Comparison: Sony ADPCM1 and Røde 'Dead Kitten' Windscreens on the Sony PCM-D50

Sony: 2 out of 5
Rode: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: Imagine if they were actually designed for the PCM-D50.

The Long Version: As part of my never-ending quest for expensive hobbies, I've decided to take up audio recording. After months researching portable field recorders, mostly spent on other people's review blogs, I chose the Sony PCM-D50. You will never, ever find a review of this excellent field recorder here - it's been done and there's nothing that I can add. I can only direct people to a few of the sites that helped me: Brad Linder, Transom, O'Reilly, Wingfield, Future Music, and F7 Sound. What I can do is fill in a little bit of information about the accessories.

The Sony D50 is equipped with a pair of condenser microphones, so it's very sensitive to wind noise. Some sort of windjammer is mandatory, but Sony doesn't include one in the box. Their recommended screen is the ADPCM1, and as its name suggests, it's also/originally for the $2000 PCM-D1. It has mid-length fur that's neatly trimmed, and the D50 still squeezes inside the fancy Sony flip case with it in place. My biggest complaint about the screen is that, despite being hard to put on, it has a very loose fit. I have no doubt that one day it will run away from home. I've already dropped it on the sidewalk a couple of times, and even the addition of some ponytail-elastics hasn't really helped.

Since I'm sure that I'll lose the Sony windscreen eventually, it seemed prudent to preemptively order its replacement. I had read on a forum that the Rode 'Dead Kitten' would fit the PCM-D50, so that was the one that I picked. (RØDE, for what it's worth, is Australian.) It has a taller and boxy design that's intended to go over the NT4 and Stereo VideoMic, but it has a very strong and narrow elastic cuff that holds snugly around the D50's roll cage. Its fur is also much longer and floofier than the Sony windscreen, making it look like the D50 is having a lot more fun.

The elastic on the Kitten is so strong that when it's off of the recorder it rolls into a little ball, and it can be hard to find the opening. It also has sides, with one flap that's longer than the others. With that put at the back, the -12 and 0dB LEDs on the D50 are somewhat visible, but mine will still get a slight haircut to help that out. And yes, I did include this photo just in case anyone thought I was being funny with the 'Dead Kitten' name. Did I mention that Rode is Australian?


I wanted a simple way to compare the performance of the different windshields, so lacking any better ideas, I set up an oscillating fan. I've read somewhere that a fan doesn't provide a realistic test, since its steady output doesn't match the force or variability of real wind, but it was the best I could do for repeatable and consistent conditions. I set the recorder up about one foot from the fan and one foot from the ground, and positioned it so that it was catching the fan on one end of its travels. Even if it's not scientific in its rigour, the results do seem indicative of real-world performance.

These are Audacity's audio waveforms from the original 48KHz/24-bit .wav files for the Dead Kitten, Sony windscreen, and the bare nekkid PCM-D50. The mics were set to XY stereo, the gain was set to 7, and the low-cut filter was off. I set the levels so that the Sony windscreen was barely clipping, hitting +03dB, which the D50's fancy limiter handles with ease. The Rode peaked at about -3dB at the same position and settings; for the screenless recorder that was enough to cause serious hard clipping, which is the first time I've ever actually heard it with the D50. (A gain setting of '2' stopped the wind noise from clipping, and completely removed the sound of the pesky fan.) With the screens, the sound of the gears is audible underneath the hum of the blades, and with the Dead Kitten it can be heard even when the full force of the fan is hitting it.

You can click on these links to listen to the mp3 versions of the files. They're each 25 seconds long, start two seconds before the first pass of the fan, and end five seconds after the second pass. You'll want to turn the volume down for the last one.

Rode Dead Kitten:

Sony Windscreen:

Bare PCM-D50:

I have a habit of being very conciliatory in my comparison conclusions, and this isn't going to be an exception. The Dead Kitten is clearly the more effective windscreen, but at the expense of a slight overall reduction in sound levels. That's not a big deal, since the PCM-D50 has plenty of gain to spare, but the larger hairdo makes it very difficult to fit into its fancy case (sold separately). So I'm striking a compromise: dedicated recording sessions will use a tripod and the Rode screen, and the Sony windscreen is the one to use when I'm just carrying the D50 around in its case.

...at least until I lose it.


Tire Sparx LED Bike Lights

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: They're great while they last.

The Long Version: These are nifty little lights that attach to bike wheels by screwing onto schrader valve stems. They're motion-activated, so there's no on/off switch, and they run for a little while once the movement has stopped. They combine two really powerful attention-getting techniques, flashing and movement, and the bikes that I've seen with them really stand out. I especially like that they're visible from the side, since headlights and taillights don't help much for cars that are approaching from a cross-street.

But as effective and clever as they are, there are a couple of things that I'm not a fan of. For one thing, the screw-on thread is really deep - bordering on profound. I can't just half-tighten anything, so getting them on and off for the biweekly inflation is far more work than it needs to be. The other complaint is that they turn on really, really easily. Walking past them is enough to set them off. There's a handy extra set of batteries in the package, and they aren't there out of charity. I've read other comments that they can be very slow to activate, so I'm guessing that this is the Mark II edition - perhaps the next version will add a little "off" switch, or perhaps it will need a few seconds of acceleration before it triggers. When they do that, I'll buy another set.


Canon Powershot SX20 IS

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's a compact, but it doesn't disappoint.

The Long Version: I've been looking for a compact camera for a while, and not having much luck. Admittedly, there's no shortage of cameras in my life, so I wasn't just looking for a generic happysnap, and a lot of what I want is contradictory. I like small P&S toys, and love the Canon SD780 for its body, but I own three pocketable cameras already. I'd like something durable, but already have the Olympus 770SW. Ultimately I decided that what I was really lacking was quality video recording and a visible-light long zoom. Since I already have the FZ18, I was waiting for its replacement's replacement to hit the store shelf. It arrived, I didn't like it, and after considering just about everything else from Canon and Panasonic, I picked the Powershot SX20 IS.

The SX20 is still a fairly new camera, and like all of the review sites that haven't published their thoughts yet, I haven't had much time for in-depth analysis. Not that it's really worth doing much in-depth analysis: compact cameras are never particularly strong on image quality, and it's certainly not my priority when I can put a lens on an SLR and have a combination that costs ten times what this Powershot does. It's all about the features.

The SX20 replaces the SX10, which replaces the S5, and so on down to the S1 - skipping #4 - that came out in early 2004. In digital camera years, that should earn it a bronze plaque and special municipal protections as a heritage site. It's not surprising that Canon has gotten just about everything right.

The defining feature of the SX20 is the lens. It zooms through its 28-560mm-equivalent range very quickly, and focusing is fast enough that it doesn't annoy me. The lens is decent, reasonably sharp, with some distortion and fringing, but not that much. Again, my standard is simple: it doesn't annoy me. The image quality is pretty good; not SLR-class, but as good as anyone can expect from sRGB jpegs and an itty-bitty sensor that's noisy at its base iso.

The next feature that appeals to me is the flippy LCD screen. I have one on my Olympus E-3, and know just how important it is for Live View shooting. Since the HD video is going to be a major use for this camera, the flip-out screen puts it above cameras of similar quality. Not that there are a lot of similar cameras; the FZ35 would have been a logical choice for me, but its AF speed had already knocked it out of contention.

The final big feature of the SX20 that appealed to me is a little more subjective - I like that it takes AA batteries. My sound recorder also runs on them, so if I'm out to record video and audio, then I only need one type of backups. Handy. It does add some extra weight to an already not-light camera, but given how much weight the lens puts on the front of the camera, I think it actually helps the balance. The AA's also means that rechargeable batteries need to be added to the price of the camera before it can be fairly compared to other long-zoom cameras, and since it's already toward the top of the price bracket, that's not insignificant. At least the SD card slot isn't in the battery compartment the way it was with the S5 IS.

Naturally, there's more to be said for the SX20. It has a hot-shoe, so there's no reason why I couldn't hook it up with a Canon speedlight. It can work in fully manual mode, so I could also run my Olympus flashes or use my Pocket Wizards on it. The built-in flash needs to be moved up to fire, so there's no risk of having it go off without warning. The controls overall are very good for a compact: not quite at the G10 level, but it still has more buttons than some entry-level SLRs. It has the spinning control wheel around the four-way controller, but even it isn't as touchy and annoying as the one on the SX200 or most of the Elph line. The SX20 works just like a Canon camera, and in a good way.

But the Canon still has some odd and inherited quirks. The lens cap has only a tenuous grasp on the camera, which is unchanged from at least the S5 IS. (Updated: I've replaced mine with a lens cap from Nikon, which is the best design out there right now, but any 52mm cap will work.) The lens hood is a nice, slightly flexible plastic, but I've needed to tape it in place. This shouldn't be that difficult. I suppose, since it doesn't have an "L" lens, I should just be happy that Canon includes a lens hood at all.

And finally, I have to say that I'm pleased with the video quality. It's far, far better than the Olympus Stylus 770SW that I've been using, and the audio is passable as well. Not great, but passible, and better than most of the cameras that I've tested. I'd have no problem recommending the SX20 to people who are looking for a long-zoom camera with decent, but not quite HD-Camcorder-level video. It has a few quirks, but overall it's a very well built camera that has had the advantages of experience and time to get the design right. It will never rival the image quality of any of my SLRs, but it doesn't need to. It's perfect for biking, is able to handle just about any (daylight) situation, and it fits into my MEC Pod slingpack along with my audio recorder and gorillapod. Instead of putting this one on a test bench, I just look at the photos it takes, and am happy that I had the SX20 with me to take them.

updated much later: the SX20 proved to me how much I could like a long zoom lens, but I sold it after I bought a Panasonic GH1 with its 14-140 lens. It's not the same range as the Canon, but the better image quality makes up for it.


Infrared-Converted Panasonic FZ18

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: This might be a one-of-a-kind.

The Long Version: Infrared photography has a long and distinguished history, being almost 100 years old. But like many things, digital technology has made the whole thing easier - with a big caveat. Digital camera sensors are perfectly capable of taking photographs in IR, but this skews the colours in regular photography, so the manufacturers need to add a filter to cut out (most of) the infrared part of the spectrum. The most common way to take digital photos in IR is to add a filter that cuts out (most of) the visible part of the spectrum. So between two filters that try to negate all of the light in the world, there's just a little wiggle room that lets an exposure squeak in. Expect tripods, high-iso, and long exposures.

Then there's the other way of doing it: get someone to seriously void the camera's warranty by replacing the built-in filter that blocks the infrared light with one that blocks the visible light. Voilà and hey presto, all of a sudden the camera sees in infrared but still acts like a real camera, with reasonable shutter speeds and a usable viewfinder. Compact cameras will focus and work normally, and DSLRs with imaging-sensor Live View can use contrast-detection AF or manual focus. For cameras without an LCD preview, you're going to need to find an older lens with IR compensation marks, because the focusing distance isn't quite the same as the visible spectrum.

All told, compact cameras make really good candidates for permanent IR conversion, and the conversion masks some of the inadequacies of their smaller sensors. Not all of them, but some. The Panasonic FZ18 is a versatile camera that shoots raw with manual controls, so when I saw this used one for sale for less than what a new one cost, with the added value of the IR conversion, was too good to skip. The expense of the modification makes the added longevity of DSLRs good investment, so they're really good candidates for conversion, too. It's just a matter of choosing how much you want to commit financially and practically to the new endeavor.

The FZ18 is an older camera - the DPReview analysis is a mere 16 pages long - and it certainly has its flaws. But the lens performs well for infrared, which is never assured, and the need to convert most of its output to B&W anyway tames its noise. For the best bright leaves, it can have its custom white balance set on a lawn; easy aperture control and exposure compensation are done via the little control toggle that reminds me of the NSFW nickname for IBM's laptop mouse replacement. All told it's a fun camera, and it has made me like the FZ family enough to make me think about adding another camera to my collection.

One of the quirks of infrared is that synthetic fabrics are often very bright, and this camera renders them an otherworldly purple. That's at least partly because this camera has had an IR-lite conversion done, and still lets through some visible light. It doesn't quite give the customary black skies and white foliage without some help from Lightroom. Naturally, if you're commissioning a conversion yourself, you can choose a harder cut, but I like it this way. It gives me the option of adding something like a B + W 093 filter if and when the spirit moves me. The two-step process increases the expense, but isn't that what photography's all about?


Dark Chocolate M&M's

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: They may be the perfect food.

The Long Version: M&M's have been around for almost seventy years, but the dark chocolate version is an upstart that's only been around a few years. Wikipedia has everything I'll ever want to know about it, and then some - apparently these ones were introduced with a tie-in to Revenge of the Sith. I'm trying not to let that bother me.

The dark chocolate won't win any prizes, but it's good and the candy stops it from being too strong. I usually like dark chocolate because its strength means I don't each as much, but I can go through a pack of these in an easy evening. That also makes it really easy to not get much sleep that night. But for early morning photo excursions, they're an essential part of my kit.

Writing a conclusion for M&M's seems odd, even to me. They have all of the good points of M&M's, and dark chocolate is never a bad thing. They're not a radical innovation, but they're good. About the only negative is that they're slightly more expensive because there's slightly less in each package. All told, not bad.

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