The Sony PCM-D10
Sony has been toying with our audio affections for years. Their PCM-D50 was a favorite recorder of ours for a long time, until the company suddenly stopped making it.
We consoled ourselves with their more consumer-oriented PCM-M10, which was much smaller, half the price, and still sounded great, with extraordinary battery life. It remains one of our favorite affordable recorders, but. . . you guessed it: Sony stopped making that model too.
Sony eventually released the PCM-D100, offering high-resolution recording formats, with excellent built-in mics, and overall pristine sound quality. It’s a great recorder, but we remain daunted by the high price tag: approximately $775 at press time.
All three of those recorders featured excellent sound quality, but we’d always been frustrated by the minijack input, which was the only way to connect external mics. These Sony recorders have all featured very good built-in mics, but for most audio documentary work, we prefer using external microphones. Although the sound quality has always been good when using the mini jack mic input, we’ve always hoped for a Sony recorder with XLR mic inputs. XLRs are more robust connectors — after lots of use, we’ve experienced failures of the mini inputs, a problem that is difficult and expensive to repair.
Additionally, a mini input eliminates the option of sending phantom power to condenser mics from the recorder. Some condenser mics have the option of an internal battery for phantom power, but not all do, so an XLR input provides not only a more robust connection, but also expands the pool of mics that can be used.
We are quite excited to report that Sony has finally made a portable audio recorder with XLR inputs. The PCM-D10 offers many of the advantages of the more-expensive D100, such as high resolution recording, and excellent built-in mics, at a lower price ($500 USD.) There’s also a stereo mini input, which can provide plug-in power if you have microphones that use that connector and powering scheme. The D100 remains Sony’s flagship recorder in terms of sound quality, but the D10 offers several practical advantages. The latching XLR inputs for external mics inspire confidence, the multiple physical switches and smooth input gain knob make it very easy to configure and use, and its excellent sound quality makes its price, which is higher than similar recorders from Tascam and Zoom, easier to swallow.
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Right out of the box, it’s quite striking how large the PCM-D10 is. It’s much longer and wider than similar recorders from Tascam and Zoom. It’s lighter than it looks, but it’s still hefty: 480 grams (a little over a pound) which is close to 80 grams heavier than the Sony PCM-D100, about 50 grams heavier than the Tascam DR-100mkIII (which has a built-in rechargeable battery) and almost 200 grams heavier than the Zoom H5.
It’s not uncomfortable to hold, but if you have small hands, it might feel cumbersome. When held in the right hand, the input gain knob falls pretty comfortably under one’s thumb, making it easy to make gradual, silent adjustments to the record levels in real time. The dial is concentric — the left and right channels can be offset against one another — but they also move tightly together. It’s a real analog input potentiometer, so adjustments are smooth: there’s no stair-stepping as digital gain controls can cause.
This recorder may be large, but there’s good reason for that: in addition to the XLR jacks, there are many physical switches and buttons for common functions. It’s quite refreshing to not have to search through menus to make basic adjustments. There are switches to select the built-in mics or the external XLRs. Another set of switches to select mic or line-level on each XLR input independently. Yet another switch to toggle between mic or line-level for the mini input. There are even independent switches to turn phantom power on or off on each channel.
There’s a dedicated button that selects the source for headphone monitoring: left channel, right channel or stereo. This is useful when recording different sources to the external inputs, such as a lavalier on one channel and a boom mic on the other. The ability to toggle through those inputs with a few simple pushes to a dedicated button is very convenient.
Right next to the headphone source button is a dedicated button that lights the display.
The headphone volume control is on an up/down toggle, which is disappointing, and the maximum volume is not great, but that’s one of the few shortcomings in the D10’s design.
All of these hardware switches allow for a logical, streamlined menu system. Most options are quickly accessed without digging through multiple layers of sub-menus. Even so, there’s a lot of flexibility in setting sample rates and bit-depths, which can go as high as 24-bit and 192 kHz. It’s simple to toggle between stereo or mono recording, and when mono is selected, the left input is active, and the headphones automatically switch to monitoring that input in mono. Even the built-in mics follow this pattern: if mono recording is selected, only the left mic capsule is active.
Sony has put a lot of focus on the quality of the built-in microphones. They have an extended frequency response, up to 40 kHz, which can be very handy when recording at 96 kHz sample rate, or higher, and then later pitching those recordings down in an editing program. This can bring ultrasonic sounds, such as bat vocalizations, into the audible range, or can simply transform other sounds, which is appealing to sound designers.
For many recordists, high sample rates and extended frequency response are of no practical use. For most radio, film or podcast use, 44.1 or 48 kHz is sufficient. Regardless of their specs, those built-in mics do sound quite good, and they can be very useful for recording ambiences, musical performances, and other events.
As is the case with most built-in mics on hand-held recorders, they are very sensitive to handling noise, and wind. When using the built-in mics, it is best to mount the recorder on a stand, or use an isolation mount, to avoid transmitting thumps and rumbles through the case. The mics are so sensitive that a windscreen is necessary even in the absence of wind: a subtle movement of the recorder, or gentle air movement from ventilation airflow, will create wind rumble. The D10 ships with a simple foam windscreen, which helps a little, but some aftermarket additional wind protection, such as a furry “windjammer” will likely be necessary, especially if used outdoors. Oddly, there don’t seem to be furry covers specifically designed for the D10 – yet – but it’s highly likely that Sony, Rycote, and other companies will offer them for sale soon. I was able to stretch a Sony furry cover designed for the M10 over the end of the D10, but it’s a tight fit, hopefully there will be a properly-proportioned windjammer available soon.
Unlike some similarly-constructed recorders, such as the Zoom H5, the PCM-D10 cannot record the built-in mics and the external XLR inputs simultaneously. On the D10, a hardware switch selects between one set of inputs or the other. If the recorder is switched to the internal input, plugging a mini cable into the mic/line input on the upper right edge of the recorder disconnects the built-in mics and automatically makes that mini input active.
The sound quality of that mini input seems to be about the same as with the XLRs, so either input can be used with good results. And that’s the most important thing: the sound quality of the D10 is quite good, whether using the built-in mics or external mics. Dual analog-to-digital converters provide excellent audio performance, especially when using the optional High S/N (Signal-to-Noise) Mode. This allows clean recordings at low audio levels, so input gain can be set conservatively, allowing plenty of headroom for peaks, while retaining clean recording quality.
Here are some examples:
The PCM-D10 features 16 GB of internal memory, as well as a slot for a standard SD card, which can accept up to 256 GB cards. A menu setting can turn-on cross-memory recording, so that recordings will cascade from the internal memory to the external SD card, when internal memory is full.
A few features can be controlled remotely using a smartphone app, available for both iOs and Android. Because the input gain is on an analog dial, that cannot be adjusted remotely through the app, but transport controls, marking, metering, and more, are available on your smartphone.
The D10 is powered by 4 AA batteries, and although battery life is impacted by file format, phantom power usage, and other factors, initial testing indicates that those 4 AAs last a very long time. The manual claims 32 hours or more, and while we haven’t had the recorder running for that long continuously, after extensive use over several days, we’re still on the first set of four alkaline AAs, so it does appear that the machine can run for a full-day, or even more, without changing batteries.
The field recorder market has become crowded with devices like this, each with pros and cons. Zoom’s H5 sells for a much lower price, is smaller and lighter, and can record the built-in mics and external XLR inputs at the same time. Tascam’s DR-100mkIII has a very convenient rechargeable battery, a bigger, brighter display, and it sells for $100 less than the D10. Zoom’s F4 and Sound Device’s MixPre3 are only about $150 more than the D10, and those recorders offer flexible multitrack capabilities, timecode, and other professional features. But the Sony PCM-D10 offers a notable ease-of-use due to its multiple physical switches, and its built-in microphones are better than those on the Zoom or Tascam, its overall sound quality is as good or better than the similar recorders, and its long battery life is very convenient. The PCM-D10 is just a little too large, a little too heavy, and a little too expensive, yet . . . it’s a serious contender for best-in-class for a handheld stereo recorder.