Saturday, October 6, 2007

Sony announces PCM-D50 handheld flash recorder

I went to the AES show this afternoon with my mind almost made up. My next field recorder would be a Fostex FR2-LE. On paper it's the next step up from my Zoom H4. It has decent preamps, combo XLR/quarter inch inputs, the ability to make track marks/split WAV files without pausing your recording. Sure, the battery compartment is a bit hard to get at, but that's a small price to pay for a $600 high quality device.

But a funny thing happened. I fell in love with a different recorder, the new Sony PCM-D50. The D50 is the follow-up to Sony's PCM-D1 recorder.

Like the PCM-D1, the D50 packs 4GB of internal flash memory, a Sony memory stick slot for expanded storage, high quality internal stereo condenser mics, and the ability to record 22.05 kHz, 44.1 kHz, 48 kHz and 96 kHz, 16 and 24 bit WAV audio. But the D50 is about one third the price. While the D1 lists for $1995, the D50 will be available in November and has a list price of $599, which is the same as the Fostex FR2-LE. The street price could be even lower.

So what's the difference between the D1 and D50? The D1 has higher quality mics, old-fashioned analog VU meters, and a few more expensive components under the hood. The D50 has adjustable mics. You can change their position and the recorder will automatically adjust.

Here's a shot of the two recorders side by side:

What does the PCM-D50 have that the FR2-LE doesn't? On paper, not much. In fact, the D50 doesn't even have XLR inputs or offer phantom power for external condenser mics. But here's why I'm leaning toward picking one up in November:
  1. It's compact, fits easily in the hand, and has excellent internal mics, making it great for grab and go recording. The FR2-LE has internal mics too, but they're the kind of mics you'd find on a third rate digital voice recorder. I think my PDA has a better mic.
  2. When I plugged a dynamic mic into the FR2-LE I had to crank up the gain all the way to get a decent record level. When I plugged the same mic into the PCM-D50, I had to turn the record volume down to 3 or 4 to keep from clipping. This little puppy has some powerful preamps.
  3. The PCM-D50 automatically detects when you've got an external mic plugged in and switches between the internal and external mic.
I picked up the Zoom H4 earlier this year because it offered some of the same features as the PCM-D1 at a fraction of the price. I was on a budget and it seemed like a good buy. But here's why I'm thinking about upgrading to the PCM-D50.
  1. I haven't found a single external mic that sounds good with the H4. The preamps are way too noisy.
  2. When using the excellent internal mics on the H4, the unit is susceptible to handling noise. I detected almost no handling noise when using the PCM-D50.
  3. In order to save your track or create a new file on the H4, you have to stop your recording and start a new one, which causes a you to lose a few seconds of audio. The PCM-D50 lets you create new tracks on the fly.
  4. The PCM-D50 controls are super easy to use, and you can change record levels on the fly with a simple jog dial. On the H4, you have to go through a bunch of software menus which will result in handling noise if you're using the internal mics.
  5. The H4 has a cheap plastic feel, the PCM-D50 has a sturdy metal feel.
There are more reasons, but for now I'll just show you this side by side comparison:

Here are a few more specs:
  • Runs on 4 AA batteries
  • Estimated battery life: 16 hours with headphones, 20 hours without
  • Weights 12.88 ounces (including batteries)
  • Supports MP3 playback, but does not record to MP3
  • Four separate circuit boards to separate analog audio, digital audio, digital recording, and power supply circuits
  • Transfer recordings to your computer using USB 2.0
  • High pass filter
  • 5-second pre buffer when using record pause mode
I recorded some audio using with the PCM-D50, the Fostex FR2-LE, my Zoom H4, and a Sound Devices 702 (which is way out of my price range at $2000, but since the recordings were all made on the noisy show room floor I wanted to get a recording using the best gear I could find to use as a reference point).

I'll post the audio tomorrow. Since these recordings were made in a noisy environment, I don't have an answer to my biggest question: which device would sound best in a quiet interview environment. But I'm pretty sure the Fostex FR2-LE doesn't sound enough better than my H4 to justify the price.

Update:
Now you can listen to some sample recordings I made in the less than ideal setting of the AES show room floor.

Update 2: It looks like this digital audio recorder is getting a street price of $499.

Update 3: Sony has started shipping the PCM-D50, and I should be getting mine in early December, so expect a comprehensive review soon.

Update 4: It's here!

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22 comments:

Samuel said...

Its bloody ugly

Frank said...

As the owner of a Sony PCM-D1, I consider it the Rolls Royce of portable flash memory audio recorders. Minus the superior mics and preamps on the D1, the D50 is close.

Both machines share the most user friendly software of all. Both have rugged quick change battery holders that just snap in.

The Fostex has a removable battery pack with a flimsy cable that WILL eventually break. It is slow and cumbersome to change the batteries.

The H2 is OK for $199, but very cheaply made and will survive a single drop to the floor.

The new Sony D50 appears to be the new sweet spot for portable recorders.

Herb said...

I fell in love with the PCM-D50 until I discovered that it couldn't record in mono or 22kHz. Quality stereo if good, but sometimes I need to tradeoff quality and stereo for recording length. Oh well.

Anonymous said...

The Sony PCM-D1 makes the most accurate recordings I've ever made. They sound the same as what I hear with my ears. Since I've owned one, I've slowly been selling off all my other field recording gear.

I don't need a D-50, but will probably buy one anyway.

eS said...

It would relly like a comparison with the Edirol R-09, which is several times better than the H4... ;-)

Brad Linder said...

eS: Unfortunately Roland/Edirol didn't have an R-09 at their booth or I would have tried it out.

I looked at the R-09 a couple of years ago when we were starting to switch from minidisc recorders to flash recorders at my old job. Some reporters were using Marantz PMD660s to record interviews, but the preamps were pretty lousy so I was looking for alternatives. Ultimately I went with the M-Audio Microtrack because it had been out a little longer than the Edirol R-09 and because it had quarter-inch plugs and phantom power.

When we got the unit I wasn't particularly impressed. The sound quality wasn't really any better than minidisc. And while the unit was more durable because of the lack of moving parts, we had software issues a couple of times that locked the Microtrack up. So I wish I'd had a chance to play with the R-09.

ian said...

The PCM-D50 is billed as professional equipment. Sony support told me it only supports consumer S/PDIF digital and will not support Pro digital. It declares "UNKNOWN DATA" given the Pro data from my Kurzweil PC2R but continues to monitor it. It will record only 16 bit 48/44.1 given 24 bit S/PDIF input.

Anonymous said...

Out of all the flash recorders you all have listed which would you say has the best internal mics to record live concerts? Usually hard rock or hip hop music? Thanks

Brad Linder said...

I haven't tried recording a concert with any of these recorders, but I'd have to say it all depends on your recording circumstances. Most handheld audio recorder suffer from some pretty bad handling noise, which means you'll be best off if you can attach your recorder to a tripod or pole. But the Sony PCM-D50 has less handling noise than others I've tried, so if you were planning on holding a recorder in your hand, it might be the best choice.

That said, a concert might be loud enough to mask the sounds you make as you shift your grip on a cheaper recorder.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the help. I usually do multicamera shoots so it would just be set still by one of the static cameras. Camera mics just cant handle the high frequencies good so I thought one of these my do the job.

Anonymous said...

What kind of connector cable is needed to connect the Sony PCM-D50 to XLR mics? And can you explain a bit more about what kind of mics can and cannot be used with it re: power it provides?

Brad Linder said...

You need an XLR to 1/8th inch (mini) cable. The PCM-D50 supplies plug-in power, which is used by certain electret mics, but no phantom power. As a general rule, if your mic needs power, it's a safe bet to assume that it won't work with the PCM-D50 unless the mic is battery-powered.

MSN Bassist said...

What's the best way to connect an instrument (like a bass guitar) to the PCM-D50? Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I've created a users group for owners of the PCM-D1 and PCM-D50.

Come join us at: http://sonypcmusers.ning.com/

It's free.

Martina said...

Sony Anonymous these are all nice phone.

gordo said...

Thanks for the informative post, I have almost decided to purchase the PCM-D50, just one little concern. When recording with a non-stereo external mic (e.g. Shure SM57 connected via XLR to mini stereo cable) does the output file have two channels (stereo) and when monitoring the recording using this setup is stereo output through the headphones? My guess is this probably depends on the XLR to stereo mini cable, any specific recommendations for one of these that works well? Thanks.

Brad Linder said...

Gordo: The audio from a mono mic will be duplicated on the left and right channel. You always get a stereo file. It would actually be nice if there was a way to record a mono track using a mono mic, but that doesn't appear to be possible.

Anonymous said...

I see on demo pics of this unit in the display next to the leevals -06 dbs. does this unit have a margin reset to monitor the leavels? Like the Larger tascam unit. My old Tascam dap1 dat has it and I cant stop using it!!!

MAURO GOMES said...

MAURO GOMES BRASIL

I WANT to let me know. WHAT IS THE BEST CHOICE FOR EXTERNAL PRODUCTS TO BE displayed in Radio stations? M-AUDIO - Microtrack, Marantz PMD660 OR SONY PCM-D50?

MAURO GOMES said...

MAURO GOMES BRASIL

I WANT to let me know. WHAT IS THE BEST CHOICE FOR EXTERNAL PRODUCTS TO BE displayed in Radio stations? M-AUDIO - Microtrack, Marantz PMD660 OR SONY PCM-D50?

gordo said...

Thanks for the informative post, I have almost decided to purchase the PCM-D50, just one little concern. When recording with a non-stereo external mic (e.g. Shure SM57 connected via XLR to mini stereo cable) does the output file have two channels (stereo) and when monitoring the recording using this setup is stereo output through the headphones? My guess is this probably depends on the XLR to stereo mini cable, any specific recommendations for one of these that works well? Thanks.

Frank said...

As the owner of a Sony PCM-D1, I consider it the Rolls Royce of portable flash memory audio recorders. Minus the superior mics and preamps on the D1, the D50 is close.

Both machines share the most user friendly software of all. Both have rugged quick change battery holders that just snap in.

The Fostex has a removable battery pack with a flimsy cable that WILL eventually break. It is slow and cumbersome to change the batteries.

The H2 is OK for $199, but very cheaply made and will survive a single drop to the floor.

The new Sony D50 appears to be the new sweet spot for portable recorders.

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