A few weeks ago Zoom announced the H8 portable audio recorder. It joins other offerings from the Japanese company such as the popular H4n, F8n, and F4.
What’s new with the H8? How does it stack up against its brothers and sisters in the Zoom line? Let’s take a quick look.
Zoom Field Recorders
Zoom was one of the first companies to popularize portable field recorders with its release of the venerable H4 two-track recorder in 2006. Since then, the Zoom line has exploded with multiple options to its prosumer “H” series, as well as a growing “F” series of professional audio recorders.
The H series focuses on handheld recorders. They range from 2 to 8 channels, with expanding sampling rate and input capabilities throughout the line. The F series is aimed at pros with more sturdy inputs, higher sample rates, and prized features such as 32-bit recording, timecode, dual card recording, and more.
Both lines have affordable prices for what you get. The prices are clearly distinguished from comparable manufacturers such as Sound Devices and Tascam.
Just the same, the feature set of most field recorders is beginning to even out. Even budget recorders have features that pro units lacked five years ago. It’s becoming harder for manufacturers to distinguish their products. Of course, every field recordist has their own needs. However, three major concerns govern most purchases: the number of inputs, the preamp quality, and price.
The Zoom H8
Zoom’s H8 (available August 7, 2020) takes an aggressive approach to solving this problem. The H8 offers 8-track recording for $399.99. Considering that the next cheapest 8-track recorder is its own Zoom F8n (8+2 tracks, $899), that is an impressive price-per-track ratio indeed. It builds upon H6’s ($310) 6 tracks, and throws in some compelling features on top.
Of course, contrasting the H8 to the F8n on tracks alone isn’t a fair comparison. However, it’s useful starting point to see what kind of value you can get from a $400 recorder.
Let’s take a look at what the H8 has to offer.
What’s New in the Zoom H8?
Let’s look at the details.
- 12 track recording. The H8 records 8 tracks of audio at 96 kHz/24-bit. 4 extra tracks serve as backup channels. I’m assuming these can also be used for mixdowns, but it’s not clear at the moment.
- Six inputs. There are a total of 6 inputs on the H8. 4 are lockable XLR mic inputs with 20 dB pad, gain wheel, and phantom power. Two more are XLR/TRS combo connectors with Hi-Z (high impedance, likely for guitar input). The onboard microphone provides 2 channels from an interchangeable capsule.
- Swappable capsules. The unit ships with an onboard XY 90/120˙ microphone. Like the H6 and H5 ($279) before it, the onboard capsule can be detached and swapped for an MS, advanced XY, shotgun, or stereo shotgun capsule. Zoom’s new generation of capsules are compatible with the H8, too: an XY/AB combo, and a Ambisonic VR capsule. Zoom’s capsule system is a great way to explore different sound patterns without digging too deep into your pocket.
- Channel expansion. Running out of channels? No problem. Remove the onboard microphone and clip on a 2-channel ($66) or 4-channel XLR expansion module, complete with pad and gain wheel. Note that only the EXH-8 4-channel version supports phantom power and that is when external powering is supplied. Just the same, if you’re using dynamic microphones or are more flexible with your powering solutions, that can bring your H8 up to a compact 10-channel recorder.
- Remote Control. You can control the H8 via an iOS app. Requires purchasing a tiny BlueTooth adapter.
- Touch screen. The H8 is the first in the H line to offer a touchscreen display.
- Recording presets. The H8 is aimed at three markets: podcasters, musicians, and field recordists. The H8 software has “Apps” or presets for each type of recording. The field recording preset focuses on detailed metering with a low-cut, compression, and input types displayed. The podcast preset allows triggering sound effects (i.e., applause, comedy accents, music stings). The music preset brings mixing, overdubs, EQ, and compression to the forefront.
The H8 also sports features that have become standard with most portable recorders: USB audio interface, auto record, pre-record, and up to 512 GB of SD storage.
Choosing the H8
Is the Zoom H8 a good fit for you?
8 tracks and six inputs for $400 certainly make the H8 a compelling option for a field recorder. Using the 4-track EXH-8 add-on brings the H8’s capabilities up to 10 XLR inputs. Yes, only 4 of those natively have phantom power. 4 more can supply phantom power with addition powering. Considering tracks alone, the only other 10-channel recorder is Sound Devices’ MixPre-10 II, and that’s $1000 more.
The big question: what are the preamps like? Are they clean and quiet? Now, Zoom’s preamps get a lot of flak. The original H4 had terrible preamps, and the H4n wasn’t much better. Unfortunately, this sentiment stuck in the community’s mind, even with the release of improved preamps on the Zoom H4n Pro, H5, and H6. I’m guessing the H8’s preamps will be similar to the revised ones. We’ll know more when the unit is released. If they are comparable to the H6, field recordists will find the H8 will be fine for most normal sounds, with quiet nature recordings and subtle Foley out of reach.
It’s important to note that while the H8 looks like a handheld portable recorder, but using anything more than its onboard microphone will limit its ability as a run-and-gun solution. Its odd shape and input locations mean it is better suited to a desk or a stand.
Clearly Zoom is aiming to appeal on price. Their modular system (mic capsules, add-on Bluetooth adapter) has afforded Zoom the ability to shave off optional features in exchange for a lower price. For field recordists that are growing their craft, it has potential to be a flexible jumping-off point. The low entry prices will get advanced hobbyists into the craft. Then, for a little bit more each time, they can explore multi-track recording sessions or new microphone polar patters, all without robbing a bank.
Pros looking for raw channels may find it useful, too. Using dynamic microphones? Recording in typical, loud environments with a pro condenser? In these (admittedly niche) situations, noisy preamps won’t be an issue. With the EXH-8 4-channel add-on and powering, there isn’t a cheaper 10-channel recorder on the market. Obviously we’ll have to wait to see how H8 performs to learn more.
Until the unit is out in the wild, you can check out the product video on YouTube.
Learn more about the Zoom H8.