I’ve been experimenting recently with the new Marantz PMD661 handheld solid state recorder that was sent for me to test out. Over the last few years, I’ve owned just about every field recorder Marantz has produced: PMD 670, 671, 660 and 620; so you can count me a long time fan of their gear. I have to say I like the new 661 and consider it a real improvement over the 660.
First, the redesigned case has a solid feel to it with a nice black brushed aluminum face. It makes sense for its size and everything is laid out nicely including just about any connection you might need. The unit now sports a 1/4-inch sized headphone jack (a real improvement in my book), RCA stereo line out connections, S/PDIF digital input, USB 2.0 port and a spare 1/8-inch stereo line in. They have switched away from compact flash and now use removable SD or SDHC memory cards. (The unit ships with 1 GB card to get you started.) The two XLR inputs are mic/line switchable and have +48V phantom power if needed. (The fact that that the XLRs are now line level capable moves this unit up much closer to its big brother, the PMD671.) The LED meter bridge has been moved to the topside of the unit and is angled so that it is visible from top or front. The 661 has two built in condenser microphones and stereo playback speakers.
The unit ships with a carrying strap that lets you hang it from you shoulder and, like its predecessor, the XLRs are intelligently located on the bottom so that mic cables drape nicely. The 661 runs on 4 AA batteries with a stated record time of 5+ hours (not tested.) For studio use, the unit ships with an AC adapter in the box.
To me, the big news is now you can record uncompressed PCM in either 16 or 24 bit depth with sample rates of 44.1, 48 or 96 kHz. I have always recorded my audio for podcasting using 24-bit to take advantage of the extra headroom and I feel this a signifiant improvement over the 660. The best part from a form and function standpoint is the large OLED display. The display is big, bright and easy to read. An additional display feature I appreciate is the ability to cycle through various alternate information dislplays. The display options depend on the function being used: record, playback etc. I found myself using the “record level” option frequently so that in addition to the meter bridge I had ballistic style meters running on the bright OLED. This is a huge improvement over the previous model and when recording inside or at night I find displays like this to be a real plus.
As devices get smaller and have more features packed into them, the menu systems sometimes get too confusing. Sure you can set everything up for just about any unit when the manual is right in front of you but the real test comes six months later in the field when you need to make a change, can you find the menu option then? So I did my basic test – could I navigate the menus and get the unit set up without having to first read the manual. Success! The menu structure is intuitive and I was able to get everything configured and even went so far as to program the 3 presets without ever having to crack the manual.
The transport buttons are laid out intelligently and operation was easy. You can’t miss when you are in record mode. The ring around the record button lights up in bright red and is a nice touch.
Now for the most important question: how does it sound? I think it is an improvement over the 660 but with all these portable digital recorders microphone selection is key. I’ve posted two quick sound clips recorded with two dynamic ENG style interview microphones: Sennheiser MD46 and an ElectroVoice RE50N/D-B. I think this unit would definitely do better with a phantom-powered condenser microphone. And sure enough right there on page 24 of the manual that is what Marantz Professional recommends for the 661. But since the MD 46 and RE 50 are popular among podcasters for mobile interviews, those are the ones I tested.
I’ve also posted a file recorded with the internal mics. My guess is that they are the same as those used on the PMD620 – a unit I like for ultra-portable use. (I have an email out trying to confirm this.) Update: I got word back from Marantz Professional that, “the mic capsule is quite same as the PMD620 but the mechanical structure (how to support the mic unit), mic pre and power supply circuits, peripheral devices and parts …those are improved.”
Overall, I like the unit. With its line capability on the XLRs it can serve double duty as your desktop recorder when behind your mixer and then you can pack it up and head out to capture field interviews. Just make sure you pick your mic carefully. The Marantz PMD661 is available through Amazon for $599.