Since 2005, the market for portable
digital audio recorders has mushroomed, with manufacturers vying for top spot in this increasingly
competitive market. And much of the focus has been on developing
recorders with more features, better sound quality and more overall
capability than some of the small, shirt-pocket sized units found in
office supply and department stores.
It's a broad field too, with entrants
ranging from the sleek, ultra-luxe $7,800 Nagra VI, designed for
heavy-duty field recording, to the diminutive Sony IC-DUX-80, which
plugs into a USB port without a cable and costs about $150.
Fast-forward to 2007. Enter the Marantz PMD-620, the 660's little brother, and the smallest recorder in the Marantz line-up.
Sleek and Slim
Cosmetically, the recorder presents itself well. The front of the exterior casing is a pleasant-looking brushed metal, somewhat reminiscent of the finish seen on Marantz's high-end stereo equipment.
Part of the Marantz Professional line, it's about the size of deck of cards. In other words, it's almost exactly a handful, neither too big nor too small. It's not particularly thick either, with a girth of barely 1” (25mm).
Even though the rest of the casing is made of a sturdy, high-impact plastic, the PMD 620 feels solid and has a pleasing heft once the two required 'AA' batteries are installed. However, the plastic itself is not of a particularly high quality. The 'Marantz Professional' decal found on the front of the internal mic housing makes it clear the little recorder is squarely aimed at professional users.
Button, Button, Who's got the Button?
The controls found on the front panel are logically laid out and easy to reach with one finger – namely your thumb. While the Record, Stop/Cancel and Rec Pause buttons have a slightly rubbery feel, they do have a positive action, so you never have to guess which function has been activated.
Press the Record button and a ring that encircles it lights up, thus making it very easy to confirm that you are indeed recording. This is a boon in low-light conditions. On the other hand, if you're in a dark, smoky bar making clandestine recordings, it may possibly prove to be somewhat of a liability!
The Display and Skip Back/Store/Menu
buttons offer a totally different tactile response. Made of hard
plastic, their action is even more positive, and they click audibly
These buttons let you access various display and menu settings. The Skip Back function lets you quickly find the point where you last paused a recording, to facilitate seamless audio captures.
The largest control of all, the Play/Enter button, has the same kind of feel and also clicks audibly when pressed. This particular control permits access to the usual recorder/player functions like play, fast forward and rewind. It's also used to scroll through and allow adjustment of various settings, such as bit and sample rates, headphone/speaker volume, and others. You can set the PMD620 to record in either MP3 or WAV formats at 16 or 24 bits.Users can also select between sample rates of 44.1 Khz or 48 Khz. The lower rate gives you CD-quality audio, while the higher setting offers the best audio quality. Bear in mind, though, that the higher the bit and sample rates, the bigger the audio file sizes will be. MP3 files generally take up less room than WAV files, at the cost of a modest reduction in audio quality.
Curiously, Marantz uses 'PCM-16' or 'PCM-24' to identify WAV recording formats and it's not clear why this naming convention was chosen. The recorder also doesn't specify exact bit rates for MP3 format recordings, but instead offers 'MP3-H', 'MP3-M' and 'MP3-L' , or high, medium and low quality settings. You can also record in mono or stereo, use the internal mics or connect an external microphone.
You also get a choice of using the AGC (Automatic Gain Control) or manually setting a -6 or -12dB recording level limit. The AGC setting works well when audio levels don't vary much and overall sound quality isn't absolutely critical. On the other hand, The -6 and -12dB limiters, or 'pads' as they are known in the audio engineering business, preserve audio quality by preventing the recorder's circuits from overloading when recording loud audio sources.
Rather disappointingly, the clicking noise made by the record level buttons when pressed can be heard on recordings made with an external mic. This particular glitch is probably due to the buttons not being electrically isolated from the recording circuitry.
The clicking sound can also be heard on recordings made with the internal mics, although this is an acoustic issue, rather than an electrical phenomenon. With this in mind, the PMD620 may not be the recorder for you if you need to continuously adjust recording levels.Of the relatively few flaws it has, this one is the most serious. As a general rule, the '620 seems to work best when you use either the AGC or manual presets and leave them alone.
A Plethora of Jacks
Looking at the right side of the recorder, you can see the Power, Key Lock and Record Level buttons. To turn the recorder's power supply on, you have to push the Power button upwards and hold it for a moment or two. To turn off the unit, you simply push the power button upwards and release it.
On the left side you'll find IN-LINE-OUT jacks. These 1/8” (3.5mm) jacks let you hook up a line-in or a line-out source. The line-in feature is useful when recording directly from a sound-board or a mic pre-amp, while the line-out lets you send audio from the recorder to an input source such as an amplifier or recorder.
Next, the Remote jack permits connection of a proprietary record stop/start button which slides onto the barrel of most standard handheld microphones. This is handy to have because it eliminates fumbling with the recorder when it's in your pocket or carry bag and you want to stop or pause the recording.Unfortunately, Marantz didn't include it with the recorder; it's an optional, extra-cost item.
On the far right hand side of the spot where the input jacks are located is a 'DC IN' jack that lets you connect an external power supply supplied with the recorder. The ability to access AC power is a great battery-saver when recording for long periods of time. There's one caveat, though: the 'DC IN' jack is not designed to permit recharging of batteries through the recorder.Huge Recording Capacity
What sets the PMD620 well apart from its competitors is its recording capacity. Clearly, Marantz was looking to the future when it set an upper SD card capacity limit of two terabytes, substantially exceeding what its competitors currently offer, and long before such cards were even being made. To see just how far ahead Marantz was in its thinking, consider that terabyte-class SD cards are only just now becoming available.
In Through the 'Out' DoorOn the bottom side of the recorder, you'll find two small doors. One covers a USB port and the other the SD card slot. Below these two doors you'll find an attachment point for a wrist-strap. The USB port was incorporated to make it easy to transfer audio files from the recorder to a PC if it does not have an SD card reader of its own.
When the recorder is connected to a PC this way, the computer picks up the SD card inside and treats it like an additional hard drive. You can also use the port to transfer files onto the card so that you can play them back using the recorder. The SD card slot, of course, accommodates the SD flash memory cards used to store recordings.
Marantz makes no recommendations as to what class of SD card you should use. However, the user manual does suggest that you should use SanDisk brand cards whenever possible. In real-world settings, any good-quality SD card should work fine.
The USB jack and SD card doors are tiny and feel rather flimsy, as if they could easily break off. That said, it's probably a good idea to be very gentle when opening and closing them, and not use them more than absolutely necessary. On the back of the PMD 620 you'll find the battery door which provides access to the battery bay. It's not exceptionally easy to open or close, but it is secure. Like the SD/USB doors, though, it does feel a bit fragile.Two 'AA'-size batteries are required to power the recorder, and it's quite happy working with either alkaline cells or rechargeables. Above the battery door, you can see where the recorder's built-in speaker is located. Its sound quality is marginal, but it's still useful for confirming or reviewing recordings on the fly.
Straight to the Top
Moving on to the top of the PMD620, you'll find the internal mic housing and mic input and headphone output jacks. Looking at the mic housing from the top, you can also (just barely) see two tiny microphone capsules, oriented at a slight upwards angle, partially obscured by a protective mesh screen. The mic jack interfaces with self-powered or unpowered microphones that use a 1/8” (3.5mm) plug. The PMD620's onboard circuitry really doesn't have enough juice to properly handle non-powered mics, so self-powered mics are recommended.
The proximity of the MIC and PHONE to the internal microphones could pose a problem when not an external mic, as any movement of the headphone cable could cause handling noise to surface on the recording.
Moreover, the jacks don't provide a really secure connection. Just a bit of excess tension on the mic or headphone cables is enough to disconnect them from the jacks. One possible workaround is to use microphones or headphones with right-angle 1/8” plugs.The strange placement of these two jacks seems to be one of a number of compromises Marantz designers had to make in order to fit a lot of features into a very small package. Yet another compromise is the lack of a built-in tripod mount. Instead a plastic clip which fits over the recorder is supplied. It has a screw-mounting hole and a rather cheap look and feel, but seems to work well.
The PMD620 features a smallish organic LED (OLED) display. It's bright, clear and very readable in most kinds of light, but it does wash out considerably in bright sunshine. For even greater readability, a large display font can be selected.
Using the display you can monitor recording levels, the recording time left on an installed SD card, and review recording functions and settings. Marantz went with an OLED display to help extend battery life. OLED's consume much less power than conventional LCD displays and can be viewed from almost any angle without a loss of readability.
Just above the display you'll find two tiny LED's marked 'LEVEL' and 'OVER'. These indicate when audio peak levels either meet or exceed a preset recording level. The 'OVER' indicator is particularly useful for determining when the recording circuits are being overloaded and clipping of the audio signal is likely.Real-world Test Results
By and large, the PMD620 is fairly easy to use. However, changing various settings is not particularly easy. Or intuitive. To change bit rates, for instance, you have to press the Display button down and hold it for a couple of seconds. Then, from the main menu which appears, you have to select 'Presets' using the Play/Enter button, then choose 'Edit' from the menu that follows. From the menu which appears, you select '02 – Rec Format' and then change the actual format by pressing the fast-forward button.
Once done doing all that, you then have
to press the Display button again to save your chosen preset. A small
dialog box with the word 'Executing...' will then appear to confirm
the settings are being saved. To get back to the main display you
press the rewind button and then press the Vol+ button, then press
'Display' again. The good news is that once you have created a group
of custom presets (you can save up to three), changing recording
settings becomes easy.
The PMD-620 saves user-defined presets on an installed SD card. It's a mixed blessing; on the one hand you don't have to worry about losing your settings as long as you have the memory card installed. On the other, if no SD card is loaded, the recorder has no internal memory of its own to recall your favorite presets.
Recording quality is very good with crisp, transparent audio. Using the internal mics, voices and musical instruments are accurately portrayed and naturalistic. The mics are sensitive and can overload easily when subjected to loud audio. In such situations, use the -6 or -12dB manual limiters. Circuit noise on recordings is audible, but not objectionable.
External mics that use 1/8" mini plugs tend to be inexpensive and fairly noisy. That noise will surface on a recording in addiition to the 620's existing noise floor. That said, you wouldn't want to use a stock PMD620 to record a band with the idea of distributing the recording on CD and selling it. However, for interviews and general field recording, it does very well.
Oade Brothers Audio of Thomasville, Georgia have developed a series of upgrades designed to improve the audio section of the '620 and make it a better match for a number of high-quality microphones. To accomplish these improvements, the internal mics are disconnected and some of the chips on the mainboard are replaced with higher-quality components. Additionally, these modifications reduce the amount of circuit noise appearing in recordings. If you propose to use mics that require XLR connectors, you will need an XLR – mini-plug adaptor cable and some means of powering the mics.
The headphone audio output of the PMD620 is a little weak. That is, when monitoring audio as it's being recorded, or reviewing completed recordings you might find yourself wishing for more volume. Needless to say, efficient headphones with a low impedance are a must.The Manual
Much of the basic operation of the PMD620 is fairly intuitive, so you may not need to consult the manual often for simple recording tasks. However, the PMD620's record settings can only be accessed using a somewhat finicky menu-driven system. Until you get used to how the menu system works, you may find yourself referring to the manual periodically. The good news is that the manual is well written, well-laid out, and mercifully short.Who's it For?
The general shape and size of the PMD620 may remind you a bit of some of the small cassette-tape recorders journalists used to use, and it suggests that Marantz actually set out to design an audio tool just for them. The fact that it's light and fits in your hand very comfortably and offers one-touch recording seems to confirm that perception. So naturally, the PMD620 is a great fit for journalists. Podcasters and concert tapers who need a small, discreet, but capable recording package will find it appealing too. More casual users who want to record personal notes or meetings will also find it useful, although they may find its advanced features a bit superfluous.Conclusion
Is the Marantz PMD620 truly a pro audio tool? Well, that depends on what you plan to use it for. If you're a journalist, podcaster or documentary producer, where recording vocals is what you will do 90% of the time, the answer is 'yes'. And it will deliver much better sound quality than most of the inexpensive department store voice recorders will.For other applications, the '620 is simply a good digital audio recorder with a few quirks and flaws, most of which, fortunately, aren't show-stoppers. Overall, the Marantz PMD620 offers a great blend of affordability, quality and utility. It stands well above the pack because of its extensive feature set and good audio quality. Better still, all of that goodness comes in a small, easily handled package. As a general-purpose recorder that appeals to a wide range of users, it's hard to beat.
Main Competitors:Edirol R09HR, Microtrack M-Audio 24/96, Microtrack II, Olympus LS-10, Sony PCM-D50, Tascam DR-1, DR-07, Yamaha Pocketrak 2G, Zoom H2
- Very good audio quality
- Good ergonomics overall
- Truly pocketable and lightweight
- Small size makes it easy to handle, particularly when doing 'man-in-the-street' interviews
- Versatile enough for virtually any audio recording purpose
- Fairly intuitive operation once presets are created
- Decent battery life
- Highest recording capacity in the small-recorder market
- Flimsy battery, SD card and USB port doors
- Marketed as a professional recorder but doesn't have a really pro 'feel' thanks to the abundance of cheap but sturdy plastic in its construction
- Odd placement of microphone input and headphone jacks
- Clicking of record level and other buttons can be heard on recordings
- Some internal noise audible on recordings, particularly when an external mic is connected
- Finicky menu system not particularly easy to navigate
- No secure means of attaching the recorder to a tripod unless the supplied tripod adapter is used
- Relatively weak audio output when monitoring during recording
Overall Rating: B+
Marantz PMD620 Digital Audio Recorder MSRP $499USD
Manufacturer: D&M Professional A Division of Marantz America, Inc. 1100 Maplewood Drive Itasca, IL 60143