Can You Tell the Difference Between a 

$2000 Recording Rig and a $99 Portable Recorder?

By Ed Ting 

Updated 7/9/11




I've been fascinated by sound and recording all my life.  I own many recording rigs - I have almost as many mics and portable recorders as I do telescopes!  I was really excited when Zoom recently debuted their new H1 digital recorder.  Personal digital recorders abound, but Zoom, like M-Audio, Roland, Yamaha, and others aspire to high end sound.  I was initially disappointed to learn that the H1 would use the same mics as the H2; I own and H2 and am not exactly thrilled with its sound.  See my previous comparo for details.  Although the Zoom H2 scored high for features and value, its sound left something to be desired.

Enter the Zoom H1.  In true Zoom fashion, it is loaded with features - more than I could possibly recount in this article.  Suffice it to say, it will almost anything that I need it to, and more.  Unlike the H2, which required you to poke incessantly at the membrane keys to get the menu or feature you want (even syncing via USB took some effort) the H1 has switches.  Lots of 'em.  The top of the device has a single round button for starting and stopping of recording.  The left side has the headphone/line out jack, two volume controls (+ and -) and the micro SD card slot.  The right side has a 1/8" mic/line in jack, +/- input level buttons, forward/pause/back buttons, a delete button, a power/hold slider switch, and the USB port.  Confused yet?  There's more.  On the bottom of the device, there are three slider switches: A low cut switch, and auto level control, and a WAV/MP3 switch.  The battery compartment is also here.  While some may prefer the software menus on the H2, I grew to like the array of switches.  If I needed the device to do something, I'd just scan the sides of the H1 until I found what I wanted.  

The Zoom H1 has a built-in speaker on the bottom.  The sound quality is lousy of course, but over time, I really got to appreciate this speaker.  It was extremely handy for quick spot checks.

Zoom's new H1 - A lot of recorder for $99

Neumann microphones are revered around the world for their neutral sound.  I go to a lot of classical concerts, and I see more Neumann mics than any other brand.  Along with Schoeps, B&K (now DPA), Earthworks, and a few select others, the Neumanns can stake a fair claim as one of the best microphones in the world.  My KM184s are on the low end of the Neumann range - they sell for about $750 each.  The construction is just beautiful; running your fingers across the smooth nickel finish is a testament to its gorgeous build quality.  In contrast, the Zoom H1's construction is about what you'd expect for a sub-$100 consumer product.  The plastic feels light and cheap, and the switches have a chintzy feel to them.  I've already cross threaded the 1/4 X 20 socket at the bottom and have resigned myself to the fact that I'll probably need to buy another H1 at some point as a backup unit.

I placed the KM184s in an X-Y configuration, right next to the Zoom H1.  The Neumann's signal was fed into a Symetrix SX302 mic preamp, which was then connected to an M-Audio Audiophile 24/96 USB sound card.  I went through the tedious exercise of adjusting the levels until the two rigs were close in volume.  This wasn't an exact science, since the dispersion characteristics of the Neumanns weren't the same as the Zoom mics.  But I think it's close enough for these tests.  See what you think.

MP3 files are below (if you prefer to hear the original wave files, hit the smaller links.)  The piano is a Yamaha C6 6' 11" semi-concert grand tuned within a week of playing these tracks.

Audio Sample # 1 (Brahms Intermezzo op. 117 #1)(:15)

Audio Sample # 2 ("First Light")(:30)

Audio Sample # 3 ("Bittersweet")(:32)

The Wave Files:

Audio Sample # 1 (Brahms Intermezzo op. 117 #1)(:15)

Audio Sample # 2 ("First Light")(:30)

Audio Sample # 3 ("Bittersweet")(:32)

Formed an opinion yet?  If so, look after the jump and see how you did!

Mics in X-Y configuration


M-Audio Audiophile USB sound card (top) and Symetrix SX302 mic preamp (bottom)


Recording setup - Mics are to the right


Are we surprised yet?  

To my ears, there isn't nearly as much difference as I expected.  In all three cases, the first sample was the KM184s, and the second sample was the Zoom.  Don't get me wrong - the Neumanns are better - but the Zoom is scary close.  The H1 has some of that nasty digital grain and harshness, and the noise floor is higher.  This is most noticeable on the Bittersweet tracks.  But it's darned good by any standard, and superb value for the money.  The H1 is said to use the same mics as the H2, which I didn't like in the previous test.  I'm not sure how to reconcile this.  Perhaps they've improved the mic preamps in the H1?

I'm not hanging up my KM184 by any means.  But I'm impressed by what Zoom has done for the price.

I hope you enjoyed this test.  Let me know how you did.


July 2011

End KM184/Zoom H1 Comparison