Zoom H6essential talks the talk and walks the walk – Six Colors

Photo by Zoom

I’ve used Zoom audio recorders for many years, including the Podtrac P4 I wrote about here a couple of years ago. I carry a Zoom H4n Pro in my backpack for radio field work. And a Zoom H6 has been my go-to in-person podcasting rig, since you can connect up to six mics, and make multitrack recordings with ease. But the display on my H6 crapped out, and the rubberized case began to suffer from what the Internet tells me is called “rubber reversion.” That means the case got all sticky. In the meantime, Zoom has released a set of new handheld recorders; the Essential series, with a couple of features I’ve been craving. So right before a big reporting trip, I replaced my H6 with the H6essential.

No-clip audio

Support for 32-bit floating point audio is the marquee feature of the H6e (and its siblings, the H4e and H1e). Instead of riding input levels to be sure your recordings don’t clip, 32-bit float allows you to record at any level and then raise or lower the audio’s gain when you work with it in a 32-bit compatible DAW. In a 16-bit or 24-bit file, doing so would introduce noise when boosting a too-low signal or still sound distorted if your recording was too hot to begin with. Zoom sells other 32-bit float-compatible recorders, but not handheld ones, until now.

The feature came in handy for me when I waded into a crowd of solar eclipse fans with my shotgun mic and Zoom H6e, looking for good soundbites for a story. I didn’t fiddle with levels – I just rolled tape the whole time I talked to people without having to fiddle with the H6E, and then I leveled the best bits later in Adobe Audition. Worked perfectly.

Similar body type

Like the original H6, the H6e is a rectangle. It’s 10.6 x 4.2 x 1.9 inches and weighs 1.07 pounds. It feels lighter than the old H6. Its case contains more plastic than the original, but it feels sturdy and not cheap. The recorder ships with an x-y capsule mic and also comes with a nifty little cap you can put over the capsule port to protect it when no capsule is installed. You can’t use old Zoom H6-compatible capsules with the new recorders (I have three). The company promises new capsules, including a two-port XLR option, in the coming months. Like the recorder itself, the mic capsule included in the box is mostly plastic, and both smaller and lighter than the one from that older version.

Like the H6, the H6e is battery-hungry, requiring four AAs. It provides phantom power if you need it for unpowered mics, and you can use the USB-C port not only to connect to a computer or an iPhone, but as a power source. Just plug in a battery pack.

Input and output

Like other Zoom recorders, the H4e and H6e have a tactile button for each input and a status light to tell you when the input is armed for recording. The display icons mirror that information, and if you’re recording, you’ll see levels for each active input.

Because setting levels isn’t important, I didn’t really think about it when I first plugged a mic into the H6e. I was puzzled when I got no audio. But even though you don’t need to ride levels to avoid clipping, you do need to use the software-based mixer to raise the volume of the input you’re using. The original H6 model has hardware knobs for each input, which is a bit more intuitive, especially since the documentation doesn’t make it clear that you need to raise the input volume to record.

Zoom has fully migrated to USB-C, which you can use to connect the recorder to a computer or an iOS device, either as an audio interface or to transfer files. I’ve used it as an interface a couple of times with different mics connected. In both cases, I needed to coordinate with the producer of the show I was guesting on to see if my levels were OK on their end, despite a mixer display on my recorder and the ability to monitor with headphones. I was surprised, however, that the level we agreed on for my output was about a third of the maximum the recorder offered. Audio I record might not clip, but I need to be in sync with what someone else needs when I’m logging in remotely.

Zoom has also switched from full-sized SD cards to microSD cards for storage. I had to make a quick Best Buy run since all of my older recorders use the larger cards, and I don’t have game systems or other gadgets that take microSD. The device supports SDHC and SDXC cards, giving you up to a terabyte of available storage per card. You might not need quite that much out in the field, but 32-bit files are larger than the 16- or 24-bit variety.

Accessibility

Zoom has offered a few different display types on its recorders, and while I can use most of them after a fashion with my low vision, some displays, like the Podtrac P4, are difficult for me to read, even with brightness and contrast settings adjusted. The Essential series changes all that, and Zoom is even marketing the products’ accessibility. All three recorders in the series include a voice-based menu system. In fact, you’ll encounter it when you first turn on the unit, so a visually impaired user can set the device up unassisted without resorting to special keystrokes or reading the user guide. You can turn speech off if you don’t want to use it. If you use the accessible menu system, you can even choose one of three volume levels for the interface speech.

Additionally, the Essential recorders’ displays use a high-contrast, dark background, with white text and graphics. It’s much easier to read than past Zoom screens, especially in bright light. Finally, the 32-bit float support offers an accessibility boost for anyone who can’t eyeball levels as recording takes place. Just be sure you’ve initially set each input channel to a level that’s high enough to capture your audio.

Affordable Powerhouse

Zoom’s Essential recorders range in price from $99 for the H1e (no XLR ports, but a great little capsule mic) to $199 for the H4e (two XLRs, ideal for a reporter in the field) to $299 for the H6e, which has already done triple duty for me as a field recorder, podcast roundtable unit, and audio interface to my MacBook Pro.

[Shelly Brisbin is a radio producer, host of the Parallel podcast, and author of the book iOS Access for All. She’s the host of Lions, Towers & Shields, a podcast about classic movies, on The Incomparable network.]

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