Why does Recording write up a video recorder, you wonder? Because the Zoom Q3 is touted as doing a better job at audio recording than your average pocket-sized video recorder, that's why. With video content becoming more of a focus for every music project thanks to sites like YouTube and Facebook, there's a real need for a video recorder that delivers the goods on the audio side of things.
What it is
Look at your average pocket-sized video recorder and the last thing that stands out is the microphone. It's usually hard to find, hidden behind tiny holes in the body, and produces horrible sound that's prone to breakup, and worse, at sane levels—let alone at realistic band-performance levels.
Enter the Zoom Q3. Take a look at the picture: The round grey mesh behind the protective blue slats covers a pair of stereo condenser mics, mounted in X/Y configuration. Turn the unit on and record something, play it back, and it becomes immediately obvious that this unit is designed to record audio. So much so that, to my way of thinking, the video takes the consolation prize—the unit can indeed be switched to record only audio!
For a full guided tour, download the owners' manual in PDF format from Samson's Zoom Q3 web page.
Hold the Q3 upright, and face the generous screen. The controls couldn't be simpler: A Play button, a MENU button, and a Trash button, in a row above the multi-function control with the big red RECORD button in the center.
Turn the unit on (from the top button on the left side as you face the screen) and this bad boy is ready to record with a press of the red button—it is in "READY" mode as soon as you power it up, with the mic levels showing on the meters. Also on the left is a three-way selector for the record levels—high, low, or auto. You may miss an on-the-fly record-level adjustment—it's not there, not on the unit, nor is there a remote control.
Next to that is the switch that selects audio-only or video (always with audio recording active), followed by the combined headphone-or-line mini output and a connector for the optional AC adapter. (There is no line input.)
On the opposite narrow side is a TV (AV) output, and the slot for the SD card. On the underside (as the unit stands upright) is a tripod/mic-stand thread and a recess for a USB plug on a short flexible cable for easy computer connection, and on the side facing away from you is the camera and lid of the battery well (2 AA cells). That's it!
The Q3 comes with batteries, a 2 GB SD card, an AV connection cable, a windscreen, and a carrying pouch. It accepts up to 32 GB SDHC cards, using roughly 2 GB per hour of recording time. There's also software included to help upload your videos easily to YouTube.
After you press the MENU button you get access to setup parameters like date and time, battery type, scene select (auto or concert lighting), lowcut filter on or off, TV out (PAL or NTSC). The unit records MPEG4 SP video at 640 x 480 resolution, 30 frames per second.
It is here, too, that you select a Sound Quality setting: There are 12 MP3 settings (from 48 kbps to 320 kbps), PCM 44.1/16, 44.1/24, 48/16, 48/24, and—only available in audio-only mode—96/16 and 96/24.
After using the Q3 casually in a variety of settings, from the supermarket to a car ride to a nature reserve (where it gave me great bird samples!), I grew to like this recorder in its simplicity and in the way it gave me good sound no matter where I turned it on. Even the automatic gain control is decent—of course it will pump when stressed to the max, but I found you don't really need to use Auto in any somewhat predictable context.
The torture test came when I took the Q3 to record an entire show at a local club where I sat upstairs, close to the ceiling, in a location where the bass got trapped in the most boomy of fashions. The band was l-o-u-d, I liked their music but didn't enjoy the sound-until I got home and turned on the Q3. Holy Moly—the lowcut filter had taken care of the boomy bass, the "low" mic settings had attenuated the levels safely, and listening to the whole show was a pleasure!
I'm not an expert on video, and concert lighting being what it is, I can't fault the Q3 for producing less than broadcast-quality video from that concert. The lighting guys had their wacky "creative" moments, and zooming from the back of the big room didn't help matters as the Q3 only has a 2X zoom. I trust that shooting the video from a better (closer) location might have yielded better video results, but I cared primarily about the sound, and that was stellar for the tricky circumstances.
Whether you want to use it for video-with-audio or for audio-only recordings, the Q3 yields good sound even from unlikely circumstances like an overly loud band in unkind acoustics. Will the absence of line-level inputs, continuous record-level adjustment, or a remote control bother you? A remote would be nice, if only to avoid handling noises, especially when you have to touch the unit for zooming even if it is stand-mounted.
True, the Q3 may not have the most complete feature set for a pocket-sized audio recorder—you'll want to take a look at Zoom's H4n Handy Recorder, reviewed June 2009, for that. (The H4n's XY mic array is used in the Q3, which is where it gets its sound quality!) But the Q3 produces very usable sound, something that cannot be taken for granted from a pocket-sized video recorder. If you're planning to add video to your promotional tools, the Q3 will assure that your audio quality won't suffer in the process.
Price: $299.99 ($199 street)