Zoom H2n Handy Recorder: Pint-Sized Powerhouse

We're still waiting for the future: the flying car; the self-cooking dinner. But the shirt-pocket recording studio is a reality – I have one here right now.

It's the Zoom H2n, a deck-of-cards-sized device that combines clever, multi-pattern built-in microphones with solid-state digital recording (to SD card) in uncompressed WAV or data-reduced MP3 files, over a range of sampling-rate and bit-depth formats. The tiny Zoom is powered by a duet of AA batteries promising up to 20 hours, yielding recordings at CD quality - and since it does 96 kHz/24 bit WAVs, potentially better-than-CD-quality - all for a street price under $200.

Seriously? Yep. The H2n is aimed mostly at pro and semi-pro users; location-audio hunter-gatherers like TV reporters, videographers, and podcasters. As a cheap and convenient second source, It's ideal for DSLR cinematographers (or anybody shooting video with a device that's less than ideal for capturing audio). But as a tool for casual home recordists and and sonic experimenters Zoom's H2n is a hoot.

The H2n looks like a single old-fashioned microphone (think Johnny-era "Tonight Show"), but its upper grilles in fact conceal five microphone capsules, arrayed to provide four distinct "patterns." Two are stereo: "X/Y," which is closest to most folks' notion of "stereo" with two closely spaced mics directed mostly forward, yielding a close-in, fairly intimate space; "MS" (mid/side) uses two mics aimed sidewards, mixed with a single capsule directed ahead – this is the classic array for recording music in a natural space. The remaining arrays are four-and two-channel surround options.

I had a ball playing with the H2n, and was quite astounded by the quality of recordings I got. My first effort, the very day the thing arrived, was a practice session of the hack blues band I play in. I simply set the Zoom (using the four little rubber nubs that support it on any level surface) on the pool table that fronts our setup. After selecting 44.1/16-bit WAV (uncompressed mode, equivalent to CD) and X/Y stereo mic options, I pressed the red-dot slider and recording commenced. Three hours later, I had the entire session, occupying only about a third of the 2-gigabyte SD memory card furnished with the unit, and leaving the H2n still showing "full" on its admittedly sketchy battery-life icon.