Chances are you’ve owned your trusty Zoom H4n for a few years now, and you’re looking to upgrade. Upon doing a bit of research, you find out that Zoom has two shiny recorders, the Zoom H5, and the Zoom H6.
The question is, which one is best for you?
In this article, we are going to explore the differences between the two recorders, and what purpose the different features might lend themselves to. Also, if you’d like to read a more comprehensive review of the Zoom H6 by itself, I’ve written an article about it here.
Before we begin, I am going to point out that the Zoom H5 and Zoom H6 are two very similar recorders, but they are built for different purposes. As we go through the article, I am going to lay down the actual differences, and explain what situation each option would be better suited for.
If you plan on doing journalism, or recording one on one interviews, which would only require a maximum of two external microphones, the two XLR inputs on the Zoom H5 will suffice.
On the other hand, the four built-in XLR inputs on the Zoom H6 gives you the ability to plug in four microphones, thus making it perfect for podcasts, recording demos, band recording, etc.
This was presumably measured without any external microphones connected to the devices. Bare in mind that connecting two microphones to the H5, or four to the H6, will lower the battery life, especially if you are using phantom power.
There are many different variables which would potentially affect the battery life of the device, but the takeaway is that they both can record for hours at a time, and It's always worth carrying some extra batteries with you, just in case.
Size & Build
Even though both are sturdy and rugged, it’s worth to point out that the Zoom H6 is rather larger and heavier, and this should be taken into consideration.
If you'll be looking down at the recorder, the Zoom H5 screen is better for that. If, on the other hand, the recorder will be closer to eye level, like if it it's mounted on a DSLR camera, the H6 screen will allow you to monitor levels without having to move your camera too much in order to look at the screen.
Whilst both recorders offer phantom power, which is needed by some microphones, the Zoom H6 offers phantom power for all its 4 x XLR inputs. The two extra XLR inputs which can be mounted on top with a modular component can not receive phantom power on either the H5 or the H6.
In regards to sound quality, they're about the same. No major differences between the two, though they both sound much better than the older Zoom H4n, especially in regards to self noise.
When it comes to pre-amps, neither of them are as good as the Sony PCM-D100, though the Sony device does not have XLR inputs, and in either case, the Zoom H5 and Zoom H6 have better pre-amps than the Zoom H4n.
Simply put, when recording quieter sounds, there is less hiss produced as a byproduct when you pump up the gain, compared to the older H4n.
If you have to record outdoors, which might be the case if you're a journalist, field recordist, sound effects recordist, if you're recording a live band, or more, the foam windshield that comes with either recorder will prove itself to be rather unhelpful.
It's great when recording indoors, but any real gust of wind will make the recording unusable. Luckily, Rycote sells a three-in-one solution for each recorder.
A grip, by which you can hold the recorder, a shock mount which basically eliminates handling noise, and a good quality windshield, which will protect the microphone from wind, though very strong winds might still affect the microphone.
The Zoom H5 has a metal bar which makes it difficult to accidentally change the input levels. Whilst the H6 does have some measures in place in order to prevent that, the H5 method feels a lot more reliable, as it is a large metal bar, physically preventing you from doing it.
If you know you're likely to accidentally hit, or run your hand over the recorder and change the levels, this might be something to take into consideration.
Which one should you get? Ultimately, both recorders are very similar, but built for different purposes. They're both quite rugged and well built, have good sound quality, modular microphones, and multiple XLR inputs.
If all you need is to connect a maximum of two microphones to it, like in a one on one interview setting, the Zoom H5 will suffice.
That being said, if you think you might one day need to plug in a few extra microphones, it's worth spending a little bit of extra money and getting the Zoom H6.
The price difference isn't massive, around £60 usually, or $80, and by getting the Zoom H6, you're future-proofing yourself.