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Sony HVR-Z1U Camcorder: The HDV Revolution Has Arrived

$4900 camcorder leaves jaws agape in NYC debut By Charlie White

When Sony, Sharp, JVC and Canon got together to create the HDV format, they were actually planning a revolution. The earth-shattering idea: To create HD video with a workflow thatís just like the old, comfortable and familiar DV Format. But it hasnít really come into fruition for serious videographers until now. Last week (Nov. 10) in NY, Sony unveiled the HVR-Z1U (available Feb. 2005 for $4900), an HDV camcorder that brings pro-level features to a system for low-cost HDTV production that has revolution written all over it. We traveled to New York to bring you this exclusive pictorial report.

At the gala debut in New York City, my impression of the event was that Sony was trying to thread a needle here. Careful not to step on the toes of its successful line of HD camcorders including HDCam and its more-capable 4:4:4 big brother HDCam SR, the Japanese giant was looking to define its next foray into the so-called prosumer world. The HVR-Z1U is the next HDV camcorder Sony will release come this February, on the heels of its soon-to-ship HDR-FX1, the consumer version that rolls out the door at prices less than $3000 later this month. Sony officials, trying to steer prospective users where it wants them to go, emphasized that this unit is aimed at wedding and event videographers, corporate video departments, government video users, independent filmmakers and stringers. The Sony guys stopped short of creating PowerPoint slides depicting network logos with the universal ďnoĒ red circle-slash symbol over them, but clearly hopes the HDCam gravy train will keep rolling for the company and that networks might not notice the intensely high quality coming out of these new pocket rockets. But this reporter has heard otherwise, with the big Nets looking closely at this new breed of HD camcorder, privately vowing to use it even if they donít admit it, certainly for circumstances where theyíd rather not place a $40K camcorder in harmís way.

Your humble narrator (Charlie White) tries out the Sony HVR-Z1U. The first impression I got was how sharp the 250,000-pixel 16x9 viewing screen/ viewfinder is. And if that's not enough, you can zoom in 4x with the finder to check focus. I liked that view screen so much, I didn't even want to use the viewfinder any more. The camera itself feels fairly balanced in the hand, and is much lighter than I expected. It also has plenty of dedicated buttons on it, gone are any touch-screen viewfinder controls.
That said, there are plenty of reasons why even high-end pros might be interested in a closer look at this highly capable hardware. Among its list of new and unique features, perhaps the most interesting concept is the way Sony has tipped its hat to the many shops still using good old standard-definition DV. The HVR-Z1U (heck, letís just call it the Z1 for brevityís sake, with apologies to BMW and Minolta) is format agnostic, at least when DV is concerned, because it can record and play back HDV and DVCam in all its flavors including 60i, 50i, 30 frames, 25 or 24 frames. But the most impressive feat of this camcorder is its magnificent HD footage. Just like its consumer-level sibling, shooting at 1080i/60 fields, its three 16x9 native CCDs crank out some great looking video. And the most astonishing thing about it is, itís only using 25mbit/sec. of bandwidth. Who knew a few years ago that such a huge basketball could be stuffed through such a spaghetti-thin garden hose, if youíll permit me to mix metaphors here.

Notice that itís not actually able to shoot in 24p, but then this is not a bad thing at all. In fact, Sony could have fudged and called it 24p, because the result is the same. Sony has tucked electronics inside that give you progressive footage thatís shot at 24 frames per second, using interpolation that looks as good or better than any 24p. So donít let that 24p buzzword get to you Ė this baby can give you that 24-frame film look and then some. The result to these trained eyes is some great-looking, smoothly cadenced 24-frame footage that looks exactly like 24p if not better. Bravo, Sony.

Tape transport controls are all available on the top within easy reach.

Of course, we all knew that if Sony wanted to pitch this camcorder to the pro market it would have to include two balanced audio (XLR) inputs, with a 48-volt phantom power supply and separate right-left audio control for each channel. And keeping all the frames straight is another staple of the pro shooters' club, so of course SMPTE time code is included in all its flexibility, where youíre able to designate free run or rec run as well as your choice of drop or non-drop frame, just like the big boys. 


The camcorder wasnít the only great new device on display at this hoity-toity NYC event, either. Also rolling out into the spotlight for all to see was the new Sony HVR-M10U ($3700, also available Feb. 2005), an HDV videotape player-recorder (pictured above) that can perform the same HDV tricks as the Z1 camcorder. It can convert HDV material to SD on the fly just like the camcorder does, and is also backward-compatible with all the DV formats, both PAL and NTSC. This little deck will be a perfect companion for your new HDV camcorder, letting you capture footage into the edit bay computer without using the camcorder for such tasks, freeing it up to go back out in the field to grab more footage. I really like its built-in 3.5-inch LCD monitor that displays SMPTE time code and functions on-screen. The Sony guy told us this neat little VTR will run for five hours on one camcorder battery, although I didnít stand there and wait for it to expire to confirm it.

Here's DMN's esteemed guru Douglas Spotted Eagle showing off the 12X Optical Zoom Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T Lens on the Z1. Notice your author and photographer in the 16x9 swiveling viewscreen.


Sony's new 23-inch Luma monitor
Thatís because I was too busy ogling the new 23-inch Luma monitor ($4000, pictured above) that Sony presented as a part of the new HDV production system. Cranking out 1280x720 pixels, the Luma isnít giving you pixel-for-pixel playback of your HDV footage, but that was a minor disappointment because it looks great as a playback monitor anyway. It uses 23-inch LCD display, similar in size to that of Sonyís PremierPro computer monitor, but goes a step better by removing that noisy fan thatís lurking in the back of the PremierPro. The monitor is also separate from the control box, a tweaker's delight that allows all the professional controls to which youíve grown accustomed in Sonyís great studio monitor CRTs. Sony also told me the company will also release a 30-inch version of the Luma series, and another Sony suit whispered that by next year at this time we can expect to see a pixel-for-pixel monitor with all the Luma Series advantages pumping out a solid HDV-matching 1920x1080 resolution. That I gotta see, because as they stand today, theyíre great monitors already.
[Click graphic for enlargement] Side view of the new Sony HDV camcorder

At the event Sony also announced a new line of DV tape especially formulated for HDV. You see, Sony says any DV tape will work in its new HDV camcorders and deck, and these tapes are all excellent, but for an even more excellent videotape, youíll simply have to try its new DigitalMaster videotape. The 63-minute cassettes have some new mojo injected into them that Sony calls AME II Technology, reportedly able to perform with fewer dropouts. Not that the other had any dropouts, either. But then, I guess Iíll have to have the highest-quality DV tape for my HDV shoots, for that CYA factor, you know? There was no word on pricing of this tape stock as of yet. 

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Related Keywords:Sony, HDV format, HD video, workflow, DV Format, serious videographers, Sony HVR-Z1U, HDV camcorder, pro-level features, HDTV production, Charlie White, HDR-FX1, wedding videographers

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