be able to rely on it to hear what you’re recording properly.

The Q4 and Q8 audio specs are pretty much the same; as high as 24-bit, 96 kHz and down to 64 kbps AAC compressed. You can only record uncompressed wav files with video. You can also shoot video with no audio simply by not turning the mics on.

Although it seems to escape some folks, the Q4 and Q8 can be used just to record audio; all the way up to 24-bit 96 kHz or at the lower AAC compressed rated to sacrifice quality for space. 

Zoom Q8 with Optional Mic Modules
The sound quality was very good. I was a little concerned about the Q4’s lack of balanced inputs for professional work. The Q8 addresses that with a pair of combo 1/4” TRS and XLR inputs in addition to the camera-mounted mini X/Y mics. That gives you four channels of input. 

The LR X/Y mics that come with the Q8 use the same modular connection that the Zoom H5 and H6 use. That means you can use the other Zoom mic modules; the XYH-5 X/Y mic capsule, XYH-6 X/Y mic capsule, MSH-6 Mid-Side mic capsule, SGH-6 Shotgun mic capsule and SSH-6 Stereo Shotgun mic capsule. That opens up the possibilities a lot, but those mics are still mounted on the camera and they will pick up hand held noises. 

Regardless of which modules you use on the LR mic, the result will always be a stereo track or dual mono track if the mic is a mono mic. Most DAW software will let you easily split a stereo pair. I was told by "Andy" in the NY office that the mono SGH-6 shotgun capsule feeds both LR channels, but I didn’t have one here to try. 

The Q8 Mixer screen, activated by pressing the fader icon on the lower left of the screen, allows quite a bit of audio routing and processing. Pans are selectable for both the LR X/Y mics and the two XLR inputs. Low cut at 80 Hz, 120 Hz and 160 Hz. There is also a Mid/Side feature in the mixer that decodes Mid/Side into LR. 

The three inputs (LR and 1 & 2) each have simple limiters, compressors and levelers that are selectable from the mixer screen. There are no controls, they are either in or out. You can choose only one for each input. 

I didn’t care for the compressor because moments of low level sound made it dive into the noise floor and bring up all sorts of ugly things. Probably in a more consistent sound field, it would be more helpful. The limiter works well and the leveler works like a slow compressor, only bringing up the noise floor after longer periods of silence. I could whisper into my hand-held Audio Technica AE5400 condenser mic and then speak at normal volume and it tracked me, not seamlessly, but surprisingly well. 

It was only after going through this round-robin of audio inputs and operations that I found that the pot on the LR mic was defective. It dropped the left channel at the bottom and top of the adjustments and was scratchy and went dead on one side several places in the middle. 

There's also a free downloadable software called HandyShare for Mac or PC that was released in 2010. Updated to version in April 2015, it supports audio and video file trimming and sound effects for the line of Zoom products, including Q2HD / Q3 / Q3HD / Q4 / Q8.

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Q8 Features At A Glance

• Records directly to SD, SDHC, and SDXC cards, up to 128GB
• High-quality 160° wide angle lens with selectable viewing angles (F 2.0/16.6mm) 
• Uses a system of interchangeable audio input capsules that can be swapped out as easily as the lens of a camera
• Supplied detachable stereo X/Y microphone (XYQ-8) 
• Compatible with all Zoom microphone capsules (sold separately) 
• Full-color rotating LCD touchscreen
• Support for five HD video modes, up to 2304 x 1296 pixels (3M HD), as well as two WVGA modes
• Frame rates of up to 60 fps for capturing fast action video and slow motion playback
• Three imaging sense options (AUTO/CONCERT/NIGHT) for use in all lighting environments
• Self timer
• Digital zoom
• Records video in MOV format (with or without audio) 
• Records audio in AAC and WAV formats, up to 24-bit/96k
• Up to four tracks of simultaneous audio recording
• Two mic/line inputs with XLR/TRS combo connectors, each with selectable phantom power and -20dB pad
• Analog-style gain controls for each input
• Built-in audio mixer
• Stereo link function
• Built-in compressor, limiter, and leveler
• MS Matrix function converts Mid-Side signal from external mics to standard stereo
• Supplied foam windscreen and low-cut filter for the elimination of low-frequency noise and rumble
• Dedicated Headphone output / Line out 
• Built-in speaker for fast monitoring
• HDMI video output for connection to HDTVs, selectable between NTSC and PAL
• USB interface for live streaming and data transfer to and from computer editing software
• Webcam and USB mic function for use with external devices such as computers and iPads (Apple Camera Connection Kit required) 
• Direct monitoring for zero latency during use as a USB mic
• Compatible with USTREAM Producer, Flash live Media Encorder, Skype, and other popular streaming applications
• SD card reader function
• Rechargeable Li-Ion battery (chargeable via USB or optional AC adapter) 
• Battery life of more than 2 hours 
• Standard tripod mount
• Includes tripod-to-three-prong converter for compatibility with all action camera mounts

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