../ TestDrive: Sony PCM-D1 Portable Linear PCM Recorder
A True All-In-One Digital Portable Recorder Or A New Car...You Decide!
When Sony first showcased the
PCM-D1 at the AES trade show, I got a severe case
of technolust. The sexy, beautifully designed, unit was a true digital recorder with built-in mics, a titanium case, and no internal moving parts,
save for the tasty analog level meters. As I wiped the drool from my bottom lip, I couldn't help but think that this was the first Sony product in
years that I wanted no matter what the cost. Unfortunately, after using the unit, I think I'll save the $2000 dollars it costs for owning one.
It's not that I don't think the unit has its place in the world of portable
recording, but for musicians and audiophiles looking for a field recorder, the price is just too high for the quality of recorded results, the
poor battery life and the memory limitations. So who is the PCM-D1 for? Reporters who want that "bling" factor. Pull out the PCM-D1 at
an interview, press conference or another arena where you want to impress and the unit will make you look like a star. There's a reason that 50
year old men get Ferrari's, and the same thing goes for the PCM-D1. Not that the PCM-D1 doesn't have some cool features, but then again, do
you really need that huge spoiler when you're only driving 55 mph?
The only thing that separates you from this beauty is 2000 large
The Sony PCM-D1 is a visual treat and a joy to hold in one's hand. The
hard-pressed titanium case is super strong and allows the device to weigh in at just over 18 ounces. Sony describes the unit as "rugged" -
but there's no way the PCM-D1 would survive a good drop on a hard surface without major damage.
At the top of unit are two matched electret condenser cardioid mics angled
towards each other in an X-Y stereo pattern that can swivel to your preferred recording angle. Two chrome bars protect the mics from
unexpected bang-ups and come with a nice looking, but worthless windscreen. The mics provide excellent stereo imaging, not only left and
right, but near and far. Described as "3D imaging" and "surround-sound-like" by our testers, Sony's diligence on mic positioning paid off
handsomely for solid stereo recordings. Sony went to great lengths to control noise on the PCM-D1 and several tricks of the trade are
utilized to give the unit an extremely low noise floor. The mics are connected to a set of quality Analog Devices AD797 digital pre-amps.
Power is delivered to the analog and digital circuit boards separately, limiting interference and preventing digital hash from leaking
into the analog realm.
The PCM-D1's ergonomics make holding the unit a pleasure
Even with the Analog Devices AD8672 line amplifier and the aforementioned goodies,
the mics just don't have the "goods" to make truly high fidelity field recordings. Several staffers came to the same conclusion independently when
taking the Sony PCM-D1 on test drives in both city and country environments, despite the pristine 24 bit / 96 kHz quality. Many of the recordings
ended up having "pumping" or "breathing" problems due to the variable gain circuit technology, and the innovative built-in software Limiter.
Every time the PCM-D1 creates a recording, the DSP Limiter simultaneously records
a second mirror track at -20 db. This duplicate track is stored in a buffer as the recorder evaluates the levels in real time. Should a transient
peak overload occur, the backup audio is instantly normalized and inserted in place of the clipped signal. This is a brilliant concept, but it just
isn't transparent enough for disconcerting ears. Again, it's great for reporters, not for audiophiles.
Operating the unit couldn't be easier. The controls are straightforward, ergonomic
and well-defined. The LCD screen was a pleasure to read in low-light environments, but not in bright sunlight, and the menu system was simple and
well-behaved. The analog VU meters may be a little redundant since the LCD screen showcases digital levels, but they give the unit a cool vibe,
and a retro feel. The unit is powered by AA batteries and comes with four 2500 NiMh rechargeables and a pocket charger. Unfortunately, the batteries
only last about three hours under normal operating conditions, but they are standard AA's, so carrying an eight-pack of high-output alkalines will
get you through most conditions until you can get recharged. Kudos to Sony for using a standard format and not forcing the consumer to purchase
several proprietary rechargeable batteries for backup.
The PCM-D1 only accepts Sony's proprietary Memory Stick format
The Sony PCM-D1 has many fidelity recording options from 16 bit / 22 kHz to 24 bit
/ 96 kHz and records in the WAV file format. Recording at the highest fidelity will give you 2 hours of recording time on the 4 GB of internal memory
with one major drawback. The maximum file size is 2 GB, so you'll have to figure out when to cut a performance off so that you don't exceed that
limitation. In addition, to the 4 GB of internal storage, the PCM-D1 also accepts the high-speed Sony Memory Stick Pro format which now comes in
larger denominations of 2 GB and 4 GB for your storage pleasure.
One of the best things about the PCM-D1 is the extremely simple process of
off-loading your recordings to your computer. Simply attach the USB 2.0 connection to your Mac or PC, and the PCM-D1 appears as an external
hard drive. Drag the WAV files to our computer and you're done. It's that easy.
The Sony PCM-D1 has a lot going for it in terms of design, ease-of-use, low-noise
and innovative DSP, which makes it an easy choice for any type of field reporting. However, if you're looking for a portable recorder that will meet
demanding audiophile requirements, you can do a lot better for your $2000.
The Sony PCM-D1 is available for about $1900 from Amazon and other retailers
worldwide. For more information check out
Sony's PCM-D1 website.
The Future: The Sony PCM-D1 is a great start for a comprehensive portable
digital recorder line-up. We'd love to see a much more affordable model that addresses the needs of musicians and audiophiles without the "bling."
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