Latest PCM Handheld
Is Smaller, Cheaper,
And Still Handles
by Mike Rivers
The Sony PCM-M10 is the newest, smallest, and least expensive member of Sony’s hand-held high-resolution digital recorder family. At $399 retail and $299 street priced, the PCM-M10 is truly pocket-sized and feels very solid and comfortable in the hand. It sounds good, too.
Equipped with 4GB of internal memory, its external memory slot accommodates both a Sony Memory Stick Micro M2 and the more common Micro SD format as well. The menu has been streamlined, with a row of quick-access buttons immediately below the large backlit LCD screen.
Supplied accessories include an AC power adapter, wired remote, manual, Sound Forge Audio Studio LE (an audio editing program), USB cable, carrying strap, and batteries, but thankfully no cheap headphones or ear buds.
The PCM-M10 records 16- or 24-bit WAV files at 22.05, 44.1, 48, or 96 kHz, plus 44.1 kHz MP3 files at 64, 128 or 320 kbps. It also plays a wider range of MP3 formats plus Windows Media (WMA) and AAC-LC (m4a) files, enhancing its utility as a portable music player.
Other key features are a built-in speaker, limiter, low-cut filter, and event mark and search. A 5-second pre-record buffer can catch the first couple of words if you’re slow to start recording. Cross-memory recording automatically switches between internal and external memory when the currently selected media becomes full.
There’s variable speed and pitch controls and A-B repeat for playback of a phrase. In addition to the high resolution LCD meter, attention-grabbing LEDs for each channel indicate record level of –12 dBFS and OVER.
Internal power comes from two AA batteries; battery time varies somewhat with the format, but the manual claims an impressive 24 hours recording time with alkaline cells and nearly the same with rechargeable cells. Battery life nearly doubles while recording simply by unplugging the headphones.
The built-in omnidirectional microphones are reasonably flat to 5 kHz at 90° off axis. They’re mounted at the top corners of the case, spaced about 2 inches apart and facing outward at about 90°. This arrangement doesn’t provide the accurate localization of coincident cardioids, but gives a pleasant sense of space to the recording. You can tell left from right, but you can’t pinpoint individual sources. Being omni, the mics pick up quite a bit of the room, so placement for good balance between clarity and room sound takes some practice.
The display is large, clear, and informative without being cluttered. The bottom line shows the currently selected record mode or format of the file being played plus low cut filter and limiter status. Variable speed or pitch settings when engaged are also displayed. Level meters, time, and current file name complete the display area.
When recording, either running time or remaining memory time are displayed. In playback, the display shows running time or time to the end of the track. In either mode, the date and time of the recording can be displayed.
On the menu
Pressing the MENU button brings up the menu, which is scrolled with the Forward and Rewind buttons. Most menu selections are obvious, but there are a few worth mentioning. Effect isn’t reverb, but rather a headphone bass boost. Easy Search (on/off) changes the action of the FF and FR buttons. When playing a file with Easy Search on, tapping those buttons jumps forward or back by 10 seconds. With Easy Search off, tapping the FF button switches to the next file, while tapping the FR button moves to the beginning of the current file. In either mode, holding FF or FR fast winds through the file. Audio Out switches the output jack between Line and Headphones. In the Headphone mode, the volume control is active and a 20 mW/channel amplifier drives 16Ω phones to a healthy level. In Line, the output level drives a moderate impedance at a fixed level of 0 dBFS = 1Vrms.
Add TAKE appends the word TAKE or KEEP to the file name to mark it as a keeper. The DELETE button deletes the current file. There’s also a Delete selection on the menu which deletes either the entire contents of the currently selected folder, the current track mark, or all the track marks in the current file. Divide splits the file either at the current position or at each track mark.
Detail Menu is the only submenu, where the less often used (e.g. backlight illumination time) or more dangerous (formatting the memory) functions are found. Here’s where to turn off the LEDs to squeeze out a few more minutes of battery life or become more stealth.
In addition to the front panel transport and menu buttons, there are several switches which are most easily accessed from the rear. Mic sensitivity engages a 20 dB pad, useful for loud sources. DPC (variable speed) changes the playback speed to a menu-selected speed. Auto Record Level automatically sets the record level, prompting you to switch in the mic attenuator when required. The record level is automatically and smoothly reduced when things get loud, however it doesn’t turn the level up when things get quiet. This can be good or bad, depending on the nature of the program material. Background noise “breathing,” the bane of most automatic level controls, is avoided, but if you cough near the mic, it’ll drop the gain and you’ll end up recording everything that follows at a lower level.
Manual record level is adjusted with a thumb wheel easily accessed from front or back. A rocker button adjusts the headphone or speaker volume during playback.
The recorder provides ten folders named FOLDER01 — FOLDER10 on both the internal and external memory. Each folder can hold 99 files. Files are automatically named by date and sequence (091003_05.WAV = the fifth recording made on October 3, 2009) with an additional suffix if the file is split. A USB 2.0 port allows renaming and transferring of files and folders to and from a computer. Once a file or folder is renamed, its new name will be displayed during search and playback. It’s noteworthy that only the default-named folders can be selected for recording. Conspicuously absent is a means for renaming files or folders from the recorder itself.
A copy of Sound Forge Audio Studio LE for Windows is included with the recorder for editing and massaging. Track markers inserted using the recorder’s T-Mark button show up in Sound Forge, a handy feature if you’ve roughly marked sections while recording with the intent of later detailed editing.
Put the recorder in the right place and you’ll get a fine recording, but placement must be done with care as the room sound becomes apparent when the recorder is more than about a foot away from the source. There’s no substitute for using a reliable set of headphones to hear what the mics hear.
The mics are fairly sensitive to wind noise. Sony offers a “dead squirrel” wind screen as an accessory but it wasn’t available for this review. The low-cut filter helps a little, but with its fairly high cutoff frequency and steep roll-off, it’s clearly audible. It’s a last resort when recording music.
For anything more serious than a casual “snapshot” recording, you’ll want to mount the recorder on a stand (there’s a camera tripod socket), to get it up in the air and avoid handling noise. It can be placed on a table for speech recording, but for music, it should be raised to around mouth level and placed about three feet back for good balance between voice and instruments.
The limiter kicks in at full scale and allows up to 12 dB more input level before clipping. The low cut filter and limiter can be engaged while recording, though the recording mutes briefly (100 ms) when the limiter is switched. The mic preamp is quiet and has sufficient gain to be useful with external mics. 3V plug-in power is available. Lacking a respectable quality plug-in-powered mic, I tested it with external dynamic mics. For interviews, I prefer using an external mic since you can work it close without putting the whole recorder in the subject’s face.
Overall, 44.1 kHz recordings using both the internal and external dynamic mics sounded very good. It may not be as detailed and dynamic as the Sony PMC-D1 flagship handheld recorder, but you can tell it is from the same family — and it is $1,600 fewer dollars.
We’re now into Sony’s third generation of hand-held digital recorders. They’re all good and they have branched out in different directions - smaller, more “studio” features, lower cost. At $300, the PCM-M10 is well priced considering its sound quality, feature set, and ease of use. My primary application has been recording jam sessions and grabbing tunes at acoustic music camps, and the M10’s size and shape is a good fit for my pocket or guitar case. Its impressive battery life is good for the environment.
The Sony PCM-M10 is well suited for casual and professional recording applications, and, in between, serves as a handy music player. I think it’s a winner, and so does the Everything Audio Network, which has tagged the M10 with its Stellar Sound designation. For more info, go to www.sonyproaudio.com
Mike Rivers is a freelance audio writer based in Northern Virginia. A professional audio engineer, Mr. Rivers has recorded traditional music in the field and in the studio for 40 years.
Second Opinion! Sony PCM-M10:
My New Portable High-Res Music Player
Mike Rivers does a great job pointing out the virtues of the PCM-M10's recording capabilities. As with all recording pocket portables, I wanted to see how it handled my collection of high-res downloads, DVD/SACD copies and original high-res guitar tracks.As a fan of high res PCM 24 bit music, an iPod does not cut it with its 16-bit 44/kHz maximum playback rate. I have found that the 24-bit capable digital media recorders make nice players for high-res music on the go. Do they sound like a high-end home playback system? Well, no, but 24-bit tracks sure sound better on one of these than a sample-rate converted or downloaded MP3 version of the same music.To see how the PCM-M10 fared, I downloaded some ITrax (www.itrax.com) jazz cuts at 24/96 and compiled for transfer several other bits of music from my collection: acoustic guitar, and first-generation copies of DVD-As and SACDS in 24-bit/96. As long as they have .wav extension, the tracks dragged easily from my Apple desktop to the ‘M10,. But the transfer is really slow via the USB port. Lets just say a GB worth of high-res music took a long, long, long, long time.After I transferred the tracks, I popped in a set of AKG K701 headphones via the 1/8th inch adapter,. The 701s are a fairly hard-to-drive set of ‘phones for small portables. Much to my satisfaction, the PCM-M10 actually drove the AKGs to a fairly loud level. And it did a nice job of reproducing high-res music. In particular, “Roundabout” by Yes, (analog copied from the Fragile DVD-A), sounded quite good: nice transient detail, good imaging and a nice job of reproducing the detail on Steve Howe’s classical guitar intro.On the Lawrence Juber's rendition of "Strawberry Fields Forever" (from a 24/96 ITrax download) the fingerstyle guitar playing was impressive for a $300 buck player. This latest generation of converters — even running on lower voltages — sound really good.I compared the M10 to its big expensive brother, the PCM-D1. The M10 has the same general playback tonal characteristics; the $2,000 D1 has more stereo image width and transient detail, but it is not really that much smoother. The M10’s music playback sounds more separated and detailed than a $399 M-Audio MicroTrack II, though the MicroTrack was analog-like smooth in its sonic presentation via headphones.With the PCM-M10, I think I have found my new portable high-res player. It is iPod-sized, easy to use, sounds hi-fi, and, oh my, it plays forever on a set of double AAs. Mate the M10 with a pair of Shure's new $100 SRH-440 headphones, and you got a nice little hi-res playback system. Oh yeah, it records 24-bit, too.–John Gatski