Remember when consumer audio gadgets included a record button? If you're looking for a modern update to the portable cassette recorders of yesterday, or you need a practical solution for capturing concerts or interviews, the Sony PCM-D50 handheld audio recorder ($599) is a worthwhile investment.
The Sony PCM-D50's design is reminiscent of an old cassette Walkman, measuring 3 inches wide by 6 inches tall by 1.25 inches deep and weighing about 0.8 pound. It's certainly not slim when judged by the standards of today's ultraslim MP3 players, but when you consider that the Sony PCM-D50's design includes a pair of high-quality condenser microphones, storage for four AA batteries, and a Memory Stick expansion slot, it's easy to forgive its girth. In fact, we're happy to see oversized features on the PCM-D50, such as the prominent recording-level adjustment knob and the metal-reinforced microphone cage.
If you hate digging through onscreen menus to switch features on and off, the Sony PCM-D50 harkens back to the days when a tape deck's every feature had an external switch or button. The PCM-D50's onboard audio limiter, low cut filter, playback pitch adjustment, line/mic input switch, -20db audio input pad, and playback A-B loop are all given dedicated hardware controls. Typical of the design detail we're accustomed to seeing from Sony, each of the PCM-D50's buttons and switches are differentiated from one another using placement, texture, color, or shape, allowing the recorder to be operated blindly, if needed. If you don't take advantage of the button hold switch, however, you'll soon realize that the downside to the PCM-D50's button-heavy design is a heightened risk of triggering a feature accidentally.
Located above the PCM-D50's button gluttony is a 2-inch monochrome screen, critical for metering external recording levels and digging into advanced settings such as recording resolution. The layout of the PCM-D50's main recording and playback screen shows pertinent information such as elapsed recording time, remaining battery life, storage capacity, recording resolution, track number, and input level.
The Sony PCM-D50's built-in microphones are not only a striking design feature, but they're also some of the best sounding mics we've heard on a portable recorder. The stereo set of condenser microphones can be articulated into either a 120-degree position that creates a wide stereo field suited for recording concerts and nature sounds, or a 90-degree position ideal for making detailed recordings of a single audio source, such as a voice or music instrument. A rigid metal guard rail extends around the front of the Sony PCM-D50's microphones, serving as both protection and as a form for the optional microphone windscreen.
The Sony PCM-D50 records to just one format: uncompressed WAV. Sony's lack of support for MP3 recording may seem restrictive, but considering that the PCM-D50 can record in a broad range of resolutions, ranging from 22KHz/16-bit, all the way up through 96KHz/24-bit, most users should have no problem finding a setting that suits their needs. It's worth noting that the Sony PCM-D50 is capable of playing MP3 files, despite its inability to record them.