Tascam DR-100 mkII vs Zoom H4n Review
I’ve been using the Zoom H4n audio recorder since early 2009 and for the most part I’ve been very happy with the results. Anyone that’s been shooting with DSLR’s over the last couple of years will be well aware of the audio limitations of these cameras and the need to record audio on a separate device.
The most common use of the H4n for me has been during interviews where a DSLR is capable of producing really nice images but cannot provide either the audio quality or monitoring ability I need. I tend to use the H4n with either my Sony wireless lav mics or my Sennheisser MKH416 shotgun mic. The h4n has also been used a lot when I’m shooting events for Harley-Davidson as I can set it up with an XLR feed from the stage sound desk and record either the live bands or the award presentations separately from the on camera recording.
I wasn’t really in the market for another recorder but when B&H contacted me recently and asked if I’d like to review the Tascam DR-100 mkII I was keen to look at it as Tascam has a long history of making professional audio gear.
So let’s begin…
Design & Features
Both recorders are designed for handheld use and in a lot of ways appear similar. Both recorders offer a similar form factor including a pair of XLR inputs with 48v phantom power on the base, built in omni directional mics on the top plus a backlit mono LCD screen and various controls throughout the body.
Both recorders offer various recording formats including a range of quality options for MP3 files or Wav files at 44.1, 48 or 96 kHz at either 16 or 24 bit.
They both include the standard I/O options you would expect from a recorder such as a headphone port with level control, input level controls and of course a range of buttons for controlling input sources and recording and playback control as well as hold buttons to stop accidental button presses. Both recorders use removable SD cards and have the option of being powered by an AC adapter or batteries. Other features that both include as standard are a tripod mounting thread on the back, built in speakers to review recordings.
Once you delve further into each device the differences become more apparent so lets look at those now. I’m not going to list all the recording and playback features of these devices as both have a big list of clever things you can do including marking and editing clips. For now I’m just going to concentrate on the things that I find interesting or more relevant for use with video.
The H4n’s prevalence in it’s use with DSLR’s must have come as a pleasant surprise for it’s manufacturers as Zoom generally specialise in products for use with musical instruments. As a guitarist I’ve known of Zoom’s products for many years as they make a lot of guitar effects processors and multi effects units.
Looking over the H4n you’ll see a lot of guitar oriented features there too including standard instrument inputs in the middle of the XLR inputs. If you delve into the menu system on the Zoom H4n you’ll also find range of guitar effects built in to it as well as a chromatic guitar tuner and a metronome to keep you playing in time should you want to offer your video clients a little musical entertainment!
The Zoom H4n isn’t restricted to recording music though and it’s popularity amongst DSLR video shooters proves that. The recorder offers both stereo and four channel recording allowing you to record using it’s XLR inputs and the built in mics at the same time. It also has a 3.5mm stereo input jack which overrides the built in mics.
Many people that use the H4n don’t realise that it can also be used as an audio interface meaning that you can connect it to your computer via USB and record audio directly to your computer from either the built in mics or the xlr inputs. It can even be used as an SD card reader!
In terms of build quality and ruggedness I can say that from my own experience the H4n is a tough little cookie. The main outer body appears to be tough ABS plastic with a nice grippy texture. The area at the top that holds the omni directional mics is metal and adds a lot of weight to the recorder as well as giving it a very sturdy feel. The outer cases for the omni directional mics are plastic though and these are probably the weakest pert of the design in terms of what could get damaged if it were dropped.
The H4n uses push button controls throughout with a jog / select wheel on the side for menu navigation. These are all plastic and feel a little bit cheap as a result but they work well and after nearly three years use mine are still going strong. The LCD glows a nice orangey colour when in use but it’s extremely low in resolution and the animated UI graphics remind me of something that wouldn’t have looked out of place on my ZX Spectrum back in the 80′s.
Recording and headphone levels are both set with rocker type clicky buttons on the sides of the unit which can be quite useful because the LCD displays the levels in terms of numeric value on screen when they are being adjusted. The good thing about this approach is that it’s easy to return to a previous setting, the down side is that the button clicks are easily audible if you’re recording using the built in mics. When in stereo mode recording levels can either be controlled for both channels at the same time or individually to allow mics with different levels to be used at the same time.
The SD card is inserted on the side of the H4n and is covered by one of those annoyingly hard to open plastic covers that required a lengthy fingernail or suitable implement to break into. I’ve found the card reader in my H4n to be little odd at times. When turning the unit on I’m often confronted with a “No Card” message on the LCD which is corrected by ejecting and re-inserting the card. I’ve never had a problem once the card is detected though.
The H4n can be controlled remotely via a wired control unit that is available as an optional extra. I’ve never felt the need to do this so can’t really comment on how well that works. The H4n comes with a very simple yet highly effective plastic shell case that offers great protection to the device, it’s a small thing but the case allows me to throw the H4n in my bag without any worry of it being bashed by other gear in my bag.
Tascam DR-100 mkII
Tascam have a long history in producing professional recording equipment and the DR-100 mkII reflects this in it’s design with a suitably complicated looking layout in a metal casing making it look and feel a bit more pro than the Zoom. The DR-100 offers two channel recording so unlike the H4n it doesn’t have the ability to record from both it’s built in mics and XLR inputs at the same time. I’ve yet to find myself needing to record in four channel mode on the H4n anyway so for me this isn’t an issue but it’s something to bear in mind if four channel recording is important to you.
Design wise there’s a few things that that DR-100 mkII offers that sets it above the H4n. Things like the proper metal push-locks on the XLR connectors and better quality switches go a long way to making this unit feel more professional. There’s a nice rotary selector wheel on the front that works like the early iPods which makes using the UI a pleasure. The UI itself again looks a little dated but it works well. The LCD is much higher in resolution than the H4n’s allowing a lot more information about settings and modes to be displayed.
Like the H4n the omni directional mic casings are plastic but they are surrounded by metal bars to keep them safe from the odd knock. The Dr-100 mkII also offers a pair of uni directional mics giving it the ability to record from an area all around it such as if it’s placed in the middle of a table during a meeting. Again this isn’t something that I’ve had a need for as yet but could prove useful for taking notes or similar in the future.
The Dr-100 mkII offers both line and mic levels on it’s xlr inputs which makes it lot more flexible than the H4n, line levels allow you to hitch the recorder to a desk, mixer or other equipment offering a line level feed.
The SD card is inserted at the top of the DR-100 which also utilises a plastic flap type cover although the cover is at least easy to get to on the Tascam.
Level settings on the Dr-100 mkII are controlled in a very different way to the H4n. Rather than using up/down button clicks the Dr-100 includes a pair of level wheels placed one inside the other. Having these control wheels allows you to make faster adjustments without making so much noise. Adjusting levels this way feels a lot more natural although there are a couple of down sides. Firstly there’s no visible feedback of the level setting on the LCD so it’s harder to return to a previous setting if you need to do so. The second and more important potential issue is that locking the device using it’s ‘hold’ feature doesn’t lock the level wheels, you can’t lock the DR-100 and put it in your pocket like you can the H4n.
For changing both levels together I find this design to be preferable. It is however quite tricky trying to change one channel without moving the other, it’s hard to get hold of the inner wheel as it’s recesses are quite small, once you do manage to get your fingertips in there you need to hold the outer while while you turn it or they will both spin. It would have been much easier if the inner wheel could have popped out somehow and then not effected the outer wheel.
The DR-100 comes with a wireless remote as standard. Interestingly the unit also includes a wired caddy so that the wireless controller can be inserted in converting it to a wired remote if you prefer not to use wireless. The Remote input is also a digital S/PDIF input which could be a major factor if you have suitable devices and want to record from them.
Below the audio level control is a door that reveals another of the DR-100′s nicest features, a rechargeable Li-ion battery. What’s great about this additional battery is that the unit can be configured to use either the AA’s first and then the Li-ion or vice-versa, in either case the unit switches to the alternate power source without interrupting the recording. If you need to record for many hours then you could set it to use the AA’s first and then swap them out when it switches to the Li-ion and switch to AA’s again manually when ready. Alternatively it’s also nice using up the Li-ion only on shorter shoots without using AA’s. I’ve run the recorder for four hours on the Li-ion battery without draining it, that’s enough for most of my shoots but knowing the AA’s will take over if required is nice.
The Li-ion battery can be charged via a dedicated PSU input or via USB by connecting the device to a computer or a USB wall charger.It’s worth noting that no AC adapter is included which is a shame as when charging via USB the device automatically switches to USB storage device mode and cannot be used to record. I did notice that you can start recording and then connect a USB charger which results in chugging during recoding but the moment the recording stops the device will switch to USB storage mode.
One of the benefits of all the additional switches on the DR-100 mkII is that you spend less time in the menu’s during recording and setup. The back of the unit contains four switches that control a master gain L / M / H switch, phantom power, audio limiter and speaker on / off. These are all things that require a visit to the menu system on the H4n and it’s great being able to select them with switches on the DR-100.
Another nice feature of the DR-100 are separate line out and headphone sockets. On the H4n one port handles both jobs so if you’re monitoring with headphones you can’t use the line out. With the DR-100 it would be possible to feed a line in to the DSLR using a special ‘padded’ cable allowing you to monitor via headphones and feed the signal for reference / backup recording on the DSLR.
The DR-100 mkII comes with a padded case which offers some protection for the unit although probably not as much as the H4n’s plastic case. There’s also a foam wind protector and some essential cables thrown in as well.
Audio & Recording Quality
I’ve done a few tests with both devices recording the same source using the same mics and to my ear it’s very difficult to judge any difference in the quality of the recordings. To be fair I’m not really set up to monitor and evaluate audio on a professional level but certainly with either my headphones or monitor speakers I would not be able to tell which recording is from which device. The hiss / noise levels on the recordings I made sounded very similar as well so I would struggle to make a decision on recording quality alone.
I’ve made three recordings of a click track produced by my iPhone using a phantom powered (+48v) Sennheiser MKH-416 mic running into each recorder. This was done under extreme scientific conditions (under a duvet) so there was very little actual background noise. The DR-100 is capable of a lot more gain than the Zoom H4n so I’ve provided one file of the Tascam at it’s maximum gain level and another at the same level that the H4n is capable of at it’s maximum gain level. The tascam does have a very slight advantage in terms of pre-amp noise but it’s barely noticeable.
To test the Omni directional mics I performed two tests. Firstly I recorded my band rehearsing at high volumes with both devices side by side and I preferred the recording on the H4n which seemed to capture a bit more of the bass frequencies making the final result a bit fuller sounding. The second test was at lower volumes recording some vocals and in that test I thought the DR-100 sounded better and more accurate.
I did find that my recordings with the DR-100 were much more accurate in terms of getting the levels correct, I set both units so that there was very minimal peaking being reported and the resulting levels on the DR-100 were higher then the H4n and still free from any peaking distortion. I’m not sure if the H4n just reports peaks at lower levels but there was certainly a difference.
Just a couple of issues
Firstly I noticed that my recordings from the DR-100 mkII drifted out of sync with recordings on my cameras slightly on very long shots. With both recorders running side by side with my Sony EX1 for an hour the audio from the H4n would sync up correctly whereas the audio from the Dr-100 was 4 frames too long towards the end. Both recorders were set to 24/48 wav files but for some reason the DR-100′s recording was very slightly longer. I tested this a few times and the recordings from the Tascam would always go out of sync with the Zoom after around ten minutes. This is something I need to look into further and I’ll post back if I can find out more.
Another thing worth noting is that the the 3.5mm line input on the side of the DR-100 mkII is just that, a line level input and as such it’s designed for devices that output a line level signal. If you’re using something like a Rode videomic or a wireless system that outputs a mic level signal via a 3.5mm jack you’re going to struggle to get decent levels. The Zoom H4n has a 3.5mm mic input on the back that does work well with mic levels so that’s one area where the Zoom may be better suited to your other gear. If like me your wireless mics have XLR connectivity too then that’s the way to go.
One final point I wanted to make was that I’m a little disappointed that the DR-100 mkII doesn’t include a dual recording mode like the cheaper Tascam DR-40. Dual recording mode on the DR-40 creates a second pair of tracks at a lower level which provides a useful backup should your main recording suffer any unwanted attenuation or peaking. Obviously the DR-100 only has two channels where the cheaper DR-40 has four (?) but it would still be useful to be able to run one as a backup when recording a single input.
Prices & Summary
Without being able to discern any noticeable difference in the audio quality recorded on each device using the same external mics the decision about which is best really comes down to feature sets, usability and prices. At the time of writing this review B&H sell both recorders for $299 so price isn’t going to be a factor either.
The H4n is a great little recorder with the ability to record four channels. Mine has served me well for three years but after using the DR-100 the H4n seems slow and clunky in use. Most noticeable is the startup time. With 16 Gb cards installed the Zoom took 27 seconds to start where the Tascam took less than 12 seconds.
If I were buying today I’d go for the Tascam DR-100 mkII for the following reasons:
• Dual battery: one rechargeable
• Metal construction
• Line / mic level input switchable
• Better level control
• Better quality switches and UI control
• Better LCD
• USB Charging
• Digital S/PDIF input
• Separate Line out & headphone ports
• Omni & Uni directional built in mics
• Much faster user interface across the board including power on and rec stop / start
The only caveat for now is that I’d like know if this issue with the audio being out of sync is unique to my unit or is down to a wrong setting. It would be a pain to have the audio going out of sync with longer recordings. Let me know if you have the Tascam and see a similar issue.
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