Q I'm looking for my first portable level digital audio recorder. It will need to operate on batteries or AC power, need to have dual audio XLR inputs and must have decent audio metering. The catch is that my budget is $200. Is there anything out there that I should be looking at? A friend loaned me his Zoom H4n, and I wasn't impressed with the build quality.
A There are several alternatives to the Zoom H4n that are similar in price and feature range. While the Zoom H4n seems to have become the de facto low-cost digital recorder, there are viable alternatives. I own a Zoom H4n, and it's a decent recorder for the money. However, since the Zoom only has two XLR audio inputs, I needed to grab another two-channel recorder for a specific shoot I shot last year, so I thought I would try an alternative.
After researching the other low-cost, two-XLR input recorders on the market, I became aware of the Tascam DR-40. The DR-40 seems to be Tascam's answer to Samson's popular H4n, but there are some valid differences between the two. A significant one is that Tascam has decided to price the DR-40 at a lower cost than the Zoom. I discovered that most retailers sell the Tascam DR-40 for about $70 to $100 less than the Zoom H4n.
I performed some side-by-side comparisons between the H4n and the DR-40, and what I heard revealed some subtle, but noticeable differences in sound quality. To my ears, the Zoom has a slight bias toward bass while the sound on the Tascam seems to have a slightly thinner, more clinical sound when tested with an Audio-Technica AT875R shotgun microphone and with the Countryman B6 lavalier.
As far as construction quality, after years of working with pro-level audio gear made by companies like Zaxcom, Sound Devices and Lectrosonics, to me, both of these audio recorders are definitely built to a consumer, not pro level. My Zoom H4n fell over onto its face from about six inches on a shoot a few years ago and the front control/metering window on the recorder cracked, similar to what a windshield looks like when it's hit by a rock on the freeway. Fortunately, I can see through the cracked area and the H4n still functions perfectly fine. The H4n has a nice rubber coating on the body of the recorder and, overall, seems to have decent build quality, but the built-in dual microphone elements protrude from the recorder body and are easily snapped off in the event of dropping the recorder or jamming it into a wall or other piece of gear.
The Tascam DR-40, overall, seems to have a more brittle, fragile plastic body construction than the H4n, but in the 10 months I've been using the DR-40, it has suffered no cracks or damage. I believe that either recorder, if dropped onto a hard surface from higher than a foot, will result in a heavily damaged, nonfunctional recorder. Brittle plastic is brittle plastic.
The Zoom H4n functions using a button-and-wheel menu arrangement that's unusual, but once you get used to it, I find it actually works quite well. The Tascam DR-40, on the other hand, is driven mostly from the front of the recorder. The Tascam menu system seems to be a bit more intuitive to me, but either can be mastered in a few minutes if you have any experience with digital cameras or your iPhone. The Tascam and the Zoom are each capable of recording four channels at once, but both only have two XLR inputs. The Tascam has the advantage of being able to record line-level input through its XLR connectors; the Zoom requires you to input line level to its 1⁄4-inch combo-XLR inputs.