I must confess that I have never been a big fan of standalone CD burners. I mean, when I can use my Mac's CD-R/RW drive for data as well as music (at up to 8X) - and when it enables me to use blank discs costing pennies instead of dollars - why do otherwise? Now, however, Sony has given me reason to reconsider. Its new CDR-W66 standalone pro burner adds enough unique functionality - and lets you use low-cost "data" CD-R/RW blanks - to give it legitimate studio presence: balanced as well as unbalanced I/O, digital I/O in both consumer S/PDIF and pro AES/EBU formats, and onboard DSP to perform EQ and dynamics processing to your burned discs.
Product PointsApplications: Studio, broadcast, postproduction, educational, multimedia
Key Features: 2RU rackmount component; records to CD-R and CD-RW blanks at up to 8x speeds; on-board limiter and EQ; balanced and unbalanced analog, and S/PDIF and AES/EBU digital I/O; word clock input; defeatable SCMS
Contact: Sony Broadcast and Professional Products at 800-686-SONY(7669) or see Web Site
+ Super-Bit-Mapping and DSP processes
+ 24-bit A/D-D/A; 32-48 kHz sample rates
+ Can use inexpensive data-grade CD-R/RWs
+ Supports CD-Text; PC keyboard input for text entry
- Consumer-style wireless remote (but wired-remote RS-232 nine-pin)
The Score: A stand alone CD burner with plenty of professional tricks up its sleeve.
Visually, the CDR-W66 does not look very different from preceding Sony CD players and recorders, but a few pro touches make all the difference. Most obvious are its removable rack ears and its vaguely military look, with a gray drab matte finish and large, bright-white (and comparatively legible) lettering. I found the multifunction knob and keys used for most setup and user-parameter functions easy and clear, and liked the fact that most "consumer-feature" pushbuttons (shuffle play, programming, repeat, and so on) are grouped a bit apart under the disc tray.
Flip the slim recorder around, however, and you will never confuse it with any home-audio design. The rear panel is crowded with jacks: analog inputs and outputs in both unbalanced (RCA) and balanced (XLR) formats (the latter even include level trims), plus three digital I/O choices among optical or coaxial S/PDIF and AES/EBU on XLRs. There is also word sync on a BNC jack, parallel and serial ports for wired remote and external control, an eight-pin DIN "duplicate" jack, used to daisy-chain a second CDR-W66 unit to enable double-speed dubbing and a mini jack for Sony's consumer Control-S intercomponent-control format.
The infrared remote handset supplied with the CDR-W66 looks to be a consumer-audio design, but has all the functions onboard, including one unusually handy aspect in its direct access keys for tracks numbered all the way up to 25. Nonetheless, many pro studio installations might instead choose to put the IR handset away and make up a wired remote to connect to the deck's "parallel input/output" (not a parallel port per se; it is on a female nine-pin jack). The Sony executes most of its basic functions in response to grounding the appropriate pins.
Functionally, I quite liked the W66, in large part because it covers the bases of both a home audio CD-recorder, and those I demand of a pro design. For example, the recorder can be set to "synchro-record" in response to incoming signal (either analog or digital), and set track markers automatically, either by codes in the original (digital input), or via sensing of "silent" intervals in the original recording - you can even adjust the threshold sensitivity of this. And, of course, the Sony includes all the usual CD player options: programming, "shuffle-play" and so on. (The Sony also can do radio-style autopause, automatically entering the Pause mode after every track.) It also both displays and dubs CD-Text subcode data, and permits you to enter your own data for your own recordings, whatever their source. There is even a front panel mini-DIN jack for a PC-standard keyboard to make the task of data entry far less onerous.
More to the point, however, are the W66's pro features, which are legion. Its sample rate converter can sync and record digital signals at any sampling frequency between 32 and 96 kHz; you can choose to use this to reclock 44.1 kHz sources or to bypass the converter for direct input copying. Even more unusual, the W66 allows you to use an external clock source, using either its word clock BNC jack, or locking to the signal present at its AES/EBU digital input. Another neat touch is the W66's ability to display the values shown by its relatively coarse bargraph meters in a much more precise, numeric form: By employing the Check key you can bring up a numeric display of left/right meter readings, with 0.5 dB precision - very cool.
Making recordings on the W66 required no great study or skills; I found the machine quick and easy to grasp. I should mention again that the Sony does not require high-priced, tariff applied "For Music Recording" blanks, but worked just fine with whatever data disc CD-Rs and CD-RWs I had on hand. Of course, as befits any "pro" CD burner, the Sony makes SCMS purely an honor system: you may set the copy-bit on discs you record (or copy) to Prerecorded or Inhibit status - the latter is what a second-generation dub of a commercial disc would normally carry, or "permit," enabling free copying on burners that correctly follow the standard.
I am afraid I have less to say about the W66's sound than you might expect - and this is always good news. Digital dubs of CDs were entirely indistinguishable from the sources, even when played on the original machine. A little more surprisingly, I found CD copies that I made via analog connection to be virtually as transparent - other than a scant increase in background noise, really audible only on 'phones - as long as I was careful about maintaining good record levels while avoiding overs. (It is worth noting that my usual reference CD player is also a Sony - its top ES model from nearly 10 years ago, but still one of the best-sounding units I have encountered.)
My studio is strictly a 16-bit shop, so I was not able to try the Sony's Super Bit-Mapping capabilities with extended word-length material, but based on a few experiences with SBM at other sites, and with Sony's own SBM CD productions from back catalog recordings, I would be willing to bet that this would prove a valuable feature. As already noted, when recording 44.1 kHz sources, the Sony can pass the bitstream through directly or can process and re-clock the signal through its SBM digital filter. I dubbed a couple of snippets of an acoustic guitar-and-voice stereo master with which I am extremely familiar from my digital mixer to the Sony, both ways. Interestingly In general, I preferred the non-direct dubs - those using the SBM filter - to the 44.1kHz direct dubs. They were not exactly quieter per se, but I did sense - barely - a smoother, less grainy quality overall. Very interesting.
The W66's onboard limiter and EQ worked pretty much as expected. The recorder's DSP tone-shaping worked just fine, and did not appear to impinge on signal integrity in any way. However, I suspect that even most home studios today will have access to DSP EQ and limiting that are at least as flexible as those incorporated into the Sony. I suspect that most users would stick with these when mastering down to CD, preferring - as do most of us - "the devil you know." But it is handy to have these functions onboard the burner, for situations away from home, or when the "big rig" is not available or not worth the bother of booting up. The limiter sounded good, too: quite transparent and artifact-free when "softening" analog source recordings I tried with deliberately overbaked levels. Sony's manual claims, "Limiter soft clipping is an effect resembling saturation on a tape recorder...." Well, I do not think the CDR-W66's 2:1 limiting is going to replace anybody's favorite tube/optical limiter in the mastering chain, but it is certainly a useful tool.
In the end, I wound up liking Sony's pro CD recorder a good deal. I expect I would still use my Mac-based burner for churning out quick-and-dirty refs, casual copies of my own stuff, or car trip compilations - all at up to 8x real time. But if called upon to send a demo to the A&R guy at Evil-Empire Records, Ltd., I would definitely use the CDR-W66; it might just sound better and I would want to exploit every potential edge, real or imagined, available to me. This is a rather nice piece of gear: well conceived, very well executed, and fairly priced. If you already have an audio burner in use, you probably don't literally need one, but if you don't, or are due for an upgrade, Sony's got your number.
Pioneer DV38A DVD Player (source); B&K Components AVR307 amplifier; Snell Acoustics K5 monitors.