Marantz is a respected name in journalism: their audio recorders have been ubiquitous in newsrooms and among reporters and documentary-makers since the days of cassette recorders. Their machines have always been designed for portability, durability, and ease of use. The PMD 561 follows closely in the footsteps of their earlier recorders, and will seem familiar to anyone who has used Marantz gear. It’s smaller than the PMD 661, but can still be hung from a strap. It’s larger than the PMD 620, but adds two XLR mic inputs, rather than the 620’s minijack input. The sound quality is on par with the 661, which is to say, pretty good, but it requires some special set-up to sound good with all external mics.
The Marantz PMD 660 was one of the first professional flash-memory recorders with XLR mic inputs, and despite a few shortcomings, many of those are still in use, especially in radio newsrooms. The successor, the PMD 661, was a real improvement over the 660, offering improved sound quality, and a switch to SD cards rather than CF memory cards. They also made the PMD 620, a small, handheld recorder with a minijack input for an external mic.
Transom’s reviews of the 660, 661 and 620 were largely positive, but we haven’t been strongly recommending them in recent years. All three of those recorders remained significantly more expensive than many of the newer recorders from Tascam, Zoom, and other makers offering similar functionality and sound quality. In addition, the 661 and 620 seemed to suffer from frequent memory-card problems: files lost, refusal to format, failure to recognize SD cards that work just fine in other recorders.
Firmware upgrades and updates to the 661 hardware seemed to mitigate the memory card problems, but the recorders remained more expensive than the competition. To an extent, that extra expense could be justified: the machines were durable; well-designed for reporting, with accessible meters, and convenient presets that allowed quick switching between recording configurations. But in the last few years, recorders made by other brands seemed to offer more value per dollar.
It has been a few years since Marantz released a new recorder. The 561 seems to be a melding of the 661 and the 620, mixing the XLR inputs from the larger recorder and the handheld form of the 620. The 561 is a bit larger than the 620: holdable by hand, but just barely — and possibly a stretch for smaller hands to comfortably grasp.
The SD card problems seem to be a thing of the past, there’s even an “SD Card Check” function in the utility menu that will make sure that your card is formatted properly, and compatible with the 561.
The display screens and basic controls will be familiar to users of the older Marantz recorders. They’re easy to read at a glance, with large, bright lettering. But they also retain the annoying multiple-page design, with elapsed time, remain time, and level meters on separate pages, requiring button-pushes to see all those statuses.
The screens are not easy to read in full sunlight, but the bright LED ladder input meter is easy to see in any light conditions, even when the main display is hard to read.
Unfortunately, when the recorder is hung from a strap, or placed in a bag, that light-bar meter is no longer visible along the top edge. That was a huge benefit of the PMD 660 and 661: the meters could be seen, and the input gains could be easily adjusted, when the recorder was hung from a strap, or placed in a bag. There are dedicated rails for attaching a strap, which is welcome — it’s very nice to be able to free-up a hand when recording in the field — but on this model, the meter and screen are not easily visible when it’s hung from a strap.
The Tascam DR-100mkIII includes a rudimentary level indicator on that top edge, to give at least a vague idea of levels when the recorder hangs from a strap, but there’s no such thing on this Marantz.
There are a couple of other design missteps: the switch for turning phantom power on or off and changing the XLR input sensitivity from mic to line, is weirdly located on the opposite end of the recorder, near the built-in mics, not near the XLR jacks. And carrying over one of my least-liked features of the 620, the headphone jack is located in between the built-in mics. When recording with those built-in mics, there’s a real risk of the headphone cable banging against them. If that’s a common scenario for you, you may want to tape the headphone cable down to the back of the recorder so that it can’t rub or rattle against the mics. (You ARE wearing your headphones when recording, right?!?)
Despite those complaints, the design and function of the 561 contains many strong points. The heftier size of the body allows for a larger screen and well-spaced, good-sized buttons. In addition to being large, the buttons have a satisfying feel — there isn’t much doubt about whether you’ve pressed one or not. It takes one press of the record button to start recording; the button lights a solid red. A pause button puts the machine in record-pause mode, so you can set levels and monitor the inputs without the recording progressing. In this mode, the record button blinks red.
The headphone jack is a standard quarter-inch, which is much sturdier than the mini jacks that are increasingly common, found even on pro gear.
The display is large, and easy to read, although it does take multiple presses of the display button to toggle through all three screens. Most other brands of recorders show all (or at least most) record status on one screen, but it’s not always easy to read all the small text on those displays. Having to toggle in order to switch from meter mode, to time elapsed, to time remaining, may be inconvenient, but at least each of those screens is easy to read.
Marantz digital recorders have long featured a preset function that allows you to store three recording set-ups. Input configurations, file type, and other signal path specifics can be saved and named. This allows for quick changes to preferred set-ups without having to scroll through every menu and sub-menu to be sure everything is set correctly. You can set the recorder to record a mono WAV file at 16 bit from an XLR input, and then with a few button-pushes, reset it to record a stereo MP3 from the built-in mics with automatic level control.
Oddly, I had trouble editing and saving presets while running on battery power. The recorder would crash and restart when attempting to save a new set-up. Plugging into AC power solved that issue for me. This is not how the recorder is supposed to work, and could be a quirk of the particular device I have, but if you end up with trouble saving presets, try using the power cord, or perhaps brand-new fresh batteries. In most cases, you could set all your presets ahead of time, while using the power cord, but it could potentially be troublesome if you need to change a configuration out in the field.
The 561 can record 16 or 24-bit WAV files at 44.1, 48 or 96 KHz. It can also record MP3 files at anywhere from 32 to 320 kbps. The MP3 recording function can save a lot of space in less-critical recording situations, like dictation or note-taking, but it’s always recommended that you record WAV files for any audio you intent to edit, even if it’s going to end up as an MP3 eventually.
If you’re running low on space, get a larger memory card, they’re getting less expensive every day. The 561 can use SD or SDHC cards up to 64 GB.
In addition to stereo and mono recording, the 561 offers Dual-Mono recording, which records a mono sound file, and automatically records a second sound file, reduced in volume, as a safety. There is no dual-stereo function as offered by some recent Tascam and Zoom recorders.
This recorder has a coax S/PDIF digital input, which is increasingly rare on portable recorders. The need to connect digitally is less common these days, but when a mixer, or other audio device, has a digital out it’s great to be able to use it.
The analog inputs are on latching XLR/quarter-inch combo jacks, and there is also a stereo mini input jack for a line-level input (not mic-level for a stereo-mini microphone). In addition to the headphone out, there’s a line-out on a pair of RCA jacks, making it simple to connect to a mixer or powered speakers.
Sound files can be transferred to a computer by connecting a USB cable to the recorder’s standard mini USB jack. The recorder automatically appears in your computer’s list of devices, no configuration on the recorder is required. Or, you can remove the SD memory card and place it in a card reader.
When I went to transfer files to my computer, the direct USB connection showed the name of the SD card in my list of connected devices, but then froze my (Mac) laptop and did not allow me to move files. Placing the SD card in that same computer’s card reader worked fine, and allowed me to move files.
One of the new capabilities added to the 561 is the “retake” feature. As the manual describes it:
“The new ‘Retake’ feature allows a simple button press to take you back though the previously recorded audio and create a drop-in point to overdub. This enables easy re-recording part way through unwanted takes ideal for dictation and electronic note gathering applications.”
This might be a handy function, especially for dictation and note-taking as mentioned, but it seems risky for field recording. I’d be reluctant to overwrite any recordings out in the field. It’s far too easy to accidentally delete part, or all, of a recording that you meant to leave intact.
But most important: how does the PMD 561 sound? In most circumstances, it sounds pretty good, but different microphones require different treatment. Dynamic mics, such as the Electrovoice RE50, do require the input gain knob to be turned all the way up — but when that is done, the resulting sound files sound pretty good, with only a little bit of residual hiss from the recorder. The Tascam DR-100mkIII and Sound Devices recorders have less background noise, but the 561 is still reasonably quiet with most mics.
Higher-output mics, such as shotgun mics, can help make quieter recordings, but they also can overdrive the inputs, causing distortion, regardless of the setting of the input gain knob. I found that any condenser mic, including relatively tame, popular short shotgun mics, would create a crunchy, distorted sound.
There is a solution: turning on an input pad, which is called “Mic Attenuation” in the 561’s menu. An input pad reduces the sensitivity of the recorder’s inputs, and the PMD 561 has a flexible system for that. In the input setup menu, the “Mic Attenuation” can be set to 0, -6, -12 or -18 dB. -12 dB seemed to be an effective setting for most condenser mics. Without the pad, condenser mics send too much signal into the input circuitry, causing distortion, no matter where the input gain knob is set. No pad is required for most dynamic mics, although attenuating the signal might be effective in very loud situations. Mic attenuation settings can be saved as part of a preset.
The built-in mics sound decent, but they introduce a bit more hiss than is heard on the external mic inputs, and like most built-in mics, they’re quite sensitive to both handling noise and wind noise. The 561 does not ship with a wind screen of any kind for the built-in mics. The Zoom H5 or H6 might be better choices if you’ll be using built-in mics extensively, especially for recording music, but the 561’s mics are certainly fine for recording general ambience, or for quick run-and-gun recordings of any kind.
The PMD 561 runs on 4 AA batteries, and has moderately good battery life. In our early tests, it recorded for 6-7 hours on a set of fresh alkaline batteries, although that time would be a bit shorter if you were using phantom power for one or more condenser mics. Marantz doesn’t offer an external battery pack, or other extended powering solutions, but there might be some way to provide longer-term power through the DC power input used by the (provided) AC power cord.
At $400 (average street price at the time of this review) the PMD 561 is priced about the same as the Tascam DR-100mkIII, which is smaller, has a rechargeable battery, and cleaner mic preamps. The Tascam DR-60D and DR-70D are less-expensive, and have meters and input controls visible and accessible when hung from a strap (which had been a strong point of the Marantz 660 and 661.)
The 561 is more expensive than the Zoom H5, which has better built-in mics, and the ability to record from those mics and a stereo external input simultaneously. The Zoom F4 (about $650) is more expensive than the 561, but it offers more inputs, and puts meters and input controls in easy reach when hung over the shoulder.
But this Marantz recorder still might still be a good choice for many: its operation is almost identical to the PMD 600 and 661 recorders that were standard in countless newsrooms, and that familiarity will make this an attractive option to many users. Its large buttons and meters make it easy to use, even for those unfamiliar with Marantz recorders. The recording presets are a great idea, I wish more manufacturers would include a similar feature on their recorders. So if you’re comfortable with Marantz, and want to upgrade your 660 or 661, the 561 might fit the bill. Just be careful about setting-up the recording presets: louder mics will need input attenuation.
Marantz is also releasing a PMD 661mkIII (not yet available at the time of this review) which appears to be almost identical to the 561. It offers file encryption (which sounds like potential trouble, except for some very specific circumstances!) It also ships with a boundary microphone, which can be helpful for conference and panel-discussion recordings, but the recorder appears to be otherwise technically the same as the 561.