Update: The story has been updated with new info and more about our experience.
Like many TV manufacturers, Sony is making a big push into 4K resolution. It announced it’s releasing more than 70 movie and TV titles in 4K, and it’s even offering lower-priced 4K TVs. It’s clear 4K is where it wants to dominate – from the cinema to the home – so it’s appropriate that it also announced the FDR-AX1 4K Handycam, the “world’s first consumer 4K capture device” designed for creating 4K content at home. So, instead of just watching 4K, Sony wants consumers to make it, too.
Unlike cinema 4K camcorders designed for creating 17:9 format for movie theaters, the AX1 shoots in the 16:9 format for 4K TVs, at a resolution of 3840 x 2160 – four-times larger than Full HD at 1920 x 1080. Sony says that because the pixels are smaller, it’s a much more engaging viewer experience with more details. While 4K image capture has been around, Sony feels now is the right time to introduce 4K content creation to the general consumer. The target buyers would be early adopters, prosumers (wedding videographers, indie filmmakers, etc.), and those flushed with cash.
The AX1 uses a 1/2.3-inch back-illuminated Exmor R CMOS sensor, however it uses an image processor found in Sony’s professional models, not the BIONZ processor you’d see in its consumer camcorders. Sony says the amount of data captured has been the challenge, and it requires a strong sensor, lens, and processor. The AX1’s design is based off of Sony’s pro camcorders, and features a Sony G lens (20x, f/1.8-3.4, optical image stabilization) compatible for 4K – the same lens found in the pro AX4000 model. There are also XLR terminals for high-quality audio capture. It can be held with one hand (although that gets very heavy and very quickly, because we’ve tried).
The camcorder can capture 4K at up to 60p (150 Mbps), although it can also shoot in Full HD 1080 at 60p (50 Mbps). The 4K content can also be downsized to Full HD resolution or re-rendered to 30p, etc. The AX1 records in the new XAVC S format, which allows for a long recording time – a 64GB card provides one hour at full 4K resolution. For 4K, only XQD flash memory cards will be supported; there are two slots, and the camcorder can switch from one card to the other automatically when one is full. Sony says this is the first time 4K content could be recorded onto a card. SD cards are also supported for Full HD capture. The AX1 can deliver 4K signal to a 4K TV through a standard HDMI cable, at 60p. Sony says the AX1 is HDMI 2.0-ready via a firmware update later this year.
A few weeks back, Sony showed us some footage shot with a prototype AX1, displayed on a Sony 4K TV. For most people’s eyes it’s difficult to tell if something is shot in 4K when you’re far away, but we can say that the picture quality was sharp, colors looked accurate, and overall it looked nice and bright. At the official unveiling today, we had another opportunity to see new footage up close, and we were blown away by how spectacular the content looked. We did notice some noise when the camcorder was shooting in the dark – nothing detrimental, but noticeable.
If you want to be among the first consumers to shoot in 4K, it’ll cost you. Sony is listing the AX1 at $4,499, and it’ll come bundled with Sony Vegas Pro 12 Edit software to support XAVC S editing, and a 32GB XQD card. Yes, it’s much cheaper than many of the pro 4K equipment out there from Sony, RED, Canon, Blackmagic (Blackmagic’s 4K camera is technically less expensive, but a pricey lens is not included), but for the general consumer it’s a bit of a luxury product. Whether or not the AX1 will spur 4K content creation remains to be seen, but like 4K TVs, it’s definitely early-adopter territory.