Hands-On Review: Zoom H6 Handy Handheld Recorder

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Every so often, a piece of audio gear is released that quickly builds a loyal base of users to the point that it becomes almost ubiquitous, just an obvious choice for a given application because it works so well. The rise in popularity of the Zoom H4n is such an example. For years, the H4n 4-track recorder has become a go-to device for a variety of people in need of a digital recorder, including musicians, sound professionals, reporters, and videographers. It is a versatile unit that caters to multiple audio needs in numerous scenarios, and it has the user base to prove it. Rather than rest on their laurels, Zoom has recently announced the Zoom H6 Handy Handheld Recorder with Interchangeable Microphone System, and I was lucky enough to get my hands on one to try it firsthand.

The H6 is capable of tracking 6 channels simultaneously, and easily provides the I/O to do so. Whereas the H4n features two XLR/TRS inputs for integrating your own mics, the H6 boasts 4. What really brings the H6 into the realm of the unique, though, is its modular “built-in” microphones. It has interchangeable input capsules that attach right to the top of the unit that allow you to swap the “built-in” mic as easily as you would change the lens on a camera. The H6 comes standard with stereo X/Y and mid/side capsules, and those are what I was able to test. A shotgun capsule and an XLR/TRS input that gives you 2 more combo inputs (for a total of 6) are also available from Zoom.

The unit itself is covered in a rubberized plastic and feels solid without being too heavy in your hand (it weighs less than 10 ounces). It has a backlit color LCD screen that is angled slightly downward on the unit. This allows it to sit comfortably in your hand (if you’re using it for a handheld application), but more importantly, it assures that you have a clear view of the screen if you have to angle it to capture sound when you're recording. This feature will be incredibly handy for anyone mounting it on top of their DSLR.

All of the important controls are right at your fingertips; the gain control and pad selector for the four combo XLR/TRS inputs are located right above the transport. The transport itself features all of the usual suspects including record enable buttons for all 6 possible inputs, Stop, Play/Pause, Record, Rewind, and Forward.

While you have fast control over your gain and pads once you’re tracking, the H6 offers a very detailed feature set through which you will need to navigate a few menu levels to see completely. This being the case, I’d recommend spending a few minutes setting it up before you’re ready to record, as some features might be hard to access on the fly. Each channel features a selectable low cut filter with 8 positions between 80- and 237Hz. Similarly, the compressor/limiter is channel independent and can be assigned to tracks as needed, with three compression and three limiting options. I found this to be a nice touch; rather than have these controls be universal and affect every input on the device, you can set them up as needed. Perhaps the shotgun mic you have connected to the first combo XLR/TRS would benefit from a low cut filter engaged at 203Hz to eliminate some environmental noise, but the wireless lavalier mic you have on input 2 is just fine frequency-wise, but needs a little compression. Just a few selections in the menu and you can set that up.

Navigation on the H6 is fairly simple. It has two main controls that will get you through the menu system, including a 2-position joystick and selector and a menu button. Pressing the menu button once will, unsurprisingly, bring up the menu display. From here a push up or down on the joystick will allow you to navigate through the folders. Pressing in on the joystick allows you to select that menu item, and pressing the menu button will return you to the next menu layer up.

To say the menu system is exhaustive is an understatement. Zoom seems to have packed innumerable features into the H6, and has essentially given you control of them all. For me, the real standouts on the recording front are the pre-record and backup-record options. Though it is hardly a new feature, having pre-record enabled can save you from disaster. Once a channel is record-enabled, the H6 is constantly creating a 2-second buffer. If you hit Record just a second or so late, it will still capture the 2 seconds prior to you pressing Record. The backup-record feature, when enabled, provides a failsafe for your levels by creating duplicate tracks of the L/R inputs, but at 12dB lower than where you have your input gain set. Those lower-decibel tracks can save your recording from accidental clips.

The H6 records to SD, SDHC, and SDXC cards up to 128GB. You can record your files as WAVs ranging in quality from 44.1kHz/16-bit to 96kHz/24-bit. In addition to WAV files, you can track as MP3s ranging from 48- to 320 kb/s. Once you have your recording format set (in my case, 48kHz/24-bit), you’ll get a readout on the bottom of the display showing what format you selected, alongside the estimated recording time left on your SD card. It seems like a minor thing, but this is the kind of information you really want to have at all times.

After adjusting my settings, I was ready to start tracking to hear what the input capsules were capable of doing. Starting with the XY capsule, the first thing I listened for was off-axis rejection, and it didn’t disappoint. It absolutely requires you to be on-point when aiming the H6, to the point of being somewhat unforgiving; moving it slightly away from my target produced an immediate and noticeable increase in rejection and drop in volume. The room in which I was tracking had some noticeable rumble from the overhead AC ducts, but a few menu-item clicks later, I had the low cut engaged at 237Hz, removing most of the noise.   

Switching to the mid/side input capsule, I immediately noticed a jump in the amount of AC noise I picked up, which wasn’t surprising considering the dramatic difference in polar pattern between X/Y and mid/side. The H6 has an integrated mid/side matrix, and even gives you access to the raw files if you want them. This capsule might not always be the first you reach for, but if you want to capture a wider target area or environmental ambience, it is going to serve you well.

What strikes me as impressive about the H6 is how easily it could be used in such a variety of applications. The swappable capsule system shows it is an obvious choice for ENG type scenarios, but the H6 can just as easily be used to record live bands; integrate the XLR/TRS input capsule and you have 6 inputs to receive signal from a mixing board. Its USB connection even allows you to use the H6 as an audio interface. The H6 would make a great deal of sense for artists who perform and write in a more “stripped-down” fashion. If it is just you and a guitar or keyboard, it can be a useful tool for writing and recording your live performances.

 

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Recording Media
SD Card 16MB to 2GB
SDHC Card 4GB to 32GB
SDXC Card 64GB to 128GB
X/Y Mic
Mic Type Unidirectional
Sensitivity -41 dB, 1 kHz at 1 Pa
Input Gain ∞ to 46.5 dB
Maximum SPL 136 dB SPL
MS Mic
Mic Types 1x Unidirectional, 1x Bi-Directional
Sensitivity -37 dB, 1 kHz at 1 Pa (unidirectional), -39 dB, 1 kHz at 1 Pa (bi-directional)
Input Gain ∞ to 42.5 dB
Maximum SPL 120 dB SPL (unidirectional), 122 dB SPL (bi-directional)
Mic/Line In
Connector 1/8" (3.5mm) Stereo Minijack
Input Level ∞ to 46.5 dB
Input Impedance 2 kΩ
Plug-In Power 2.5 V supported
Inputs 1 to 4
Connectors Combo XLR/TRS (XLR: Pin 2 Hot/TRS: Tip Hot)
Input Gain ∞ to 55.5 dB (Pad Off)
Input Gain ∞ to 35.5 dB (Pad On)
Input Impedance 6.8 kΩ
Maximum Input Level 22 dBu (Pad On)
Phantom Power 12 V /24 V /48 V (Independent Per Channel)
EIN -120 dBu or less
Line Outputs
Jack 1/8" (3.5mm) Stereo Minijack
Rated Output Level -10 dBu when output load impedance
is 10 kΩ or more
Phone Output
Jack 1/8" (3.5mm) Stereo Minijack
Output Level 20 W +20 W into 32 Ω load
Built-In Speaker 400 mw 8 Ω mono speaker
Recording Formats
WAV
Sampling Frequency 44.1, 48, 96 kHz
Bit Rate 16/24-bits (Mono/Stereo, BWF compliant)
Max Simultaneous Recording Tracks 8 (L/R + INPUT 1 to 4 + L/R backup)
Backup Recording 12 dB lower than set L/R input gain
MP3
Sampling Frequency 44.1 kHz
Bit Rate 48/56/64/80/96/112/128/160/192/224/256/ 320 kbps
Max. Simultaneous Recording Tracks 2
Recording Time 
With 2GB Card 03:08:00 (44.1 kHz / 16-bit WAV), 34:43:00 (128 kbps MP3)
Power Requirements 4x AA Batteries (LR6), Optional AC Adapter, USB Bus Power
Display 2.0" (50mm) full color LCD (320 x 240 pixels)
USB
Mass Storage Class  USB 2.0 High Speed
Audio Interface (Multitrack Mode)
USB Class USB 2.0 High Speed
Inputs/Outputs 6/2
Sampling Frequency 44.1, 48, 96 kHz
Bit Rate 16/24-bit
Audio Interface (Stereo Mode)
USB Class USB 2.0 Full Speed
Inputs/Outputs 2/2
Sampling Frequency 44.1, 48 kHz
Bit Rate 16-bit
Battery Life
Continuous Recording with
Alkaline Battery
More than 20 hours
Dimensions (W x D x H)
H6 3.06 x 6.01 x 1.88" (77.8 x 152.8 x 47.8mm)
XYH-6 3.10 x 2.37 x 1.77" (78.9 x 60.2 x 45.2mm)
MSH-6 2.2 x 2.6 x 1.6" (58.0 x 67.6 x 42.1mm)
Weight
H6 9.4 oz (280 g)
XYH-6 4.3 oz (130 g)
MSH-6 2.8 (85 g)

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The real question that I think users have is: how much improvement has Zoom made with the preamps? And quite frankly, no one is interested in some reviewer's subjective opinion. WE WANT TO HEAR IT ALREADY! And preferably, we'd like to hear it side by side with the H4N.

And, until that happens, there is no real "review", just another sales pitch.

When you operate the recording level control for one of the four XLR channels, does the H6 display the gain level that's been selected? As you turn the level control, can you see the gain in dB changing?

If so, can you set all four channels to have the same gains?

Or are the level controls really analog pots?

I'm curious about noise levels too because that was the main weakness of the H4n, especially compared to the newer recorders like the Tascam DR-100II, Panasonic, etc.

And it was probably worth noting that the external XLR module does *NOT* have phantom power.

And did they ever fix the timeslip issue where audio eventually went out of sync w/ video because the clocks were slightly off on the H4n?

I hope that this will be available with the XLR Input adapter rather than the XY mic adapter.

When recording the Mid-Side head, is it possible to get to the raw side signal for processing in post? If the cartridge forces us to decide on the pan angle during recording, the recorder is defeating the beast feature of M-S.

Can anyone say whether this recorder records 4 tracks simultaneously to one file? Meaning, can it record signals from the 4 XLR signals into in MONO and STEREO into their own tracks? Or is there a mix down?

Are levels controlled in digitall or analog way? If it is the former, does one hear any clicks while riding levels (the case of Tascam dr60), are those level adjustment smooth or discrete (say increments of 2db)?

My biggest issue with the H4N is time slip I hope you have addressed that issue with the H6

From the Zoom site and manual, it looks like the backup recording can only be applied to the snap-on mic module, meaning that it's useless when you're using the XLR inputs.

If that's true, it pretty much kills the whole feature. Incredible mistake.

I was wondering if it is at all possible to shut off the on board preamps and use a pair of external preamps.

Hello,

On the H4n I was disappointed that the line inputs were only high impedance line level meaning that I could not receive any useable line signal either off of a mixing board or out of my Sound Devices 442. I always needed to record at mic level which required the use of the preamps and in some ways negating the quality of my Sound Devices.

Does the H6 fix this issue? Can I record proper line level out of a mixer or off of a mixing board?

I had hoped Zoom would make this a multichannel USB interface to a DAW on my laptop. The so-called multichannel, does a mix down to stereo.

Is there any information about the frequency response of the "internal" XY- mikes?
To me, that is a crucial point.
Also, I am surprised that the max SPL is considerably lower than in Olympus LS-100.
What could be the reason for that?

Oops, sorry about the question about max SPL, I noticed I had looked at the MS mikes´s value.
But how about the frequency response ?

My zoom is for sale now, a little cheaper, excellent condition! :)

Hi, from my understanding, can this device be used to replace a mixer?

Thanks

Thanks for the hands on! I was just wondering what the preamp gain maximum or range is on the h6. I am using am electro voice re20. Will the h6 be powerful enough?

I have a Zoom H2N for my field recordings. This looks like a good upgrade. One challenge that I have with Zoom H2N is the high boot time. Can anybody comment on the boot time for H6?

Can the Zoom H6 substitute the place of a mixer for my Skype recorded interviews? I am just looking to do a 2-person in-stuido setup and attach my H6 to my MacBook Air, so we both can talk directly from our mics to the H6 and have it go via USB to our Skype line. What I don’t know is if I can do a line-in from the computer to my H6, so it can get a recording of both of our mikes AND the Skype caller? 

If it can't do this, then what mixer would you recommend to go with the H6 for this type of podcasting setup?

 

Hi Grant -

The Zoom H6 can be used in the manner you propose.  At start-up of the device, you will need to select the mode for USB interface (not data).  It can also mix line and mic signals as a mixer would do.

Please contact us via e-mail if you have additional questions:  AskBH@BandH.com

some people have comments about the noise on MS noise. Any feedbacks? 

Hi RC -

We have not encountered this issue.  If the gain settings are correctly adjusted, noise will not be a problem.

Please contact us via e-mail if you have additional questions:  AskBH@BandH.com