Zoom has been kicking butt in the indie audio gear front more and more as time rolls on.
One of the more interesting audio devices I saw at NAB earlier this year was a prototype 8 channel pro-level field recorder that Zoom had at their booth - The Zoom F8. It is available for pre-order at B&H Photo as of today.
This is an interesting move from Zoom. They've been a strong contender among indie film and video makers as far back as 2007-ish with the Zoom H4. That device was breakthrough in that it was a small, handheld stereo recorder with pro-level XLR inputs that ran on consumer AA batteries and was reasonably priced (around $400 or $500 as I recall). I had one for a short time. It was amazing. But it had some serious issues: The preamps didn't have a lot of gain (so using dynamic handheld mics wasn't very realistic), the preamps were noisy, battery life wasn't great especially when phantom powering mics, and the plastic build quality wasn't amazing. Also, that jog-dial thing you use to navitage through menus was not great. But still, it was a worthy start.
Then the H4n came a few years later with better build quality, slightly better preamps (though still noisy), and better battery life. Some of the issues remained. The premps were still pretty noisy. The jog-dial thingy was pretty much the same. Another good step forward from Zoom. They sold a lot of these and there are still tons in use today.
Then the H6 came in 2013. Even better build quality, much better preamps, good battery life and some nice features that Zoom has added with firmware updates (e.g., the ability to solo monitor channels while recording so that you can dial in levels). I recently had an H6 on loan from B&H for several weeks and was really impressed! There were a couple of things I didn't love about it, but they weren't total show-stoppers: I still don't love the jog-dial and while the new color screen is pretty, it is slow and very difficult to see outdoors and nearly impossible to see in direct sunlight. I'll have a review here on the blog in the next week or so.
The Zoom F8 looks like Zoom is aiming at taking some of the lower end pro market from the likes of Sound Devices though their field recorders are quite a bit more expensive (arguably for good reason). Here are the specs for the F8:
8-channel/10-track field audio recorder/mixer
8 discrete inputs with locking Neutrik XLR/TRS combo connectors
Compact and lightweight aluminum chassis, weighing just 2 pounds (without batteries)
High quality mic preamps with up to 75 dB gain, less than -127 dBu EIN, and +4 dB line inputs
Support for up to 24-bit/192 kHz recording as well as 96 kHz, 88.2 kHz, 48k, and 44.1 kHz, plus 47.952 kHz / 48.048 kHz for HD video compatibility; 16-/24-bit resolution
Accurate Time Code (0.2 ppm) I/O on standard BNC connectors; dropframe/non-drop formats with Jam Sync
Three different power supply options: 8x AA batteries, external DC battery pack with Hirose connector, or 12V AC adapter (AA’s and DC battery pack not included)
Automatic switching of power source from DC to batteries at user-defined voltage levels
Dedicated gain control knob, 6-segment LED level meter, and PFL/Solo switch for each channel
Phantom power (+48V/+24V) on every preamp
Advanced onboard limiters for input and output
High pass filter, phase invert, and Mid-Side decoder
Input delay of up to 30 msec per channel / output delay of up to 10 frames per output
Compatible with Zoom microphone capsules; optional extender cable enables remote positioning
Dual mini-XLR (TA3) balanced Main Outs plus ⅛" stereo mini-jack Sub Out
Dedicated headphone output (100 mW) with front panel volume control
2.4" full-color backlit LCD with monochrome mode
Dedicated PFL display with viewable trim settings
Dual SD/SDHC/SDXC card slots, up to 512 GB each
Records in BWF-compliant WAV or MP3 file formats
Support for extensive metadata (BWF and iXML); input time, date, project, scene number, etc.
Built-in slate mic/slate tone with front panel switch
Built-in tripod mount; camera mount adapter also included
Use as an 8-in/4-out USB audio interface (@ 96 kHz)
Free Zoom F8 Control App for iOS allows wireless remote control, file renaming, and metadata entry
Wow! The things that impress me most is that these new pre-amps come with +75dB of gain. There are three power options (8 AA batteries, Hirose connector for pro-level batteries like Anton Bauer, and an AC adapter). Zoom claims that the analog to digital converters have 120dB of dynamic range (SoundDevices clain 117 for most of their recorders and mixers). This is the first time that Zoom has reported the A/D dynamic range spec so it seems like they're serious about playing with the big boys. Timecode generator that can also be jam synced. Aluminum build. iOS mixer app that does channel metering, faders for each channel, and the ability to enter metadata! Limiter with adjustable settings for threshold, attack and release.
So yes, being the audio nerd that I am, I have one on pre-order and will have a review after it ships in August. :-)
I do have some concerns:
The hardware pots (potentiometers) for each channel look really small and I'm not sure how robust they'll be. Mixing may be pretty tough relative to the SoundDevices and Zaxcom pro-level field mixers which have big knobs.
Output only includes 2 mini XLR outputs for the stereo mix bus and 3.5mm for DSLR shooters. No camera return. Though to be fair, this is probably not a big deal for most indie filmmakers and is part of the reason that this device is so much less expensive than the SoundDevices and Zaxcom field recorder/mixers. To me, this is why it looks like Zoom is still very much aiming for indie film-makers, not higher end pros (who would need this option. On the set of serious productions, you'll typically need a feed for the director and the camera.
That screen is still quite small and I'm interested to see how easy it is to see outdoors in the sun. Also, audio meters should never be underestimated. Only those which are large enough and have enough steps are truly useful when mixing and recording. That's a very small screen to fit 8 meters. But if the app is good, this can be overcome.
Those seem like reasonable trade-offs given the $999 price. It seems like they packed it with all the audio quality you'd get in the higher end recorders and mixers, but without some of the more sophisticated features that are only needed for higher budget productions (more routing and output options).
Can't wait to put it through its paces!