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Samson Zoom H4n: Review & Repair

by Tyler

In January of 2010, I bought my first sound recorder: a Samson Zoom H4n. At the time, I knew essentially nothing about field recording—I selected the device based on the recommendation of several musician friends. I didn't think of it at the time, but trying to capture nature sounds and live music are two entirely different worlds of audio.

Now, with a year of real world experience under my belt, I have gained some valuable insight about what I actually want from a handheld recorder. Here are my main issues with the H4n as a solution for field recordists:

  1. The built in microphones have no cage. It is almost as if Samson wants these things to snap off. Incidentally, one of mine did, and the resulting failure is the subject of the latter half of this entry.

  2. High self noise (hissing) when trying to capture quiet audio sources. To be fair, I should probably be using external mics for nature recordings, but I'm told the XLR inputs are even worse.

  3. There are no analog dials for adjusting gain; levels are controlled by buttons on the side of the device. Any adjustments made while recording will generate all kinds of clicky handling noise. (The H4n does have auto-levels, but in my experience the results are very unreliable.)

  4. This thing burns through batteries like crazy! While this is probably unavoidable for field recorders, the problem is exacerbated by one extremely important point: in low lighting, I can't see the levels without the backlight on. (I use 2700mAh Sanyo rechargeable cells.)

  5. The H4n has a pile of features I'll never use that surely contribute to the price. I don't need fifty on-board studio effects, a phrase trainer, tuner or metronome, for example.

The H4n takes fantastic recordings, and it really shines in favorable scenarios where the audio source is reasonably loud—it's just not the best tool for the job I was hoping to accomplish. When we return to the United States, I will eventually replace it with a Marantz PMD661. If my research is accurate, it should address all of my complaints about the Zoom.

With all of that said, I'll let a few recordings speak for themselves:

Lao Weekend Party

Batting Practice

Munich Quintet - Rossini - The Thieving Magpie (A Clockwork Orange)

Romanian Train Approaches

Now, on to that broken microphone.

While making a (terribly boring, in retrospect) recording of a restaurant in Estonia, I foolishly set our H4n on a narrow shelf near a hallway. A few minutes later, it was knocked off its perch by a passerby, dropping a few feet to the ground. It landed on the conspicuously unprotected microphones, and just as I feared, one of them snapped off.

To my relief, even though the left channel microphone was dangling precariously from the recorder by three tiny wires, it still worked. For the last six months, I've been gently setting the broken mic in place for every recording. It is a temperamental "fix", as it falls out with the slightest bump. Unfortunately, I didn't have much luck with super glue, and I didn't want to cover parts of it with tape.

About a week ago, the left channel stopped working completely. Not being able to make recordings has been really frustrating—almost as maddening as when our 50mm prime lens stopped auto-focusing in Mongolia from all the dust (thankfully, I was able to disassemble it and clean out the grit). I've really come to love documenting the things that move me, and it is really disheartening when I can't.

On our recent motorcycle trip, my friend Pete and I looked it over, determining that there must be a loose connection—undoubtedly due to the stress of the microphone hanging by its wires for the last several months. Unfortunately, with no small tools to speak of, there was little we could do about it.

This morning, our guest-house is playing really beautiful Lao music in the restaurant attached to it. Instinctively grabbing my recorder, paying no mind to the broken microphone, I rush out to capture the scene. But without a stereo image, the results lack depth—the soundstage is flat and uninspiring. Dejected, I start to feel sorry for myself, thinking about how much we love listening to our other recordings. I am filled with the sensation that our adventure has gone deaf (or mute, I suppose).

Eventually, I realize that a sour mood isn't helping the situation, and that I ought to do something about the problem instead of lamenting it. So, with the help of our guest-house owner and a lot of miming, I'm able to borrow a soldering iron at nearby shop. Meanwhile, Tara scours the village for electrical tape, returning triumphantly. With all the tools I need in hand, I get to work disassembling the microphone.

Without a parts diagram, it is difficult to know what I'm doing. Making matters worse, I am a little too impatient with my inspection, which results in my accidentally severing the connection on all three wires. Ack! Well, if there wasn't a loose connection before, there certainly is now.

Sound Recorder On the Mend

Since I'm not sure which wires go to what leads, I plug a pair of headphones into the recorder and turn on the monitor, trying every permutation until it scratchily comes to life. I'm grinning ear to ear as I tell Tara the correct color combination, which she jots down on the inside cover of our guidebook. I'm so relieved the microphone still works!

The next step would be to re-solder the connections, but the wires hanging from the recorder are far too short to work with. Since I wasn't able to locate a screwdriver small enough to disassemble the whole device, I'll have to use donor wires of some kind to make them longer. One look in my "cables and things" bag reveals an old USB cord we never use. A couple of snips and some plastic-chewing later (wire strippers would be nice!), and I'm ready to go.

Tyler Soldering

I quickly realize that I've been lent the world's worst soldering iron. The tip barely gets hot enough to melt solder directly, much less heat wires enough to tin them. The tool has clearly not been cared for, and the tip is so oxidized I can't remove it to clean the contact. As a result, it takes nearly an hour of mucking about to manage a superficial connection, and the solder never really flows properly.

Tyler Soldering Tyler Fixing the Sound Recorder

The end result is the worst soldering job I've ever seen. I doubt the brittle connections will last, but for now, it works! With the donor wires attached to the microphone, the only thing left to do is reconnect them to the wires on the recorder, and hope for the best.

Tyler Fixing Sound Recorder

Once everything is re-assembled, I do what I should have done when it broke in the first place: wrap the bottom half of the microphone in electrical tape to hold it securely. Who cares if the windscreen is partially covered, or if the stereo image isn't "perfect", at least it works!

Fixed Sound Recorder

By the time I'm done, the music is too. Oh well, I have no doubt we'll be able to get a few more recordings before we get home. It feels really good to have our ears back!

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Well it sure is no fun working with bad tools! We should have fixed the microphone when you were in Jakobstad! I would have had the whole arsenal electronics tools.

Have you checked that the signals from the microphone are in phase so that it didn't get flipped 180 degrees? Well I guess that you would have noticed it because it sounds really strange if you listen with headphones if it's out of phase.

The Marantz looked really nice! Go for it some day!
Posted by Matias on April 24th, 2011 at 7:55 AM
It really isn't. I don't understand how anyone was able to use that thing.

You know, I have no idea why I didn't think to ask for your help re-securing the microphone while we were there Matias. I totally should have!

Yes, the signals are still in phase--you can't quite see it in the pictures, but there is a little plastic notch on one side of the microphone that prevents it from going in to the housing incorrectly.

I'll be checking out the Marantz soon, and playing with some binaural recording setups too!
Posted by Tyler on April 25th, 2011 at 1:55 AM
What was your main motivation to take a recording device on your trip?
Posted by Jonas on May 15th, 2011 at 9:40 AM
Great question!

The catalyst for the idea was riding through a really cool sounding tunnel in Italy about half a year into our trip. A few months later, we happened to be passing by the same tunnel again (one of the only times we went by the same place twice on our trip). So, I bought a recorder to give it a go. Unfortunately, the tunnel was closed the second time around.

It wasn't until we actually had the device that either of us realized just how much potential it held for adding a new layer of memories to our documentation efforts. Now, we can't imagine traveling anywhere without one!
Posted by Tyler on May 16th, 2011 at 4:16 AM
It sure is nice to have all those added memories.
My philosophy is different. During my trips through Macedonia, Albania and Greece, I took almost no photos. The reason is simple: if I want to refresh the memories, I'll just go there again. :-)
Posted by Jonas on May 17th, 2011 at 9:11 AM
Curious as to how you got the head of the mic to separate from the tubular wind screen, mine is broken in the same place and I cannot seem to get them apart and it seems to tight to get inside the windscreen tube to solder.
Thank You
Posted by Rob on May 25th, 2011 at 2:59 PM
Hey Rob!

Sorry to hear about your recorder :(

The head of the mic is pressure fit into the windscreen. If you look closely, you can see a seam around the edge. I was able to pry it loose without marring any edges by using a sharp pocket knife. Once you get a small gap started, you should be able to pop it out easily with your fingernails.

Good luck, and I hope that helps!
Posted by Tyler on May 25th, 2011 at 3:06 PM
dude you win the McGyver award. Sounds like an awesome trip! pun intended. I am a musician and love my h4n. have used it to record gigs for about a year and it has survived all manner of shows outdoors, rowdy bars with drunk dancers and never a spill. We were playing a private party and the atrium of the National Building Museum which is the size of a football field and it got knocked over and Samson got their secrete wish and the mic casing broke. Bent really but when i tried to straighten it, snap.... it still seems to work called and they are suspiciously all set up to make a replacement for $120 and they are a little backed up so it will be 4 weeks! I am gonna try the epoxy and tape method and chalk it up to road worn look. My question is do you know if any sound is picked up thru the sides??? if i put tape around it like you did will it effect the recording? Did the mic seem to have a closed diaphragm so the only sound is picked up on the front? is the slices on the side really only style and to weaken it? I am gonna try this repair soon so any info apprciated.
Posted by Douglas on September 3rd, 2011 at 3:20 PM

I have no idea how I missed your comment back when you originally made it. Sorry about that. I'm sure you have long since fixed this problem but I wanted to report that yes, this fix had a very detrimental effect on the recording quality. But, having one channel with less fidelity/gain was better than no channel at all.
Posted by Tyler on November 21st, 2012 at 12:05 PM
Thanks for your note. Yes I did reattach the mic with epoxy and metal duct tape. It has been working great since. I left all but the lowest screened slot open and can detect no loss in fidelity. I was lucky in that the wires to the mic didn't detach. I use it in battery mode at gigs now so the wire doesn't get kicked. I found if you use the stamina mode switch in the battery compartment and set the back light to go off it last 3 hrs on rechargeable batteries should be longer with normal batteries. You can hear live recordings done with it at our website WAACBand@blogspot.com If full band classic rock ain't your thing the last 2 songs are accoustic numbers recorded during a practice session. These are all just "record the room" recordings. I've since gotten into using its multi track feature but haven,t posted them yet. Hope to finish a CD's worth by xmass.
my day job is being an architect and teaching at CUArch. Let me know if you need any help with your house. Good luck it is one of lifes most rewarding efforts.
Posted by Douglas Palladino on November 21st, 2012 at 1:12 PM