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Home / Photography / HD Camcorders

Sony HDR-XR520V review

By Mike Perlman, Saturday 16 May 2009
Sony HDR-XR520V
Sony HDR-XR520V
Sony HDR-XR520V
Sony HDR-XR520V
Sony HDR-XR520V
Sony HDR-XR520V
Sony HDR-XR520V
Sony HDR-XR520V
Sony HDR-XR520V
Sony's HD bad boy is here! The 240GB camcorder kicked some low light butt and looked hot while doing it. Read about the rest of its fierce features in our comprehensive Sony HDR-XR520V review with lots of image samples.

Review summary of the Sony HDR-XR520V:
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Sony HDR-XR520V At the end of our journey with the Sony HDR-XR520V, we were conflicted, as if we had just watched Terms of Endearment and couldn€™t discern between joy and sorrow anymore. The HDR-XR520V is one of those camcorders that nails a few key features home and then phones in the rest from a booth down the street. No other HD camcorder could match its low light performance, and that€™s a huge part of the HDR-XR520V€™s success. The HDR-XR520V also rocks the largest HDD capacity at 240GB, in addition to supporting Memory Stick PRO Duo cards. But isn€™t 29 hours and 20 minutes of continuous recording time in the highest quality a little excessive? The HDR-XR520V is also the most expensive HD cam on the market at 1500 bucks, and $200 of that is all hard drive. The step-down Sony HDR-XR500V has a 120GB HDD, and that€™s the only difference between the two. We loved the HDR-XR520V€™s super sized LCD with VGA screen resolution, and the Cam Control dial made manual adjustment a breeze. However, the HDR-XR520V lacked some significant manual controls, making it far less viable for budget filmmakers and serious shooters. Both the Canon Vixia HF S10 and Panasonic HDC-HS300 offer a lot more in terms of shooting options, including different frame rates and independent Shutter Speed control. The Sony HDR-XR520V is our pick for the #1 tourist HD cam, and Sony has a lot of work to do in order to make the next generation XR compelling to the advanced crowd. Release: March 2009. Price: $1500.
Pros: Excellent low light performance. Great LCD resolution and size. Cam Control dial makes shooting easier.
Cons: Inconsistent bright light performance. Limited manual controls compared to competition. Heavy and pricey.
Full Sony HDR-XR520V Review:
Design €“ Very Good

Architecturally, the Sony HDR-XR520V does not delight us with any new tricks other than a size reduction. While the Canon Vixia HF S10 flaunts a radical new design and the Panasonic HDC-HS300 is strapped with advanced manual control weaponry, the HDR-XR520V resembles a miniature Sony HDR-SR12, only without the mode dial. That's right, the HDR-XR520V is devoid of a mode dial. The camcorder automatically fires up by pulling out the 3.2-inch LCD or extending the viewfinder. There is a Power button, but it's wedged in the bottom left hand corner of the LCD bay. It wasn't until we were ready to ship the HDR-XR520V back that we actually stumbled upon it. This whittling of external controls is a gleaming indication that this camcorder is aimed at the advanced tourist crowd rather than the budget filmmaker brigade.

Despite the HDR-XR520V's reduced size, it's still heavier than the Vixia HF S10. That's probably due to the bulk of the internal 240GB HDD, which is weight we're willing to find acceptable. Though the Sony HDR-XR520V exhibits the sleekest port enclosures compared to the Vixia HF S10 and Panasonic HDC-S300, we liked the Sony HDR-SR12's the best. At least Sony didn't leave any jacks naked, like the Vixia HF S10's coverless Mic terminal. The HDR-XR520V's hand strap has also been downgraded to a cheap faux leather strip without padding. We loved the HDR-SR12's cushy, breathable mesh liner and the camcorder seemed more solid overall. The HDR-XR520V is still comfortable to handle, though it lacks that plush Cadillac feel we obtained from the HDR-SR12's tank-like build and contoured body. The new two-tone gunmetal and black color scheme is nice to look at, and we love the yellow ring encircling the lens.

Sony also carried over the Cam Control dial, which rocked for manual control. The dial spun smoother than a stick of butter in the dead of July and we loved the ability to toggle a particular function on or off immediately. The Sony HDR-XR520V is equipped with Sony's proprietary Active Interface Shoe for mounting Sony-branded mics and video lights. The Canon Vixia HF S10 has also joined the exclusive proprietary hot shoe club and we wish manufacturers would buy into a universal shoe system to make it easier on third party applications. We'd prefer a universal cold shoe to a proprietary hot shoe any day, and most advanced filmmakers would agree.

As far as overall design is concerned, the HDR-XR520V is still a triumph. We'd classify it as a hybrid between the Panasonic HDC-HS300 and the Canon Vixia HF S10. The HDC-HS300 is stacked with a multi-faceted lens ring, extendable viewfinder and touch screen LCD. The Vixia HF S10 sports a Control dial, but lacks a viewfinder and some key external buttons. The HDR-XR520V falls right in the middle, offering certain flavors of the advanced control found on the HDC-HS300, yet echoing the minimalist design of the Vixia HF S10.

Interface and Menus €“ Very Good

The Sony HDR-XR520V's 3.2-inch LCD provided the nicest looking picture out of the 2009 lineup, thanks to its 921,600-pixel display. Not only does the HDR-XR520V offer the largest monitor on the market, but it's also the only LCD with full touch-screen operation. We preferred the LCD to the viewfinder in most shooting environments because it far surpassed any other manufacturer's monitoring capabilities. The viewfinder's 123,000 wide-angle screen was way too puny, and we think Sony poured all of the goods into the LCD. The Panasonic HDC-HS300 has a hybrid touch screen LCD, but the lower screen resolution and 2.7-inch size simply cannot match the magnitude of the HDR-XR520V's. Canon is the most traditional in the bunch, as the Canon Vixia HF S10 offers a 2.7-inch joystick-manned LCD. Sony wins, hands down.

Most shooters are split right down the middle when it comes to navigation. It's the old school vs. the new school of technology. As touch screens continue to blanket everything in sight, it's inevitable that anything with a screen will be devoid of tangible buttons. We actually didn't mind the HDR-XR520V's touch screen LCD, and that was because of its large 3.2-inch wide surface area. We ran into issues with the Panasonic HDC-HS300 because its 2.7-inch screen simply couldn't handle adult-sized fingers. Sony's touch screens are responsive and we were even able to calibrate the sensitivity of our touch.

Menus were spot on as well, though Sony needs to launch a major organizational overhaul on the layout. It's easy to get lost in Sony's labyrinth of menu options, which are located in peculiar, counterintuitive places. It took us a while to grow accustomed to the HDR-XR520V's menus, while the Canon Vixia HF S10 allowed us to dive right in. The Panasonic HDC-HS300's menus were also highly intuitive and easy to access, so if Sony went to school on their competition, they'd be way ahead of the game. We liked the vertical panel of controls located to the left of the LCD screen, but the Low Lux switch was too finicky. The switch shifted so quickly that we danced over the Low Lux notch almost every time. We'd also like to see more useful external controls like White Balance and SteadyShot buttons, so hopefully Sony will revamp the future generation XR model.

Shooting Features - Good

Drumroll please€¦the Sony HDR-XR520V is the first camcorder to bring GPS to the table! And it actually works without a hitch. As long as we could obtain a signal from a GPS satellite, every video clip we recorded was tracked and documented. We couldn't snag a signal on a moving train, so the accuracy of the GPS system was shoddy at times. We were also able to search for video clips in playback by recording location and view our location on a NAVTEQ map with the ability to zoom in. This was no Google map, so don't get your hopes up. At full zoom, the LCD pane still lacked a great deal of geographical information, but its accuracy was spot on. We're eager to see the future of GPS in the camcorder world, and Sony has blown down the door with a solid inaugural attempt.

Unfortunately, the Sony HDR-XR520V offers the smallest fleet of manual controls compared to the Canon Vixia HF S10 and Panasonic HDC-HS300. The HDC-HS300 delivers aperture, gain and true 24P control while the HF S10 flaunts three different frame rates, Cine mode and Shutter Priority. The HDR-XR520V doesn't even have independent Shutter control. What it does have is Exposure, Auto Exposure Shift, White Balance Shift and Focus control, all adjustable via the Cam Control dial. For the most part, AE Shift took care of relentless highlights in bright light, and since the HDR-XR520V's low light performance was so impressive, there was no need to toil with any exposure control when the lights went down.

The HDR-XR520V has a new Low Lux mode that drops the shutter speed down to 1/30-second in order to obtain more luminance. We found that the Low Lux mode provided a little extra light in those dark, cave-like shooting environments, but we really wish Sony would bulk up the arsenal of its top HD machine. With multiple frame rates, gain control and some form of Cine mode gamma shift, the Sony HDR-XR520V would easily surpass the Canon HF S10, and that's a formidable task. As it stands, we're seeing the HDR-XR520V as a top tourist cam rather than a budget film power plant.

As with any Sony, Easy mode is a standard on the HDR-XR520V, limiting menu options and eliminating all manual controls. Screen icons also double in size for better touch screen accuracy and vision, and Easy mode is a hit with old folks and beginners. The Sony HDR-XR520V has Face Detection for Photo and Video modes and Smile Shutter solely for Photo mode. We found the accuracy of the Face Detection feature to work well at a moderate distance, but we had trouble with it up close. Smile Shutter allowed us to set the sensitivity of the detection, and in most scenarios it proved itself as a reasonably accurate feature.

Aside from a minimal amount of shooting features, the Sony HDR-XR520V also skimps on audio options, providing a simple Normal/Low levels setting and a Zoom Mic function. Sound can be recorded in 5.1 Channel Surround or 2 Channel Stereo, and that's about it. The Canon Vixia HF S10 offered onboard level control, adjustable via the Joystick, while the Panasonic HDC-HS300 allowed us to monitor each individual mic and adjust levels on a 5.1 Channel Surround sound map. There's nothing special about any built-in camcorder microphone, and we recommend an external shotgun mic to provide higher-grade sound quality. The HDR-XR520V has a hot shoe, but it's proprietary. So, you'll have to buy into Sony's line of aftermarket mics or find a third party adapter.

Hardware and Connectivity €“ Very Good

Great and mysterious things are happening back in the Sony labs, and the HDR-XR520V receives the largest sensor we've seen in the company's HD lineup in quite sometime. While the Sony HDR-SR12 was equipped with a 1/3-inch ClearVid CMOS sensor, the HDR-XR520V rocks a 1/2.88-inch back illuminated CMOS chip with EXMOR technology and Bionz processing. Although the new sensor sounds like a lethal weapon from Star Wars, the back illumination led to a significant boost in low light sensitivity with decreased noise, and we were very pleased with our test footage. Canon is currently running a 1/2.6-inch CMOS in the Vixia HF S10, the largest CMOS chip within the HD circuit, while Panasonic has stuck to its 3-chip configuration utilizing Live Mos sensors.

The Sony HDR-XR520V received a new Sony G Lens with boosted 12x optical zoom range and 43mm €“ 516mm focal length (35mm movie equivalent). The lens provided a crystal clear image and the Optical Image Stabilization performed well at full telephoto. However, there were certain frequencies the SteadyShot system couldn't handle. At full zoom, we experienced a fair amount of frame drifting when we steadied our hand. The SteadyShot was most likely looking for even the slightest bit of shake to latch onto, forcing it to go rogue when all was still. As always, we recommend a tripod for any shooting situations that require complete stillness, but the SteadyShot will function adequately most of the time. We had the best experience with the Panasonic HDC-HS300's OIS and the Canon Vixia HF S10's OIS was way up there as well.

The Sony HDR-XR520V records high-definition video in the AVCHD format to its 240GB internal HDD or Memory Stick PRO Duo cards. This is the largest capacity available in the camcorder world, but we wonder if all that space is even necessary. The Sony HDR-XR500V is $200 cheaper and the only difference is half the HDD capacity. Most editing programs now support AVCHD, so the HDR-XR520V's format will not be a huge encumbrance, though a powerful computer with plenty of disk space is required to handle the complexity and volume of AVCHD files. The Sony HDR-XR520V has a standard cast of terminals, including Mini HDMI, AV/Component, USB and Mic and Headphone jacks.

Image Quality €“ Very Good

Back in December we were floored by a low light demonstration comparing the Sony HDR-SR12 and the HDR-XR520V, essentially displaying an approximate 50% noise reduction on behalf of the latest and greatest. Well, we encountered an intriguing phenomenon while shooting with the Sony HDR-XR520V. Our low light video actually looked better than the bright light clips in most cases. The XR520V had a tendency to overexpose in bright light, so we were constantly manning the AE Shift. However, noise levels on the whole were lower than the Canon Vixia HF S10's and Panasonic HDC-HS300's. Could it be that Sony has finally surpassed Canon in the realm of image quality? In low light, yes. The Sony HDR-XR520V granted us with the best low light performance we've ever seen on a consumer HD camcorder.

However, Canon won the bright light WWF match, delivering a Flying Elbow with HF S10's multiple frame rates and Cine mode gamma shift. If Sony would only tack on 24P and their own Cine mode, it would be a whole different ballgame. But, as it stands, the Sony HDR-XR520V is our #1 tourist camcorder while the Canon Vixia HF S10 proved itself as our #1 budget film cam. The Panasonic HDC-HS300 just didn't have the balls compared to the two aforementioned champions, but it rocked the best architecture out of the lot. All we know is Canon has their work cut out for them when it comes to low light. We shot in the highest 16Mbps quality setting in all shooting environments with the HDR-XR520V, and if Canon couldn't match its lowlight at the highest current rate of 24Mbps, then we can't imagine what Sony has in store. Duck for cover!

Video Quality

  • Scene Test - Times Square

  • Most of what we saw in bright light failed to incite that warm, tingly feeling we often get while viewing high-definition video. This scene is an example. Noise was extremely low while viewing this particular clip, but the HDR-XR520V lacked that fine detail we saw with the Canon Vixia HF S10. The HDR-XR520V's dynamic range was very impressive in most shooting environments, but bright colors appeared to be bleeding and we just didn't see the magic in this clip. It's a prime example of how picky the Sony HDR-XR520V is, for we experienced our best results in subdued and low lighting.

  • Color Test €“ St. Patty's Day Garb

  • The Sony HDR-XR520V delivered when in came to color, but the camcorder was highly selective, depending on the lighting. Since the HDR-XR520V had a tendency to overexpose in bright light, many colors appeared washed out at times, but watching this clip proved that the camcorder had a lot of vibrancy and saturation to offer. The numerous shades of green keep within their borders nicely and there's no bleeding. We have to give the Canon HF S10 the color award, but the Sony HDR-XR520V is riding right behind on its coattails.

  • Sharpness/Detail Test €“ NBC Van

  • Sharpness/Detail Test €“ Central Park Bridge

  • Not only did the color look delicious in the first clip, but the sharpness was top notch. Of course, look at the neutral lighting. We were able to obtain magnificently sharp images at times, rife with killer detail. We can even discern the texture of the van from the orange portion of the peacock tail. Over at Central Park, we were able to capture every minute crevice and texture along the railing of the footbridge. We didn't encounter any noise in either of these clips, and they're both prime examples of what you can expect from the Sony HDR-XR520V in adequate lighting.

  • Motion Test €“ Zajac Goal

  • Since the Sony HDR-XR520V records in 60i, motion was never a problem during playback. Though the frame here is laced with a little ghosting, the video clip played very smoothly, as if we were watching an actual New Jersey Devils broadcast. This clip was also captured at full zoom from the second level of the Prudential Arena stands, and the SteadyShot Image Stabilization worked beautifully, despite the drunken and belligerent Jersey fans.

  • Fringing Test €“ Marty's 552nd

  • Capturing the entire ceremony of the winningest goalie in hockey history made it difficult enough to concentrate on cinematography. However, Brodeur never looked better during playback, and that's not a bias. Motion, color and exposure looked great. Unfortunately, we encountered a little fringing along his jersey sleeve, the net, and well, pretty much the rest of his gear. There are times when the Sony HDR-XR520V will stoop down to the rung of entry-levelness, so be prepared.

  • Portrait Test €“ Post-Magic Glee

  • Face Detection Test - Drunken Irish Chicken Fight Match

  • The Sony HDR-XR520V handled faces very well, despite how frightening they looked. Skin tone, detail, exposure and color were all spot on in this clip, but the HDR-XR520V failed to recognize our digital imaging editor's smile, let alone face, which led to a gradual sneaking suspicion that he might not be human after all. But that was always inferred. The Face Detection worked wonderfully on the revelers outside a shady Irish pub near Penn Station. In this clip, we were able to track three faces, consisting of both girls and big #83. Up close, it's a different story, so you're going to have to find the golden position if you plan on shooting yourself and relying on Face Detection.

  • Edge Test - Amen

  • We're looking for any signs of fringing, jaggies or blurriness along the skyline here and we're coming up short. This was one of the most pleasing video clips to watch because of the dynamic exposure and beautiful, naturalistic color. When the light is right, the Sony HDR-XR520V will crank out quality like this.

  • Low Light Test €“ The Blue Comet

  • Night Test €“ Times Square

  • Night Test €“ Fiery Kebabs

  • Low light was the Sony HDR-XR520V's sweet spot. We couldn't believe the lack of noise in each one of these clips while playing them back on our HD monitor. This thing killed when the lights went down, and we've never seen a better low light performance. Furthermore, the Sony HDR-XR520V's clips retained most of their color information and detail was sharp. We saved the best frame grab for last. Watching that clip was like watching a scene from a Hollywood movie, so if low light is a high priority, look no further than the Sony HDR-XR520V.

    Still Image Quality

    Don't be fooled by the Sony HDR-XR520V's reported 12-megapxiel max resolution. The camcorder is actually taking a 6-megapixel still and interpolating, or blowing it up, to a larger size. The result is a large image, but at the quality level of a smaller 6-megapixel image. While the Panasonic HDC-HS300 can snap native 10-megapixel images and the Canon Vixia HF S10 is up to native 8-megapixels images, the Sony HDR-XR520V is a little behind in the times. However, we found that the HDR-XR520V's was slightly better than the HDC-HS300's. The HDR-XR520V performed well with close-up objects and dynamic range, but its poor low light performance and frequent noise issues knocked it back a few places from the Vixia HF S10, which cranked out the best still image performance of this trio.

  • Scene Test €“ Essex House

  • Color looks great in this image, but noise is apparent across the board. This is not your typical digital camera noise, but more of a smeared compression effect most likely due to the interpolation. Because of this, detail and sharpness is lost and this image fails to compete with even the most basic point-and-shoot compacts.

  • Detail Test €“ Garbage Wall

  • Detail Test €“ Central Park Horse

  • The Sony HDR-XR520V handled the garbage wall quite well as far as dynamic range was concerned, and detail was fairly impressive in most parts of the focal range. However, we're still bombarded by that plague of noise, eating away at the sharpness of most of the image. Colors look a bit washed out as well. The horse is a step up, but fine detail is lost due to the noise, especially within most parts of the carriage.

  • Macro Test - Acorn

  • When the Sony HDR-XR520V had less to concentrate on, it performed optimally. The detail within the acorn's crevices and the texture of the rock is very impressive, but we saw an even better performance from the Canon Vixia HF S10 with this same shot.

  • Color Test €“ Times Square Billboards

  • Colors here look very natural, and a little desaturated if anything. Certain garments are bleeding amongst the crowd, and there's even some fringing transpiring upon white clothing. This is certainly not one of the most vibrant palettes we've ever encountered, and noise is still apparent.

  • Contrast Test €“ Times Square

  • Let's look beyond the inherent noise and focus on the dynamic range here, which the Sony HDR-XR520V tackles with gusto. Though the sky is blown out, we can still discern buildings and the rest of the scene exhibits a balanced exposure. Now about that noise€¦forget it, it's hopeless.

  • Low Light Test €“ Intrepid

  • Night Test - Manhattan

  • Night Test €“ Graffiti with Flash

  • Since the Sony HDR-XR520V is devoid of independent Shutter control, we struggled when the lights grew dim. We cranked the AE Shift to the max for the first two images and had to use the flash for the third image. Subtle red and blue noise is attacking the Intrepid, and we can't even make out the madness of Manhattan. The third image displays the most detail and low noise combination we've seen thus far, but it took a flash to do it. Now, the Canon Vixia HF S10 has manual Shutter Speed control, allowing us to shoot at night without the flash. Images were noisy, but the Vixia HF S10 proved itself as the best overall digital camera substitute.
    Name Score Price
    Panasonic HDC-HS900 88% $1400
    Panasonic HDC-HS700 87% $1400
    Canon Vixia HF S21 86% $1400
    Canon Vixia HF S10 86% $1300
    Sony HDR-XR520V 85% $1500

    Name Score Price
    Canon FS22 66% $600
    Canon FS200 63% $330
    Sony DCR-SR47 61% $360
    Panasonic SDR-SW21 60% $400
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