The digital camera market is so vigorous that it seems like every niche gets exploited. There are even video cameras aimed at musicians of all people. I call them “music cameras” and the basic idea is a small, light, simple camera with fairly high quality stereo audio.
The first music camera was the Zoom Q3, their latest is the Q4, an HD version with an articulated monitor screen that I’ve written about in past Homebrewed Music articles. Several other vendors have produced music cameras, but both the Tascam DR-V1HD and the Olympus LS-20M are discontinued. Zoom might have the niche all to themselves except that Sony took an interest and produced the HDR-MV1. I’ve been curious about this camera for a while and finally convinced myself that I “needed” one for an upcoming project.
I’ve had an interesting time using these two cameras alongside each other and comparing their features and performance. Here’s a video looking at the differences in operating the cameras.
First Impressions Count
When you hold each camera the first impressions are very much what one would expect. The build quality of the Sony is immediately more impressive than the feel of the Zoom. But after a closer look it might be that the more flexible features of the Zoom are at least part of the reason that camera seems a bit less solid. On the Zoom both the display screen and the microphone array are moveable. The articulated display is a very handy feature of the Q4 and it’s even more flexible because the screen can be removed if it’s not needed after configuring the camera. The Zoom mics fold into the body for protection and stick up above the top of the unit where a the provided wind screen can easily cover the mics and reduce wind noise in exterior shoots.
The Sony mics are very attractive, metal finish instead of plastic, tucked away behind little “nerf bars” for protection, and mounted just below the lens. But this arrangement means that wind protection will be tricky to implement without blocking the lens. And the Sony monitor display is bigger and brighter than the Zoom, but it’s fixed to the side of the body of the camera, a location which is much less than ideal. The screen definitely can’t be seen from the front, and using it from the side to frame the shot will take some practice.
Micro-SD Card – A Scourge Upon the Land
As they have done so often, Sony came up with their own proprietary format for solid state storage, the Memory Stick. The format hasn’t taken over the world, but Sony obviously feels compelled to continue to support it, so the HDR-MV1 uses the latest version of the Memory Stick, but it also allows the use of a standard format Micro-SD card. Standards are good, but folks, the micro-SD card is not my favorite way to store bits and bytes. It’s hard to maneuver and easy to lose, and in the case of this camera it must be installed in just the right (counter-intuitive) way because the same opening is used for the Memory Stick option. Believe me, it’s a very good idea to read the manual before trying to insert a memory card into this camera.
The Zoom on the other hand uses a very normal and handy SD card, thank you Zoom engineers, thank you sooo much.
Buttons and Bows
The control interface is quite different between these two. The Zoom has more external control, with headphone volume, mic sensitivity, auto-gain, and low cut settings on physical switches. Sony has all these settings in their menu, except that Sony doesn’t offer any auto-gain or limiter function. The menu interface is another real difference. Sony uses a shiny little joystick-like button for all menu navigation, and it’s very easy to make a mistake when navigating with this device. Zoom has four soft function buttons on its articulated display. One is used to enter and exit the menu, one moves forward or down while the next moves backward or up, and the fourth makes a selection. It’s quick, easy to learn, and reliable, and the menu structure is easier to grasp on the Zoom as well.
The Zoom also has external indicators for input level clipping, memory card capacity remaining, battery remaining, and charger/external power. None of these are visible on the Sony except through the display screen. The lack of an external power indicator is particularly annoying, there’s no way to tell if the camera is charging without turning it on.
Setting the Stage
While the Sony requires menu diving for its settings, it compensates somewhat by offering many more video and audio options than the Zoom. While the Zoom provides only three “scenes” for camera adjustment, Sony provides a wide range of settings and adjustments. I would definitely recommend that one read through the MV1 manual to get a grasp of these settings and how they impact the shot.
In scenes alone the MV1 can be set to Auto, Night, Sunrise-Sunset, Fireworks, Landscape, Spotlight, Beach, or Snow. I suspect that we’re seeing firmware carried over from a more conventional Sony camera, along with the sensor chip from that cam.
Beyond the scene options you can choose White Balance with four options including a calibration option, Exposure manual or automatic, Low Lux, Fade between clips, Backlight, and Face Detection. I haven’t tested these options to see how well they work but having these settings really puts the MV1 in a different category than the Sony Q4 if they do improve our shooting.
Setting the Sound
The Audio settings of the Sony are also more impressive. The Zoom mic sensitivity is shared by the on-board mics and the external mic connector, and the sensitivity can be adjusted in just three steps, High-Medium-Low and that’s it folks. Although tucked into a menu, Sony provides 17 steps of mic gain that ranges both higher and lower than the Zoom. When I compared the audio recordings at maximum mic sensitivity using a test tone the Sony was about 8 dB louder than the Zoom, a very noticeable difference. And there are separate settings for the on-board mics and the external connection. And the external connection can be configured as either a mic or line level input. I’ve been able to work with the Zoom’s more limited audio settings, but the extra gain range and ability to fine tune the gain level looks like are real benefit for the Sony’s audio.
The Screening Room
I would say that I graduated from the music camera scene when I invested in the Panasonic Lumix G series of system cameras and lenses. I was willing to record audio separately and sync in post in order to gain the extra increment of video quality. But when the Zoom Q4 came along with its wider angle lens and articulated monitor screen I convinced myself to try one. I’d say the experiment was a qualified success, I got some nice video that I would have missed without the Q4, but the articulated screen turned out to be pretty small and difficult to see in some kinds of light.
The Sony screen certainly doesn’t offer the kind of selfie help that the Q4 articulated screen delivers, but Sony has a different and perhaps better way to accomplish framing of a video selfie. The MV1 supports a WiFi connected smart phone or tablet as a monitor and remote control. To me this is a better way to go, I have more flexibility and better viewing quality, along with the ability to start and stop video without leaving my position in the scene. The Sony Playmemories app, at least as connected to the MV1, offers very limited control of the camera – no settings or adjustments are possible, but the ability to see the framing and start and stop the camera are sufficient to make this feature very useful.
Fields of View
The Zoom Q3HD that I used for several years had a fairly narrow field of view, so if I wanted the picture to include the guitar and my head I had to place the camera several feet away from myself. The problem with this was that the mics were then too far away from the guitar to get the best quality sound. My solution was to use an external mic setup along with some kind of preamp to feed the audio into the Q3HD.
The Q4 offered a wider angle lens, a wider field of view, so this allows closer placement for the same framing of the shot. This is definitely a good thing, except that the Zoom lens has a rather severe fisheye or barrel distortion effect, causing straight lines to turn into curves. This distortion is one of the things that makes the Q4 less useful to me.
The Q4 does have a digital zoom option that narrows the field of view and reduces but does not eliminate the barrel distortion, but then we’re faced with moving the camera farther from the source, so unless we’re using external mics this option is not the best.
The Sony MV1 has a wider field of view than the Q4’s wide mode, 18mm full frame equivalent compared to 22mm FF equivalent for the Zoom. That brings the camera mics closer than the Zoom for the same framing. And at the same time there is less barrel distortion with the Sony, so the wider framing is more useable, a definite win-win situation.
Odds and Ends
If you’re planning to use one of these cameras outdoors with the onboard mics, you need something to protect the mics from the wind. Even on a still day the little puffs and gusts will wreck most recording sessions. This is a big win for the Zoom, since it includes a wind sock in the basic camera package. On the contrary, the Sony mics look like functional wind protection would be hard to attach without obscuring the lens, and I have not been able to find any wind protection specifically designed for the MV1.
One last difference really frustrated me. I’m planning to use these cameras for a hula show that will run for around three hours. I had hoped to be able to power both cameras with external power so I wouldn’t have to worry about battery life. Both cameras accept a variant of the USB connector for their power input, but only the Zoom works with any generic USB power source. If I attach the Sony to a USB power plug or USB port on my computer the camera refuses to go into record mode. It seems that I would be required to buy the proprietary Sony AC adapter if I want to record using external power, and that’s just mean.
For Your Viewing Pleasure
I tried shooting the cameras side by side in two ways. Most of the clips were shot with the cameras set to approximately the same framing. As a result of the wider lens of the Sony it was mounted about four inches closer to the subject when the subject was about two feet away. This means the Sony mics were about five inches closer, due to the difference in the mounting of mics on each camera.
Indoors – Equal Framing
The first clip is indoors in good natural light with the same framing. This clip includes some poorly framed footage from an iPhone 6 as well. The iPhone was over 12″ behind the two music cameras, but its longer lens meant I was still framed too tightly. And the mono omnidirectional audio of the cell phone just can’t compare to the stereo sound from the coincident directional mics on the music cameras. The iPhone also reacted to the movement of the reflection on the guitar, changing the exposure during the shot, while the music cameras appear to lock exposure during recording, something I’ll have to check in future testing. This indoor test was shot in a little alcove with no sound treatment so you can hear how the cameras handle typical small room early reflections.
Outdoors – Shade
Next is a quick bit of narration shot outdoors in the shade. I would expect this to be pretty ideal lighting for these cameras, bright but not contrasty and glaring. Besides showing the cameras at their best this clip demonstrates the importance of wind protection for the mics when shooting outdoors.
Outdoors – Full Sun
The next shot is outdoors in full bright overhead sun, and that’s a scene that’s hard on any camera. In all these clips I had both cameras on full automatic, it will be interesting to try this shot again using Sony’s video controls to try to save the shot. Notice the wind noise again, without the wall to break the wind it really ruins the shot.
Indoors – Equal Distance
The last clip is back inside, this time with the two cameras placed at the same distance instead of attempting to match framing. Naturally the Sony makes the subject appear farther away. I included a look at the Zoom digital close up feature in this clip so you can judge how it impacts video quality.