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Blog Review: Zoom Q3 Video Camera

February 05, 2010
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So the nice folks at Samson sent the staff of MPN (Keyboard, Guitar Player, Bass Player, and EQ magazines) a batch of new Zoom Q3 video recorders to help us fulfill our mission of getting as much video of cool new gear at the NAMM show up as quickly as possible.

As you've probably heard, the Q3 is an affordable handheld video recorder not unlike the ubiquitous FlipCam, but intended for musicians or anyone else who's less than thrilled with the audio recording quality on FlipCams and similar devices--or for that matter, on "pro-sumer" camcorders approaching the $1,000 price point. As anyone who's tried to use such a camera to record one person talking in a high-background-noise environment, or to record a loud live band, the built-in mics, A-D conversion, and whatever compressor/lmiter is on hand (often called "automatic gain control" on camcorders) all leave a lot to be desired. We're happy to report that the Q3 is very different.


FEATURES AND CONTROLS

The difference with the Q3 is the pair of high-quality mics at the top of the unit, permanently pointed in an X-Y configuration. Between the horizontal mic grilles up top and the monolithic, extruded-trapezoid shape, the Q3 sort of looks and feels like a miniature version of one of the temple stones from The Fifth Element.

From a controls standpoint, the idea is simplicity. On the back is a big red record button surrounded by a cursor diamond that's your zoom control in recording mode, and your playback volume and FF/REW controls in playback mode.

Up the left edge are an AC adaptor jack, 1/8" stereo output (line or headphones), a toggle between audio-only and video recording modes, a three-position audio gain switch (low, high, and auto), and the power button. On the right edge are a video output for watching your recordings on a TV (it's menu-switchable between NTSC and PAL in case you're in Europe) and the slot that takes SD-HC cards up to 32GB in capacity.

The USB connector is permanently attached, and it's the "pigtail on a cord" type as opposed to Flip's "switchblade" style, but I actually prefer how the Q3 does it: The pigtail disappears flush into the housing when not in use; plus, when you're connected to a computer, the Q3 can get torqued or knocked around harmlessly. Do that with the Flip's rigid connector in your USB port and you'll break something.

The single menu offers the most important functional options: Low cut filter on/off, battery type (the Q3 takes two AAs, regular or rechargable), whether to beep when you press buttons, the aforementioned NTSC/PAL toggle, date/time set, and most importantly, sound quality. Here, the range of options is impressive: both 16- and 24-bit PCM at 44.1 or 48kHz; and twelve MP3 bandwidths from 48 through 320kbps.

These could be the specs of a lot of handheld flash-memory camcorders, though, so let's get to the real issue: How does this thing sound? In two words, surprisingly excellent.

AUDIO QUALITY

Zoom has built a very good name for their H series of audio-only "Handy Recorders" by building in tons of bang for the buck, and the benefit of that experience clearly shows in the video-recording Q3. In fact, you can think of the Q3 as primarily a handheld audio recorder that happens to tack a moving picture onto your hi-res audio file.

I used the Q3 for all of the product demo videos I shot at the 2010 winter NAMM show, and the very best evaluation you could give the Q3 is to audition the sound quality on various videos, which are all on our Community page--just look for the video with the vertical scroll list underneath it. However, I'll embed two in this blog entry which show how good the Q3 is at doing two things that really matter: Picking a voice out of a din, and intelligibly recording a live band that's loud enough to sterilize guinea pigs at 100 feet.

Make that "War Pigs," as shown below in this Black Sabbath cover by the Matt O'Ree Band, featuring Eric Safka on Hammond B-3. This was the only time I had to take the Q3's audio out of auto-gain mode and manually set the switch to "low." Still, as you can hear, the music was captured with plenty of depth and detail, with no distortion, and neither the mics nor limiter seemed to get overwhelmed. (Audio mode here was 16-bit, 44.1kHz, by the way.)

 

Now to picking a voice out of a crowded room. The NAMM show exhibit floor is notoriously challenging when it comes to getting good audio on your video. Plugging a ultra-directional shotgun mic into your pro video camera is one way, but expense of both mic and camera precludes that for many users, and you also lose the stereo picture, as the mic records to one audio track. Hooking people up with lavaliers is another tried-and-true method, but when you're booked every 30 minutes and running 15 minutes late--and so is your product-demo interviewee--that's impractical. That's why we're delighted with how the Q3 performed. In the video below, I'm interviewing Glenn Chandler from Infinite Response, and when I was standing on the actual show floor, his voice seemed to be more or less at equal volume with all the background noise. However, in the resulting recorded audio, you can clearly hear his voice and mine above the level of everything else that was going on. While I wouldn't label the Q3's mics as "directional" overall, they're clearly directional enough to pull this off. Impressive.

 

The next video, of an artist trying out a Fazioli grand piano in the relative solace of the mezzanine that NAMM devotes to acoustic pianos, shows that the Q3 also has excellent audio fidelity and dynamic range. Point being, it getting the job done under hostile conditions doesn't come at the cost of some kind of lack of detail under conditions that are closer to ideal. Quite the contrary, in fact.

 

Overall, I really couldn't find a situation where the Q3 couldn't make the audio sound good, and usually better than what my own ears were telling me was possible (without expensive mics, mixing, and multichannel audio, that is) when I was onsite.

VIDEO QUALITY

One of Zoom's advertising slogans for the Q3 is "A little bit of video, a whole lot of audio." That pretty much sums it up. The Q3's 640 x 480 video is perfectly fine for ultitarian and documentarian recording. It's comparable to a non-HD Flip or any number of similar budget camcorders. It's also decent at catching detail in low light, though be advised that when moving from a dark to light environment or vice-versa, you will notice some lag time as the auto-exposure catches up.

The Q3 is intended for putting video on the web, of course. Viewing video on your computer looks fine at 640 x 480, but you will notice some pixellation if you click the full-screen button in YouTube or other online video players.

The most obvious other corner that was cut to bring in the Q3 at an almost impossible-to-resist $249 is the zoom: it's digital-only, and maxes out at 2X. There were a few times at NAMM where I was filming a press conference and wished for a bit more "reach" from my position in the elbow-to-elbow crowd of journalists.

Bottom line: This isn't the camera you'd use to make the next Blair Witch Project, but for web-destined videos of your band, your friends' bands, or you showing the world how to do something cool on a synth, the video quality will do you just fine.

CONCLUSIONS

No other pocket-friendly flash camcorder currently made has audio quality even approaching that of the Zoom Q3. There is a contender on the horizon from Alesis (you'll see it in our NAMM videos), but for now, we heartily recommend the Q3 to anyone who wants, as Zoom puts it, a little bit of video with a whole lot of audio. Its ability to deal with extremes of loud and soft, staying clean when facing the former and capturing all the detail in the latter, is nothing short of superb. By way of comparison, even built-in mics on $1,000-class high-end consumer camcorders I tested (such as Canon's popular Vixia series) had much less tolerance in this regard, and sounded bathroomy. In fact, the only reason you might take a wait-and-see attitude towards the Q3 is if you hope Zoom has an HD version up their sleeve. But if you need web video with audiophile-quality audio, and you need it now--run, don't walk, and pick up a Q3.

PROS

Captures excellent stereo sound under virtually any conditions. Multiple PCM and MP3 audio resolution modes, up to 24-bit/48kHz. Mounts as a drive on your desktop for drag-n-drop of files. A real bargain. Detailed onscreen metering of audio levels. Very good battery life.

CONS

Video quality is average. Zoom only goes to 2X.

INFO

$249, soundmakesthemovie.com


 

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