When we reviewed Zoom’s iQ5 back in January, there weren’t many Lightning microphones — or Lightning accessories of any sort — on the market. iQ5 was amongst a handful of Lightning accessories that launched despite an Apple mandate that their plugs be flush-mounted, which made them incompatible with iPad, iPhone, and iPod cases. Now there’s iQ6 ($100), a same-priced model that looks substantially different and packs new features, including limited case compatibility. It’s marketed primarily to users with audio recording needs, as contrasted with iQ5, which was designed to do double-duty as a stereo mic for video recordings.
Like iQ5, iQ6’s key addition to an iOS device is a high-quality stereo microphone system, something that hasn’t been integrated into any iPad, iPhone, or iPod. iQ5 used a round 1.1” metal ball to hold a condenser microphone system, enabling you to turn the ball and flip a 90/120-degree switch to change the mics’ orientation and recording field width. iQ6’s roughly 2.1” tall by 2.3” wide by 1.1” thick design is completely different, almost entirely silver with V-shaped arms that hold separate X/Y left and right unidirectional condensers inside metal housings. You can manually twist each housing from a “90” to a “120” position to expand the width of the sound field, and turn a knob on the top to manually adjust the mics’ gain from “0” to “10” settings.
If iQ6’s manual adjustments sound inferior to the simple angle and gain switches on iQ5, they’re not — at least, the results aren’t. Recordings made with iQ6 sound a little clearer and wider than they do with iQ5, which itself was superior in both clarity and the presence of at least some stereo capability relative to any iOS device. There is now very clean left- and right-channel recording, albeit with significant overlap due to the tiny distance between the microphones, adjustable via the 90/120 knobs. You can adjust iQ6’s gain (+11 to +51dB/140dB SPL) using the knob, three integrated level lights, and Zoom’s free Handy Recorder app to achieve your preferred levels; even at peak gain, near-field recordings are powerful and slightly lower in audio noise and clipping than was iQ5 (+0 to +40dB/120dB SPL). If you’re trying to decide between the two same-priced models based on sonic quality, iQ6 is easier to choose.
One area where iQ6 could use some additional work is the redesigned Lightning connector, though admittedly some improvement is better than none at all. Zoom has used a detachable thin hard rubber plate to transform what initially looks like a flush-mounted Lightning plug into a very slightly extended connector, capable of fitting inside cases with around 2mm of thickness around the Lightning port. While the plate works to resize the Lightning plug area — putting aside the plate’s risk of accidental loss — we couldn’t get iQ6 to connect electronically with iPhones inside the cases we typically use, which is unfortunate as iPhone recording is perhaps iQ6’s most appealing application. However, thinner-bottomed cases and our favorite ZeroChroma iPad cases did work with iQ6. This is to say that your ability to use iQ6 will depend a lot on the case and device you’re using; pick a thin-bottomed case if you want iQ6 to work with it. An extra millimeter or so of Lightning plug extension would have made all the difference for many other users.
iQ6’s other “still needs work” area is on the app side, though Zoom’s Handy Recorder software suffers more from UI imperfections than functional omissions. For instance, although exporting is one of the most common tasks of an audio recording app, Handy Recorder turns it into a confusing several step process with a File menu, globe-styled sharing icon, email button, and then a non-functional email icon — to send via email, you instead need to press the “create” button. As much as it pains us to say it, the app’s brushed-metal interface does look a little outdated due to iOS 7 and 8, particularly in portrait orientation. A landscape mode is less than intuitive to activate, but looks nicer. Zoom could definitely improve the iQ6 (and iQ5) experience by giving this app some additional UI attention.
There are a few other issues worth noting with iQ6. Zoom’s package refers to included windscreens, presumably foam, but they were nowhere to be found in our box. iQ6 does include a headphone port monitoring pass-through like iQ5, but not the micro-USB pass-through charging port, so you’ll have to disconnect iQ5 to refuel your device. There’s no auto-gain switch on iQ6, making use of the knob more important, and there’s also no way to rotate the microphones into a video-friendly position a la iQ5. Zoom pitches iQ5 as ready to improve the sonics of video recordings, but doesn’t make the same claim for iQ6.
Overall, iQ6 is certainly an improvement on the iQ5 for the same price — between the microphone enhancements and the somewhat better case compatibility, it merits the higher B+ rating and strong general recommendation its predecessor missed earlier this year. Users seeking closer to professional-quality audio recording capabilities in a compact package will be satisfied with this new model’s sonic performance, even if some of iQ5’s conveniences have been lost in the process. But if you’re looking for a stereo mic to use with video recording apps, iQ5 is probably a better choice.
Company and Price
Compatible: All Lightning-Equipped iPads, iPhones, iPod touches