Sunday, 7 December 2014

Sound recorders - Zoom H1 vs Sony PCM M10 (a brief review)

One of my hobbies (apart from photography) is to record the sounds in nature. The advent of high quality compact personal recorders has really enabled me to do more with this in the last few years than in the years previously (where such things were prohibitively expensive)

Just the Facts M'am

I started using a Zoom H1 recorder in about 2010 and really liked it. Its a low cost high quality device that is
  • light
  • simple to use
  • low power drain (read long on battery life)
hard to go wrong really. However there exists on the Web much discussion as to the benefits of the Sony PCM-M10 , and so not really knowing if the grass was greener over on the other side of the fence I didn't know what to think. I've read some reviews and found few which were good at comparing the two. This will NOT be a typical internet review, as in my view many of them just regurgitate the specs and brochures. What I'll present here is the core facts which determine its suitablity for my (and maybe your) use.

While they are both small, as you can see the Zoom is significantly smaller than the Sony. It uses a single AA battery while the Sony requires two.

The Sony has a button fest for operation which helps those who have a need for that to emotionally connect with the machine being somehow more powerful. It has peak levels for each channel and a -12dB notification indicator too ... the Zoom in contrast just has a simple twin VU scale on the screen and a red peak indicator (blinks when clipping occurs) which also doubles as a "recording is happening" indicator light.

The assortment of buttons, lights and menu features on the Sony is a little of what I call "King Wang", because if you have a digital recorder then you most certainly will be processing your captures on a computer later.  As it happens I frequently find I've moved the recording levels dial on the side of the Sony, but have never bumped the recording levels on the Zoom (press buttons on the RHS). Essentially what I believe you really need on the recorder are:
  • start / stop the recording
  • set levels (perhaps even consistently)
  • removable media (and or USB mass storage compatibility)
  • ability to adjust the fundamentals such as
    • recording format
    • low frequency cut (handy to filter out wind)
    • auto leveling (if you wanted it)

Both have this set, although on the Sony some are annoyingly dug into multiple nested menu and the Zoom has simple switches for the basics on the back.

Having said that, things like changing the MP3 bitrate is annoying dug into "button dancing" on the Zoom (press this while you power up stuff).  However I don't usually change any of that once its set (the exception being the clock). This photo also shows that the Zoom also has a tripod mount (I use a gorilla-pod) and the Sony has one too.

One of the things which first shat me about the Sony was that when you press record it fucking doesn't! It just sits there blinking at you till you hit pause to "un pause" it ... great if you were using tape and wanted to avoid that ramp up in tape speed as the tape transport mechanism sped up to the right RPM ... but this is a digital recorder FFS.

Next off the Sony shat me by needing me to decide if I wanted to use internal memory or the SD card (yes, I know I should have read the fukcing manual) and so I hit limits there (wondering why it was reporting full when the card was empty).

Having used the Sony for about a year now what I can say is this:
The Sony feels better built, solid in the hand and the many physical adjustments are reasonably laid out. The Zoom feels like a cheap light plastic toy and its looks will not pull chicks or scream out "Sound Engineer".

So if look and feel are your criteria go grab the Sony its a bargain at the current prices. Although for under $100 the Zoom is a bargain at about half the price of the Sony ...


However if your audio quality is of any concern to you then perhaps you need to stop looking at it and start listening to it ... after all who cares what it looks like when you are listening to the recordings?

The microphone sensitivity is good on both, and being able to set levels far up enough to get good captures of subtle creatures in the rain forest is neck and neck if you ask me. What isn't neck and neck is the codec used by each machine in producing an MP3 recording.

You see, I like to record to MP3 so that I can set up the recorder in the forest and get some hours worth on a card. To me 320Kbps is quite adequate and when importing into Audacity for processing seems to allow simple cleanups (removals of things like cars, reduction in wind, compression to reduce dynamic range...) without any observable artifacts (and I'm confident that I'm good enough at identifying them).

To my ears (on Bose headphones) I can't really tell them apart. Both sound good when recording to MP3, but its when you examine the recordings in a spectral analysis you see which one is which. The Zoom has a reasonable attenuation of the spectrum, while the Sony has a nasty cliff that belies a scruffy MP3 encoder was used. To demonstrate I recorded this tinkly little bell at close range and got the following results:



which shows a cliff type roll off at about 17KHz while the Zoom shows recording data all the way to about  19KHz .... interesting.

Setting both onto PCM 44.1Khz 24bit we see this


Which suggests that (at the higher frequencies at least) the mic responses of both are ballpark with the Sony Mic leading ... but if you are recording to MP3 then the Sony knobbles your data and essentially removes the possible advantages the mics have.

Sony seems to have a habit of shitty signal processing ideas, with similar experiences continuing today with their data formats in the Alpha range of cameras, see this post and my post if interested.

To make it worse for a field recorder, battery life drops off on both recorders when recording to PCM rather than recording to MP3 - which makes  for a two strikes hit against the Sony if you value either of these aspects.


I said this was going to be brief and so it is. To me the bottom line is that I have totally no beef with a light plastic case that the Zoom has, indeed its been stuffed into backpacks and rolled around on the floor of the 4WD with only its windsock on (I bought one of those fuzzy hairy covers for both my recorders, these are essential if there will be even the slightest air movement {remember I'm using these in the field}). In 4 years of use it still works like the day I bought even if there are some marks on the plastic screen.

I'm not totally convinced yet (more trials are needed) but so far I'm thinking that I'll sell the Sony PCM M-10 to someone who is into look and feel rather than just audio quality.


Anonymous said...

What about low sound level recordings? I do a lot of low sound recordings in the field, ambient sounds in fields, woods, and such - away from people. I find a lot of recorders become noisy, the quieter your recordings are.

obakesan said...


well, as with everything, try your best to set levels appropriate to the inputs. Maximize your capture and avoid clipping. Having said that I've found that internal amplification beyond about 75 on my Zoom results in more floor noise. Equally the Sony is not free of noise either.

I often apply a little post processing to remove low frequencies (where lies wind noise) and some compression.

Here is a sample done with the zoom:

you decide if that's suitable for your needs