So you’ve narrowed down your next purchase to Zoom’s high-end handheld recorders. It’s the Zoom H5 vs H6. Excellent. The hard work of choosing between brands like Tascam, Sony, and Olympus is over.

Maybe you’re choosing Zoom products on the recommendation of a friend, or a chorus of online praise, or simply because gear-shopping can be exhausting and when you typed “portable recorders” into the Amazon search bar, the Zoom H5 and H6 came up first.

And for plenty of good reason, because plugging either of these devices into your filmmaking will make a world of audio difference that even Han Solo’s carbonite stuffed ears would appreciate.

Sorry, Han…

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Zoom H5

Zoom H5 4-Track Portable Recorder for Audio for Video, Music, and Podcasting, Stereo Microphones, 2 XLR/TRS Inputs, USB Audio Interface, Battery Powered

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Zoom H6

Zoom H6 6-Track Portable Recorder, Stereo Microphones, 4 XLR/TRS Inputs, Records to SD Card, USB Audio Interface, Battery Powered, for Stereo/Multitrack Audio for Video, Podcasting, and Music

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Zoom H5 vs H6: Technical Specs

Zoom H5

Zoom H6

A/D resolution

16-bit/44.1kHz, 24-bit/96kHz 

16-bit/44.1kHz, 24-bit/96kHz

Simultaneous recording channels

4

6

Modular mic capsule(s)

XYH-5 X/Y mic

XYH-6 X/Y mic

MSH-6 MS mic

Inputs

2 x XLR-¼” TRS combo jacks

4 x XLR-¼” TRS combo jacks

Outputs

1 x ⅛” stereo mini jack (line out)

1 x ⅛” stereo mini jack (line out)

Headphones

1 x ⅛” stereo mini jack

1 x ⅛” stereo mini jack

Recording media

SD/SDHC (up to 32 GB)

SD/SDHC/SDXC (up to 128 GB)

File format

Stereo mode: WAV, MP3

Multitrack mode: WAV

Stereo mode: WAV, MP3

Multitrack mode: WAV

Display

Backlit LCD (128 x 64 pixels)

Full color LCD (320 x 240 pixels)

Effects

Compressor, limiter, low-cut filter, playback looping, pitch change, variable playback speed, metronome, guitar tuner

Compressor, limiter, low-cut filter, playback looping, pitch change, variable playback speed, metronome, guitar tuner

Audio interface

via USB

via USB

Power supply

AA battery x 2, AC adapter, USB bus power

AA battery x 4, AC adapter, USB bus power

Battery life

Over 15 hours

Over 20 hours

Stand mountable

via optional adapter

via optional adapter

Dimensions (w/ XYH mic)

2.5” (W) x 7.4” (D) 1.6” (H)

3.1” (W) x 8.4” (D) x 1.9” (H) 

Weight

0.59 lbs

0.90 lbs

Additonal dataZoom H5 web pageZoom H6 web page

Zoom H5

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Zoom H6

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Zoom H5 vs H6: Sound Comparison

Zoom H5 vs H6: Critical Similarities & Differences

Channel count

If you’ve grown weary of digesting specs, take heart, because the choice between the H5 and H6 pretty much boils down to one question. How many recording channels do you need?

If you’re recording Arcade Fire’s latest music video, or inviting the living cast of the Brady Bunch on your podcast, or anticipate ever needing to plug in more than four microphones, the H6’s six channel capabilities are for you.

If you’re recording the crack of celery for bone-breaking sound effects, or sending in a voiceover audition for the role of Angelica in the Rugrats reboot, or just expect to be using fewer than four mics, the H5 will do great. 

But if you’re still not convinced and actually enjoy sifting through specs with a fine-toothed comb, I’ve included a couple more considerations for, well, your consideration.

Preamps & mic capsules

You might be tempted to think that the H6’s designation as the top of Zoom’s H-series would mean better overall sound than the H5, but it turns out that both recorders use the same preamps and both get the same low noise floor.

However, the H6’s XYH-6 capsule mic does edge out the H5’s XYH-5 with a slightly better bass response and an adjustable width from 90 to 120 degrees for a wider or more focused stereo image.

If you’re already leaning towards the H6, consider that for only $50 more you are getting two more XLR/TRS inputs and an extra MSH-6 mic capsule that is not included with the H5. The MSH-6 capsule is $80 on its own, making the H6 a great deal if you expect to be getting a lot of mileage out of Zoom’s interchangeable mic system.

Personally, I’ve only used my H5’s XYH mic two or three times over the past four years. Nine out of ten projects, I opt to plug external mics into the H5’s inputs, but with the huge variety of projects a videographer can undertake, I would hardly consider my experience the gold standard. 

Here’s a helpful overview of the capsule mics and where they might come in handy.

Batteries & power options

Another factor is the oft-overlooked batteries. The H5 requires two AA’s while the H6 requires four.

Not only are batteries expensive, but by the time you are loaded up with two or three sets of spares you will have also burdened your camera bag that much more. If you’re emphasizing run-and-gun portability, the Zoom H5 is your light-weight champion.

Zoom’s battery tests are conducted by running the recorders on a single channel for as long as possible, phantom power supply notwithstanding. If you need phantom power for any external microphones, expect your batteries to run out significantly sooner than the 15-20 hour battery ratings.

Keep in mind that the EXH-6 input capsule (sold separately), which adds two additional XLR inputs to either recorder, is not able to provide phantom power. The good news is that you don’t always have to rely on batteries.

Most environments in which you are plugging in 5 or 6 different microphones are probably indoors and bound to also have some sort of outlet for AC or USB power. Unless, I suppose, your podcast’s shtick is some sort of Elvish high council role-play recorded on location in a mossy English woodland.

Zoom H5 vs H6: The Bottom Line

Do you need more channels for simultaneous recording the H6 provides? Or do you need the extra portability from the H5? If you can answer those questions, the rest is confetti.

If you think the H5 will put a hole in your wallet, consider moving down a rung on the hypothetical Zoom audio recorder ladder and have a look at the how the H4n Pro stacks up against the H5.

Even if ultimately you make the “wrong” decision, the Zoom H4n Pro, H5, and H6 are such similarly powerful tools that you’ll still be a dozen times more capable than you were without them.