I finally bit the bullet and replaced my H4N recorder after one half of the XY stereo mic broke off in some spectacular broken plastic mess. The H4N was never meant to replace industrial gear, and the build quality represents that. What it did do, however, was shake up the audio recording industry on the lower end, and enable a whole new breed of shooters using DSLR cameras to achieve decent audio. I say decent because it could be so much better, and "good" would be a stretch as someone who has some (albeit limited) professional sound experience, but decent is accurate. It is also accurate to say that the sound from every DSLR to date is complete garbage. Before you open your mouth to defend, just take a deep breath, accept, and move on — don't argue this one with me — it's true. Audio is the stumbling block of most videographers starting in the business. I see/hear it all the time. We spend so much time focusing on camera moves, magic hour, and pretty shots, that we forget that poor audio quality is the hallmark of a rookie. While it's not always possible to achieve Hollywood soundstage quality (read: most of the time, since it requires a dedicated crew of audio professionals), it is the responsibility of the professional videographer to make every effort to get as close to that as possible, and when it comes to DSLR filmmaking, that means utilizing a separate audio recording setup, also known as "dual-system" audio recording.
Enter the Zoom H6N.
First impressions of the H6N are "wow." I wasn't sure that an upgrade would be worth it, since you can find the previous generation H4N for $200 now, but I will say right off the bat that paying double the price for the new version is absolutely worth it. To start with, the H6N records up to 6 tracks of audio in its standard configuration; 4 of which can be done through XLR or 1/4" inputs. Levels and phantom power for each of those channels can be adjusted and controlled independently — the H4N only allowed for simultaneous control of the two XLR inputs as they were linked. The menu is easier to navigate, the backlit screen is easier to read, and the build quality feels far more robust. Separate headphone and line-out jacks also allow for monitoring, and reference audio to the camera simultaneously. Audio quality is excellent, and for the solo videographer, this really is a fantastic tool to have in the arsenal.
It is still cumbersome to use, and requires attention to process to make sure you actually record, etc while shooting, but overall what this little device can do is astonishing. Previously you would have needed an field mixer and recorder to achieve results like this. Arguably that setup is still better, but on a budget, this is the best bang for the buck. Trying to figure out where to mount it, or how to deal with it is an entirely different topic, but from a recording standpoint, this thing is worth its $400 in gold.
Can record 4 separate XLR or 1/4” inputs, and adjust levels on each channel individuallyCan only adjust the 2 XLR inputs as a pair
Independent channel control for Phantom Power +24v or +48vPhantom power available for the 2 XLR inputs as a pair only
External adjustment knobs for level controlGoofy 2 button level adjustment
Option for additional mic accessories in addition to the built in XY stereo micNot so much with the accessories
Overall better build qualityCheap build quality
Slightly larger than H4N, but not enough to be a deal breakerSmaller in size than H6N
Longer battery life (I shot about 8hrs of interviews on one set of 4x AA alkaline batteries)Relatively short battery life
Power adaptor is USB, and costs extraPower adaptor included
Chris Stenberg is a Canadian travel photographer, filmmaker and researcher. When he’s not wielding a camera or raising a family you can find him running, biking and boarding in the mountains or eating an apple under a tree in an orchard.