2014-10-11

Sony PCM-M10 portable audio recorder



Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: Doing as I say, as well as as I do.

The Long Version: I've been using a Sony PCM-D50 audio recorder for ages, so whenever someone asks me for buying advice, I've suggested its newer sibling, the PCM-M10. It's 80% of the D50 for half the price, and even exceeds the abilities of the bigger unit in some ways. My arguments in its favour were so compelling, in fact, that after a few years of recounting them I eventually succumbed and bought one myself.

The Sony M10 is a hand-size audio recorder with excellent electronics and supernatural battery life. Yes, you can use it with $500 monitor headphones if you want to, as long as they have a 3.5mm jack, but that's not really the point. Its pair of omnidirectional microphones are very tolerant of suboptimal use, at the expense of some soundstage crispness, so it's perfect for people who just want to record good audio without fussing over the minutia.

I'm primarily interested in field recording ambience and environments in the city, so I have different requirements than musicians or videographers. A low noise floor is always good, but an effective limiter that can handle loud transients is much more important. Stereo imaging matters, but so do forgiving microphones and quick startup times. And there's simply no way that I'm going to walk the streets with a blimp on a boom. For me getting the sound is more important than being able to record the highest possible fidelity, and that's where the Sony M10 comes in.


The PCM-M10 is, at its heart, consumer electronics. It doesn't have the metal heft of its higher-end siblings, and cuts some corners in its controls. The worst of this is the LCD backlight being set through the menu, rather than being toggled by a dedicated button, as it's hard to see the meter display when the light turns off. It's also brutally difficult to see the numerals on the levels dial, which are only stamped on its side without any contrasting markings – although I must note that some allegedly “serious” handy recorders lack a levels dial at all. The switches on the back of the unit are easy to move accidentally, which I've resolved with some gaffer tape. And the small size of the recorder makes it particularly ill-suited to having a wind screen, with nothing much to hold one in place and no way to avoid it obscuring the LCD display or LED metering guides. The M10 is not nearly as nice or as easy to use as my bigger Sony PCM-D50.

The PCM-M10 is, on its surface, consumer electronics. It's available in black, burgundy, or white plastic; all have a wide contrasting silver band around them. My burgundy model even has little metallic flecks in the plastic, although the Black is described as matte. The microphones are hidden within the body of the unit, with small grills to cover them and no protrusions. Only the track mark button is silver, with the tape-deck transport controls being body-colour, and a black row of secondary buttons is tucked into the black surround of the LCD bezel. No casual observer is going to mistake the M10 for A Serious Piece Of Gear, which most recorders come across as, or for a stun gun, which is a real danger with the Zooms. Instead it's just another hand-sized electronic gadget of no clear purpose, and even if it is recognized as a recorder, it looks like something a student might use to hold their place while they sleep through a lecture. The M10 is not nearly as noticeable or remarkable as my bigger Sony PCM-D50.

In my life "nondescript" and "inoffensive" are goals to be aspired to. The M10 fits in perfectly.


The best feature of the Sony recorders are their built-in limiters. These clever devices record a secondary track at a lower gain, -12dB for the M10 and -20dB for the D50 and D100, which they normalize and cut in seamlessly to avoid clipping. The M10's levels will just read "OVER" instead of giving a positive reading like the D50 would, giving less indication of if and how the levels should be adjusted, but the magic still works well enough.

The M10 also has the Sony five-second preroll buffer, and even comes with the wired remote that lets it start recording without any handling noise. That's great when lying in wait for sound, but enabling the buffer has another enormous practical advantage. Like many recorders, hitting record doesn't actually start the recorder recording. This is a solid opportunity to set the levels, but it's really easy to not notice that the pause button is still flashing and think that sound is being captured when it isn't. With the buffer turned off the display looks about the same whether it's paused or rolling, but with the preroll enabled the zeroed time counter is replaced by bold blocks that look vastly different. And that's why I keep the preroll enabled: it's an obvious indicator of the recording state right under the meters that I'm devoting my attention to.

Another Sony quirk is that there's no way to change the file name format in the recorder. It's always YYMMDD_XX, so my being in a multi-Sony environment means that using both recorders on the same day creates identical file names. (Although the M10 starts incrementing the _XX portion from _01, while the D50 starts at _00.) To get around this I've set the M10's date two decades into the future, which it accepts somewhat gullibly, even though that annoys my computer's 'list files by most recent' function. This may not be much of an issue for anyone else, anywhere, ever.


One of the strengths of the PCM-M10 is that its omnidirectional microphones are relatively immune to wind. Well, gentle breezes. Maybe immune to slight drafts is a better term. Outdoors it does need a screen on all but the calmest days, but when wind does hit the M10, the effect is relatively mild. And unlike the Sony D50, which loses its mind if someone walks past its unshielded microphones too quickly, the M10 can go naked indoors with near-impunity. This is another huge advantage in the effort to be nondescript and inoffensive.

When the M10 does need a hat I'll use the Røde Dead Kitten, which is originally designed for their Stereo Videomic, but also fits the D50 and similarly-sized recorders. This is pretty heavy-duty protection, and attenuates the high frequencies somewhat, but I haven't felt the need to add a lightweight screen. Sony's own M10-specific design costs almost as much as the recorder.

As an aside, I'm also a big fan of Joby's tripods. I can highly recommend their low-profile Micro 250, which permanently lives on the bottom of my M10, and the recorder still happily fits in a pocket or small camera case. This makes it easy to position it away from the surface of a table; for the brave it can even be used as a stand to prop up the recorder vertically, as it has for some of these photos. And it doesn't block the battery door, so I don't need to remove it when I swap the M10's two AA cells – which I do out of habit, not necessity, since I've never had the patience to actually run a set down.


The M10 has about the same footprint as a small phone – that's an iPhone 5 in the photo above – and weighs about as much as a large unpeeled banana. There's just no reason to not have it nearby. Its absurd battery life means that I keep it locked on 'hold' instead of turning it off, so it only needs a quick flip of the power switch to be instantly ready. I've lost count of the number of good sounds that I've caught with the M10 that I would otherwise have missed.

I bought the Sony M10 because I thought I would use it more than the on-paper-superior D50, and I was absolutely right. It's true that I will choose to carry and use my bigger D50, with its better stereo imaging and somewhat lower noise floor, when I know that I'll be dedicating significant time to audio recording and have the comfort level to use it. This is exactly the same as choosing when to carry and use a big DSLR instead of a smaller camera. And like having multiple cameras, there have been times when I've used the little M10 even though the D50 was also in my gear bag. I'm wincing just a little to say this, but if I could only keep one audio recorder – a horrible thought – I'd be better served by the versatile and inoffensive M10. Not that I'm known for making rational choices, but hopefully it never comes to that.



last updated 12 oct 2014

2014-10-07

Panasonic DMC-GX7C, Body Only


Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 1 out of 5
Yeah, but: Buyer Beware
The Long Version:

The Purchase From Amazon

Reader beware. I'm coming at this review with a very big chip on my shoulder. Here's why.

I purchased a Panasonic GX7 black body from Amazon because it was marked down over a 1/3 from its original MSRP. Now when I purchase a camera body, I expect a camera body properly marked and boxed. That's not what I got. The seller, Web Offers, sold me a broken up body plus lens kit, where the lens had been removed (I assume to sell independently when the 20mm was selling for $100 and more over its initial MSRP). It was not advertised as such on Amazon.

When the box was opened and the body unwrapped, the body/sensor cavity was open, the body cover in another part of the box. Even the box listed the 20mm as part of the overall kit. Web Offers had to have known what it was doing, or what it had. The original SKU label was papered over with another sticker that said "Body only..."

I never expected to get such from a trusted vendor like Amazon. This is the kind of shady behaviour I expect from eBay. My trust in Amazon has taken a bit of a hit over this, especially over sale items Amazon fullfills but are sold by another seller. Mere fulfillment by Amazon isn't enough of a guarantee of quality it would seem. 

Pros

Image Quality

I ran my tests primarily with the Olympus 1.8/17mm lens, but over the short time I had the GX7 I also tested with the 1.8/45mm, the 12-50mm kit zoom and the Panasonic Leica 1.4/25mm. The GX7 handled all of them smoothly and without any issues. From a practical standpoint, focusing with the GX7 in normal Florida light was as fast as the E-M5, or close enough as to be irrelevant as to which was faster.

The GX7 has a 16MP 4:3rds sensor matched with a contemporary Panasonic Venus Engine. For all intents and purposes, the output of the GX7 is indistinguishable from the E-M5 when used as a standard digital camera, that is, using either the EVF or the rear screen to compose and tripping the shutter with the shutter button. There is, however, more to today's cameras than just image quality.

Cons

Handling


I have read the phrase "falls easily to hand" so many times that I'm sick of reading it. The GX7 does not "fall easily" to my hand. I own a number of µ4:3rds bodies; the Olympus E-P2, the E-PL1, the Panasonic GX1 and the Olympus E-M5. I even have a Sony NEX 5N. I know how these small cameras should handle. All of them, in various degrees, have been easy enough to hold, especially over prolonged periods of time. The best handling camera I own by far is the E-M5, and that's whether I have the HLD-6 horizontal grip bolted on or not (I don't usually shoot with the vertical grip).

When I'm out using a camera I walk around carrying my camera in my right hand so that it's quick to bring up and use. Using the GX7 in this manner is awkward and becomes fatiguing over time compared to my other cameras. I attribute this in part to the GX7's oddly asymmetrical design, the most asymmetrical I've held to date (with the notable exception of the NEX 5N, perhaps).

Unlike all other µ4:3rds camera bodies I own, the lens mount is shoved to the right edge of the body (forward view); the lens release abuts the edge. Even the GX1 lens mount isn't pushed that far. Add in the large soft lump on the left that passes for the grip and it makes for an awkward combination with any lens, the larger the more awkward. The best handling combination was with the 17mm, followed closely by the 45mm. The worst was a tie between the 25mm and the 12-50mm zoom.


The differences between the GX7 and the E-M5 is not just the front grip but also the back thumb grip; to whit, the E-M5 (and E-M1 and E-M10) have a substantial thumb grip, while the GX7 does not. I believe It's that back thumb grip that allows me to hold the E-M5 with a more relaxed grip. With the GX7 I unconsciously believe I'm constantly ready to drop it because I don't have the same assuring tactile feedback.

The buttons turned out to be very sensitive to touch, so much that the would register a double hit, causing me to skip say a menu entry. It got tiresome having to go back very carefully one step. The worse button by far turned out to be the video button. It is flat against the top deck, right up next to the dial surrounding the shutter release. It was very uncomfortable to reach over and release, a far cry from the far easier button on the E-M5

EVF

The EVF does indeed suffer from rainbow shearing. It's particularly egregious around the white text at the bottom of the EVF. It was so bad that in the end I found myself using the rear LCD almost exclusively. I found the EVF tilting feature a bit of a waste of effort. I've got an Olympus EVF that fits my older Pens, and I've never been all that enamored with its tilting capability either.

Rear Screen

What finally drove me batty was trying to work with the touch LCD on the back of the GX7. My E-M5 has a reasonable oleophobic surface on the screen, which tends to keep my oily fingerprints off and helps to me see what the screen. The GX7 screen was constantly picking up finger oil, which was constantly forcing me to wipe it with a micro fiber cloth.

The GX7 touch screen was almost too sensitive at times. I would inadvertently touch a part of the screen, triggering an exposure, and relocating the focus point. In the end I disabled the touch screen and just used the buttons (those wonderfully over sensitive buttons) to move the focus point if I needed it moved.

The E-M5 touch screen, by comparison, is a joy to use. If there's one feature Olympus nailed with the E-M5 it's how the touch-to-trigger-exposure works. It works flawlessly on the E-M5, and as I've recently discovered, on the E-M10 as well.

Summation

If I had to make a choice between the GX1 and the GX7, I'd choose the GX1. Likewise, I'd choose the E-M5 in a cold minute over the GX7. The GX7 isn't worth the money, even if it's on sale. There are better µ4:3rds bodies to be had, even from Panasonic. Consider, for example, the Panasonic G6 for the same amount of money.

The GX7 has been packed up and sent back to Amazon. In it's place I purchased an Olympus E-M10 body, which turned out to be less than the GX7. It's probably what I should have done to start with, but I wanted to give the rangefinder design with the built-in EVF a whirl, thinking this would be a good fit in my camera bag. It was not

I've sworn off the faux rangefinder designs of every camera maker, including Olympus' Pen series. Funny thing is, with the Olympus EVF plugged into the Pen, the EVF sits over the lens, just like an SLR design such as the OM-D. I've learned my lesson. I'm sticking with the mirrorless SLR designs from here on out regardless of brand, and unless they go truly bonkers, I'm sticking with Olympus.

last updated 7 oct 2014

2014-09-14

Sigma DP3 Merrill


Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: Okay, but seriously…

The Long Version: The Sigma DP3 Merrill is a camera that puts the decimal point in the wrong place. My comfortable high-iso limit is iso640, it takes about 50 photos per battery, writing a burst of one raw file to a fast memory card takes 13 seconds. Even its memory cards hold just a fraction of the images its pixel count should suggest, and it needs clunky raw-processing software that predates the invention of 'workflow'. The DP3M could be from the dawn of consumer digital cameras.

The Merrill lacks basic abilities that are included in any half-decent point and shoot these days. No image stabilization, no flash, poor LCD quality, and no concessions to shapes that the human hand can hold. Forget about modern conveniences like viewfinders, tilting LCD screens, or remote shutter releases. Every nitpicking review and every negative word ever written about this camera has at least some truth to it, and often quite a lot.

And yet it doesn't matter. The Sigma DP3 Merrill is a magic camera.


Some equipment creates uncommonly compelling images in a way that has nothing to do with the users' skills. Of course this undefinable ability won't perform for every owner, or even consistently for the fortunate ones, but when it's right it's unmistakable. The DP3M has this magic.

The DP3 Merrill creates my favourite photos. It's neither my favourite nor my best camera, but I can lose track of time looking at images that should have been nothing but snapshots. I want to use it out of all proportion to its operational merits, and despite all of its shortcomings. It's capricious, but give it its due and it can be benevolent and gracious; treat it carelessly and suffer its anger and wrath.

Would you choose a flawed and frustrating camera if the results have the potential to be exceptional? That question can only have a personal answer. Most people, quite sensibly, will say no outright. There are plenty of really excellent cameras out there that don't carry the Sigma-Foveon baggage. A few will say “yes, sometimes” – this is the group that I find myself in. Some people, I suppose, will give an unqualified yes. There are certainly more difficult ways to make art, and creating art is the only purpose for a machine like this.


last updated 14 sept 2014

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