For many of us who grew up on tape, Sony was the name to trust for rugged and dependable field recorders. That's why Sony's recent entry into the flash recorder sweepstakes, the PCM-D1, got my attention. But at $1,995, it's too rich for me.
Now Sony has taken the essential features of the D1 and stuffed them into the new D50 ... for about a third the price. I've been testing one for more than a month and I like it more every day.
Right out of the box, the D50 exudes confidence, thanks in part to a rugged aluminum case. The first thing I noticed is its heft; compared to some other recorders on the market, the D50 is positively solid. That's not to say it's big; it snuggles comfortably in your palm, with essential controls well within reach for one-handed operation.
And this puppy was designed for field use: the twin mics are safe behind a steel cage, both the record level and headphone level controls are protected against accidental knocks, and all of the buttons and switches feel reassuringly solid. Even better, the mics swivel between 90 and 120° and everywhere in between. It runs on four AA batteries — even the battery compartment is well designed and solid — or AC via a wall-wart adapter.
While most of the D50's competition requires an additional memory card, the D50 has 4GB of flash RAM built in. That's enough for almost two hours of recording at 96kHz/24-bit resolution, or a whopping six-and-a-half hours at 44.1/16. Need more? Pop in a Memory Stick as large as 4GB. (See the "Good Memories" sidebar for supported formats). As with most flash recorders, the D50 has a 2GB limit per file; recordings that exceed the limit are split into two files.
Sony thoughtfully provides everything you need to start recording right out of the box, even the batteries, so naturally I fired up the D50 before I unpacked the manual. Because the file-naming protocol involves the date and time, my first task was to set the clock. Luckily, this was easier than setting the one on my car; all I had to do was follow onscreen instructions.
Sony is taking no chances when it comes to removable media: the D50 officially supports only two kinds of flash RAM cards: Memory Stick PRO-HG Duo and Memory Stick PRO Duo (High Speed). Senior Product Manager Karl Kussmaul explains that standard Memory Stick data transfer rates are not fast enough for the D50, which "will most certainly lead to unreliable recorder operation." He continues, "Standard speed MS devices may appear (initially) like they work; however, there's a high risk of recordings becoming corrupted and USB transfer speeds will also be significantly compromised, especially when operating at 24/96."
I screwed a mini tripod into the built-in threaded adapter, pointed the mics vaguely in the direction of my guitar, and pressed Record. With the D50 in record-ready mode, I dialed in levels with the large thumbwheel. Given the orientation (upside-down), I couldn't get a clear view of the meters on the display, so I took care that the green LEDs indicating a –12dB level glowed but the red overload LEDs didn't flash. These bright LEDs are handy — one of my pet peeves is meters that disappear when you point the recorder at yourself.
To commence recording, all I had to do was press the flashing Pause button. Couldn't be simpler.
The generous display conveys a lot of information. A tiny button toggles between elapsed recording or playback time, remaining recording time, and recording date. The meters are large enough for my aging eyes to read without glasses. There's even a dedicated button to light up the display when needed — which means it does not light up when you do not need it. A small thing, but it saves the battery.
Be aware that a menu option that turns off the LED has nothing to do with the display; instead, it disables LEDs that indicate recording status, including the –12dB and Over LEDs. (The meters and other display functions operate normally.) I suppose this might be useful in extreme stealth situations, but more than once I accidentally commenced recording before I was ready. Sony's Karl Kussmaul notes that many performers feel more comfortable if they don't have a red Record light glaring at them.
Listening back to my first recording I was impressed with the sound of the mics — I thought the guitar had a nice amount of detail and the pre-amp noise was practically non-existent. Although I recorded the example as a 16-bit, 44.1kHz WAV, I have also uploaded an MP3 conversion for those with slower connections. The D50 does not record MP3s.