Sony is banking on you not wanting to use manual controls because the XR520 gets things right on its own most of the time. We expect no less from a premium Sony camcorder, and this model carries on the tradition of HD image quality excellence begun with the HDR-HC1E. In good lighting, video is detailed, although colours are not quite as bright or accurate as Panasonic's HDC-HS300 or Canon's LEGRIA HF S10. There is virtually no sign of noise, however.
The XR520 also lives up to the hype for its image stabilisation. In fact, we would go so far to say that this is the best image stabilisation we've ever seen, smoothing out mild motion caused by walking with the camcorder, and doing a good job of counteracting greater levels of bounce.
Another revelation with the XR520 is how well Sony's claims of improved low light performance pan out. The image isn't significantly brighter than that of Canon's LEGRIA HF S10, but it is noticeably less noisy. The white balance also remains very accurate, so colours are quite faithful. This camcorder will be hard to beat when shooting in poor illumination.
Since the XR520 records standard 1080i AVCHD, editing footage will pose no problems at all. For watching your footage on a TV, Sony has integrated a mini HDMI port (but with no adapter), and there's a proprietary port for hooking up component and composite analogue video connections. S-video is also supported by this port, although the required cable is an optional extra.
The top models from Canon, Panasonic and Sony are all masterful products. Canon's LEGRIA HF S10 is currently too expensive, but the Panasonic HDC-HS300 and Sony HDR-X520 are similarly priced and much harder to distinguish. The Panasonic's full-sized accessory shoe, lens ring and greater manual control give it the edge for features, but the Sony just shades image quality in low light and includes masses more storage. If you're a serious hobbyist or semi-pro, the Panasonic should be your first choice. But if you just want to shoot great video and not fiddle with settings too much, Sony's HDR-XR520 is a valid contender.