Zoom F8: First Impressions

Just received my copy of the Zoom F8 field recorder yesterday evening and spent a little time working with it. We should have a final review sometime in September but wanted to give you my first impressions here.

Build quality: Zoom has been steadily climbing the build quality ladder and the F8 is a definite continuation of that trend. The body is a very solid aluminum and the strap brackets are as solid as can be. The selector knob that allows you to navigate the menus is a HUGE improvement over the silly little jog dial on all of the previous Zoom handy recorders. If we're being honest, that was the feature I did NOT like on any of the previous Zoom recorders. It felt flimsy and ergonomically, was not the quickest tool to get around in the menus. And when you're on a recording job, time is critical.

This new selector knob is as solid as you would expect on a Sound Devices recorder or mixer.

The power and menu buttons have a sort of clicky feel to them that I'm still not sure about. I think they'll be fine over time but only time will tell.

The battery and SD card doors are also very solid metal and the battery door closes with a finger screw. The XLR inputs are Neutrik connectors, an industry standard and always top quality. The external DC power hirose connector is a nice option for pro-level batteries. I connect the F8 to an Anton Bauer battery which should power the F8 for well over 20 hours based on the battery's "remaining time" readout which is usually pretty accurate.

Overall, the unit is smaller than I remember when I first saw the prototype at NAB in April. It is not as light as the more consumer grade recorders from Zoom or Tascam once you add batteries, and about the same as the Sound Devices 744T recorder I've used in the past.

The Screen: The screen is better than I expected and also includes an "outdoor" monochrome mode for use when out in the broad daylight. That is great because that was a major issue with the H6 recorder. The F8's screen also seems much higher grade than the H6's, easier to read and very bright. It also doesn't seem to suffer from the same issues when viewing off axis. Setting the brightness to 50% indoors in a brightly sunlit room, I had absolutely no problem seeing the screen. Haven't had a chance to work with it outdoors yet but will include that in the final review.

Controls and Menus: Usability is a big deal. If a device has a ton of features but you have to constantly dive into menus to access them, that can be a problem and makes working with the device less than practical. I sort of didn't love the H6, H5, or H4n for this reason. They all required a little too much menu diving and when that meant I had to use the jog-dial, it was not fast and not enjoyable.

The F8 seems to be better thought-out on this front. The biggest difference is the selector knob. The menus are similar but having the new metal selector knob makes menu diving a little less onerous. Also, I like that I can use the buttons to arm/select a channel, press the PFL button and quickly access settings for that input like phantom power, the limiter, and pre-fader mode. Nice improvement by Zoom here as well!

The potentiometers or gain trim knobs for each channel have a good feel and work well but they are small. I don't think I'd want to attempt to mix an 8 channel program with just these little pots/knobs. That's where the iOS app comes in.

The mobile (iOS) App: The app is surprisingly good! The only thing about it that made me scratch my head a little bit is that you have to install an additional little firmware thing to enable bluetooth on the F8. I can only guess that maybe Zoom didn't have final FCC approval when they went to manufacturing and perhaps that will be included in the next overall firmware update.

The app works great on iPad and reasonably well on my iPhone 6+. There are a lot of things to fit into the UI so it just works better on the bigger screen of the iPad. On the iPhone, it sort of switches between landscape and portrait orientations to make everything fit depending on what you're doing, mixing or changing settings. It works in a pinch but if I'm truly mixing, I'd rather do it on an iPad.

And that's a pleasure - a 9.7 inch screen dedicated to mixing works quite nicely.You can set the gain for each channel with a skeuomorphic gain pot at the top of each channel, mix with the sliding faders for each channel. You have nice large peak meters for each channel. You can punch the PFL button for each channel to toggle the phantom power or limiter. You can do just about everything aside from set up the recording formats and timecode from the app. I really like it so far.

Preamps and Limiters: This is where I need more time before I can really evaluate things. In terms of specs, the F8 looks top notch. Only more testing will tell for sure. In the recording I've done so far, the preamps appear to deliver in terms of sound quality and noise performance. They seem very, very promising. The limiter, unfortunately, is in the digital domain of the signal chain. In practical terms, this means it isn't all that useful. If a sound comes in too loud, it will pass unprocessed through the analogue preamp, through the analogue to digital converter and the damage is already done before it gets to the digital limiter. That makes the limiter pretty close to useless for preventing distortion from clipping. That's not a total show stopper for enthusiasts that are very price sensitive and have the luxury of doing retakes, but probably not acceptable for pros that make their living doing location sound.

Headphone Amp: for better or worse, this is part of the device that has gotten a lot of attention based on Jose Frias's review.  At first I thought that the headphone signal was noisy. I don't think that's actually the issue after more time with it. But it doesn't sound as nice as what is actually recorded by the F8. The question is whether this is a show-stopper issue. So far, I don't think it is for me. Again, I don't feed, house, and clothe my family with location sound jobs. I'm a corporate video one-man band. And for that scenario, I think it works fine.

Other Features: You can use the F8 as an audio interface connected to your computer via the mini USB port on the left side of the unit. There are ASIO drivers for Windows and it works with core audio out of the box on the Mac side. It isn't the most intuitive device for using as an audio interface if you're going to feed monitors from it, but not bad for recording and listening with headphones.

Timecode! Woot! I haven't had a chance to play with it yet but looking forward to syncing it with my Shogun recorder to see how well that works. Zoom claims to keep time within half a frame in 24 hours which is pretty good. Gotham Sound, a professional sound gear rental house, did a test where they jam synced a Sound Devices 788T and Zoom F8 from a third timecode generator, then stuck both of them in a freezer overnight for approximately 10 hours. When they came back, the two devices were within .8 frames of one another. This seems to suggest that the timecode generator in the F8 is good enough for most professional applications.

The recorder has a 3.5mm stereo out for cameras and two mini XLR outs (L and R) along with adapters so you can send a stereo output to full-sized XLR cables or inputs. Need to test these as well.

Keep yourself subscribed to the updates over the next few weeks and let me know if there are specific questions you would like answered.