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Sony PCM-D50 review: Sony PCM-D50

Sony PCM-D50

Donald Bell Senior Editor / How To
Donald Bell has spent more than five years as a CNET senior editor, reviewing everything from MP3 players to the first three generations of the Apple iPad. He currently devotes his time to producing How To content for CNET, as well as weekly episodes of CNET's Top 5 video series.
Donald Bell
5 min read


Sony PCM-D50

The Good

The Sony PCM-D50 handheld audio recorder offers high quality built-in stereo microphones, brilliant design, detailed recording resolution, long battery life, and an excellent assortment of features.

The Bad

The Sony PCM-D50 has only 4GB of internal memory, proprietary Sony Memory Stick expansion, no direct recording of MP3 files, and no easy way to connect professional 1/4-inch or XLR audio cables.

The Bottom Line

If you're looking to make great mobile recordings without lugging around a cumbersome laptop recording rig, the Sony PCM-D50 offers an unbeatable combination of design, recording quality, battery life, and features at a justifiable price.

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.

Sony PCM-D50
The stereo condenser microphones on the top of the Sony PCM-D50 can swivel inward to focus on a single source, or outward (pictured) for a wide stereo effect.

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.

Sony PCM-D50
When it comes to design ergonomics, microphone quality, and battery life, the Sony PCM-D50 leaves the more expensive Korg MR-1 in the dust.

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.

With so many portable gadgets relying on built-in rechargeable battery packs, Sony's decision to use AA battery power in the PCM-D50 may seem a little backward. While the use of four AA batteries makes the Sony PCM-D50 somewhat bulkier than its lithium-ion powered peers, the benefit of having an abundant, quickly swappable source of portable power is an asset for those recording in remote locations.

The Sony PCM-D50 also includes a handful of cool features that are easy to miss. For instance, a switch on the left side of the PCM-D50 activates a digital playback speed control capable of a 100 percent increase or a 75 percent decrease in playback speed. The Sony PCM-D50 also lets you divide tracks on the fly, create custom playback loops, make lossless recordings from digital sources such as CDs, DATs, or MiniDiscs using the digital input jack, and quickly transfer files to your computer using standard mini USB 2.0 connection--a rare feature for Sony.

Our favorite little feature included on the Sony PCM-D50 is a prerecord buffer that lets you capture an extra five seconds of audio preceding the moment you hit the record button. Using Sony's prerecording feature feels a little like time travel, and it's a valuable tool for capturing unpredictable audio sources such as bird calls or selectively recording lectures without missing the beginning of a critical sentence.

Sony PCM-D50
The four AA batteries that power the Sony PCM-D50 can be swapped out easily for minimal recording downtime.

The recording quality achieved through the Sony PCM-D50's built-in stereo microphones is hard to beat. Competing products such as the M-Audio Microtrack II or the Korg MR-1 can't compare with the quality, noise isolation, and durability of the Sony PCM-D50's microphones. Beyond the PCM-D50's unique, high-quality, articulated microphone design, less obvious features such as quiet solid-state memory, an adjustable limiter, switchable SBM noise reduction, and a prominent recording-level adjustment knob, help to make recordings crystal clear.

The Sony PCM-D50's rated battery life is the best in its class, offering roughly 12 hours of recording time from four AA batteries. At its default recording setting of 16-bit, 44KHz (CD-quality), the Sony PCM-D50's 4GB of memory can store 6.5 hours of continuous recording, or up to 13 hours at a lower resolution 22KHz setting. You can also expand the PCM-D50's storage capacity using Sony ProDuo Memory Sticks.

Final thoughts
We've yet to find a handheld audio recorder that nails every feature we're looking for, but the Sony PCM-D50 gets close. Compared with the competition, the Sony PCM-D50 offers the best microphones, build quality, ergonomics, battery life, and overall features, so long as you can forgive its small storage capacity, lack of MP3 recording, and proprietary memory expansion.


Sony PCM-D50

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 9