Comparing the Zoom H4n and Sony PCM-M10

Detailed reviews of both recorders are available on the internet (check the Nature Recordists listserv and Avisoft recorder tests, so I won’t repeat all of that here, rather I give my personal impressions of these two recorders.

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Side-by-side comparison of the Zoom H4n (left) and the Sony PCM-M10 (right). Although the screen on the Zoom appears brighter, the Sony’s is actually easier to see in bright sunlight. However, the level meter is more visible on the Zoom if you are using the onboard mics and have them covered with a wind gag.

Both recorders are similar in price (in the $250USD range), and can record up to 96kHz. They both record to multiple formats (.wav, mp3, etc.), and both record to removable media (SD card for the Zoom, microSD for the Sony). Both have similar controls, i.e., adjustable gain, lo-cut filters, etc.

I agree with the previous positive reviews of the little Sony recorder. It’s not much bigger than a deck of playing cards and quite easy to understand. It feels like it has a higher build quality than the Zoom, and the screen is easier to see in bright sunlight. But most important of all – it’s much quieter. Smaller, quieter, and less expensive. Now I’m trying to remember why I bought the Zoom. I will have to say, though, that the Zoom has held up quite well with 2 years of frequent field recording. It never crashed or locked up. The battery cover has become a little loose, so it has to be handled more carefully, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the Zoom H4n as a recorder for noisy environments, or for a beginner that needs XLR-phantom power. I’ve included a sample of recordings from the Sony and the Zoom here:

This is a side-by-side recording: both recorders were set to record at the same time, and I attempted to set the recorders so the displays registered a sound level of – 12dB. The Sony was set at high sensitivity with a gain of 4.5. The Zoom was set at a record level of 90. Each recording was independently normalized to –6 dB, but otherwise not edited. Note the stronger, clearer signal from the Sony compared with the Zoom. The Sony also has a much stronger bass pickup, although a low-cut filter can be applied to filter out traffic noise like you hear in the sample. Much of the hiss of the Zoom can be filtered out, but it adds a bit more work and never sounds quite right. Note the better stereo separation in the Zoom.

Much of the difference between the recorders appeared to be due to the bass pickup on the Sony. So I made more recordings, this time setting the lo-cut filter of both recorders to “on.” The Sony has a fixed 200 Hz filter, so I also set the Zoom to 203 Hz. The Sony was set at high sensitivity with a level 4, and the Zoom was set to level 80. Both were normalized independently to – 10dB.

The results were similar with external microphones. The Zoom adds more pre-amp noise here, too. Although the Zoom supplies 48v phantom power, it does not work well with all mics, including my Audio Technica AT897, and reportedly the Rode NT-2. Because the AT897 can be powered with battery or phantom power, it can also be used with the Sony with the proper adapters. It seems to me to be a better sound through the Sony than the Zoom. So if you plan on using the phantom power on the Zoom, make sure it’s a mic that works well with the Zoom, or consider an external power supply.

Here are sample recordings of the recorders with an Audio Technica AT2022 stereo mic. The Sony was set to high sensitivity, level 5, the Zoom was set to level 85. Both were independently normalized to – 10dB. The hiss from the Zoom is more noticeable.

Sony:

Zoom:

And here are sample recordings with an Audio Technica AT897 shotgun mic. This is a pretty quiet (as in low power) mic, and doesn’t work well with the Zoom without supplemental power. The Sony was set at high sensitivity, level 7, and the Zoom was set to level 95. These levels were set, as above, so the sound level meters on the recorders registered about -12 dB for the loudest sounds. The low-pitched hum is my noisy refrigerator, which was both behind a wall and to the rear of a directional microphone.

Sony:

Zoom:

For a very detailed comparison of the Sony PCM-M10 and Zoom H4n, see Ken Rockwell’s site.

Check out these recorders at Amazon:

 

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