Last updated 01/06/2016 to reflect the updates on firmware 2.0.
The Zoom F8 was one of the most talked about reveals at this year’s NAB Convention, but the NAB unit was merely a box for show, and while a lot of people have recently covered the unit and its features superficially as its release draws near, none have been able to go in-depth, nor have been able to provide any audio samples to compare it to other products in the market. I’ve set my mind to right this wrong, and thanks to the great folks at Gotham Sound NYC, I was able to play with the brand new Zoom F8 recorder, so that in turn, I could share my findings with you all.
What is the Big Deal About the Zoom F8?
In case you missed it, earlier this year during the NAB’15 Convention, Zoom announced the F8 (manual here), a recorder targeted for “filmmaking and sound design”, as they claim. It’s an 8-input, 10-track recorder capable of recording a stereo (or 2-track) mix plus 8 isolated tracks, one for each input. Additionally, unlike its siblings, it advertises 8 low-noise pre-amps, a timecode oscillator with high accuracy, multiple file formats, bit-depth and sample rates, dual SD card recording, metadata capabilities, Bluetooth app capabilities, and more, for a very low cost of $1000. This is groundbreaking considering that the only recorders capable of providing similar feature-sets cost at least three times as much.
But, does it compare to the more expensive products? Does it meet the expectations of the location sound professional? Well, let’s check it out:
Zoom F8: First Glance
At first glance, it looks like the F8 is well built for location use; it feels very durable. It features an aluminum-esque frame, reminiscent to that of Zaxcom’s. It’s very small unit – 178.2 mm (W) × 140.3 mm (D) × 54.3 mm (H) or 7.0 in. (W) × 5.5 in. (D) × 2.1 in. (H) if you don’t believe in metric units. It is smaller than the Sound Devices 633 and Zaxcom Maxx. It’s also a bit lighter – 960 grams (or 2.1 lbs.)-, but not by much. Still impressive considering that it has a lot more mic inputs than the aforementioned recorders.
The Zoom F8 features 8 XLR / TRS combo jack inputs, all of which are capable of accepting a mic or line level (+4dBu) input, and can provide +24V/+48V phantom power. These inputs boast an impressive EIN of -127dBu or less, and offer +75dB of gain. The inputs are physically split equally on each side; four on the left, and four on the right. It should be noted that the F8 will recognize XLR connections as mic inputs and TRS connections as line inputs. There is currently now way to for the user to select what the type of input it is, and there doesn’t seem to be any promise that this could be added as a firmware update down the line (likely hardware limitations). A bit annoying as I prefer XLR connections over TRS for both mic and line inputs, but not a complete turn off.
On the left, there are two media doors which reveal two SD card slots. The media seems very well protected. You can record the same or separate audio files to both media simultaneously. It also has a micro-USB jack to connect to a computer for transferring files from either media or for using the Zoom F8 as an audio interface for your computer, and a 4-pin Hirose jack for DC input. On the right, it has two TA3 jacks, one for each output bus, and a 3.5mm TRS jack for a stereo sub output bus. These outputs are switchable between mic (-40dBv) or consumer line level (-10dBV) only. Not ideal when trying to feed professional line level inputs from the Zoom F8. On the back, it has another DC input intended for use with included power supply cord, two BNC connectors for timecode input and output, a battery door for an 8x AA battery sled, and a special input connector used for Zoom’s stereo mics (these would take over inputs 1 and 2).
One thing seemingly missing is any digital I/O (AES/EBU, Dante and/or MADI), but I did not expect there to be any at this price point.
On the front, there’s an LCD screen which is bright enough to work in low-light situations, if you are working under the sun, there is an “outdoor mode” which will invert the color scheme on the LCD to help it become more sun-readable. There’s also a slate / tone switch à la Sound Devices; a scroll and selection wheel knob and button combo, menu button, and headphone volume knob; dedicated transport controls on membrane buttons which seem okay, and 8 sets of trim/fader knobs and buttons for each input. These knobs can be assigned to control either the input trims OR the input fader via the Trim Knob Option (available on firmware 2.0).
The trim/fader knobs are extremely small, and don’t have a lot of action to them, which is fine when being used for input trims, but not the most ideal for critical mixing. Above each trim/fader knob are five LEDs that serve as level meters for each input, which is neat and quite useful. At the left of each trim/fader knob is a button with the input number labeled on it, used to arm or disarm the input track for recording. It seems like it would be very easy to hit these arm/disarm buttons by mistake when dialing the trim for each input. However, the red LED below the input number, as well as the red labeled number on the LCD screen, would turn off when the input is disarmed, making it easy to know which input tracks are armed or disarmed. Below the arm/disarm button is a PFL button which can be assigned to either access the Input Setting screen, or to solo the particular input in the headphone output. You can also SOLO tracks by pressing its Input’s PFL button during playback (available on firmware 2.0).
Zoom really stepped their game up in the software department. In general, I’m very impressed with their software and menu structure. The main home screen features 8 virtual trims, faders and pan knobs, which you can scroll through, select and modify with the wheel knob. Additionally, if the Trim Knob Option is set to Mixer, you can control the fader and pan settings by scrolling with the wheel knob over the desired input fader or pan, and using the physical trim/fader knob to change the level or pan. This seems a bit more convoluted than necessary, and leads to a few intermediary steps before I can change the levels on each input for my mix, further adding to the notion that the F8 doesn’t lend itself well for critical mixing. Ideally, the Trim Knob Option would allow to change the fader level for that input only, without needing to scroll over any virtual faders. The home screen also features level meters for the L/R mix tracks. While on the home screen, if you continue to scroll with the wheel knob, you will find a number of different metering screens, including all 8 inputs, L/R + 8 inputs, L/R + 8 inputs + all outputs, etc.
Pressing the menu button takes you to the menu screen, which is very easy to navigate. It is very similar to the menu structure of the Sound Devices 6-series recorders, which is well known for its intuitiveness and ease of use. Some of the surprising but very welcomed software features include custom input to output bus and headphone bus assignment matrices, M/S and stereo linking, multiple input trim linking (available firmware 2.0), input and output delays, input phase inversion, etc. If set-up as such, pressing the PFL button will open the Input Settings screen for that respective input, which will allow you to conveniently make all the appropriate settings for that input, including phantom power, HPF, limiter, pan, phase, linking, etc. It also gives you a digital meter for that input track.
Zoom F8: Timecode
The F8 offers a highly accurate timecode crystal oscillator (TCXO) with an accuracy of 0.2ppm; seemingly superior on paper to that of Denecke, Mozegear, Zaxcom, and others; only bested by Ambient and Betso to mention a few. Gotham Sound did an independent test to verify timecode accuracy on the Zoom F8:
Using a Denecke GR-1 (1.0ppm accuracy) as a timecode master, both the Zoom F8 and a Sound Devices 788T (featuring an Ambient TCXO with a 0.2ppm accuracy) were jammed and put in a freezer (to test it against extreme temperature conditions) overnight. The following morning (14+ hours later), it was verified that the F8 was 2.0 frames ahead of the GR-1, and that the 788T was 2.3 frames ahead of the GR-1. That is extremely close. The GR-1 was behind both the F8 and 788T by at least 2 frames (if you are curious why the GR-1 was used as a master, it is because it offers the ability to read timecode drift between its timecode and that on the input down to a 10th of a frame), but the F8 and 788T were very close to one another. Now, being a rental unit with considerable wear, the 788T’s TCXO may have been in need of a tune up, which may account for the slight difference in frames to the F8’s, even though both have 0.2ppm specs. That said, this should demonstrate that the F8’s TCXO is indeed extremely accurate.
However, a few F8 users have mentioned that this is only the case while the unit remains on. If the unit is turned off, the timecode will drift noticeably. This is likely due to the lack of an internal battery that can continue to power the TCXO while the unit is off. A slight oversight in my opinion, but not an issue if you leave the unit on continuously, or re-jam everything after turning the unit back on.
The Zoom F8 is capable of doing all standard frame rates. It can do free run, record run, and slaved mode. One of the things I noticed is the inability to enter timecode manually. The F8 is only able to jam from the real time clock (RTC) in the device, useful if running time of day (TOD) timecode, or from an external device. The workaround would be to change the RTC in the menu to the desired value, and to “Restart” the timecode. Not very intuitive.
Zoom F8: Metadata
Unlike its siblings, the F8 actually allows metadata creation and editing. You can now create scene names and takes, as well a write notes. You can also label track names (available firmware 2.0). These track names can be displayed on the level meters in any of the meter screens by enabling the Track Name View on the Level Meter menu screen.
Pressing the Stop + Fast Forward button combination triggers a scene increment feature, which behaves differently depending on which Scene Increment Mode you have selected. If Numeric, then scenes are increased numerically (e.g. 001 to 002 to 003, etc). If Character, then scenes are increased alphabetically (e.g. 1A to 1B to 1C, etc). Pressing and holding the Rewind button flags the previous take as a False Take and moves it to the False Take Folder on the SD cards (available firmware 2.0).
File names can either take on a “Scene”-T*** format (e.g. 25C-T001.wav) or “Scene”_*** format (e.g. 32B_002.wav). Lastly, the F8 can create CSV format sound report files that includes all the files and metadata, including comments.
Zoom F8: DSP
In essence, the F8 is a fully digital mixer / recorder. All of its signal processing is done in the digital domain. This is both good and bad. What it means is that you can do cool things like input to output assignment, input and output delays, as well as input phase inversion and M/S decoding. This also means that the input limiters and high pass filters are after the analog to digital conversion stage, and much after the microphone pre-amplification stage, rendering them pretty much useless for analog inputs. Any overloading signal and/or low frequency energy will be amplified at the mic pre stage, before it is converted to digital and processed through either the limiter or the HPF.
This is a huge issue for location use, as the ideal solution would be to have the limiters and HPFs in the analog domain, and for the HPF specifically to be before the mic pre stage to avoid any low frequency distortion before amplification, all leading to more headroom and less limiter distortion. Sound Devices does this well. Zaxcom, albeit all digital, doesn’t suffer from this thanks to its NeverClip technology. And it showed; when comparing the F8 limiters to that of the 744T’s; the F8’s produced a lot of over modulation and clipping distortion, whereas the 744T’s only displayed some limiter distortion, really identifiable only to the trained ear.
Zoom F8: App
One of the cool and unique features of the Zoom F8 is its Bluetooth iOS only app. Using a Bluetooth 4.0 capable iOS device (only the latest generation iPhones and iPads, older models will not work), you can essentially do all of the things you could do on the recorder, as well as use the mixing interface with virtual linear faders. This is currently the fastest / best way to do any actual live mixing with the F8. Personally, I’m more of a tactile fader mixer, so this was an immediate issue for me.
To use this feature, aside from downloading the iOS app, you must also download the Bluetooth add-on software from the Zoom website and install it on the F8. Interestingly enough, if you happen to do a factory restore on the F8, this will remove the Bluetooth add-on, and you must install it again. Very counterintuitive quirk if you ask me, hopefully something they can fix in a future firmware update. There is a slight, albeit negligible delay when using the app. The app does open up interesting opportunities, such as being able to place the recorder and wireless in a backpack and mix from the app for a very inconspicuous rig.
Update: While Zoom continues to fix bugs and add features to the F8 recorder, it seems that the Bluetooth app is not continually being developed, lacking some feature that would be on par with the recorder itself.
Zoom F8: Recording
The Zoom F8 is able to record in 16- and 24-bit depths, as well as in 44.1, 47.952, 48, 48.048, 48.048 (F), 88.2, 96, 192kHz sampling rates; primed for versatility in recording applications. Especially as you can record to either SD card individually and/or simultaneously. The file format options for either SD card are:
- None [–]: Nothing is recorded on the SD card.
- Track1-8 (Poly WAV) [Selected tracks 1–8]: A single poly file is created that contains islated input tracks 1-8.
- Track1-8 (Mono/Stereo WAV) [Selected tracks 1–8]: single mono file is created for each mono track and a single stereo file is created for each stereo track.
- L/R + Track 1-8 (Poly WAV) [All selected tracks]: A single poly file is created that contains L/R mix tracks + isolated input tracks 1-8.
- L/R + Track 1-8 (Mono/Stereo WAV) [All selected tracks]: A single mono file is created for each mono track and a single stereo file is created for each stereo track.
- L/R (Stereo WAV) [L/R tracks]: A stereo Wave file is created based on the mix created by the internal mixer.
- L/R (Stereo MP3) [L/R tracks]: A stereo MP3 file is created based on the mix created by the internal mixer.
Very flexible in terms of what you can record, including the standard poly wave file for deliverables and stereo MP3 file for transcriptions. Each card can have its own format option for flexibility, or they can both have the same exact format option for redundancy.
As a reminder, make sure you are using one of the recommended SD cards to make sure you avoid any media problems.
So How Does the Zoom F8 Sound?
Glad you asked! In my opinion, fancy features are nice, but what ultimately matters is how it sounds. To truly test how this recorder sounds, it wasn’t enough to just plug in a mic and listen. I had to compare it to another recorder, and lay down those 1’s and 0’s for reference. And so thanks to Natalie Lowe at Gotham, who set me up with all the gear necessary, I was able to do a test comparing the the Zoom F8 mic pre-amp against the Sound Devices 744T pre-amp. The 744T’s pre amps are highly regarded as some of the best pre-amps in the business, and as such, I think it makes for a very interesting comparison.
Test & Parameters
For this test, I am using a pair of Sennheiser MKH50s, each set-up on Rycote InVision shock mounts on desk stands, plugged via a shorty XLR cables straight into Mic Input 1 on both the F8 and 744T. In both set-ups, I have the exact same signal chain, ending on the first mic pre of each recorder. Channel fader is set at unity on the F8, and trim is set so that the average input signal hits between -20dBFS and -18dBFS, with peaks around -12dBFS on both recorders. All filters, pads and limiters were disengaged on both microphones and recorders. Recordings are being done at Gotham Sound, both microphones pointed directly at me, with about a foot and a half of space.
I am reading a short passage from a short story as the program content.
Recordings are offered as is, without any equalization or compression. The only editing done was in Audacity, to cut the files to ideal lengths for upload and sharing. For each recording there are two 24-bit / 48kHz mono wave files, one for each recorder:
- 1: Sound Devices 744T
- 2: Zoom F8
I have to confess something. During the recording at Gotham, as I monitored both the Zoom F8 and the Sound Devices 744T, I was under the impression that the 744T had a lot more transparency and that the F8 had a lot of coloration. It wasn’t bad, but it definitely made me doubt how good the F8 pre amps could be. I didn’t want to make any final judgements then, though. I wanted to get back home, and playback the files to make sure of what I was listening to.
And hold and behold, after playing back the files on my computer, I realized that it was not the recordings, but rather the headphone amp on the F8 that was coloring the sound. I have to be honest and say that I am completely blown away by how incredibly good the Zoom F8 mic pre’s sound. I can hear very little difference against the Sound Devices 744T, playing back from my laptop’s DAC using ATH-M50X to monitor. There’s no audible self-noise, unlike its siblings. There seems to be a good amount of dynamic range too.
That said, the headphone amp leaves a lot to be desired in terms of frequency response, timbre and coloration. What you hear does not accurately represent what you’re actually recording, and that can be problematic on location.
Product Review Summary
- Good build-quality and durability for location use.
- Small form factor and weight; ideal for bag.
- Double media recording to SD cards, with ability to select what is recorded where.
- LCD screen with “outdoor mode” available.
- 8 phantom powered, mic or line level (+4dBu) inputs.
- Excellent sounding mic pre’s!
- External DC and internal battery power options.
- Standard frame rate, bit-depth and sample rate options.
- DSP options: input & output delay, phase, M/S, input trim linking.
- Highly accurate (0.2ppm) timecode oscillator, with separate BNC input and output.
- Metadata input capabilities, including sound report option!
- Bluetooth iOS app capability!
- $1000 retail price!
THE NOT SO GOOD
- Trim Knob Option functionality a bit quirky when in Mixer mode.
- Very small trim/fader pots for mixing, easy to hit arm/disarm buttons.
- No switching mechanism or software setting for mic and line inputs: mic inputs on XLR, line inputs on TRS.
- Outputs can only do mic or consumer line level (-10dBV).
- Timecode drifts when machine is off.
- HPF post mic-pre and ADC!
- Ineffective limiter!
- HP amp is not accurate / has a lot of coloration!
Zoom finds a winning formula with the F8. What I would consider their first professional-level field recorder, the F8 is boasting with a lot of great features, including excellent microphone pre-amps, dual SD card recording, metadata capabilities, a highly accurate TCXO, and a cool Bluetooth app, all for the very attractive price of $1,000. However, it does not come without its quirks: mixing is a bit cumbersome, or requires the use of virtual faders (which I personally dislike); the unit must remain on for timecode not to drift; it lacks professional line level (+4dBu) outputs; the HPF and limiters are not effective; the headphone amp does color the sound noticeably and does not give an accurate representation of what is being recorded.
Unfortunately, most of these quirks are bound by hardware limitations, and will not have solutions via software. Though some improvements can be made and additional features can be added via firmware update. Zoom has demonstrated great commitment and response to the community with its latest firmware release (firmware 2.0), adding a lot of features that were initially missing and fixing others. It may not be my first recommendation as a professional field or bag mixer / recorder (I still think Sound Devices and Zaxcom offer the best options in this category), but I’m sure the F8 will find its home with many sound mixers and recordists, either as a main unit for those starting out or looking for budget-friendly options, as secondary or back-up unit for those already with full-fledged professional recorders, or as special purpose recorder for those needing unique features like the Bluetooth app. There are quite a few quirks, but considering the price, a lot of bang for your buck! I give the Zoom F8 a solid 4 out of 5 stars. I encourage users to try it out for themselves!
Special thanks goes out to the fine folks over at Gotham Sound, including owner Peter Schneider, sales guru Natalie Lowe and senior tech Paul Padilla for their time and help in showing me this new product and helping me do my little test. The F8 is currently available for sale at Gotham Sound or your favorite sound dealer, though you may have to wait a bit as supply tries to keep up with the huge demand!
That’s it! Please feel free to leave any questions, reviews or opinions in the comments!