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Sony Cyber-shot RX1 Digital Camera Review

Sony's RX1 is a $2,800 point-and-shoot. Insane? Perhaps. It's also the best compact digital camera ever made.

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Introduction

The rumors are all true: The Sony RX1 really does put all the image quality of a full-frame DLSR in your (jacket) pocket. Of course, to really embrace this camera you'll have to accept a fixed 35mm focal length. But if you do, you'll be treated to superb sharpness right from f/2, world-class dynamic range, vibrant colors, excellent white balance characteristics, beautifully controlled noise levels, and, ok, only "good" video quality. Seriously, we have very little to complain about when it comes to image quality from Sony's pocket-sized powerhouse.

Resolution

The Carl Zeiss 35mm f/2.0 lens lived up to its billing, with fantastic sharpness and few distortions.

The RX1 produced fantastic sharpness results through most of the frame in our lab tests.

The RX1 produced fantastic sharpness results through most of the frame in our lab tests. Whether looking at the JPEGs out of camera or processed RAW files, the camera's sharpness scores were simply among the best that we've ever seen for a fixed-lens camera. It's that good. The JPEGs were obviously sharper, though the RX1 doesn't oversharpen files nearly to the degree that we've seen in similar cameras such as Fuji's XF series.

The RAW files provide a more telling picture of the camera's abilities to resolve detail, with superb center sharpness from f/2 all the way through f/8, with diffraction limited results from about f/11 onward. If you're looking for optimal sharpness, we found that it occurred around f/5.6 and down, with about a 20% increase in resolving power at the midpoint and corners compared to wide open f/2 results. The center sharpness was fantastic, though, topping 1600 line widths per picture height (a standard measure of resolution) at MTF50 at both f/2 and f/8.

Noise Reduction

The RX1 handles noise just as well as the current top tier DSLRs.

The RX1's full-frame sensor allows it to squeeze out results directly comparable to what you'd get from a full-sized professional DSLR.

The Sony RX1's full-frame sensor gives it far more physical light-collecting area than your typical fixed-lens camera. This contributes in large part to the camera's superior high-ISO noise performance, allowing the comparably tiny RX1 to squeeze out results directly comparable to what you'd get from a full-sized professional DSLR. It's certainly in the same ballpark as all the other full-frame DSLRs we've tested this year, except perhaps the class-leading Canon 1D X and Nikon D4.

The RX1 has a base ISO range of 100-25600, though it also features an expanded low ISO of 50. We found that with noise reduction turned off, the out-of-camera JPEGs kept noise under 2% all the way through ISO 3200, with practically zero noise (just 0.3%) at ISO 50 and 100. If you apply in-camera noise reduction (either the low or normal setting) noise is kept under 2% throughout the entire ISO range.

Dynamic Range

Superb dynamic range, and an ISO 50 setting that appears to be the real McCoy

We did notice that dynamic range actually dropped off a bit at ISO 100 to 13.7 stops, suggesting that ISO 50 isn't merely ISO 100 with a pulled highlight curve.

We test dynamic range in two ways—both with the out-of-camera JPEGs and by shooting in RAW and developing the files as 16-bit TIFFs with a flat tone curve and no additional noise reduction. In JPEG testing, we found that the RX1 has excellent dynamic range performance, with around 12.6 stops of range at ISO 100 (when using the industry-standard method of cutting off DR at a signal-to-noise ratio of 1:1). By developing the RAWs as 16-bit TIFFs we were able to preserve a little more range. Using this technique, the camera topped out at 14.3 stops of range at ISO 50. We did notice that dynamic range actually dropped off a bit at ISO 100 to 13.7 stops, suggesting that ISO 50 isn't merely ISO 100 with a pulled highlight curve. It appears that the lowest ISO setting actually uses less signal amplification and thus keeps noise a little lower.

We also score dynamic range with a stricter measure of quality ("High" dynamic range, if you will), that cuts off dynamic range once the signal-to-noise ratio drops below 10:1. By this measure, the RX1 is still one of the best cameras we've seen, easily topping 8 full stops at base ISO speeds. The maximum ISOs have almost no range by this standard, however, as the noise floor rises dramatically by ISO 6400.

Video Quality

The RX1 is a capable video camera, but a lack of extras and relatively poor handling will likely preclude it from serious use.

The RX1's motion results look quite good in comparison with other compacts. It's a fully capable full-frame camera with 1080/60p recording, after all. Our motion rig didn't produce too many problems in the footage straight out of the RX1, save for some artifacting around the RGB pinwheel, courtesy of the video compression algorithm. Despite the motion, there was very little trailing—presumably because the camera's high ISO capability allowed it to keep a fast shutter speed. This kept strobing and other weird anomalies in check.

The RX1's 24-megapixel CMOS image sensor has some issues with aliasing and moire, which keep sharpness down to just-average levels.

A high-resolution sensor is a great thing to have when shooting stills, but it can produce some unintended side effects when downscaling to 1920 x 1080 pixels for video output. The RX1's 24-megapixel CMOS image sensor has some issues with aliasing and moire, which keep sharpness down to just-average levels. When the subject or camera is moved at all, sharpness takes a serious hit, though the 1080/60p mode is capable of some very sharp images if everything's held still. We were able to record around 600 lp/ph of sharpness vertically and horizontally in bright light, though in low light the horizontal sharpness dropped off significantly.

The RX1 was also quite sensitive in low light, thanks to its bright f/2 lens and maximum sensitivity of ISO 25600. We found that the camera was capable of producing an acceptably bright image (50 IRE on a waveform monitor) with just 2 lux of ambient light. The falloff was very dramatic from there, though, as 1 lux produced an almost totally black image.

Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.
Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.
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Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.
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