There was widespread mourning, wailing, and gnashing of teeth when Sony announced that they were discontinuing the PCM-D50 recorder. OK, maybe that reaction was mostly from us here at Transom – the D50 has been one of our favorite portable reorders for many years. Despite the significant shortcoming of only having a mini jack for external microphones, it was durable, easy to use, and most important, sounded great.
We’ve been quite impressed by its smaller sibling, the Sony PCM-M10, but the overall feel and sound quality of the D50 was a level above. So it was a relief to hear that Sony was introducing a replacement for the D50, and even better, it was to be an upgrade. Our enthusiasm was dampened a bit when we saw the proposed price of the new Sony PCM-D100 Portable High-Resolution Recorder: $800. The D50 could usually be purchased for about $450, and even that seemed a little steep among the ever-expanding field of similar recorders selling in the mid-$200s (such as the Zoom H4n or H5, and The Tascam DR-100mkII or DR60D.)
$800?! What was Sony offering for that hefty boost in price?
First the good news: most of what we liked about the PCM-D50 is still present on the D100: it’s solidly built, controls are logical and easy to use, and the sound quality is excellent. In fact the built-in microphones and internal audio circuitry have all been upgraded from the D50, and the sound quality is noticeably better. In addition, this recorder has 32 gigabytes of internal memory, up from 4 gigabytes on the D50, which will allow long record times (over 43 hours at 16bit/44.1khz), even several hours at the highest resolutions. There’s also a card slot for additional memory, which will accept both Sony Memory Sticks and conventional SD cards, up to 64 gigabytes. The unit is capable of continuous recording that cascades from internal to external memory for those really long sessions.
The D100 is a great tool for documentary audio production: it has excellent sound quality, good battery life (about 12 hours on four AAs), and an easily readable screen, supplying accurate input metering. There are only two major downsides: the lack of XLR mic inputs, and the price. You do get some enhanced capabilities over the much more affordable Sony PCM-M10, but some of these improvements might be overkill in most real-world situations.
The most noteworthy change in this new device is in the audio circuit’s analog-to-digital conversion: the D100 can encode audio at much higher sample rates, or into the esoteric high-resolution DSD (Direct Stream Digital) format. On the opposite end of the spectrum, when audio quality is not the priority, there’s also the option to record as MP3.
Recording formats include linear PCM: 16- or 24-bit at 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4, or 192kHz. DSD (Direct Stream Digital) recordings are encoded at 2.8224 MHz. MP3s can be made at the low-quality 128 kbps, or high-quality 320 kbps. There’s also a dual-recording mode that can make a WAV and an MP3 at the same time. This might be handy if you’re on a deadline and want to make a high-quality WAV file for the actual production, but also immediately be able to send a reference MP3 to a transcriber, or editor, or collaborator. That’s a broader variety of options, and of high-quality recording formats than most portable recorders can offer (although the Korg MR2 has similar capabilities, including DSD recording).
This raises a practical question: do these high-end recording formats make sense on a recorder like this? For conventional audio or video documentary production, 16-bit and 44.1 or 48Khz recording resolution is usually sufficient. Some recordists prefer the greater dynamic range of 24-bit, but the resulting sound files are larger, which translates to shorter record times on the available memory in the recorder, as well as more hard drive space required in later production. For everyday journalism, one can just leave the recorder set at 16-bit/44.1 khz and ignore the higher-resolution settings. You can’t help but wonder whether you’re paying extra for capabilities that are not necessary in most situations.
Recording at higher sample rates (88.2 and above) remains somewhat controversial: using those rates allows higher frequencies to be encoded, but those frequencies are well beyond the physical range of human hearing, and certainly beyond the capabilities of most final delivery media. Radio broadcast, internet streaming, and even most video delivery codecs will reduce the final quality of the audio, so, while it’s always a good policy to start with the highest-quality audio practical, it’s worth questioning whether any audible benefits are derived from making field recordings at extremely high sample rates.
There is more common demand for those higher-resolution formats in the music-recording world. It’s not unusual for musical performances to be tracked at 24-bit, 88.2 or 96khz, even though most final delivery format is 16-bit, 44.1khz (for CDs) or lower for MP3s or AAC files distributed over the internet. There are a few high-resolution audio formats available to audiophile consumers (SACD, DVD-Audio, Blu-Ray, Neil Young’s proposed Pono music format, etc.) but no widely-accepted standard has emerged, and as with many topics in the audiophile world, there’s controversy over whether these higher resolution formats create an audible difference that listeners can appreciate.
SACD (Super Audio CD) never took off as a widely accepted consumer format, but it survives as a niche product. It uses DSD for high-resolution audio playback, but that type of encoding is not widely used in field recorders, largely because there are very few editing programs that work directly on DSD audio. Most popular digital workstations require the audio be converted to linear PCM (such as a WAV file) for editing purposes, so it might make sense to record them in one of the more common PCM formats to begin with.
For demanding situations requiring high-resolution recording, such as delicate musical performances, you have to wonder whether any small all-in-one recorder, even a great-sounding one like the D100, is the correct tool. Most music recording involves specialized microphones and meticulous placement, selected for the particular instruments. Esoteric microphone preamps are often used, selected for their unique character. The microphones and preamps built-into the Sony PCM-D10 are quite nice, but they’re hardly a replacement for the alternatives available to a seasoned audio engineer.
Sony mentions nature recording in their literature, and indeed that may be one of the best uses of a recorder such as this: it’s relatively small, runs on batteries, and unlike many other portable devices, has low-enough self-noise that one can clearly capture the relatively quiet sounds of birds, insects and other environmental ambience. However, the built-in microphones are very directional, and as a consequence, very sensitive to wind-noise. Sony provides a furry cover for the mics (a $50 option on previous models) and that mitigates wind noise, although a strong breeze is still going to create rumble.
So, in some instances, it might be more practical to position a small portable recorder than to set up microphones on stands, run cables, and record to a computer or stand-alone recorder. But it seems like the occasions where a portable device, using its built-in mics, is the best answer for 24-bit/192khz recording would be rare. So the Sony PCM-D100 sits in an odd limbo between practical portable tools, and high-end audiophile devices.
Internal vs. External Mics
Like most other Sony recorders, external mics can be connected to the recorder, but there is only a mini jack input. That means that the recorder cannot provide phantom power to condenser mics, so be sure to use a dynamic mic, or condenser mics that can use internal batteries to provide power. We generally prefer that recording devices have XLR jacks for external microphones, they provide a more solid connection — sometimes with a latch — and mini jacks often wear out, or are damaged by lots of use, or as cables are pulled at odd angles.
That said, Sony uses good components, and their mini jacks are more robust than most, so with some care, that input can work fine. You may want to take special steps not to stress that input jack, such as securing the mic cable to the back of the recorder with gaffer tape, so the weight of the cable isn’t pulling on the jack at an angle.
The internal microphones are quite good, they’re larger and warmer sounding than the mics on the D50, and are an excellent choice for recording ambiences, performances, and any other stereo soundscapes. As on the D50, the capsules can pivot from a near-coincident XY pattern to a wider spread pattern, when you need to capture a more spread-out source. That wider mic position tends to give a more vividly stereo effect, but the XY gives a more reliably mono-compatible, phase-coherent recording.
In the audio sample below, recorded in the livestock barn of a small fair, some very vocal sheep were recorded first with the mics in the XY pattern, then about half-way through, the mics are changed to the wider pattern.
The built-in mics are not ideal for recording interviews, they’re too susceptible to P-Pops and handling noise, and it’s hard to watch your meters when holding the recorder up to your subject’s mouth. The good news is that the Sony mic preamps are so clean and powerful that most any kind of external microphone will sound good with this recorder. Just remember that phantom power cannot be provided on a mini connector, so if you’re using condenser mics, they must have internal batteries. “Plug-In Power” is available to power certain electret microphones. Even low-output microphones, such as dynamic omni mics, can be used successfully with the Sony PCM-D100, provided that you have a properly wired XLR-to-mini cable. Be sure it’s made for this purpose, with the tip and ring connectors on the mini jack wired together, sometimes labeled a “camcorder cable.” That way, audio is sent to both the left and right channels, which helps in monitoring what you’re recording.
To reduce handling noise, and allow more flexible positioning of the recorder, there’s a wireless “Remote Commander” that allows you to have basic control of the machine from a distance. You can start, stop and pause the machine, engage recording (with a helpful red LED on the receiver that indicates record status) and add marks. It’s generally a good idea to keep an eye on the input meters while recording, but if you set them carefully, and then need to position the recorder in an out-of-the-way location, the wireless control can be very helpful. It works on infrared signals, much like your TV remote, so you need to be in line-of-sight, and not too far away.
A Few Minuses
In short, the PCM-D100 is a great machine. It’s a little larger and heavier than the most compact portable recorders, but smaller and lighter than many of the most popular models. The Zoom H4n, Tascam DR-100mkII, and the Marantz PMD661 are all larger than the Sony PCM-D100, but that’s an unfair comparison: those other recorders all have XLR mic inputs. Despite the lack of XLR jacks, the PCM-D100 deserves to be compared to those recorders, because the sound quality is as good or better than all of them. The built-in mics are excellent, and external mics sound great too, benefiting from extremely clean and powerful mic preamps, resulting in the cleanest sound of any of the portable recorders we’ve reviewed, rivaled only by the Sound Devices recorders.
There is one tragic design change: the input gain knob has been redesigned. They improved it by making it a nested stereo control, so now the left and right input gains can be changed independently or offset. But in doing that, they made the knob a little harder to turn. That seems like a minor complaint, but the PCM-D50’s buttery-smooth input gain knob was a major attraction! It sat comfortably under the thumb when the D50 was held in the right hand, allowing silent, accurate gain changes in real time. This is still possible on the D100, the knob is in the same position, but it’s smaller, and tighter, and behind a guard, making it harder to do a smooth adjustment with the thumb.
The D100’s operation is otherwise pretty straightforward, and will be familiar to anyone who’s used the D50. Even if you’re new to Sony devices, it’s pretty easy to navigate the menus using the up/down and left/right buttons on the navigation wheel, and pressing the central “play” button to make a selection. The Home and Option buttons provide quick access to the most common parameters one needs to adjust. By default, the F1 and F2 buttons access the limiter and the low-cut settings, allowing for quick adjustment of those helpful tools. Those buttons can be re-assigned as shortcuts to other functions if you prefer.
As with previous Sony recorders, the limiter is quite good, using a unique “dual-path” process that switches to a safe record level, rather than making real-time analog level changes, which avoids the weird pumping artifacts that many other limiters suffer from. You can set the limiter to stay at the lower safe record level for a fleeting 150 milliseconds, a full second, or a full minute (or you can turn it off completely.) Low cut filters can be turned off, or set to 75 or 150 hz, for reducing rumble from wind, handling noise, or even just too much bass from a mic close to a sound source.
The only function that might not be intuitive is the most important one: recording. Pressing the red record button puts the machine in Record-Pause mode, so you can see levels on the meters, and hear sound in your headphones. But it is NOT recording!! A second press of the record button does nothing (that often starts recording on other brands of recorders.) To begin recording, you need to press the triangle “Play” button while in Record-Pause. Then, you’ll see the elapsed-time counter rolling, and you can be sure you’re recording.
There’s a headphone jack with a volume knob (much better than an up/down rocker switch) that has plenty of output level. There’s also a line out on a stereo mini jack, which may be helpful for feeding a signal to a video camera or auxiliary recorder. That level is not continuously adjustable, as has become common on many recorders, but there are switches to change the output from mic to line level, and to pad the line level down 20 dB, which should cover most camera-feed situations sufficiently.
Another minor shortcoming: the built-in speaker is pretty anemic. It’s not such a hardship to use headphones, and speakers occasionally cause unpleasant feedback, but the basic small speakers in many competing field recorders can be handy for quick review of recordings, or transcribing when you’re sick of wearing headphones. The D100 speaker has a pretty low-level output (controlled by the headphone volume knob) making it hard to use beyond simply confirming that there’s some signal on the recording.
It’s also a little irritating that the USB connector for transferring audio files from the recorder to a computer is not a standard mini USB like every other little audio device in the universe. It is a micro USB, which is not a completely uncommon connector, but almost all other audio recorders, and most cameras, use mini USB, so it would be nice to just keep one kind of cable on-hand. So don’t lose the USB cable that comes in the box, and get a spare, or you’ll have a hard time moving sound files from the built-in memory.
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But overall, the Sony PCM-D100 is a very capable recorder, and a worthy successor to the beloved PCM-D50. Is it worth the hefty price? (About $800 at the time this article was written.) There are similar recorders, some with the preferred XLR mic inputs, some with the ability to record 4 (or more) tracks simultaneously, for less than half that price; some selling for closer to $200 (including the very capable Sony PCM M-10). Sony does give you something for that extra money: if you want to record in esoteric high-resolution formats, this is one of the few portable machines that will allow you to do that. But even if you stick to more mundane 16 bit/44.1 kHz recordings, you get a solid, well-laid-out recorder, excellent built-in microphones, and most important, clean, high quality microphone preamps, that will give you clean, hiss-free recordings whether using the built-in mics, or almost any external microphone.
A few years ago, $800 would not have seemed outrageously expensive for a great-sounding portable recorder; we’ve gotten a little spoiled by the recent bargains for surprisingly decent machines. Sometimes those inexpensive recorders are good enough, but if you want to take a step up in sound quality, and can afford the higher price, the Sony PCM-D100 can deliver big sound in a small package.
If you use a low output microphone, such as an EV RE-50, or a Beyer M58, this would be a great recorder for you. Similarly, if you find yourself using your field recorder’s built-in microphones to record ambiences and other live events, these are some of the nicest-sounding mics on any small recorder. Also, if size is an issue, this is not the smallest recorder available, but it’s more easily packable than a Marantz 661, or even a Tascam DR-60D.
But if you use high-output condenser mics, like the short shotguns we tested, you might not hear much of a sonic improvement over more affordable recorders, such as the Sony PCM-M10 – or if you prefer the more robust connections of XLR mic inputs – the Tascam Dr-100mkII. You might just want to buy one of these more affordable recorders, AND a back-up! If you like to use a condenser mic that does not have an internal battery, this is not the recorder for you. And if you prefer having your hands free by hanging your recorder by a strap (or in a bag) the Sony D100 is not a good choice.
With $800 to spend on a recorder, you could get a Marantz PMD 661, and have some money left over for a mic. The 661 has XLR mic inputs, and can hang over your shoulder. But the Sony D100 sounds better, and its built-in mics are orders of magnitude better.
So if your priority is crystal-clear sound, or if you want to record at very high sampling rates, or need to keep the recorder on the small side, buy the Sony PCM-D100. But if XLR mic inputs, a loud speaker, or a shoulder strap are important (or if you’re on a tight budget) look elsewhere.