The Sony PCM-m10 vs Zoom H4n

Like many folks, I’ve been using a Zoom H4n

Zoom H4n portable flash recorder

as my bag recorder for awhile now. But I recently acquired a Sony PCM-m10. This post will compare the two for use as a location audio-for-video recorder. My recorder of choice is an Edirol R4Pro, but it’s too large to use in a bag along with a mixer. What we’re after here are small, palm-sized 2-track recorders, and there are several to choose from.

My Sony PCM-m10. The front panel layout is fairly straightforward.

The Zoom is a good recorder, and has a number of useful features that aren’t available on many other recorders. These are easily discovered through any web search, but the major points are 4-track recording ability, and XLR inputs. But like everything in life, there are drawbacks… at least in my application. These are:

Lousy battery life– There’s no getting around it, the H4n is a power hog. Used as a straight recorder, I get about four hours from a pair of AA alkaline batteries. I’ve been on shoots where I’ve drained two sets in a single day, and the stress of starting a take with a low battery  indicator has to be experienced to be fully appreciated. Or worse still, putting in your last pair when you’re a mile and a half in the woods… and your extras are back in the car. My workaround has been to use very expensive lithium batteries, which will last nearly three shooting days. The folks at Zoom realized their design was a bit thirsty, and they put in a “stamina mode” switch on the back.

Beldar Conehead... never a big fan of reduced sample rates...

This will extend the battery life by disabling some features, but it limits your sample rate to 44.1/16 bit. As Beldar Conehead would say, “Mips!!! Unacceptable!!!” If you’re too young to understand the reference, I’m sorry, but your cultural education needs some work. Do the research.

The Zoom H4n is bigger overall, and the larger input connectors makes a slightly cumbersome package in a bag.

Picky Line Inputs– the 1/4″ inputs on this unit are high impedance ins. These are great if you want to plug an electric guitar directly into the unit, but for a mixer tape out… not so much. I know, you can buy a cable with a built-in pad, but it’s still a pain in the butt.

Fragile Form Factor- the adjustable mics on the top of the unit are nice for grabbing a quick stereo soundfile, but when used in the bag they tend to be somewhat vulnerable. The big 1/4″ connectors means it usually lives in the bag mics-down, and I worry that these may someday break.

4-Track Limitations- While the zoom H4n is widely advertised as a 4-track recorder, the implementation isn’t as great as it could be. Yes, it can record four tracks at once, but two of those tracks are intended to come from the unit’s onboard mics. There is a 3.5mm jack that can bypass those mics, but this is still a bias-powered mic level input. It can be made to work with yet another padded cable, but doing so involves such a web of special cables and workarounds that I’ve never tried to do a 4-track recording in the field.

The Sony is thinner than the Zoom, but this is a limitation of the XLR connectors.

These drawbacks led me to search for a better solution for recording in the bag, so I’ve gotten a Sony PCM-m10. For my application, the Sony is a better choice, because:

Line Inputs– At first glance, the 3.5mm stereo line in jack would seem to be a downgrade of the balanced ins on the Zoom, but since these are true line-level ins, this isn’t the case. Levels match fine from my mixer tape out using a plain 3.5mm stereo cable. Plus the Sony has a rotary input level control, so adjusting levels is a bit faster that setting a level using an up/down button, as it is on the Zoom. It is slightly more likely to accidental adjustment through careless handling, though.

Battery Life– Power management is vastly improved over the Zoom. The manual says to expect around 4o hours from a set of batteries… less if you use higher data rates. I record at 48k/24bit, and I can get more than three full days of work from a single set of alkaline AAs. The stress relief alone is a big value for me, as I’m not having to constantly check my battery level.

Compact Case- While I’d think these are about the same in terms of their fragility- both are basically built with plastic cases and could be damaged from extreme handling- the Sony is smaller and rectangular. The Zoom is slightly larger, but the bigger 1/4″ jacks can place more leverage on the connector itself, plus the irregular shape makes me think that of the two, the Zoom is going to be more likely to break over time. (I do plan to make a mic guard for the Zoom that screws into its tripod mount, but haven’t managed to find time for that experiment yet.)

The Zoom usses buttons to set the record level, while the Sony uses a thumbwheel. This isn't a digital encoder, either, but an analog level control.

Better Filenames- Though this seems a little nitpicky, I do like the filenaming convention on the Sony better than the Zoom. The Zoom gives each recording’s filename in a given folder a sequential number, starting at 001. The Sony does the same thing, but it adds the date at the head of each filename. This way it’s a little easier for me to tell what’s in each file without having to open it up and listen to it… handy if I’ve been shooting for four days and neglected to download. It just adds a little confidence.

There was one situation where I was glad I had the Zoom. I needed a lav mic on a motorcycle, and  expected the talent to drive out of wireless range. Using the Zoom, I plugged in a hardwire mic directly to the H4n’s input, started the recorder, and put the whole package in the bike’s saddlebags. You couldn’t do this with the Sony… at least not with a hardwire mic. I did some experiments by plugging in various mics with 3.5mm jacks into the Sony’s input, and  it turns out that mics wired for Sony’s UWP transmitters will work fine plugged directly into the input jack… a neat trick in a smaller package. Not so with mics wired for the Sennheiser G3 series, though.

While both are fine recorders, I think overall I prefer the Sony. In fact, I’ve ordered a second one. The idea is to use a pair to record iso tracks from my wireless units, then sync them after the fact using Plural Eyes software. I’m still running tests to figure out the best way to pull this off… the results will be in another post.

To be fair, I haven’t tried some of the other palm recorders available from Edirol, Fostex, Tascam, Marantz, Roland, and others. These two recorders are the ones that I own. (I’ve no connection with either company, nor have gotten any freebees or discounts from anybody. I’d be happy to take some, though.)

11 responses to “The Sony PCM-m10 vs Zoom H4n

  1. I also am a big fan of the sony stereo recorders over the zoom brand. I picked up a sony d-50 a few weeks back on sale and absoluetly love it for grabbing quick sounds of ambiance and sfx. Hadn’t thought of using it with wired lavs though, good idea.

  2. corrinne haskins

    I was wondering if you could comment on the sound difference between the two without using extra mics. but overall great comparison. I have the d50 and really like it a lot the mics seem pretty good without being able to add xlr mics.

    • bgilbertsound

      Hi Corrinne:
      Thanks for your comment.
      In terms of the “sound” difference between the two… I think you’d need both side-by-side, recording the same source from the exact same position to have a meaningful test. I didn’t have both very long… I sold the zoom H4n almost as soon as I got the Sony. I would expect the difference would most probably be slight, if any. The Zoom may have a bit of an edge, since their mics can be rotated for a 90 or 120 degree angle spacing, so you can adjust the stereo image. If you expect to use the onboard mics alot then this might make the Zoom a better choice. For me, the onboard mics are a secondary consideration (though I do use them on both units for grabbing quick SFX.) Far more important for me is the battery life (MANY times better with the Sony), the line level inputs (Sony has them, Zoom doesn’t, really) and the filename conventions (I like Sony’s better, though it’s harder if you use two units on the same shoot.) The biggest difference, besides the mics, are the XLR inputs on the Zoom, but this wasn’t much of a deal for me. Your mileage may vary!

  3. Great comparison. I’ve been looking for a thoughtful, side-by-side review of these units. I’m considering buying one to improve my “wild sound” captures for the videos I make. Many thanks!

  4. Thanks so much for this comparison – I guess that you are using a portable mixing desk as you are preferring the high quality line in? which do you recommend? Mine needs power so I hadn’t thought of using it on location (I am a lone artist/film-maker). Otherwise am I right in thinking that the Sony only accepts a mike through a small jack, which I presume is bound to lower recording quality?

    • bgilbertsound

      That’s exactly correct… I always use a mixer on location. If you are working without a mixer, having balanced inputs becomes much more important. When Zoom first released the H4, there were fewer choices (small recorders with balanced inputs), and all were more expensive. Zoom now has some competition from Tascam’s DR40 at $200.

  5. Well done comparison. I think sound,wise, they are very similar, but I like the idea of the D50’s protecting the mics. Musicians may prefer the Zoom due to the multi tracking capability. It seems that many units, including Sony, Zoom and Tascam, are producing amazing quality sound reproduction and stereo imaging, so it may come down to features, price, and even size. Thanks for a thoughtful article. Peter

    • bgilbertsound

      Thanks very much. My review is naturally biased towards my particular needs, which won’t be the same as everyone else’s. For me (and other location soundies), battery life and a true line-level input are most important… mic inputs, not so much! (though there have been times I’ve just thrown it into record and set it on a table to get wild sound). If I remember correctly, I tried plugging in a lav into the mic input… a Sennheiser ME102 wouldn’t work, but the lav that came with my Sony wireless did. Could be helpful to catch a track where a wireless wouldn’t work… the talent gets into a car and drives away, for example. But forget it if you want to use this recorder alone with a shotgun… you’d have to have some kind of battery-powered preamp, either a mixer or something like a Sound Devices MixPre or Fostex FM1.

  6. Thanks, i’ve been looking for an objective comparison between these two.

  7. why couldn’t you have used the sony on the bike with a wired lav mic?… i’m hoping to do just this with the rode lavalier. looking at the rode website these seem to be compatible. thanks.

    • bgilbertsound

      Because my lavs are wired with TA3 connectors for Lectrosonics. The mic input on the Sony is a 3.5mm aTRS connector. Also be aware that Sony and Sennheiser wireless transmitters have different powering. I have a mic for my Sony wireless, and that one works with this recorder. The Sennheiser mics that I tried didn’t work.

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