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Review: Sony HXR-NX80 4K Camcorder

Compared to other pro Sony cameras I've used, the Sony HXR-NX80 delivers better images, with a longer zoom, in a tinier package that travels very, very easily. If you need camcorders for a multicam live streaming kit that needs to travel, these little cameras deserve a look.

With all the hubbub over large-sensor camcorders and DSLRs, one might miss the new crop of camcorders that have arrived with 1" sensors and varying features, from each of the prosumer camcorder manufacturers.

Sony loaned me their HXR-NX80 camcorder from their NXCAM line (Figure 1, below). It has a nearly identical twin, the PXW-Z90 from the XDCAM line. The physical difference between the two is primarily the addition of 3G-SDI on the Z90. The XDCAM can leverage XDCAM air cloud technology for streaming distribution.

Figure 1. The visually indistinguishable Sony HXR-NX80 and PXW-Z90 1" camcorders

The XDCAM also has the 10-bit 4:2:2 XAVC codec (in HD) versus the NX80’s 4:2:0 XAVC-S codec. Both are 4:2:0 8-bit in 4K (Figure 2, below).

Figure 2. HD and 4K recording formats and color space on the NX80 and Z90

Both of these camcorders offer more than just add-on XLR handles and upgrades from their seemingly identical consumer brethren. Some of the features are very specifically oriented to professionals. For instance, the ability to remotely control camera settings via a smartphone app, and the ability to also use that app to sync multiple camcorders to the same exact timecode is a definite necessity on a multicam shoot.

Both the NX80 and the Z90 are designed to work in collaboration with new video mixer hardware, in this case, Sony’s MCX-500 (Figure 3, below), which can communicate tally with the camcorder so operators and talent know whether they are on standby, and when they are live. This is a feature typically found only on higher-end broadcast gear costing several times as much as these camcorders, which sell for $2,298 (the NX80) and $2,798 (the Z90) at B&H.

Figure 3. The Sony MCX-500 video mixer can communicate directly with the NX80 and Z90

Now if they could only squeeze in a way to communicate with camera operators via the camcorder’s headphone jack, then we’d be entering a whole new world of convenience. But that hasn’t happened yet.

In Use

I leveraged the NX80 for a corporate conference involving two days of live-switched seminars. The challenge was that the seminars would be in a breakout room of a hotel that opened in 1971 and doesn’t seem to have been updated much in the 47 years since. The dim room lighting had zero LED and was all down-facing scoops. No soft light at all. We brought in two square LED panels and hit the stage from the back of the room. This filled in the faces, but the hard downlight was still garish and overbearing. You can see footage from the conference I filmed in the video that accompanies this article.

The presenter was on a stage, and we elevated the camera as well, so both were over the audience in the room. I had three mics, and my live-switch was to consist of one camera and the slides. That’s what I bid, and that’s what I brought, but as always, I had backups and alternates in my bag, ready to adjust if circumstances changed.

I quickly realized that the extensive audience interaction begged for additional camera angles. My mixing solution allowed me to leverage smartphones as additional sources, so I added a second camera to the side of the stage. Eventually, I added a third camera directly facing the audience for the Q&A segments of each module.

The NX80 was the heavyweight, however, delivering more than 90% of the final video. I needed a real camcorder because it could be one presenter, or two, or two people seated, or three, or as many as seven. I had to be able to go easily from a wide shot to a closeup. A real camcorder optical zoom does that with ease. The NX80’s autofocus never failed us in two straight days of recording (Figure 4, below).

Figure 4. NX80 tracking autofocus

I also recorded 4K in the camcorder as a backup to the HD coming into my live video mixer. This proved to be useful in a couple instances when there was some sort of digital glitch between the camcorder and my video mixer. It always resolved itself, but this is why higher-end broadcast gear uses SDI and not HDMI. While I can’t point the finger at anything specifically, HDMI, the cables, the jack, or something else usually ends up being the culprit.

The optical zoom, even controlled via LANC, proved to be smooth enough for our needs. A prosumer camcorder isn’t going to give you the ultra-smooth crawl of a broadcast lens, but the NX80’s slow speed was good enough for our needs. We were leveraging the full 18x, which includes the 12x optical and the additional “Clear Image Zoom” interpolation in the Sony hardware. During the live switch of the HD feed, I honestly could not see where the optical ended and the digital began.

We used it plugged in, because everything was plugged in for this all-day event. We never had a need to use it on battery alone, so I can’t speak to the runtime on the battery. But the battery charges in the camcorder, not in a separate charger, so if you need to be portable, and cycle through some batteries, a separate charger-and-battery kit will be your second purchase.

While the NX80 lacks 3 dedicated rings for focus, zoom, and iris, it has two zoom rockers (one on the handle, one on the body) so you don’t need a third zoom control. The main ring can be set to focus and the tiny ring is left to control whatever manual parameter you choose--iris, gain, or shutter. It also has 6 user-definable buttons, and the ability to connect an external LANC controller for zoom, focus, record start & stop, etc.

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Unlike most camcorders in its price range (MSRP $1,999) and compact form fact, the Sony PXW-X70 boasts solid sensor size (1") and a host of other pro features, including dual XLR audio inputs, dual recording slots, 3 ND filters, a full-size HDMI output, 3G HD-SDI output, and NFC and wireless LAN control, along with future upgrading to 4K UHD internal recording.