Mailing List Follow akustyk on Twitter
 
Tutorials
Akustyk
Linguistics
Audio technology
Field recording
Recommendations
Reviews
Film Processing

Marantz PMD660 review (for linguists)

Introduction

ReviewThe Marantz PMD660 has been a much-anticipated portable digital solid state recorder. In theory, it is supposed to be a viable replacement for the field-proven Sony and Tascam DAT recorders. It is small, lightweight, has two balanced XLR microphone inputs, on-board phantom power, and runs on AA batteries. It is capable of recording PCM (uncompressed) Microsoft WAVE stereo files at 16-bit/48,000 Hz - just like the portable DAT recorders. The obvious practical advantage over the DATs is that audio files are written to a Compact Flash card and can thus be transferred to a workstation faster than real time over the USB2 interface.

Specifications

The PMD660 has a very impressive spec sheet. Detailed specifications are available from Marantz.

Construction

Most will be rather disappointed with the low build quality of this unit. The chasis is made of plastic and may not provide the ruggedness required in the field. However, the unit is really small - about half the size of a Tascam DA-P1 and about twice the size of Sony TCD-D100.

Most functions, except for Play, Stop, and Record, are accessed through a system of multi-level menus. This is reminiscent of modern digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) cameras, particularly those from Canon. The buttons are adequate in size and logicall placed. The recording level dials are well-designed and work well.

The front panel has a recording level meter (in dBFS) and dials, phones input, and a CF slot (see image below).

The back panel has the input and output jacks, including XLR mic inputs, stereo line in and out, as well as 48V phantom power switch (see image bellow). The line input is a 1/8-inch stereo interface, which is rather disappointing, as it makes it difficult to use most professional field preamplifiers, such as Sound Devices MixPre with the unit. It would be much better to use the XLR inputs and make them switchable from mic to line level, instead.

Media and connectivity

The PMD660 can use virtually any CF card. I contacted Marantz about whether the unit requires any particular brand or speed. They recommended Lexar cards at any speed or capacity. The unit can be connected directly to a workstation via a USB2 interface (Windows XP or Mac OSX).

Recording tests

Recordings were made at the level of -6 dBFS in a configuration typical of each microphone tested in a quiet room.

The PMD660 can be used successfully with few of the tested microphones. In fact, it seems that only self-powered, medium sensitivity condenser microphones, such as Audio-Technica AT831b, will provide adequate quality for linguistic research. Dynamic microphones, such as Sennheiser MD46 or Shure SM58, are not provided with enough gain. Condenser microphones requiring using on-board phantom power supply (e.g., Countryman B3) tend to be noisy and to distort very easily. Here are detailed tests.

Sennheiser HMD25-1

The HMD25-1 is an excellent head-mounted dynamic microphone for recording speech in noisy conditions. It does not need a power source, but due to its low sensitivity it needs a high-gain, low-noise preamplifier. The PMD 660 fails to provide enough gain to the HMD25-1. The result is a soft, noisy recording that does not take advantage of the excellent electroacoustic properties of the microphone. The spectrogram of the Polish phrase "czarna krowa" (a black cow) below shows a fair amount of noise, while the formants are not particularly strong and well-defined.

DOWNLOAD SAMPLE (WAVE file at 16-bit/48,000 Hz)

Behringer ECM8000

The ECM8000 is a consumer-quality condenser measurement microphone. It has an omnidirectional polar pattern and a flat frequency response. The microphone was powered with the PMD660 on-board phantom power supply. The microphone was placed 10 cm from the talker's lips. The result is a very noisy and highly distorted recording, most likely due to the poor-quality phantom power supply.

DOWNLOAD SAMPLE (WAVE file at 16-bit/48,000 Hz)

Countryman B3

The B3 is a Broadway-proven omnidirectional lavalier microphone that offers very high-detail and flat frequency response - features that are necessary for reliable speech recordings. The microphone was placed 10 cm from the talker's lips. The result is noisy and distorted, most likely due to the poor-quality phantom power supply. The recording is even worse than that obtained with the ECM8000.

DOWNLOAD SAMPLE (WAVE file at 16-bit/48,000 Hz)

Audio-Technica AT831b

The AT831b is good-quality cardiod lavalier condenser microphone that is equipped with its own battery-powered in-line power supply. Thus, it does not need to use the PMD660's on-board power supply. The recording is much better than that obtained with the ECM8000 and the B3. There is no distortion and good spectral detail, despite the preamplifiers being noisy. The microphone was placed 10 cm from the talker's lips.

DOWNLOAD SAMPLE (WAVE file at 16-bit/48,000 Hz)

Radio Shack 33003

The Radio Shack 33003 is an inexpensive omnidirectional lavalier condenser microphone that is equipped with its own battery-powered in-line power supply. Thus, it does not need to use the PMD660's on-board power supply. The 33003 was used in a head-mounted configuration (see image below).

Interestingly, the 33003 produced the best recording of all the mics tested. There is really good spectral detail and no noticeable distortion. Note, that a 1/8-inch to XLR adapter was used to connect the mic to the PMD660.

DOWNLOAD SAMPLE (WAVE file at 16-bit/48,000 Hz)

Conclusions

The PMD660 is a successful first iteration of a small solid-state device. The tests indicate that dynamic microphones are probably not your best choice. I am sure that Marantz will address the shortcomings in future models, as they had in the past. Marantz has a proven track record in the field recording industries and I am confident that they will produce fantastic digital field recorders for many years to come.

For those who do not require pristine sound quality and are planning to use self-powered condenser microphones, the PMD660 can be a good tool, especially given its competitive advantages and aggressive pricing. Some of the useful functions include:

  • built-in stereo microphone
  • built-in speaker
  • the ability to save 3 presets of most menu-selected functions
  • good battery life