Sony DSR-450WSP Review
The Sony DSR-450WSP 4:3/16:9 widescreen switchable camcorder is the successor to the DSR-570 DVCAM camcorder. The price remains the same with a street price of around £7,500 plus vat for the camera body.
The model number progression from the old DSR-570 to the new DSR-450 initially causes confusion by going numerically backwards and being closer to the model number of the non widescreen version, the DSR-400, which is a more logically numbered replacement for the DSR-390. The DSR-400 is essentially the same camera as the DSR-450 except for around £3,000 less money the camera is 4:3 aspect only and does not have the progressive scan 25p recording option which is new to the DSR-450.
New Upgrade Features
Sony claim a “dramatic” improvement in imaging quality in their marketing literature with the DSR-450’s new 3 x 2/3-inch Power HAD EX CCD. The improvements include an increase in the signal to noise ratio from 61dB to 63dB and smear being improved from -120dB to -140dB. Low light performance remains the same with sensitivity quoted as F11 at 2000 lux. The VTR records to either large or small DV/DVCAM tapes in DVCAM as before, as well as a new option of recording to DV, which provides a massive recording time of 276 minutes from a DVCAM 184 tape. Small print from the DSR-450 brochure states that “The transition from cut to cut may not be smooth when recording in DV (SP) format” Having recorded over 6 hours in DV mode I have not personally noticed any drop out or problem with any scene changes.
The viewfinder is the same DXF-801CE model supplied with the previous DSR-570 model. It is disappointing to see the same 1.5-inch 4:3 aspect screen, which gets letterboxed when recording in 16:9. This 600 line viewfinder is acceptable for 4:3 filming, however in 16:9, the letterbox blanking area reduces the number of effective horizontal lines in the picture area making focusing more difficult. When you see the excellent and larger 16:9 viewfinders that other manufacturers like Panasonic supply on their equivalent 16:9 camcorders it is unfortunate that Sony do not apply the same practice; even Sony’s new HVR-Z1E has an excellent native 16:9 widescreen fold out LCD screen and viewfinder. With the DSR-450’s approximate £3,000 price premium over the DSR-400 surely Sony could have supplied an upgraded 16:9 viewfinder as standard.
New Flip-Out LCD Screen
The most obvious new feature found on the DSR-450 is the flip out colour 2.5-inch LCD screen which doubles as a black and white information panel at the touch of a toggle switch. The information displayed whilst toggled in the status display mode is similar to that found on the backlit LCD on the side of the old DSR-570. The LCD can be closed into the camera body with the LCD facing in or out as preferred by the operator. Like the viewfinder, the LCD is also 4:3 aspect, which results in 16:9 recordings being letterboxed, again making the effective picture area very small and low resolution. The flip out panel initially looks a good physical size, but at least an inch of width is wasted by four buttons, which could have been relocated to the actual body, making way for a larger widescreen LCD in place of the 4:3 unit. When you consider that the lower costing Sony HVR-Z1E is fitted with an excellent 3.5-inch widescreen LCD, it is a shame that an LCD panel of the same quality and size is not engineered into larger Professional and Broadcast camcorder models like the DSR-450. The image produced on the DSR-450 LCD is useable for approximate white balance checks and for framing when operating on a tripod or under-arm/low-level filming. As you would expect, focus and aperture adjustments cannot be accurately judged on a colour LCD of this size with low pixel resolution.
The supplied microphone is the same as before with the same mounting arrangements except that the front XLR socket is now located lower down on the camera body thus necessitating a slightly longer XLR cable when fitting your own microphone. Sound recording controls and switches are similar to before. The fixed mic input sensitivity can often be too high with sensitive microphones such as the Sennheiser K6/ME66 combo. Such microphone’s in high sound pressure environments often leads to overloading unless attenuating with a physical 10db pad. I checked the new menu system on the DSR-450 to see if Sony had added input sensitivity settings like Panasonic have on their comparable model cameras. Panasonic allow you to set the inputs at 40db, 50db and 60db, Sony still do not have such a feature and is missing from the DSR-450 menu.
The Lens Options
Sony supplied the review camera with a Canon YJ19x9B4 KRS lens which is a popular configuration that dealers offer as a cost effective package. This lens from Canons professional range is a well matched weight balance for the DSR-450 body. Fitting my own Canon J17ex7.7B4 broadcast lens does make the front end heavier but is better balanced than it is with my DSR-570 and doesn’t produce the same degree of nosedive which I have counterbalanced by adding a second stackable IDX80 battery. The YJ19 picture looks slightly softer when interchanging with my J17 lens between test shots, and of course has less angle of view at the wide angle end. Flaring is good on both lenses. The only quality issue that I have experienced is chromatic aberration, this is a normal limitation of zoom lens technology and produces a blue fringe on high contrast edges under certain conditions on both lenses. Having been used to the J17 for the last 2 years, the zoom servo speed on the YJ19 seems very slow in comparison.
The review kit also contained a Sony mains adapter and battery system comprising four BP-GL95 Lithium Ion batteries and a high tech BC-M150 quad simultaneous charger. Sony’s 95 Wh batteries are physically wider and taller than the IDX80’s, however they fit the wider DSR-450 chassis well. The V mount Sony batteries are not stackable however, that is of little concern with batteries of enormous 95Wh capacity, which incidentally is near the maximum Lithium Ion capacity available that complies with IATA (International Air Transport Association) transport regulations for regular aircraft transportation. The four stage LED on the side of the Intelligent INFO battery shows remaining capacity and also communicates digitally with the DSR-450 to display remaining percentage capacity on the viewfinder display, whereas IDX batteries fail to do this.
It is evident that the DSR-450WSP is not a slight upgrade to the DSR-570, the DSR-450 chassis has been completely redesigned. Interestingly the new PDW-F330 XDCAM HD camera that Sony showed pre-production models of at IBC 2005 is based on the same chassis design as the DSR-400 and 450 models. Although the PDW-F330 has a 3 x 1/2-inch HD CCD compared to the DSR-450 3 x 2/3-inch CCD. The new chassis build quality of the DSR-450 is very solid and robust. It feels bulkier than the DSR-570 with the camera body being wider, particularly at the back end. The handle has a chunky rubberised feel in comparison to the traditional hard metal feel. Tapes now load from the top direct into the camera body, unlike the DSR-570 where the tape drawer hinged out from the side of the camera body which sometimes interfered with audio or monitor cables. The new improved tape mechanism offers faster FF/REW times and is of substantial build quality.
The shoulder pad is smaller than before and now has almost 1 inches travel backwards and forwards to suit the operators comfort. The pad is moveable by a simple clip that does not require tools to operate. The shoulder pad material is now a harder foam type material in comparison to the previous full-length excellent softer air cushioned rubber. For me the previous pad feels more comfortable but I personally did not find any notable comfort issues having operated the DSR-450 for several hours at a time on four different shoots.
The back panel where the XLR audio & power connectors are situated has also been redesigned. Surprisingly the 26-pin CCU connector, which is found on the DSR-570, is now gone on the DSR-450, a move that will not suit some Studio or OB applications. The DSR-450 is fitted instead with an 8 pin remote connector which connects to optional Sony Remote Control Units. An SDI output is available from the camera via an optional board. The S output which was available on the DSR-570 has also gone on the DSR-450 which will disappoint those who use their camcorders to do multi-camera shoots such as shows and other live events and prefer to wire a Y/C signal rather than composite through analogue mixers where high end Triax based setups are not logistically or commercially viable. A Firewire connector exists as before and offers the final output option. The headphone socket has been relocated from the higher handle position on the DSR-570 to a more convenient lower position near the back of the operator side of the DSR-450.
A Sony Memory Stick slot is a new addition which allows quick transfer of user customised menu settings, particularly useful in multi camera or multi operator situations given that the new menu system has more options of customisation than before, now totalling a seemingly never ending 79 pages!
Accessing the standard user menu starts by bringing up 9 pages with the most commonly used items listed such as changing from 4:3 to 16:9, dial in white balance settings and so on. The remaining 70 pages are accessed from the advanced menu by holding the menu wheel button at the same time as flicking the menu switch. The advanced menu gives options to customise the existing standard user menu pages and a further 11 blank pages so you can arrange the menu items as you wish. A further 59 advanced pages and the standard 20 user pages are accessed all under one menu option or under sub menu options named: Operation, Paint, Maintenance, File and Diagnosis. The level of customisation really is quite incredible. Some of the new menu options include adjustment of Gamma curves, Knee points and slopes, Dynamic Contrast Control, Edge detail and a more advanced 3-point skin detail system to list just a few. With knowledge of how these settings work there is more scope than before to preserve detail in shadows and highlights to increase the video dynamic range.
New Progressive 25P Shooting Mode
Another new feature to the DSR-450 is 25P progressive recording which adds to the realism of simulating a cinematic film look when combined with the various scene file adjustments. Sony has released an excellent white paper, which explains a number of camera technical terms in an easy to read and understand manner. A copy is available at: www.sonybiz.net/images/editorial/E/CameraTechnologyBasics.pdf
The 5600K daylight filter is no longer tied to the ND filter wheel like conventional cameras of this grade. The DSR-450 now has a new electronic daylight colour correction system, which is engaged by a push button separate to the filter wheel. This results in all four filter/ND settings being selectable for both indoor and outdoor filming allowing more control over aperture range, therefore depth of field. A conventional white balance switch with preset and A&B memory positions allows the usual storing options of white balance settings. There is now a much finer and more accurate incremental adjustment to white balance settings which go up or down in as low as tiny 4K steps compared to jumping in 100K to 400K steps at a time as is the case with the older DSR-570 depending on filter wheel position and WB range. The ability still exists to go into the menu and change indoor and outdoor white balance preset by dialling in the user-determined setting. The level of control is more precise due to the smaller incremental steps available. The white balance temperature in degrees Kelvin now displays permanently in the viewfinder even when auto white balance is set or when setting a custom white balance to memory, the temperature will display as the camera hunts to lock onto a reading.
Another new feature is four customisable buttons, two on the side of the body and two on the handle that can be set in the menu to a limited range of functions such as turbo gain, auto white balance and record start/stop. The side panel near the back of the operator side of the camera houses a similar range of physical switches to that of the DSR-570.
What’s it like to use?
The improved ergonomics and better weight balance towards the back of the camera makes the DSR-450 handling and operation slightly more comfortable than its predecessor. I must admit my eyes could not see any obvious difference comparing the DSR-450 picture quality with that of the DSR-570. The pictures were stunning and very clean with low noise but then again so are the pictures from the DSR-570. Whilst I do not doubt the improvements to the paper specification that Sony claim, I would have required more time with the camera before it was required to go to IBC. I did find myself pushing up the white balance to slightly warmer in between settings than the standard 5600K setting I normally use for direct sunlight and 5900K setting for overcast conditions. The next step up available on the DSR-570 jumps to 6300K - this 400K jump is often too much. Tweaking up to 5700K or 6000K or any exact setting in between is a breeze with the DSR-450 and its increased WB control allows you to get colours spot on or tweak them in a particular direction to achieve a deliberate creative effect.
The white balance capabilities are the best I have seen on any camera and gives the operator maximum control and assurance always seeing what the camera is giving you. The colour LCD is a very handy aid for doing a rough check on your white balance when you do not have an external monitor on location. I say rough because being LCD and 2.5-inch is not ideal to make a critical assessment of colour; however, it is good enough to know when you are within an acceptable range and not wildly out. Naturally the LCD is less useful outdoors where it is more difficult to see in bright daylight conditions. The LCD and viewfinder both being 4:3 models is the biggest disappointment with the package given this camera is otherwise designed for optimum performance in 16:9. After letterboxing the 4:3 viewfinder and LCD to display 16:9, the image is really too small to judge focus in difficult conditions. Users would not expect to be able to set focus or exposure accurately based on the image on the small low resolution colour LCD screen, however users would always expect to do so with the supplied high resolution black and white viewfinder. Setting exposure does not cause any difficulty particularly when using zebra. It is setting focus that can be challenging when shooting in widescreen. I quickly adopted a work around when I first got my DSR-570 by forcing the viewfinder to display in full height anamorphic 4:3 regardless of recording in widescreen. This has the effect of making the picture appear vertically stretched which is not ideal but does make the image fill the whole viewfinder. This is a temporary distortion that you learn to live with by compensating for the distortion in your head. Strangely, this option is not available in the new and otherwise improved menu system found on the DSR-450. The new menu setting that controls the viewfinder aspect now only has 2 options: 16:9 and Auto. The 4:3 option that previously existed on the DSR-570 is now gone making the work-a-round technique impossible.
Another feature missing from the DSR-450 is a switch that toggles the timecode display in the viewfinder from total record duration to scene record duration. Scene duration is handy for timing individual shots when you know the minimum shot durations typically required for editing. There is a common tendency on a shoot when stress levels are running high for the camera operator to speed up which results in shots not being held long enough.
The Sixty Million Dollar question
In the words of Stuart Young from Sony, “If I had a pound for every time I was asked that” The question on the tip of everyone’s tongue is “does the DSR-450 have HDV?” Sadly the answer is no. With so much buzz about High Definition within the industry and all the manufacturers trying to sell us their new HD product lines, surely Sony expected the question to be asked. Sony set a new benchmark in feature set for the money when they launched the HVR-Z1E, which not only brought native widescreen to an affordable price level but also delivered HDV for not much more than the cost of a PD170. Sony’s marketing campaign at IBC 2005 featured the slogan “HD for Everyone”, well not if you are a DSR-450 owner it would seem. Of course, there will be plenty of demand for programme making on Standard Definition for years to come; it will clearly take years for High Definition plasma/LCD TV sets and DVD players not only to come down in price but also to penetrate the mass volume of homes and offices around the country in sufficient volumes to overtake Standard Definition from being the preferred distribution format. However, shooting HD in order to future proof rushes and down converting the edit meantime to SD is becoming a popular compromise workflow throughout the transition period to HD. Had the DSR-450 launched 2 years ago, HD would have not affected a purchase decision but now it does, whether we like it or not. With the amount of depreciation on equipment there is in this industry, buyers want to get the maximum number of years out of their kit to get a healthy return on their investment. Buying an SD only camera in this day and age would hardly seem like future proofing your investment when who knows what is just around the corner whether from Sony or another camera manufacturer.
If you require the flexibility of shooting in 4:3 or 16:9 at the flick of a switch whilst squeezing every last bit of quality from the DV/DVCAM format, the DSR-450 is undeniably the camera of choice. Sony have a fine reputation for the quality of their cameras and the pictures that come off the DSR-450’s new Power HAD EX CCD raise the benchmark previously set by the DSR-500/570 series cameras. The DSR-450 is a good step forward with improvements made to; ergonomics, white balance, picture performance, ND filters, a new highly advanced image control and new features such as the flip out colour LCD panel and 25P, however not everything is forward progress, there are some steps backwards from the DSR-570 feature set to consider. The 26-pin CCU connector is the main feature that is gone on the DSR-450 therefore restricting its OB and studio applications. Output options are also restricted with S output being missing from the new chassis design. The loss of the timecode scene duration display is relatively minor but is an unnecessary omission all the same. The 4:3 viewfinder remains the biggest personal disappointment of mine, the letterboxed 16:9 image is really smaller than is ideal for focusing in difficult circumstances. Not being able to force full height anamorphic on the 4:3 viewfinder to display more picture lines to aid focusing is a step backwards from being able to do this on the DSR-570. This could likely be corrected by a software upgrade to the menu system or better still if Sony offered the option of supplying a 16:9 viewfinder without pushing up the price significantly.
With all the fuss about high definition and the increasing number of low cost HD equipped camcorders entering the marketplace it is unfortunate timing that Sony launched this SD camera amongst all this HD frenzy. Interest in the DSR-450 was rather lack lustre at our local IOV meeting when I brought it along and ran through its features. Many camera operators I speak with are extending the life of their existing cameras whilst waiting for a camera manufacturer to release a cost effective (£5K - £10K) shoulder mounted 1/2” or 2/3” CCD HD camcorder that offers improved low light performance and longer record times than the current crop of low cost HDV camcorders. You can’t help but think that the DSR-450 is 2 years too late on the market and Sony could have run the DSR-570 a while longer until they were ready to launch the DSR-450 with HDV. However, such decisions are no doubt inevitably based on marketing, political and environmental factors rather than technical issues. Sony’s factory in Japan has been told it can no longer use lead solder; all their cameras must be 100% recyclable. Sony are of course pushing the high end of the DVCAM market towards XDCAM and the forthcoming PDW-F330 XDCAM HD camcorder. XDCAM HD is only slightly more expensive than the DSR-450, but the range of Canon and Fujinon HD lenses are considerably more expensive. All Sony representatives will commit to saying at this moment in time is they have no concrete plans to develop a full size HDV camcorder at present. Personally I am not enticed to trade in my DSR-570 for a DSR-450 although I admit the convenience of the colour LCD would be nice and I would welcome the improved white balance controls. For new buyers the decision comes down to the kind of work you do and how you view HD will impact on your clients and projects needs over the next few years.
Product: Professional DVCAM Camcorder
Reviewed by: Mark Stuart
Review Date: 11-10-2005