Audible tears were heard slowly rolling down sound designer’s cheeks when Sony discontinued both their M10 and D50 field recording models recently. They were affordable recorders with built-in mics that also offered plug-in power for attaching microphones with an 1/8” connection or a preamp for XLR mics. The recorders were well regarded for their small footprint, decent cost, and good quality. Sony has attempted to fill the void left from the departure of these two economical field recording mainstays with the ICD-SX2000, a very small footprint, high resolution audio recorder.
The first thing to strike you about the SX2000 is its size. It has the form (and model number) of a voice recorder, measuring a trim 1½ by 4½ inches. All the standard controls are there and the menus are simple to navigate and fairly intuitive. Many of the features and controls mirror either the D50, the M10 or both. Like the D50, it has dual microphone capsules which swivel into one of three positions: ORTF/120 degrees/wide, straight ahead and X/Y. The microphones are spaced less than an inch apart, so there is not a tremendously detectable difference across the three patterns. The mic capsules are also so tiny that when rotating them, they don’t feel particularly durable, but I had no troubles with them during testing.
The SX2000 dubs itself a Hi-Res Audio recorder, which essentially means it offers the ability to record at 96kHz/24-bit PCM. Beyond that, its choices are surprisingly limited, offering only 44.1/16-bit PCM and four MP3 quality settings ranging from 48kbps to 320. Why a recorder in 2017 chooses to record at 44.1kHz instead of 48k is an odd inclusion/omission.
The device has an impressive 16gb of internal memory, enough for 6+ hours of 96k recording, and also features a slot for a micro SD card on its side. It’s an impressive upgrade from the D50 and M10 which both offered similar features, but limited the built-in memory to just 4gb. (The D50 was further hobbled by only offering Sony’s proprietary MemoryStick as an additional memory slot, while the M10 allowed for both MemoryStick and SD card).
The battery is exceptionally robust. Over a three-day weekend full of recording the battery meter never dipped below it’s full bars display. On a soak test to determine how long the recorder could go before draining the battery, it recorded for five and a half hours nonstop before it dropped a single bar of its four bar battery display. Sony claims up to 15 hours recording on a single charge at 96/24 and I was seeing an admirably close figure of 12 – 14 hours. So without an extra SD card in the device, the SX2000’s memory fills up twice over before the battery drains once! The battery is a built-in lithium-ion, and can be charged via the included USB port (more on that below).
When recording, the device itself offers a small red peak indicator on the front just above the screen, which can get blocked when utilizing the included foam windscreen. The SX2000 also offers no additional -12dB lights as the M10 and D50 both had. It’s a minor gripe, but the -12 lights were a handy visual indicator on these past recorders.
Due to its small size and plastic body, the recorder is very prone to handling noise. Fortunately it also has some wonderful, modern features to alleviate the need to touch or even be near your recorder when operating it.
The SX2000 features bluetooth and an app available on both Android and iOS called REC Remote, which turns your phone into a fully fledged remote for the device. All features are available from the app including access to options settings, record, pause, dropping markers, setting record volume, viewing battery level as well as real-time waveform display and VU meters.
After the initial pairing between phone and recorder, the phone app was able to connect to the recorder in a matter of seconds. Smartphone app remote control is becoming the norm with companies like Zoom, Sound Devices, and Tascam offering similar tools for their newer recorders, and it’s a fantastic way to start/stop recording, adjust and monitor levels, etc. I was a little disappointed to find that you could not monitor the audio of your recording from the app via your phone’s headphone out. Perhaps it’s a latency issue with bluetooth, but it also reduces the usability of the remote app. However, unlike Zoom and Sound Devices, the app is available in both iOS and Android flavors.
It’s worth noting that one of the SX2000 many quirks make recording with the smartphone app a near necessity when using the device for field recording or recording sources with potentially variable levels. On the device itself are volume controls. When playing or recording, these controls only affect the headphone monitor levels. To adjust the recording level, you need to pause your recording and then adjust recording levels with the volume buttons. On the smartphone app, the volume controls only affect the recording level since the phone does not handle monitoring itself. The volume can also only be adjusted incrementally; by pressing and holding the + or – button it steps from 0 to 30, since the volume dial from the M10 and D50 has been eliminated.
As mentioned earlier, the recorder is the size of a handheld voice recorder and bears similar model number and layout to its digital voice recorder cousins, and some of its recording functions are customized specifically for interview style recording. Beyond traditional markers, there are also special markers the user can set such as “Question,” “Important,” and “New Topic.” It would be nice to allow these special markers to be customized for use in other disciplines and areas, but this does not seem available in the current version of the firmware.
The device also comes with software nestled inconsequentially onto its internal memory. It’s called SoundOrganizer 2 and it’s a Windows only application which can be used to transfer audio to and from the device, playback recordings, do minor edits, burn to DVD, and even transcribe interviews. Truthfully I found the software unnecessary bloatware. There is already plenty of sound organizing software on the market that has features more suited to general use and the SoundOrganizer software brought nothing exceptional to the expected feature set. Even worse, the software did not recognize any of the filename changes I made in Windows for the files from the SX2000 or the M10, only files from the D50 were imported with their descriptive filenames intact. It was also bizarre that only certain markers you can place from the SX2000 or REC Remote app show up in the display of SoundOrganizer as well.
The SX2000 has a built in retractable USB plug so you can pop it into any computer you like (either directly into your computer or via the included extension coupler if you need a little more space) and manage files directly from the recorder. I like the inclusion of the standard USB port because the USB protocol for plugs has changed so many times over the course of its lifetime from mini-USB (as featured in the M10 and D50) to micro-USB (on more current recorders) to the new USB-C form of plug. With the SX2000, you don’t need to carry around a special cord or hope you have a spare one lying around; instead you can just plug it directly into any open USB port on your computer.
That covers most of the features of the recorder itself, but what about the most important question: How does it sound? As this recorder is considered by many as a replacement for the M10 and D50, I decided to do comparison recordings between the three devices using both the built-in microphones and also a Roland CM-10 binaural mic via the external mic input. I recorded an array of natural ambiences, some interview style talking in a few different environments, and some sounds recorded in a dead production studio.
For its diminutive size and reasonable price point (~$230 street), it performed fairly well in most environments. It feels like it really wants to be a voice recorder, with the shape, layout and markers options, and it did a good job picking up voices clearly. Background noise, unfortunately, is always audible. In fact the built-in mics seem to have a noise floor at a whopping -44dB when recorded at full gain in a treated room, which was rather surprising. But when recording louder sounds in a relatively quiet environment, I found it easy to clean up the recordings eliminating most noise artifacts. But the SX2000 also showed a distinct lack of low-end presence that featured well in the D50 and M10. In fact I found myself rolling off the lows at 100Hz on some of my ambient recordings for the D50 and M10 to try and match parity with the SX2000, but still found the other recordings with more detail across the frequency spectrum. Below is a playlist of completely unprocessed files comparing the three recorders (each recording is sequenced: SX2000, M10, D50). The M10 and D50 come across as noisier recordings in the exterior settings due to the lack of low end in the SX2000 which is greatly alleviated with the aforementioned low end rolloff, but I wanted to provide a completely unprocessed comparison. The gong hits recorded in a professional studio demonstrate the noise floor on the SX2000 pretty well.
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The binaural recordings came across as fairly transparent and brought up another nice feature the SX2000 offers in comparison to its older brothers: once configured, when you plug in a microphone into the 1/8” port, it automatically detects the need for plug-in power. On the M10 and D50, when you plug something in, it asks if you want to use plug-in power, thereby necessitating an additional button press before recording. On the negative side of this, when I plugged a SoundDevices MixPre into the plug-in power port it detected it as a mic, not a line level source, so I had to go into the menu and change the input setting from MIC IN to Audio IN. This departure from accepted terminology (LINE IN = Audio IN) is one of several examples that suggest the device is more intended for non-professionals. The device also uses a template of saved options called scenes, so users can easily call one of these up to fall back onto presets if they wish to record, say a lecture, an interview, or a rock band. It’s a handy shortcut when you don’t understand where all the options are nested or what they mean or you want to create some custom recording settings and have them recalled with just a few menu clicks.
The SX2000 is commendable for its exceptionally compact size, ample built-in storage, and outstanding battery life. It could be a sufficient prosumer choice for recording interviews and podcasts, but for serious field recording the preamps are a bit too noisy and the frequency response not quite sensitive enough to consider using without having some additional high-quality mic preamps before the recorder or resigning yourself to some serious cleanup. As a pedigree of the M10 and D50, the SX2000 misses a lot of marks, but also introduces some nice new features. A lot of great field recordings have come from M10, D50 and D100s with a MixPre or other high-quality mic preamp attached, and the SX2000 definitely sounded best in a similar situation. If you’re in the market for a tiny recorder and you’ve got the additional gear to make it sound decent, it could be worth checking out.