The Sony PCM-D50 digital audio recorder does a great job of bridging the gap between consumer and professional-grade electronics. This $500 recorder sports many of the same features as its sibling, the $1800 Sony PCM-D1 recorder, plus a few new features that its older brother lacks.
While Sony is selling the PCM-D50 for less than a third the price of the PCM-D1, (due to some cheaper parts including lower quality built-in condenser microphones), the recorder still costs twice as much as a Zoom H4, a popular recorder that appears to have a few things the PCM-D50 is missing, like XLR inputs and the ability to act as a PC audio I/O device. So is the Sony recorder worth the money? That depends on what you need in an audio recorder. For me the answer is a whopping yes. For you? Maybe not so much.
Let’s take a look at what the PCM-D50 has to offer. First up, I put together a video overview of the unit.
There are a couple of things to consider when reviewing a digital audio recorder. How easy is it to use? How sturdy is it? What kind of support does it have for external hardware like flash memory and input/output devices? But probably the most important feature is sound quality.
Shortly after opening the box, I made a few sample recordings with the PCM-D50 which compared favorably with sound files I recorded using the Zoom H4. Today I ran a few more tests.
Update: Unfortunately the audio from this review was uploaded to a service that no longer exists, so it’s no longer available for listening. But you can hear some samples of the PCM-D50 in my Zoom H4n internal and external mic tests.
You can make a reasonably decent sounding recording using the built-in stereo condenser microphones. They have a cleaner, more natural tone than the built-in mics on the Zoom H4. But the PCM-D50’s microphones are incredible sensitive to wind.
And when I say wind, I mean any a teeny tiny little breeze. If you breathe the wrong way across those mics, you’ll get some awful noise. In fact, you can hear in this sample how much noise just walking across a room generates. I would not under any circumstances use the built-in mics outdoors without purchasing the overpriced wind screen.
When you plug a microphone into the PCM-D50, everything changes. My EV RE-50 dynamic microphone has become useful again. While the Sony recorder lacks the Zoom H4’s XLR plugs, it has a much better preamp, which means that external dynamic microphones like the RE-50 sound much much cleaner.
That lack of an XLR input is probably going to turn a lot of people off from this recorder. The line, mic, and headphone jacks are all 1/8th inch mini inputs. But while the line in and out jacks are the same type of cheap plastic jobs that wind up breaking all the time on low-end recorders and music players, the mic input and headphone jack both seem to be metal. You get a nice satisfying click when inserting a plug into either jack, and I think you’d have to try pretty hard to break them.
One of the features that I was most looking forward to trying out was the limiter. Normally I don’t play around with the effects on recorders, since I want things to sound as natural as possible. But the Sony rep I spoke with at AES pointed out that this limiter works in an interesting fashion.
Essentially the unit is always making two recordings, even though only one is being saved to the disc. The second recording is about 20db lower then the first. So if there’s a sudden volume spike, the recorder will switch to the quieter signal and then shift back to the louder signal. You can vary the time it takes to return to normal to 150 milliseconds, 1 second, or 1 minute.
But the first time I tested the limiter, I noticed that the shift from the quiet channel to the louder one was pretty jarring. After a few tries, I realized that this was because I was only recording room tone and then a very loud sound. So what you hear afterwards is nothing but the room tone being brought back up. If you’re recording voice, music, or something a bit louder than… well, nothing, then the limiter should work pretty well. Still, I’m not sure I’d recommend using it unless you really need it.
Things I like about the PCM-D50
- High quality recordings with little background hiss
- Solid build quality
- Automatically detects when you plug in a microphone and if you’re in the middle of recording when you plug in the mic, the PCM-D50 will switch inputs from the internal mics to the external microphone
- Large easy to use buttons
- Large, easy to read display (with a dedicated button for turning the backlight on and off)
- Although Sony sells a $70 tripod for the PCM-D50, you can easily screw in any standard camera tripod.
- A real honest to goodness volume control knob (which is missing on many minidisc and low-end flash audio recorders)
- Long battery life (You get an estimated 14 hours record time using 4 AA batteries)
- 4GB internal memory (enough to record 6.5 hours of 44.1KHz/16 bit stereo audio)
- Expandable using Sony Memory Stick Pro Duo or Memory Stick Pro-HG Duo cards
- 5 second pre-record buffer lets you monitor while in record/pause mode and start a recording 5 seconds before you hit the record button
- Divide track button lets you create create a new WAV file without stopping a recording (something you cannot do with the Zoom H4)
Things I’m less happy about
- There’s some handling noise when using the built-in mics. This means you won’t want to adjust many settings or hit the track divide button while recording with the internal microphones.
- Seriously? $50 for a Don King-style wind screen?
- If you don’t touch your recorder for 10 minutes, it will enter low power consumption mode automatically, which is great. But since the screen is off, it would be easy to forget that your unit is still running and you could run your battery down before remembering to turn the unit all the way off.
- The PCM-D50 uses an odd system for storing audio files. There are 9 folders on your unit. You can record up to 99 WAV files in any folder. That means if you’re in folder 7, you’ll start recording in folder 7, whether the previous 6 folders are full or not. So when you plug the unit into your computer to transfer files, you’ll have to remember which folder your audio is in or search through all the folders until you find what you’re looking for.
- If the batteries are removed while you’re recording, you’ll lose data. Not much surprise there. But a recording will also stop (and you’ll lose data) if you plug in a USB cable, because the USB connection takes precedence. That just doesn’t make any sense. Why not have a pop up menu ask if you’d like to stop the recording?
- The user manual mentions a carrying case with a belt clip, but it’s only available in Japan.
- There’s a slight delay between the time you hit the record button an the start of a recording.
- When you hit record, you’re in record/pause mode. You have to hit pause in order to start a recording.
- While it’s great that you can use external memory, Sony has a habit of using proprietary formats like Memory Stick instead of standard formats like SD cards or Compact Flash cards. They’ve one-upped themselves this time by only supporting two very specific types of Memory Stick cards, the Pro Duo and Pro-HG Duo. I get the feeling a lot of people who don’t read the manual very carefully will be buying the wrong kind of memory.
- There’s no option for recording in mono. If you plug in a mono microphone, you’ll record a dual mono track (ie: the same signal will go to the left and right channels). If you could record in mono, the 4GB of internal memory would be enough space for 13 hours of 44.1KHz/16 bit recordings.
- The Memory Stick door is a bit flimsy, especially when compared with the rest of the unit.
- While the PCM-D50 will play back MP3 files, there’s no option to record using MP3 or any other compressed format. This isn’t a biggie, since you’ll probably get a higher quality MP3 file by transferring a WAV to your desktop for conversion anyway.
Okay, I know the con list looks a bit longer than the pro list there, but I’m just being nitpicky. While I’m at it, here are a few things the Zoom H4 can do that the PCM-D50 can’t:
- Act as an audio I/O device for a computer
- Act as a 4-track recorder (even though you can only record to one channel at a time)
- Record in mono
- Accept XLR inputs
- Runs on 2 AA batteries instead of 4
But the H4 also has lousy preamps, inferior microphones, more handling noise, tiny buttons and a nearly incomprehensible menu system. I’ll probably keep my H4 around for a while as a backup, and in case I need an audio I/O device for when I’m in the field.
I’m sure I’ve left out a few things, so leave me questions in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer them.
- Sony PCM-D50 technical specs (PDF)
- Sony PCM-D50 brochure (PDF)
- Sony PCM-D50 manual (PDF)
- XLR-1 Spec PDF sheet ($400 mini to XLR adapter)