Zoom H4n and Sony PCM-M10

Comparing the Zoom H4n and Sony PCM-M10

The Zoom H4n and Sony PCM-M10 are a couple of the most popular “pro-sumer” recorders.  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.  Note that I’m using the old (2009) version of the Zoom H4n, a newer version, the H4nSP is now available.

Both recorders are similar in price (in the $200 USD 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 PCM-M10 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 H4n, and the screen is easier to see in bright sunlight. But most important of all – it’s much quieter.  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. The Zoom H4n has an amazing amount of features for it’s low price, which may explain why it remains one of the most popular pro-sumer recorders. 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.



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.



Both Zoom and Sony have new recorders out.  Zoom has added the H5 and H6, which have more features, and quieter pre-amps.  They have an interchangeable microphone system that allows a variety of microphone set-ups, from X-Y to Mid-Side to Shotgun.  I have not heard of anyone using them yet, so I’m waiting on reviews (if anyone want to buy me one, I’ll be glad to post the review!).  The Sony has recently released the PCM-D100, which is a professional version of the M10, and an upgrade to the D50.  It is reportedly extremely quiet and is getting very good reviews.  It is, however, priced a bit high for a recorder without phantom power.

Check out these recorders at B & H Photo:


Both the Zoom H4n and Sony PCM-M10 are good little recorders. The Zoom has more features, with both PIP and XLR inputs, but has noisier pre-amps. The Sony is nice and small, very reliable, and has very quiet mics and pre-amps. The Zoom is more suited to studio and some field recording situations, while the Sony is better for nature recording. Both Zoom and Sony have new recorders that are worth checking out.

 Last modified June 2016.

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16 thoughts on “Comparing the Zoom H4n and Sony PCM-M10

  1. Hi Christine, thank you so much for this review, very thorough 🙂 I have recorded nature sounds with both the old Zoom H4N and the new Zoom H4N Pro, and even though the self-noise has improved a little bit in the new model, i still think it is a bit too intrusive on quiet recordings.
    By the way, what do you think about the sound quality of the AT2022 plugged in the Zoom H4N compared with the Zoom H4N on-board mics? Is this in a improvement? I’ve been having a lot of wind/handling noise problems with the Zoom+Redhead Windshield and was thinking about getting an external microphone and a Rode Blimp. Do you think I will have any improvements regarding sound quality and self-noise?
    Thank you so much, great blog 🙂

    • Renato, thanks for the feedback on the H4n Pro. The AT2022 is pretty noisy. I’ve had much better luck with Primo EM-172 capsules (you can buy a set pre-made from FEL Communications). Very quiet and you can use them in a variety of configurations. Other options, if you like the stereo microphones, might be a Rode NT4 or Audio Technica BP4025. I believe both are fixed at 90 degrees, which is a bit narrow for soundscape recording, but they are well-regarded mics and quieter than the AT2022. The blimp is a good idea for any x-y mic, as they are difficult to windproof, as you discovered with the H4n. So I think the AT2022 will help a little, but perhaps not as much as you want for quiet recording. I hope that helps!

      • Thank you for the tip on the Primo EM-172, they look like a great option! I can’t find any pre-assembled mics (already soldered to cables and jack) in the store. Did you order just the capsules and mount them yourself? I’m not the best DIY guy, hence why I’m asking 🙂
        Also, I reckon you use these with plug-in power? Would connecting these to XLR jacks with phantom power provide a cleaner signal? Thank you again 🙂

        • So, in the meantime, I’ve noticed you have another whole blog post dedicated to this matter, so I’ll go check that one out and won’t bother you anymore! 😀 Thank you!

        • Hi Renato, it’s no bother. I did buy the capsules and mount them myself. This was several years ago before micbooster’s clippy mics were available. So if you want to spend time recording and not learning to solder, I would get the clippy mics! I’ve only used them with plug-in-power, but Tom Benedict, a recordist from Hawaii, made some with xlr jacks for phantom power and said they work great. Much more gain than the PIP version. Not sure if the xlr jacks on the H4n pro provide a better signal than the pip jack. If you do get some, let me know how they work.

          • Thank you, I’ll probably go for the clippy mics 🙂 I’ll probably try the PIP versions, as the Phantom Power on my H4n Pro tends to suck a lot of battery power, and like you mentioned I doubt they’ll provide a much better signal, as these preamps aren’t the best…
            Cheers, thank you!

    • Hi John, I’m glad you enjoy the recordings. You can’t download the little snippets from my Soundcloud account (I’ve had too many people try to steal them for apps, cds, etc.), but there are other options. You can repost the sounds onto your own Soundcloud account and stream from there. Or, I have collected longer versions some of the recordings into albums, which are available for purchase through CD Baby or most other digital music outlets (in some cases individual recordings are available for purchase). The albums are also available for streaming through Spotify, Pandora, and other streaming services. There are links to the albums either from the CD Baby link on my Soundcloud account, or in the Albums tab on my website. Hope that helps.

  2. Hi, I’ve really enjoyed discovering your website and reading its down-to-earth reviews. One point you might add is that most of the hand-held recorders, including the Zoom H4n, don’t deal well with the stereo output of a mixing desk. According to some reviews, the Sony PCM 10 does this very well. Maybe not so interesting for field recordists, but might be good to know for those working in the studio or with electronic music instruments.

  3. Very interesting comparison! Thanks for this! You almost single handedly convinced me to buy an M10 and look at getting rid of my H4n. The hiss is driving me crazy!

    • Thanks for the comment, Brad, and I’m glad you found the info useful. You might also check into the Olympus LS-10/11/12 or, if your budget permits, the new Sony PCM-D100. It is getting very good reviews.

    • Yes, but I wish it had a better spatial array to it’s onboard mics. The new D100 does, with reportedly better pre-amps, but with a hefty price tag.

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