• The $500 Wireless Question, or, "What cheap system should I get?"

    As this is asked on a daily basis, if not more often, here's the answer to the golden question:

    Audio falls as an afterthought so often, and after a $1000+ investment in a camera, lenses, batteries, etc., people want to know how little they can spend on audio gear. Folks, good audio is not cheap and cheap audio can cost you a lot.

    Also, wireless audio is not a first solution. Use a boom mic, or a hard-wired lav, whenever possible. But there are some times that you need the flexibility and mobility that wireless offers. Once you've determined that you do need to get a system, here are a few things to know about cheap wireless systems, and wireless systems (aka radio mics) in general:
    1) $500 is about the least that can be invested with some realistic expectation of performance.

    2) The stock lavaliere mic that comes with the system is probably sub-par, so plan on an extra $150 - 400 for a lav upgrade. (There are a few lav shootouts and reviews around here, so be sure to check those out.)

    3) It does not matter how much you spend on a wireless system: every radio mic will fail at some point. It's just that some systems are stronger and more stable than others, and strength and stability come with financial investment.

    4) Buying a cheap system is going to result in audio nightmares for you both during production and in post.

    5) No, you can't just buy an extra transmitter and use both transmitters with one receiver. You must have a second receiver with the second transmitter, and run that second system on a different frequency. Yes, there are systems that come with dual transmitters and one receiver unit, but that unit has two receivers built in along with two separate audio outputs.
    So back to the golden question: "What cheap system should I get?" Well, there are only three sub-$1000 per channel systems that keep coming up.

    The Sennheiser Evolution G3 ENG system runs around $600 per channel as of this posting. This is by far the leader in price-to-performance for budget wireless. The predecessor, the G2, was also a very reliable system. Beware buying on your favorite auction site. There were floods of Chinese counterfeit G2 units, so know your seller.

    Also of note between the G2 and G3: the G2 ENG systems are not diversity units, meaning there is only one antenna to receive the signal; the G3 systems added diversity (a second antenna, reducing the likelihood for signal dropouts) by utilizing the audio output cable from the receiver as the second antenna.

    The Audio-Technica 1800-series wireless systems are around $500 per channel as of this post. They replaced the older U100-series systems, which were very good in the sub-$1000 category. There is a dual-frequency system available in the 1800 series that has two transmitters and a dual-channel receiver. Though the U100 systems were splendid in their class (I had two of them), I have not seen or heard many positive reviews of the 1800 series (I have no direct personal experience with the 1800 systems). These systems offer diversity reception.

    The Sony UWP-V1 systems are the third contenders. At about $500/channel as of this post ($450-525), they offer diversity and a surprisingly long range. I demoed one of these systems and was not impressed, however. There was a noise floor from the unit, and the noise breathed with the compander when the transmitter was not muted.

    Of the three systems mentioned above, the G2/G3 consistently proves a champion and is the not-quite-universal recommendation.

    As with so many things in gear, you get what you pay for. And if you cannot purchase a reliable system now, consider renting on a per-project basis. Equipment rental costs can be passed on to paying clients. Buying a cheap wireless now "until I can afford something better" will actually do you more harm than good, and that's money wasted. There are rental companies that will ship anywhere, and a system can be rented for a song. Weekly rates make it even better.

    So what's really wrong with the cheap wireless systems? Unreliable transmitters and receivers, cheap construction, poor companders with deplorable frequency response and hideous noise levels. Often, the uber-cheap systems run on VHF frequencies and are non-diversity, which means terrible reception and more vulnerability to interference. UHF diversity is your best bet. And if it says 2.4GHz on it, don't even bother (I'm lookin' at you, Line 6 Relay).

    When you're ready to get serious about wireless audio, consider something from Lectrosonics or Zaxcom. Here begins the $1000+/channel range of wireless, but keep in mind that these offer industry-standard levels of performance and can be found on professional, high-budget sets and locations around the world. These also rent for very reasonable rates.

    As a side-note: if you decide to purchase a used system, please do your homework. As of June 12, 2010, the FCC prohibits use of radio mics in the 700MHz band. There are wireless systems in that band that still pop up on the used market, so be sure to check when you buy used and make sure it's still legal.

    One last thought: it does not matter what project you're working on, whether it's student projects or indie films/shorts or wedding/event videography or ENG/EFP or full-blown feature productions. These rules do not change.

    Best of luck!
    -Alex
    This article was originally published in forum thread: The $500 Wireless Question, or, "What cheap system should I get?" started by Alex H. View original post
    Comments 70 Comments
    1. Chadfish's Avatar
      Chadfish -
      You are not going to get a reasonably good working wireless kit for 20.00. More like 600.00 for the Sennheiser G3 wireless,
      + the cost of a mic. Anything cheaper will get you lots of static. Since you have everything rigged up, why not just use a wired mic? I would suggest a condenser mic though, to pick up stuff from further away. A dynamic mic will usually drop off it's ability to clearly pick up voices beyond 2 feet. Maybe an NTG-2 hanging straight down? With the foam windscreen on it, it will look like a mic. Or find a cheap large diaphragm condenser like they use for singing vocals - one you can set to omni pattern. That will pick up in all directions - and it looks like a mic. You'll need to supply phantom power. With the NTG-2 you can run it on battery and not supply phantom.
    1. Alex H.'s Avatar
      Alex H. -
      The rules of wireless mics don't change based on the installation. You're still looking at a minimum investment well above $200, but because of the nature of the project and the fact that it's fixed installation, you might get away with something under $600. We're not talking about the need for the compact receiver, so a system with a wall-powered receiver should do just fine (and actually afford you some flexibility). Plus, even the Sennheiser G3 is cheaper with the table-top/rack-mount receiver (compact ENG receivers do cost more).

      While you say that quality is the least of your concerns, there are other factors at play here that dictate a decent wireless system. The biggest concern you'll have is signal coverage, and cheap systems (as noted in the original post) suffer from poor reception and frequent dropouts. Getting a system like the Sennheiser G3 (which, by the way, is available with a mic/transmitter combo) gives you diversity reception and the ability to locate the antennae away from the receiver. While I don't know how large a room you're working with, the ability to move one antenna from the receiver to a different location can increase your signal coverage and allow the mic to move with fewer signal problems.

      A condenser element is going to give you better pickup than a dynamic, and that's also going to drive the cost up.

      The Audio Technica 2120a handheld system has a dynamic mic, but has diversity reception and detachable antennae (BNC connection). It has only 10 selectable frequencies. About $350. These systems are okay, but I like the 3000 series better.

      The Audio Technica 3141 system is a better buy, has more frequencies available, and also has detachable antennae. It's dynamic as well, and runs $499.

      The Audio Technica 3171 system is the same as the 3141, but has a condenser element. $599.

      Sennehiser has Evolution Wireless G3 systems with the features you need for as low as $499, but the condenser element will cost you more.

      If this is a temporary installation, you might want to rent what you need instead of purchasing. That $200 you want to spend can get you a great system for several days. Try www.trewaudio.com. They're closer than you think...
    1. tyreeford's Avatar
      tyreeford -
      David,

      No problem: http://web.mac.com/tyreeford/Site/Ty...eld_Guide.html

      Tell Brenda I said, "hi!."

      Regards,

      Ty Ford
    1. Terry_Lasater's Avatar
      Terry_Lasater -
      Just curious... where is the second antenna on the Sennheiser G3?
    1. tyreeford's Avatar
      tyreeford -
      only one on the G3
    1. Chadfish's Avatar
      Chadfish -
      They use the audio cable as the "diversity" antennae I believe.
    1. dre83's Avatar
      dre83 -
      it's the audiocable. But I don't know if that works as well as 2 "real" antennas's...

      the length of the antenna is decided by the wavelenght, the smallest frequentie (longest wave) has to "fit" on the antenna
    1. John Willett's Avatar
      John Willett -
      Quote Originally Posted by dre83 View Post
      it's the audiocable. But I don't know if that works as well as 2 "real" antennas's...

      the length of the antenna is decided by the wavelenght, the smallest frequentie (longest wave) has to "fit" on the antenna

      Yes, the G3 use the output cable as the second antenna on the EK 100/300/500 and 2000 series.

      In fact this can be an advantage as the output cable will be orientated at a different angle from the fixed antenna and can therefore actually be better than two close-spaced parallel antennas.

      But just make sure the cable is screwed down properly to avoid any crackles.
    1. paulears's Avatar
      paulears -
      I am going to disagree with much that has been posted here. As an arts project, I can see no real issue with a cheap handheld radio mic being used in this situation. As long as the mic is up in the air, then the line of sight path is going to be pretty short, and being in the clear, it's likely the signal strength will be high enough to avoid the hiss so common when signal strength at the receiver is weak. You can buy pretty cheap systems in the local music shops, and second hand on ebay. For this project, maybe even old VHF systems could still be viable.

      The real issues are simply going to be acoustic feedback. If the mic to source distance is let's say 6 feet - then you are going to have to stop the microphone hearing the loudspeakers. Forget radio systems for a moment, and consider the ways of using mics in theatres to hear actors and singers on stage who do not have radio mics, or handhelds. The maximum volume is simply the maximum before feedback makes the system unstable. If the areas with the mic in it is remote from the area with the speakers, then the gain can be cranked up and it will sound interesting - but if the PA sound is the same area that contains the mic, it's not going to work - UNLESS you incorporate a delay. A long one, far beyond the reverberation time of the room will be stable - so think delays of seconds rather than milliseconds people speak and their voices appear a few seconds later. This could be interesting. Biggest issue will be the constant batterying up which will be a regular thing. If you can live with slightly thin sounding audio, it could be a fun project and a good talking point. A friend bought a working, but elderly Shure VHF system on ebay three weeks ago for 40 - and it's perfect for this kind of thing. The receiver is in a 19" rack mount unit that could have the aerial feed provided remotely - from the other side of the coverage area, and the only tricky bit will be designing the tracking system with enough rubber to prevent the weird travelling noises. Good luck!
    1. Chadfish's Avatar
      Chadfish -
      Paul,

      I won't be needing "good luck" because I'm confident in my tools. The thing with cheap wireless systems is not only that they need to be close and line of sight, they are also susceptible to RF interference from any number of unknown sources, and you can't plan for that. So your system is open to drop outs or static. And delaying the audio coming out of speakers? Have you ever tried to speak with our own voice repeating what you just said a few seconds later? That won't work. All you need to do to prevent feedback is to have the mic BEHIND the PA speakers. So on one hand, yes, you could get workable audio with an el cheapo system. But the purpose of this thread to to find the cheapest RELIABLE system, and that is pretty much something in the 500-600.00 range. Sennheiser G3. Anything less risks lost dialog due to crappy reception. But if losing some dialog isn't a biggie, by all means take the risk. The thing is that if you are actually doing this professionally, 500.00 - 600.00 is quite reasonable for tools. Its much cheaper to get something that works reliably, than deal with the time of fixing mistakes, or re-shooting. How much is your time worth? Also if you blow a shoot, that client will remember and go with someone else next time.

      I've had my G3 system for years now - since they came out, and I have yet to hear a drop out or RF hit. I consider it money well spent.

      Cheers
    1. Pedantic Sound's Avatar
      Pedantic Sound -
      Quote Originally Posted by Chadfish View Post

      I've had my G3 system for years now - since they came out, and I have yet to hear a drop out or RF hit. I consider it money well spent.

      Cheers
      You are very lucky then. I've used the G3 A Band and G Band in NYC, if you go beyond 15ish feet with the TX on an actor, prepare for lots of RF interference. Yes I scanned all the time, and yes i changed frequencies frequently. A 35mW TX will only get you so far. Outside of NYC the G3s are pretty OK.

      I upgraded to Lectros and I'll never look back.
    1. Alex H.'s Avatar
      Alex H. -
      Quote Originally Posted by Chadfish View Post
      Paul,

      I won't be needing "good luck" because I'm confident in my tools.
      Chad, I think Paul was addressing "AnalogousGumdropDecoder" specifically to his art installation. The whole idea of the delay in the speakers was in reference to having a mic flying around the room overhead, in and out of speaker coverage zones.
    1. paulears's Avatar
      paulears -
      I'm quite aware that the normal and typical rules dictate the speakers go in front - but here we are talking about using a microphone - forget the radio element for a moment - at a distance from the source. If the idea is an art project, then it will be a key feature to be able to hear conversation at a sensible volume. So two people, who have the mic above them have their conversation 'eavesdropped' and shared as the art component - then the mic traverses to above a different area and we hear a different conversation. This involves a lot of gain, and irrespective of where you put them, the mic will hear the speakers and feedback ruining the intention. Digital mics with their low latency are often also feedback resistant compared to analogue systems without a few ms of latency - but even these burst into feedback when the critical level is crossed. A decent time delay will cure this, and perhaps not even make the selected subjects aware it is them.

      I have around 17 radio systems that are mainly used in live music and theatre and I can tell you without a shadow of doubt that none of them from cheap to expensive are immune to making noises and crackles at just the wrong moment. Nobody has yet found a totally foolproof system. With care and careful aerial placement these things can be minimised, but there are too many random elements that can wreck a perfectly stable system in rehearsal.

      In fairness, cheap systems do lack the clever (and expensive) filtering found in the better units, but that was not the original question. Signal strength is one area where radio systems fall down. A moment spent watching RF meters on a multi channel system on a normal sized stage during a musical shows that for a great percentage of the time the signal strength is full scale. From time to time, as the people wearing the transmitters move about, they step into nulls, where the signal strength drops to almost nothing. This is the problem, and careful aerial placement can help greatly - however, these nulls are often not fixed, and determined by other factors such as the other people, local metalwork, or on stage - scenery and other items. The interference aspect needs to be considered too - the cheap system could operate in some locations but suffer in others?

      For this art project, we've forgotten something. There may be no need for a radio system at all - I was thinking about something similar to a Fischer boom - but with a full square area of coverage. They must have designed a system to allow a mic to be on a carriage and be able to be located. If so, there will be drive cords, or cables, and why not just add one more for mic audio and solve all the radio issues in one go?

      Radio systems of any price are almost as good as a piece of cable, aren't they?
    1. Habitat's Avatar
      Habitat -
      So quick question. Sorry...I did read the first post but I just need to clarify...Theres a wedding - I want to Mic the Officiant and the Groom - I buy this http://www.amazon.co.uk/Sennheiser-E...pr_product_top - is this just enough for one of them? Or what? And how do I record the sound as well?
    1. paulears's Avatar
      paulears -
      If you can arrange the mic to be half way between the two people, you probably can get away with it - as very often putting the mic on the groom works if they're likely to whisper their responses, and the officiant will have learned to project - but that link is to a channel 69/70 system, is this what you want keeping in mind the news the other 4G operators are keen to get going. I'd never buy any more ch 69 kit. Far too crowded in ch 70, and even then the potential for interference will be high. The G3 system is great kit - just order the GB band (assuming you are actually in the UK)
    1. BrandonT's Avatar
      BrandonT -
      Well you all have convinced me on the G3. I have a question related to it. There's a lot of listings for pretty much the same product on B&H. Most of it seems to just be what frequencies it uses. But the mics on most of them are omni. I've always thought that you should use a uni/ cardiod for lavs to block out background noise best. But maybe I'm wrong.

      Here's one G3 that does have a cardiod mic.

      http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/produc...G3_Camera.html

      Then here's the omni that has the most reviews.

      http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/produc...era_Mount.html

      Which would be better for interviews?

      Edit: Ok, so I did some searching and realized that this was a popular question. And I see that the omni is the way to go. I had thought that the wired lav that I have had for two years was cardiod, but I just looked, and it is in fact omni. So then I take it that the second link I have here is the best way to go, taking all the options into account?
    1. Alex H.'s Avatar
      Alex H. -
      Quote Originally Posted by BrandonT View Post
      So then I take it that the second link I have here is the best way to go, taking all the options into account?
      Cardioid lavs are practically useless in the field for dialog. They're most often used in live PA situations to help eliminate risk of feedback.

      The problem is off-axis rejection. This seems like something you'd want in a mic, but once you have it attached to a person they will have to stay perfectly still in order to stay on-axes. A slight head turn can make a huge difference. This is not an issue with omnidirectional lavs.


      http://movieclips.com/EoKer-singin-i...sound-barrier/
    1. John Willett's Avatar
      John Willett -
      Quote Originally Posted by BrandonT View Post
      Well you all have convinced me on the G3. I have a question related to it. There's a lot of listings for pretty much the same product on B&H. Most of it seems to just be what frequencies it uses. But the mics on most of them are omni. I've always thought that you should use a uni/ cardiod for lavs to block out background noise best. But maybe I'm wrong.
      You *are* wrong.

      Cardioid / directional tie mics are horrible things that tend to be noisier and suffer from dropouts.

      Omni is definitely the way to go.

      You get about the same feedback rejection anyway, as the omni can be closer to the source and the level therefore set lower, so feedback rejection can be the same, or even better.
    1. JimiHx's Avatar
      JimiHx -
      Just to be sure....
      The sennheiser ME2 is omni?

      edit:
      Yeah it is
    1. David W. Jones's Avatar
      David W. Jones -
      Yes the ME2 is an Omni Mic, and yes it is a crappy mic that should be replaced first thing, and just kept as a backup.

      For what it's worth, I have used many different wireless units over the years, including very expensive high end systems for events like college football games TV broadcast. And the first thing I did before we arrived at a location, was to check the open frequencies online. The second thing I did was once I arrived at the location was to use a frequency scanner to double check the location. The third thing I did was to instruct my A2 to always keep a tweaker handy, because you never know when some local radio station was going to fire up a remote from the parking lot and stomp on your signals. Just something to think about.