Review of Zoom H1 Handy Recorder

I bought this in May 2017, as the only choice I had of buying this kind of product from a local shop, so was unable to compare different products, and paid a premium for the privilege of buying from a real shop.  While paying that premium may be off-putting, it does have advantages.  You have the product, there and then, instead of waiting for a delivery at some random time.  You can inspect it before purchase.  You have somewhere to go back to if there's a problem, etc.

It handles loud audio quite well, I've tried almost-yelling into it, close-up, and didn't over-drive it.  Though, if I'd been running it on auto-level control, and the gain was up due to it receiving low audio prior to me yelling into it, the first moment will distort before the gain manages to drop down.

The auto-level control is similar to the AGC used on old-fashioned cassette recorders, with a fast gain-down action but with a longer delay before it starts a fairly fast gain-up response.

While auto-level controls seem a convenient feature to avoid having to manually set controls, they all suffer from annoyances.  It only takes someone to cough, or drop something noisily, for that momentary loud sound to smack the gain down, and the next thing that you wanted to hear became inaudible.  A fast-acting limiter would be useful to squash those momentary interruptions without distortion, and a slower AGC action that worked on an average of the signal over a longer time-constant, would be more accurate at automatic levelling of volume.  That would take care of things like recording lectures and speeches, and some kinds of musical performances.

For better sounding recordings, manual gain is the way to go, but pressing up and down buttons isn't the most convenient way of doing so, especially tiny ones.  It would be handy to have an auto-set function that monitors sound while you press it, then holds that gain level when you release it.  While you can switch the auto-level control on and off on this device, when you switch it off it goes back to the manual level that you previously set before you switched the auto-level on.

Other devices, e.g. TASCAM, have an auto-feature where it drops down the level when loud sounds occur, and leaves it there.  That has the problem I outlined above (loud coughs, etc., squashing the audio), but with no automatic recovery from the situation.  One loud bang, and everything after it is far too quiet.

It seems more suited to close-up work than distant or ambient, the level can be quite low with a moderately high noise floor when the gain is up.

It's very lightweight, bit plasticky, covered with that funny rubber-feeling coating.  An all-black affair with tiny writing on it is not the best thing to try and use in the dark.  I notice that there are other non-black versions available, from some places, but they seem to be special limited-release editions.  A fair bit of audible handling noise, not really suitable for hand-held recording.

It is obviously more of an aquisition device than a playback one.  If you want to play back a recording, there's no convenient way of fast-spooling through a long recording (the fast spooling speed's only about two or three times normal play speed, and it does it silently).  The counter display shows a countdown to the end of the playback, meaning that if you wanted to find something a particular amount of time into the recording, you'd have to work out how far it was from the end of the recording, instead.

Oddly, the file datestamps are set at the end of the recording, rather than the beginning.  So, if you'd recorded something from 10:16 am through to 11:09 am, the file's datestamp will be 11:09 am.  This is counter-intuitive, the opposite from everything else that I've used, not really the “creation time” time of the file, and not how anybody would write down takes on a running log (normally, you'd note down the start time).

Most functions are directly controlled with switches and buttons, there's very little wading through menus.  Setting the clock is the only convoluted thing that I can think of.  While easy enough to understand how to set the date and time, the short timeout period where it gives up waiting for you to set the clock and aborts, is annoying.  More so because you've go to turn the device off and on again, while holding down a button, to be able to set the clock.

Choosing MP3/WAV bit rates and depths is just a case of using two buttons ( and ), after you've flipped the MP3/WAV switch, to cycle through a short list of options 'till you reach the one you want.  And whenever you switch between MP3 or WAV, it uses your previous settings, allowing you to leave the gadget preset for the best WAV settings for you to post-produce some recordings, and a convenient MP3 settings for recordings that you're just going to record then replay, as is.

Yet another device with tiny buttons, that require you to use the corner of your fingernail to press them.

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