Sony HDR-HC9 Camcorder Review
The Sony HDR-HC9 is a minor update from last year’s HDR-HC7. This high definition camcorder records to tape in the HDV format, which continues be the format of choice for those who prize video quality over the convenience of flash media, HDD, and DVD. The HDR-HC7 was a great camcorder, and the HDR-HC9 has enough upgrades to make it even more alluring to the serious shooter: a peaking tool to help with focus, a center marker, a combined Spot Meter and Spot Focus, a lens hood, and a slick black finish. However, the base performance and upgrades of this year’s Canon HV30 makes it a very, very strong choice. Once again, it’s a tight race. The heat is on.
Video Performance* (10.5)*
The Sony HDR-HC9 shares identical specs with the HDR-HC7. Both imagers measure 1/2.9-inches, with a gross pixel count of 3,200,000. The effective pixel count in 16:9 is 2,280,000, and in 4:3 the effective pixel count is 1,710,000.
Every other high definition consumer camcorder in Sony’s 2008 line-up was upgraded with the new Exmor sensors and Bionz processors, technology borrowed from Sony’s professional camcorders and its DSLR still camera lines. Sony claims camcorders using this system reduce noise, even as surface area on the imaging chip shrinks. Unfortunately, none of the Exmor camcorders are yet available, but you can bet we’ll have those reviews soon.
It should come as no surprise that the performance between the two camcorders is identical. We did extensive testing with the HDR-HC7 last year, including a full review and the Great HD Shootout between the HC7, the Canon HV20, the Panasonic HDC-SD1, and the JVC GZ-HD7. The HC7, and again the HC9, produce a very good looking image. The color balance and resolution are very good, particularly when compared to AVCHD camcorders. However, we still insist that the Canon HV20, and now HV30, look better. The Sony has that unmistakable "video" look – a combination of oversharpening and color – that Canon manages to side-step. Believe us, the margin of victory is not large, but it’s there.
One of the HDR-HC9’s strengths is the level of control you have over sharpness and saturation. The controls, described in more detail later in the review (Other Manual Control), are similar to what Canon offers. Decreasing the sharpness by two increments can rid the image of the camcorder’s standard oversharpening. A -4 setting is a bit too much. Bumping the sharpness up is not advised, as it increases the awareness of noise. See the +4 setting to see how bad it can get.
The Camera Color setting will help your video look more professional. Most consumer camcorders, including the HC9, oversaturate images to satiate color-hungry owners. Dialing down the saturation with this very tool is the best way to combat neon-like colors.
Video Resolution* (18.9)*
The video resolution of the Sony HDR-HC9 was tested by shooting a DSC Labs video resolution chart at an even, bright light, then watching playback footage on an HD monitor. This system of testing measures the resolution of the actual outputted video as consumers will view it, rather than the theoretical resolutions of the chip sets. At best, the Sony HDR-HC9 was able to produce approximately 650 lines of horizontal resolution and 580 lines of vertical resolution, the same as last year’s HDR-HC7.
Low Light Performance* (2.9)*
The low light performance of the Sony HDR-HC9, like the Video Performance section above, was identical to the Sony HDR-HC7. As with so many Sony camcorders, we saw the return of blue noise, most evident in the darker and neutral areas of the chart. The image appears slightly brighter than the Canon HV30 (in 1080/60i mode), which could indicate that the Sony boosted the auto gain higher, which could explain some of the noise. It didn’t do them much good, however. The Canon HV30 absolutely devastated the HC9 in sensitivity, which had a major impact on the overall score in this section (more on sensitivity later in this section).
The Canon HV30 produces a much cleaner looking image than the Sony HDR-HC9 at 60 lux. However, the noise scores between the two camcorders tested nearly identical, according to Imatest imaging software. This brings up an interesting question as to how noise is produced in a camcorder. Take a look at the images below.
In a side-by-side, the Canon looks better. Yet the tests tell us the same noise is there. The difference, we believe, is in the tone of the noise. The lighter-colored noise in the Sony is more apparent to the eye. In the black areas, the blue noise is the problem. Canon manages to appear much cleaner. We’re hoping the new Sony Exmor/Bionz system in its other HD camcorders will help to address some of these issues.
The Sony HDR-HC9 offers manual shutter speed control, one of the few Sonys to do so. The 60 lux image at 1/30 boosts saturation and gives the appearance of less noise.
At 15 lux in auto shutter, the camcorder loses a great deal of color information and fine detail. Noise shoots through the roof, though the tone of the noise is largely black – as opposed to cheaper Sonys that tend to see a surge in blue noise. It is commendable that the HC9 manages to achieve a fairly accurate manual white balance at this light. Many camcorders, even HD models, can have trouble doing so.
At 15 lux with the shutter speed reduced to 1/30, the blue noise increases a great deal.
The second stage of our test determines sensitivity. We slowly and steadily lower the light while keeping an eye on a waveform monitor, looking for the light level at which the camcorder can produce a maximum of 50 IRE. The HDR-HC9 is able to achieve 50 IRE at 17 lux in Auto mode, far poorer than its closest competitor, the Canon HV30. Canon produces 50 IRE at 9 lux in 1080/60i mode, and 3 lux in 1080/24P. That means that even when shooting in identical modes, the Sony requires nearly twice as much light to produce a modest exposure level in low light environments.
Finally, we shoot an X-Rite Color Checker chart at 60 lux, then export frame grabs to Imatest imaging software to determine color accuracy, noise, and saturation. The Sony HDR-HC7 produces a color error of 11, identical to the HDR-HC7. The Canon HV30 in 1080/60i actually scored worse, with a color error of 14, but brought it very close to Sony in 30P and 24P shooting modes with a score of 9.93. The noise scores slightly higher at 3.01 percent, though still statistically within the region of the HC7. As we mentioned earlier in this section, the Canon HV30 produced a similar score, yet managed to look less noisy. *The saturation was nearly identical, at 74.82 percent.*
Overall, the Sony HDR-HC7 is a decent low light performer, but is clearly outclassed by the Canon HV20 and HV30.
The HDR-HC9 is equipped with Super SteadyShot Optical Image Stabilization (OIS), a system that functions by isolating the lens from the body of the camcorder. OIS is the best shake reduction system out there for consumer camcorders because it has proven to be significantly effective and doesn’t sacrifice pixels the way Electronic Image Stabilization (EIS) systems do. EIS works by creating a digital buffer around the recorded frame.
We tested the HDR-HC9’s resistance to shake using our custom-built camcorder shake emulator at two speeds—Speed One and Speed Two. Speed One is equivalent to typical stationary handheld shake while Speed Two is closer to a light jog or jolty car ride with the camcorder. At Speed One, the HDR-HC9 displayed an 80 percent shake reduction and an 81.25 percent reduction at Speed 2. This is one of the best showings we’ve seen in a long time.
Wide Angle* (10.0)*
We tested the HDR-HC9’s maximum field of view using a vertical laser at both left and right angles. The camcorder was tested with OIS disabled and the zoom pulled back fully. The HDR-HC9 displays a wide angle measurement of 50 degrees, right on par with the HDR-HC7.