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Review: Sony PCM-D50

May 1, 2008
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FIG. 1: The second model in Sony''s line of portable stereo digital recorders, the PCM-D50 costs less than the PCM-D1, yet it offers numerous features the earlier model lacks.

FIG. 1: The second model in Sony''s line of portable stereo digital recorders, the PCM-D50 costs less than the PCM-D1, yet it offers numerous features the earlier model lacks.

When I reviewed Sony's PCM-D1 recorder in the December 2006 issue of EM (available at emusician.com), I praised its outstanding metering, ultralow noise floor, and easy handheld operation. The catch was the unit's relatively high price: $1,849. With the release of the PCM-D50, you have to wonder, does it offer the uncompromising quality of the PCM-D1 at less than one-third the price?

Though the D50 just barely fits into a shirt pocket, it easily slips into a coat pocket. It's slightly bigger than other pocket-size recorders, but still small enough to carry everywhere. Over the last few months, I've taken it to countless rehearsals and on an East Coast tour. I've recorded song ideas; small and large acoustic ensembles; and a rainstorm while perched in the attic.

The D50 is very easy to use. It's quick on the uptake, about 10 seconds from power-on to recording. Press Record once, and you're monitoring the live input signal, and then a tap on the Pause button begins the recording. It has plenty of clean gain for headphones and record levels. Operation and sound quality both inspire confidence. The D50 is lightweight and feels quite solid (the main body is constructed of aluminum).

A pair of mics poke out the unit's top, protected by a chrome grille (see Fig. 1). Front and center is a backlit LCD, which sports a large bar-graph meter for record or playback levels, transport status, menu options, and so on. The transport buttons are just below the main display.

When you hold the recorder in your right hand, the record-level knob is directly under your thumb, with the headphone-level knob on the opposite side. If you're used to recorders with little plus and minus buttons for setting levels, then you'll be delighted by the D50's analog knobs for these critical controls. On the left side, the Hold switch locks all the transport and menu controls. If you're planning to shove the D50 into your jeans while recording, note that Hold won't prevent the record and headphone levels from changing, as the knobs operate in the analog domain.

Also along the sides are the Power switch, another switch labeled DPC (for details, see the online bonus material at emusician.com), and an assortment of 3.5 mm jacks: mic in (with plug-in power), a combo analog/digital optical input, a combo analog/digital optical output, and a headphone output. On the upper left side are two tiny switches for selecting a mic/line input and enabling a -20 dB pad, and on the back are two more tiny switches that engage the record-input limiter and low-cut filter.

Let's Record

The D50 records 16 bits at 22.05, 44.1, 48, and 96 kHz, as well as 24 bits at 44.1, 48, and 96 kHz. It can also play (but not record) MP3 files at any rate. When choosing 16-bit resolution, you have the option of using Sony's Super Bit Mapping (SBM) dither. The company originally developed SBM to squeeze a little more perceived resolution out of the 16-bit DAT format. However, the benefits of SBM are lost if you do any subsequent signal processing of the audio, which I nearly always do. So though I've owned other SBM-equipped gear for years, I don't use that feature. Anytime I record anything critical on my D50, I simply record at 24 bit.

An optional 5-second prerecord buffer lets you put the recorder in record-ready mode, and when the sonic event you're waiting for happens, you press Pause to capture the previous five seconds and continue recording. I love this feature — it's like a 5-second time machine. My only wish would be that the buffer refilled when you pressed Pause during a recording, but that's not the case; you'll need to stop and restart a new file instead. You can't drop markers within a file, but the Divide button will seamlessly split a track during recording or playback.

When recording, the main meters in the LCD give fast, high-resolution stereo peak metering. A pair of LEDs under each mic show signal present (-12 dB) and clipping (0 dBfs) for each channel, although left- and right-channel record levels are set together on the same knob.

The D50 shares the PCM-D1's novel approach to peak limiting. When the limiter is enabled, the D50 splits the signal into separate stereo analog and digital paths. The first path is recorded while the deck is operating below digital clipping. The second path is attenuated -12 dB in the analog domain before being digitized by a second, independent A/D converter. When digital clipping occurs, this second path springs into action, normalizes its -12 dB signal to full scale, and substitutes that audio instead of the clipped waveform. When the primary signal-path level drops back below zero, the limiter backs itself out of the picture at one of three release times: 150 ms, 1 second, or a full minute. If you slam the inputs, you'll hear the limiter working, but if you're just a toe or two over the line, it's transparent.

FIG. 2: The PCM-D50''s built-in mics can pivot smoothly from a 90- to 120-degree stereo pickup pattern. Left and right mic signals are automatically swapped as required.

FIG. 2: The PCM-D50''s built-in mics can pivot smoothly from a 90- to 120-degree stereo pickup pattern. Left and right mic signals are automatically swapped as required.

Got a Nice Spread Here

The tonal character of the D50's internal mics is similar to that of the PCM-D1's. Although it always sounds crisp and detailed, capturing robust low end requires closer proximity to the source. The D50's noise performance is very good, but it is noticeably noisier than the D1 in low-level situations.

Whereas the D1's built-in mics tilt up or down, allowing you to more conveniently see the front-panel controls or point the mics up at a talker when the recorder lies flat on a table, the D50's mics don't tilt. Instead, they can splay inward from a 90-degree, near-coincident pattern outward to a 120-degree, slightly spaced pattern. The two mic capsules literally swing outward, changing capsule angle and spacing (see Fig. 2). The difference is both audible and useful. The wide pattern gives a more spacious feel, whereas the 90-degree pattern offers better mono compatibility and a stronger center image.

The D50 doesn't include a windscreen, but you can buy Sony's ADPCM1 Windscreen (which also fits the D1) for about $50. It's well worth the price; this furry wind barrier is so much more effective than a little slip of foam. If you're doing any outdoor recording (or even plan to be walking around indoors while recording), this accessory is essential.

File It

The D50 records files in WAV format only and stores them in its generous 4 GB of internal flash memory. It can also record to a proprietary, removable Sony Memory Stick Pro High-Speed Duo or Pro-HG Duo (not included). The recording date becomes the file name (for example, 080422_03.WAV would be the third recording made on April 22, 2008). The D50's file-naming convention is extremely simple yet highly practical.

A simple USB connection mounts the D50 on your computer's desktop. Data transfer times are quick with USB 2.0, but obviously a lot slower with USB 1.1. Note that the D50 can't run on USB power, so be sure you have enough battery charge to complete the transfer, or plug in the D50's included wall wart.

Battery life, always a key feature on portable recorders, is outstanding. Sony specifies 12 hours of record time at 96 kHz using alkaline batteries. Rechargeable NiMH cells work perfectly for the D50, too. I've been using Sony-, Duracell-, and Eveready-branded rechargeables, all with good results. The four AA cells are housed in an easy-to-remove sled, secured behind a sliding door mechanism. This door mechanism is elegant, but I've found that it can work itself loose in some situations.

FIG. 3: This is the PCM-D50 mounted on Sony''s optional XLR-1 adapter.

FIG. 3: This is the PCM-D50 mounted on Sony''s optional XLR-1 adapter.

Although the D50's built-in mics are good, it's nice to have external options — and you do. Unlike the D1, the D50 can provide plug-in power at its mic input jack. (Plug-in power provides a small voltage — typically 3V to 4V — to power electret condenser mics.) This is a menu-controlled option; the menu pops up automatically on the D50's display when you connect a mic — another nice touch.

But what about professional condenser mics that require 48V phantom power? One option is to use the D50's digital optical input with an external mic pre and A/D converter. I tested the D50's optical input using my trusty Denecke AD20, and it worked just fine.

Another option is Sony's new XLR-1 adapter ($449), which makes the D1 or D50 compatible with the rest of your mic collection. The XLR-1 is a chunky, rounded metal box with a pair of XLR inputs and a stereo miniplug output at the end of a short cable (see Fig. 3). It's a transformer-based passive device, but it requires an additional four AA batteries to generate phantom power. Its bulk and cost are both related to the high-quality audio transformers required to take advantage of the recorder's maximum 96 kHz sampling rate.

Physically, the XLR-1 can be snapped to the bottom of the recorder, or they can be mounted side by side using the included metal mounting bracket. Though the XLR-1 easily doubles the size (and nearly doubles the cost) of the D50, it's a pleasure to be able to work with a fully professional mic rig in the field. I ran my Schoeps mics into the D50/XLR-1 combo and was really pleased with the results. I sometimes find my Schoeps mics to be clinical, bordering on cold. Perhaps the transformers in the XLR-1 imparted some subtle coloration, but whatever the cause, I actually thought the Schoeps mics sounded better through the D50/XLR-1 combination than any of my other rigs.

The XLR-1 is not a perfect solution, however. When mounted, it blocks access to the D50's low-cut and limiter on/off switches. Also, I wish the permanently attached end of the XLR-1's output cable were recessed. Though I've had no problems, it looks vulnerable and doesn't appear to be readily user serviceable. The XLR-1 is expensive, but it should tell you something that I'm buying one anyway.

I've reviewed half a dozen portable 2-track recorders for this publication, and the Sony PCM-D50 is one fine deck. I'd still choose the PCM-D1 for gigs that required an extreme dynamic range — like symphonic, choral, or natural-sound recordings — because the D1 is audibly quieter in low-level situations. But the D50 easily outdoes the D1 on features and strikes an excellent balance between size, quality, and cost. The Sony PCM-D50 is the deck by which all others should be measured, and I recommend it highly.


Rudy Trubitt performs around the United States as a member of the Sippy Cups (thesippycups.com).

compact digital recorder
$499

PROS: Excellent sound. Easy to use. Digital I/O. Prerecord buffer. AA batteries.

CONS: Records in WAV format only. Some issues with handling and wind noise.

FEATURES 1 2 3 4 5
EASE OF USE 1 2 3 4 5
AUDIO QUALITY 1 2 3 4 5
VALUE 1 2 3 4 5

Sony
sony.com

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