Sony Electronics Inc.
1 Sony Drive
Park Ridge, NJ 07656
If you’re thinking about stepping up to the improved imagery that only three-chip cameras offer, Sony has just upgraded their popular DCR-VX2000 Mini DV Camcorder by 100. Featuring improved low-light capabilities, in-creased signal-to-noise ratio and a new battleship gray paintjob, the DCR-VX2100 ranks among the best camcorders in the $2-3k price range.
The metal housing of the VX2100 has the solid feel of a professional workhorse. Slipping your hand into the grip, you’ll notice much of that 3 pounds and 6 ounces is in the front of the camera, making it a little nose-heavy–although it is perfectly balanced from the top handle.
Like its professional brethren (specifically the DSR-PD150 and the new DSR-PD170), Sony has given you direct access to several key features, such as iris control, audio level and even neutral density filters, instead of inconveniently placing them on pesky software menus. New to the VX2100 are variable-speed rockers and record buttons on top of the handle as well as on the camera body itself. A manual zoom ring with a nice feel allows the user precise telephoto control, even though it is an electronic control and not a mechanical one. It’s a minor feature, but we sure liked the unique lens cap that is integrated into the square lens hood and can be snapped open and shut with a small lever.
Quality Comes of Age
All of the zoom controls are smooth throughout their range of speeds. The manual zoom ring is always available and has a subtle ease-in/ease-out. The VX2100 has a nice focus ring (again, electronic and not mechanical) on the large lens barrel ring that provides on-demand focusing. The auto focus is quick, accurate and will stay focused on your subject, even if there is brief movement in the foreground. It takes a little longer to focus when zoomed in digital mode or in low light or where the subject is dark with little texture or contrast. The auto focus remains sharp tracking a subject through a zoom or pan.
Sony’s Super SteadyShot Optical Stabilization works almost well enough to make you think (for a moment) that you don’t need a tripod. Surprisingly, fully zoomed (12x optical) images actually become usable when carefully handheld. While the Super SteadyShot does an excellent job dampening minor unsteadiness, not surprisingly, it still cannot eliminate shaking from things like walking or running.
No Need to Shout
The VX2100 has an improved signal to noise ratio and it does a fair job recording someone speaking within a few yards or capturing ambient sounds at a greater distance using the on-camera microphones. All the motors on the VX2100 are nearly silent, so you are not going to hear anything but your subject. The AGC worked well, but we could increase the sensitivity of the microphones beyond the AGC in manual mode. We explicitly and systematically listened for a hiss that was reported with some models of the PD170 PAL version (first reported by Global-DVC). We were unable to find anything odd. There was an electronic clicking (~20dB) when using a simple XLR to 1/8-inch patch cable, which we don’t recommend anyhow (although we’ve gotten away with this with other camcorders). Instead, you’ll need to get a proper XLR to 1/8-inch adaptor, which, in our tests, worked very well.
Just as Beautiful
Bottom line: the VX2100 produces some of the best video of any sub-$5,000 camera. Dark scenes show discernable detail in shadow areas, but the darker the area gets, the fewer details you will see. We really tried very hard to measure Sony’s claims that this camera has improved low light capabilities, but were unable to tease out any definitive measures. All we can say is that the VX2100 retains the truly excellent low-light performance of its predecessor, largely because of the light-gulping 58mm lens and the good CCDs. A manual iris and two ND filters will get you the exposure you need, easily monitored with the zebra stripes (70% and 100%). Color grain noise was not noticeable until the electronic gain hit +9dB. Although the noise was noticeable at the full +18dB gain, the image was very bright and usable.
In high key situations, you can still see texture in highlights that approach pure white. There is a very slight color bleeding between deeply saturated colors, particularly reds and greens, but not any more than expected for the DV format. Auto white balance does a good job keeping up with changing light conditions, but it still lacks the accuracy of a manual white balance under all conditions. Skin tones are a little on the warm side. You can snap stills onto the included memory stick, but the resolution is not that great.
Facelift or Botox?
This beautiful camera wins our highest praise. Our recommendations are very simple. If you already own a VX2000, you really don’t need the VX2100: Same lens + same CCDs = same camera. If, however, you are looking for your first pro camera and your budget is in the $3,000 range, we can confidently say that this camera will not disappoint. The VX2100 retains the exceptional imaging, smooth and quiet operation and professional controls of the VX2000. We could complain that Sony didn’t make more substantive improvements over the VX2000, but we won’t. How much better could it get?
Brian Peterson is a Communications Director with the American Lung Association and has more than 14 years of broadcast video production experience.
Format: Mini DV
Lens: F/1.6-2.4; fl=6 mm to 72 mm; 12x optical zoom; 58mm filter diameter
Image sensor: 3 x 1/3-inch CCD
Gross pixels (per CCD): 380K
Video pixels (per CCD): 340K
Viewfinder: color (180K pixels)
LCD viewscreen: 2.5-inch color (211K pixels)
Focus: auto, manual
Anamorphic 16:9: no
Image Stabilization: optical
Exposure: auto, manual, presets (5)
Minimum Shutter Speed: 1/4
Maximum Shutter Speed: 1/10,000
Iris: auto, manual
Electronic Gain: +18dB
Neutral Density Filter: yes (2)
Zebra Stripes: yes (70%, 100%)
White Balance: auto, manual, presets
Audio: 12-bit (default), 16-bit
Audio Gain: auto, manual
Microphone Input: 1/8-inch stereo mini
Headphone Output: 1/8-inch stereo mini
Inputs: FireWire, S-video, composite
Outputs: FireWire, S-video, composite
Edit Interface: FireWire
Other features: still shot (1,280 x 960), 8MB Memory Stick, flash
Dimensions (w x h x d): 4 3/4 x 6 3/8 x 15 1/2 inches
Weight (sans tape and battery): 3 lbs. 6 oz
Polished and professional, the VX2100 is still the fine camera that it has always been, with only incremental improvements over the VX2000.