The Sony HXR-NX5U professional AVCHD video camera is the first of Sony’s NXCAM camcorder line. It has all the bells and whistles you come to expect from a mid-size camera, plus a GPS feature that tags your clips with your geographical location. We haven’t seen that in this type of pro cam before. The HXR-NX5U is well suited for the serious videographer shooting in a variety of environments and needs a camera that can do it all without tapes and with the more cost-friendly SDHC memory cards.
Packing a Punch
The HXR-NX5U is as compact as a camera needs to be in this category without sacrificing too much surface area for the camera controls. If you like buttons, dials and switches, you’ll quickly fall in love with this camera. That is to say, this is a serious tool for videographers who want more control over their camera.
On the right side of the camera is the standard handgrip, which is plenty comfortable. The power on/off and record start/stop is squarely on the back. Just above sits a zoom rocker and a conveniently placed Expanded Zoom button (or the 7th assignable button if you choose a custom function). We like the placement of the Expanded Zoom button here. It allows you to quickly and more accurately check your focus, which is always a challenge with these high definition cameras. On top of the right-side layout are 2 XLR mic inputs, each line/mic/mic plus phantom power per each channel and finally a shotgun microphone holder.
Last, but not least, on the rear of the right side is an area reserved for the additional flash memory unit (sold separately, HXR-FMU128, $800). While our review unit did not ship with this additional accessory, we have to note that it is a very attractive add-on for a shooter who does a lot of long recordings. Wedding and event videographers will be able to boost their recording times to 11 hours in FX mode (24 Mbps). We think that’s a great feature. The flash memory unit can also detach from the camera and connect directly to your computer.
The rear of the camera houses your main connections: composite video, left and right composite audio, HDMI out, component out, USB and HD/SD SDI out. You’ll also find a recessed battery compartment, the on/off switch for GPS and the dual SDHC memory card slots. Upwards, near the eyepiece is a headphone monitor switch that allows you to quickly change between each channel or a stereo mix. This is a nice feature if you commonly mic up two different sources without the additional personnel of an audio mixer constantly evaluating the mix.
The camera’s left side is a plethora of buttons and controls. For shooting controls, you’ll find the 3 selectable ND filters, auto/manual focus switch, push button auto focus and an iris button. We also have additional gain, white balance and shutter speed controls, too. The auto and manual audio levels for both channels are built in beneath a door that even when closed reveals your selections but inhibits you from an unintended adjustment. Menu and mode controls are also on the left side and 6 assignable buttons, allowing you to make a variety of customizations. All in all, it’s a busy looking camera, but everything is well laid out. If there was one area of improvement it would be making the push auto focus button a little bigger or maybe adding a nipple to the button. We found it a little challenging to press on the first try with big fingers.
On top of the camcorder is the LCD at 3.2 inches and 921,000 pixels. It flips out from its resting position and reveals the camera’s playback controls. The top handle is quite robust with plenty of room for accessories and control. However, if you use the front accessory shoe with a device that extends backwards, it may interfere with the LCD screen’s ability to flip out or in. That’s probably something you can plan for in advance, or you can use the additional accessory shoe in the back of the top handle.
The Sony HXR-NX5U has a Sony G lens with 20x optical zoom. The lens’ focal length (35mm equivalent in 16:9 mode) is 29.5mm to 590mm. While we’ve seen slightly wider angles from camcorders of this style, it should be a good length for most. On the long side of the lens, 590mm is really great, so long as you’re shooting with a tripod.
Along with the standard focus ring and zoom ring, we really like that there’s a manual iris ring. Like many cameras in this class, the iris ring is not fixed, but in our tests it performs nicely. This is a one-quarter-stop iris meaning that the aperture changes gradually so that aperture changes are subtle and almost unnoticeable to the viewer. Wide open, the aperture is at f1.6, which lets in quite a bit of light.
The Proof is in the Pudding
Indoors, we shot some tests in very typical low-light situations to see how the Sony HXR-NX5U would hold up. We were able to get great performance from the fully wide f1.6 aperture in poorly lit rooms. Color and detail held up fairly well in these situations with noticeable noise in the darkest of areas, but no more than we’d expect to see. When getting into more challenging indoor situations with less light, noise became a problem quickly. And, as you can guess, adding gain to the mix didn’t help. The HXR-NX5U can go to 21dB of gain, although we don’t recommend it, unless it’s a last resort.
We could test many more features with plenty of light outdoors. We were pleased with how well the HXR-NX5U held highlights for an AVCHD camera. It’s certainly not a strength of all cameras in the AVCHD category, but this one did quite well. In fact, there were several situations where we expected the sky to blowout completely into a wash of white, but instead we saw some color information in the sky. That was a pleasant surprise.
Overall, the color reproduction on the Sony HXR-NX5U was wonderfully balanced and fine resolution is great. This is just what you’d expect from a camera in this price range and category. The AVCHD codec at 24Mbps performed wonderfully with motion and through a variety of camera movements. It performed quite nicely in scenes with sharp contrast, which is usually something you’d try to avoid at all costs. The Sony HXR-NX5U has superior video quality of a camera in the AVCHD category at this bit rate.
The onboard mic is decent, but the HXR-NX5u also has a supplied shotgun mic. Slightly longer than 6 inches, this mic does a much better job focusing on sound in front of the camera. There’s also a foam cover to help reduce some wind noise. We had no problems capturing good audio and the variety of controls made it a snap to get our audio set up and ready to go.
It didn’t take us long to get used to this camera. It’s a very comfortable design with well thought out controls. Focusing on this camera is a breeze and the Expanded Focus button makes it very easy to check and be confident that you’re indeed in focus. The super smooth manual iris control is also a nice feature. For those shooters who need to run and gun, this camera is ready for that lifestyle. Or, if you simply enjoy having the convenience of manual controls right at your fingertips, this is a great choice. Overall, what makes the NX5U so great is its combination of controls and convenience. Anyone who shoots a lot will enjoy working this camera. Additionally, the dual SDHC camcorder means that you can indeed do a lot of shooting. The HXR-NX5U has a variety of recording options and qualities. There are quite a few variations for record settings. It will do 1920×1080 in 60i, 30p and 24p. At 60i frames, you can change the bitrate between FX (24 Mbps) and FH (17 Mbps) for 1920×1080 or you can pixel sample at 1440×1080 at lesser bitrates of HQ (9 Mbps) and LP (5 Mbps). This way, if you really want long record times, you can have them. But, we didn’t like the quality as much. In the 1280×720 resolution, you can record only at 60p frames at either FX or FH modes. Finally, you can do SD video at the HQ quality in 60i, 30p (scan mode) and 24p (scan mode). The scan mode is not native progressive scan, but the progressive scan system embedded in the 60i sequence.
Where in the World Are You
We have to talk about the GPS feature built into the NX5U because it’s the first we’ve seen. In our tests we were able to get it to work most of the time outdoors and even indoors, although with less consistency. We’re pleasantly surprised to see how often it worked. As a footnote, it’s not expected to work indoors or around tall buildings.
As shooters for many, many years, we couldn’t help but wonder why we’d want this GPS feature. We are skeptics, however, the next frontier of videography will likely be embracing meta data, not only for production purposes, but also for the deliverables. We think it’s safe to say Sony is ahead of the curve, at least when it comes to acquiring geo meta data of your video clips. It’s usefulness right now, is questionable, unless you use your video camera for still photos, which are more commonly integrated with geo meta data in online applications. In short, it’s a cool feature, with very little practical use today. With that said, we are looking forward to when a video editing application will have the feature to group our videos by location. We think that would be useful, but we’re not sure if we can expect to see that any time soon.
An AVCHD Workhorse
The Sony HXR-NX5u is a workhorse camcorder in the AVCHD line up. It’s got a great combination of features and manual controls that will allow you to do just about anything you’d need to in a professional shoot. Its outstanding video quality and long record times makes this a desirable AVCHD camcorder for event videographers.
Image Sensor: 3 x 1/3″ CMOS
Interchangeable Lenses: No
Lens f-Stop: f1.6
Optical Zoom: 20x
Focal Length: 29.5-590mm
Filter Diameter: 72mm
Iris/Gain Control: Auto/Manual
Shutter Speed: Auto/Manual
Maximum Shutter Speed: 1/10,000 (60i), 1/10,000 (30p, 24p)
Minimum Shutter Speed: 1/4
Internal ND Filter: Yes (1/4, 1/16, 1/64)
Manual White Balance: Yes
Zebra Stripes: Yes
Viewfinder: Color .45″ 1,226k dots
LCD Monitor: Color 3.2″ 921.6k dots
Progressive Scan: Yes
Video Out: HD-SDI, HDMI, component, composite
Audio Modes: Stereo
Microphone In: Yes (XLR, 2 channel)
VU Meter: Yes
Manual Audio Level Controls: Yes
Headphone Jack: Yes
Wireless Remote: Yes
External Battery Charger Provided: Yes
Form Factor: Standard, horizontal
Memory Card Loading Config.: Back, Dual Slot
On-board Video Light: No
Accessory Shoe: Yes (2)
- Good color balance
- One-fourth-stop manual iris
- 20x Sony G Lens
- Great optics
- 29.5mm at the widest is good, but you might need an adapter if you want a little more room.
- Front shoe mount may put you at odds with the LCD’s ability to flip out.
- GPS might be a little too far ahead of its time.
The Sony HXR-NX5U is a true workhorse and one of the best camcorders in the AVCHD format. Professional event videographers will love the long record times and well thought out controls.
Sony Electronics, Inc.
1 Sony Drive
Park Ridge, New Jersey 07656
Contributing columnist Mark Montgomery is a web content specialist and produces instructional videos for a leading web application developer.