The Sony PCM-D1 set the bar for handheld stereo audio recorders, and as far as I can tell its only drawback is its hefty price tag. The nearly $2,000 recorder is priced beyond the reach of many people in search of a great way to capture stereo audio on the go.
The D1’s baby brother — the relatively new PCM-D50 — is a 24-bit/96-kHz recorder fitted with a pair of microphones, 4 GB of internal flash memory and a Memory Stick Pro-HG Duo slot. Several other manufacturers have recently released affordable field recorders, but I can safely say that none have met the Sony tradition of solid craftsmanship and great sound. And now, with the $599 PCM-D50 hand-held linear PCM recorder, Sony is offering an affordable PCM-D1 alternative.
The aluminum-cased PCM-D50 weighs just less than 13 ounces and measures 2 7/8- x 6 1/8- x 1 5/16-inches (not including the projecting parts and controls). The recorder supports up to 24-bit/96kHz Linear PCM recording and offers a frequency response (line-in to line-out) of 20Hz - 40kHz (+0/ -2dB) when operating at 96kHz, a 93dB signal-to-noise ratio (line-in to line-out) at 24-bit, and a 120dB maximum input level.
The recorder includes a two-position (90 degree X-Y or 120 degree Wide) stereo microphone set featuring high-quality electret condenser mics. The recorder runs on four standard AA batteries or via AC adapter (included). The internal memory is enough for almost two hours of recording at 24-bit/96-kHz resolution or six-and-a-half hours at 16-bit/44.1-kHz resolution. The D50 officially supports only Memory Stick PRO-HG Duo and Memory Stick PRO Duo (High Speed) cards. Other cards may appear to work initially, but they run a risk of data corruption. The Memory Sticks can be as large as 4 GB, but the D50 has a 2GB per-file limit. When a recording exceeds the 2GB limit, it splits the audio into two files.
Project studio, broadcast, location/field recording
Up to 24-bit/96-kHz Linear PCM recording; two-position stereo microphone set; runs on four standard AA batteries or included AC adapter (included); 4GB of onboard internal flash memory; S/PDIF digital I/O; USB high-speed port; Memory Stick Pro-HG Duo slot; weighs under 13 oz. and measures 2 7/8- x 6 1/8- x 1 5/16-inches
Sony Professional | 201-358-4109 | bssc.sel.sony.com
- Transparent Dual A/D digital limiter external mic input
- Five-second pre-recording buffer
- Great sound
- Long battery life
- Left and right record levels can’t be individually adjusted
- Doesn’t support MP3 recording (although it does support MP3 playback)
- Limited track editing features
Anyone in the market for a field recorder should give the Sony PCM-D50 top consideration.
The PCM-D50 offers LCD digital peak bargraph metering, as well as dedicated nominal and peak level LEDs. It includes a USB high-speed port for simple transfers to and from a computer, as well as dual digital limiters (inherited from the PCM-D1), low-cut filter, Super Bit Mapping (allows 20-bit resolution to be recorded at 16-bits), MP3 playback capability, DPC (Digital Pitch Control, which is essentially time compression/expansion), S/PDIF digital I/O and a five-second pre-recording buffer. When the “pre-record” feature is activated, the D50 continually stores five seconds of audio in a circular buffer. This means that if the concert starts while you’re sipping your beer (or cranberry and vodka) there is still plenty of time to hit Record and never miss a beat.
The input and output jacks are mounted on the side of the D50 and they are the dual plugs that also work with mini-TOSLINK digital optical cables. I became a fan of these connectors upon seeing them on MiniDisc recorders over 10 years ago. A second 1/8-inch TRS jack provides input for an external mic. Unfortunately, the recorder doesn’t allow you to set individual left and right record levels or record in mono. The mic/line switch is strangely located next to the line-out jack on the opposite side of the recorder. The line-out and line-in automatically configure to analog or optical cables.
The navigation on the D50 begins by pressing the Folder/Menu button. This puts you in the Folder screen, where one of 10 folders can be selected to store the recording (each folder holds up to 99 files). Holding the Folder/Menu button for one-second accesses the menu list. The Fast Forward and Rewind buttons navigate through the options, and the Play button makes a selection. The parameters for the Limiter, Digital Pitch Control and the Low Cut Filter are adjusted via the menu, but since these are the features most likely to be frequently activated and deactivated they each have a dedicated hardware switch on the rear of the D50 so they can always be immediately accessed without scrolling through a menu.
The D50’s limiter is one of the smartest features that I’ve seen in a long time. When activated, the machine simultaneously creates two audio files while recording. The first is written to memory and the other is dropped 12 dB and then held in a buffer. If the file peaks at any point, the D50 grabs a portion of the low level track, normalizes it and then writes it to memory. Typically, limiters in portable devices have extreme pumping and other sonic artifacts but there is no sound to the D50’s limiter whatsoever. The only parameter for the function is release time (153 ms, one second and one minute) but I found that to be plenty considering its unique implementation.
The Menu offers selection of internal or removable memory (you can’t write to both, so if the internal runs out in the middle of a recording then you are simply out of luck, even if there is a blank Memory Stick in place), sample rate (22.05, 44.1, 48 or 96kHz), bit depth (16 or 24) and formatting options. I found the machine’s track editing to be quite limited. The only available options are Delete (the current track) and Delete All (all tracks in the selected folder). It isn’t possible to re-sequence, rename or to move tracks to a different folder. Long tracks can be manually split during recording or playback with the dedicated Divide button. I learned the hard way that this isn’t a wise feature to use if you are recording with the internal microphones, as it will likely add some handling noise to your recording. Even if there were more editing options, it still makes the most sense to dump the audio via USB into your DAW (and, if you don’t have DAW software, Sound Forge Audio Studio LE is included).
Although the recorder doesn’t record MP3 files (unfortunately), they can be imported from a computer for playback as long as they are placed in the root directory and follow Sony’s stringent naming scheme and 99-song limit. The D50 will display album and song titles like other MP3 players, but you can’t look inside the folders to select individual songs; rather, you select a folder and then scroll through the titles using the Fast Forward and Rewind buttons. The somewhat rough navigation feels like the MP3 compatibility was an afterthought, but it’s nice having the ability to carry a music library without carrying another device.
The PCM-D50 includes a USB cable, AC adapter, four AA alkaline batteries, a CD-ROM with Sound Forge Audio Studio LE and the Owners Manual. Optional accessories include the VCTPCM1 tripod ($69.95), ADPCM1 windscreen ($49.95), the XLR-1 preamp ($499.95) and the RM-PCM1 remote ($49.95). The XLR-1 runs on four AA batteries, bolts to the back of the D50 and provides Phantom-Powered XLR inputs. The RM-PCM1 remote allows the recorder to be controlled from up to six feet away, consequently eliminating handling noise.
My initial thought after removing the PCM-D50 from the box was that it was built to be used rather than delicately stored in a protective case. It fit comfortably in the hand and felt as robust as any piece of gear that I’d encountered. The mics were safely positioned behind a steel cage, and both the headphone level and record level controls were sheltered against accidental bumps. The vital controls were positioned well within the reach for one-handed operation, and all of the switches and buttons felt rock solid. Additionally, the use of drive mechanism-free solid-state storage could drastically increase the product’s life in contrast to old-school, tape-based systems.
I successfully used the recorder with Sanyo Eneloop rechargeable batteries. And while it was difficult to measure exact results because several factors affect performance — such as sample rate, display light, standby time — from what I could tell they seemed to give me four - eight more hours of performance than regular alkaline batteries.
The D50’s navigation felt very natural and intuitive. I wished Sony had made separate buttons for the Folder and Menu functions, as the button sharing is sometimes annoying, but otherwise I quickly felt at home with the recorder. The large display was packed full of information and was easy to read. A button toggled between elapsed recording or playback time, remaining recording time and recording date; there was even a button dedicated to lighting up the display.
Ultimately, all these great features didn’t mean a thing if the machine didn’t do a good job of accurately capturing sound; fortunately, this is where the D50 shone. Over the past two months I used it to record a loud rock show in a club, to capture an interview, to capture the sound of an acoustic guitar in a studio and to grab several pieces of random audio as I pretended to be the sound designer for a new George Lucas film. Surprisingly, I was never disappointed. The mics on the D50 did a fine job of capturing speech, music and sound effects.
Using the USB port on the D50 to transfer data to and from a computer was a piece of cake. I transferred audio to and from both my Mac and my PC; both functioned flawlessly and were amazingly fast. The mics sounded extremely good. They were detailed and smooth, with a flat frequency response and minimal coloration. The preamps were quiet and had plenty of headroom.
The only thing I missed was a USB driver that would allow the D50 to be used as a stereo microphone while recording directly into the computer, but maybe this is something that could be added in an update.
Based on my experience, Sony’s PCM-D50 is as close to the perfect field recorder available anywhere. Although it’s a bit more costly than some of the competition, when you consider the 4GB of built-in memory, the quality of the microphones and its extensive feature set, it’s truly a bargain. Anyone in the market for a field recorder should give the Sony PCM-D50 top consideration.
Sony’s PCM-D50 sets a new benchmark for mid-priced digital audio recorders. Not only does it sound good and borrow many of the best operational features from Sony’s high-end PCM-D1, but the D50’s designers kept their eyes on the prize and made some very smart decisions.
For example, rather than choose flimsy plastic, Sony used rugged aluminum for the D50’s case. Instead of a cheap battery compartment, they adopted the same quick load, cartridge-type battery system used in the D1. They also kept the 4GB of internal flash memory, and added digital I/Os to the analog mic and line connectors.
The main differences between the D1 and D50 are in quality of the mic capsules, pre-amps and other circuitry. For live music recording, the D1 remains king of the hill. However, for a general purpose field recorder, the D50 is the new workhorse. At about $500, it’s a near perfect balance of performance and price.
— Frank Beacham