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Are there any significant differences between using a dedicated audio interface (Focusrite 2i2) and a comparable field recorder with audio interface capabilities (Zoom H4n) in a direct audio interface mode?

I'm trying to determine if I'm better off getting the H4n for its field recorder capabilities in rare situations when a laptop might be arduous, or if choosing a field recorder over a dedicated audio interface will sacrifice sound quality or something else I might not be thinking of.

As I've searched the internet, I have seen people make general statements about dedicated audio interfaces being the better choice over a field recorder set up in an audio interface mode, but none have been particularly specific.

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If you're using a smaller interface with one or two inputs, there's little difference. One thing to consider are that the field recorder on its own is going to be running on dc power from the battery (presumably) which doesn't create noise from converting power from ac such as from a wall socket. If either device is plugged into the laptop and the laptop is plugged into the wall you're probably going to get a background hiss sound in your recording. I think the biggest advantage to dedicated audio interfaces comes from having an array of inputs that can be recorded to their own tracks, and thus be able to record a whole band with everyone in their own channel.

Aside from that, just look at the specs for each like sample rate and frequency range to see what will give you better sound if you want to compare the two devices.

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    I would just add that the preamplifiers are the component that will probably have a greater influence in capture quality, and it's the hardest one (or even impossible) to evaluate from specs. Budget interfaces with 1 or 2 inputs generally don't have brilliant preamps. – José David May 14 '16 at 14:46
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I have both devices and to be honest I wouldn't buy either of them. Haven't used H4n as interface and have used 2i2 for recording only in some rare situations, so I'll just list pros and cons.

H4n: +Does pretty much everything possible. +Built-in mics are ok -Doesn't do anything well. -Input levels seem to be designed for guitar, so you'll need inline pads for decent sound quality -It's noisy. With phantom enabled it's very noisy. -Eats huge amount of batteries. Seems to consume them even when turned off -Takes ages to boot

2i2: +Very stable +Decent inputs, though It's not part of my main recording rig, so don't know how accurate this is. -ASIO latency is horrible. -Obviously isn't a field recorder :)

If you want I could do couple of tests on monday regarding H4n ASIO drivers and 2i2 recording capabilities. Still I would choose something else than these two. Sure they are both cheap, but I've had better equally priced audio interfaces in the past and H4n in general is just bad imo.

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Besides their respective quality in terms of mic pre-amplifier quality (as mentioned by @joseem), here are some points :

field recorder

  • dedicated controls for gain and various functions available on the front of the recorder
  • works with batteries/external 12 V
  • lighter to carry on field
  • self contained (ie doesn't require a third party software to actually record audio)
  • better handling of low/high temperatures or humidity

audio interface

  • larger choice of interfaces to the host computer (usb, firewire, dedicated PCI card, etc.)
  • can sometimes be rackmount
  • possible software options for in the box mixing/routing, direct monitoring
  • carrying and powering an external interface and a pc for field recording can be problematic

Now if the question is : given a price range, will I have better pre-amp quality on an external interface than in a field recorder, I believe there's no definitive answer.

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The obvious benefit of the field recorder is that it can record on its own without help of the computer. However, for the same price, remember that some of the cost is in the recording parts, and that reduced the budget for good mic preamps. There may not be ANY popular-price field recorders that have notable mic preamp quality (and then there are the high-price spread like Sound Devices, et.al.)

Conversely, you can find audio interfaces from brand names who are famous for the big studio recording desks, etc. And we would expect them to have better quality mic preamps. But, of course, they require a computer to do the recording.

As with most things it comes down to a trade-off decision what is more important to you. Standalone recording, or mic preamp quality.

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The ZH4n is capable of 24 bit audio (SACD), or 120dB dynamic range, while the Focusrite 2i2 is limited to 16 bit audio (wav), and about 100dB dynamic range.

The ZH4n could capture the sound of a gunshot (with an excellent mic) at close to real-world volume level, while the Focusrite 2i2 would have to have the input volume lowered to prevent overloading and distortion, and the output lowered to reduce the very tiny amount of hiss it produces.

Both have excellent frequency response and very low distortion, but the ZH4n is built with better DAC's and ADC's to get 120dB of dynamic range, same as DVD and Blu-Ray disc audio. Absolutely no hiss or circuit noise even at full volume.

These are important details when the real-time capture of live sound is important. I am not going to repeat the contents of the other answers, as I wanted to point out important specs for live recordings, in terms of extremely loud vs. extremely quiet sounds.

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