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

Alex H.

Staff member
Since this article was initially posted, quite a few things have changed in the world of wireless audio. The question still often arises, though: “What’s the best cheap wireless system I can get?” And though some of the details have changed over the last few years, the answer is still pretty much the same: good audio is not cheap, and cheap audio can cost you a lot.

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.

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, give or take, 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.

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. However, above the $500 line, you cannot buy a drop-out-free system, because wireless by nature is unpredictable and susceptible to much more interference than a hard-wired signal.

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.

6) If you already have lav mics that are terminated with XLR connectors for hardwired use with phantom power, and you're wondering if you can use them with a wireless system, the short answer is, "No." Wireless transmitters have different connectors, and supply different levels of power for condenser lavs. While there are some plug-on XLR transmitters that supply phantom power, these are not very useful for lavs. To use a beltpack transmitter, you'll need either to have your lavs re-terminated with the proper connectors (in which case you lose having hardwired lavs... not the best solution) or to purchase new lavs that are terminated with the proper connectors (recommended). If you're starting from scratch, it is worth noting that some newer lavs (example: RØDE) have special connectors at the end that can accept a variety of terminations. That allows the user to switch from wireless beltpack connection to XLR hardwire simply by switching adapters.​

So back to the golden question: "What cheap system should I get?" Though the title of this article is “The $500 Wireless Question”, the reality is that cheap or affordable wireless is pretty much anything under $1000/channel.

The Sennheiser Evolution G3 ENG system has long been lauded as the frontrunner in the affordable wireless category. Its solid build and diversity reception, coupled with the ~$600/channel price point, make it a very attractive product. The G3 has since been retired for its 4th generation (G4) successor. The G4 offers the same robust quality and attractive price point, but also comes with some enhanced features over the G3 such as more finite tuning for running multiple systems without intermodulation.

Also of note: the G3 and G4 ENG systems are diversity units, but not true diversity. The difference? Diversity means there are two antennae, and in the case of the G3/G4 systems it’s the audio output cable that doubles as the second antenna. True diversity means that there are actually two receivers, and the device constantly switches back and forth to whichever is receiving the stronger signal in order to further reduce dropouts. While the G3/G4 systems are not true diversity, they still perform quite well. The XLR plug-on transmitters for the ew100 systems do not offer phantom power, so they’re only good for dynamic mics or for taking line-level signals. Sennheiser systems have also been plagued with counterfeits sold online through outlets like Amazon and eBay. Buyer beware. It’s always better to skip the “too good to be true” deal and purchase from a reputable, authorized dealer.

The Sony UWP-D11 systems are the other major contenders. At just over $500/channel as of this post, they offer true diversity and a surprisingly long range. The receiver design is very bag-friendly and features rigid, articulating whip antennae as opposed to softer versions that start to droop over time. The XLR plug-on transmitter available for this system offers phantom power, and there is a dual-channel receiver available for running two transmitters without taking up much more receiver space in the bag.

I demoed one of the Sony systems and was not impressed, however. While I do like the physical design, especially the receiver with true diversity reception, I found the system overall to have higher noise floor and less transparent companding as compared to a Sennheiser G3.

One recent development in affordable UHF wireless is wide band. Systems that offer wide band are able to access a larger range of the wireless spectrum. This makes them much more versatile if you happen to move around quite a bit. On the lower end (Sennheiser ew500 and Sony), frequency blocks cover just about two of the older blocks. On the high end, true wideband like Zaxcom is able to cover 500MHz to 700MHz bands, making them versatile for world travel.

Which brings me to a slightly more expensive, but still sub-$1000, wireless offering that should be heavily considered: the Sennheiser G4 ew500 system. For about $300 more than the ew100 system, a host of useful features are added. First, the systems are available in two wide band blocks: AW+ (470-558MHz) and GW+ (558-608MHz). Second, the receiver offers a dedicated headphone output which means these systems can also be used for client monitoring/IFB. Versatility is a good thing. Third, the XLR plug-on transmitter offers phantom power. Fourth, while the stock ME2 lav with the ew100 system is notorious for being mediocre at best, the ew500 comes with a quite respectable MKE2 omni lav. Last, and probably most importantly, the transmitters offer 50mW output as opposed to the 30mW output of both the ew100 systems and the Sony systems. This means longer range and more signal stability.

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, typically 3 rental days for a week, make it even better.

Lately, there have been several knock-off brands of UHF wireless systems - Polsen, Senal, Saramonic, among others - that often look quite similar to some of the big-name brands. There’s a reason these cost so much less, so purchase with caution (and lowered expectations). Read reviews: there’s plenty of information out there about noise floor and poor reception.

So what's really wrong with the cheap wireless systems? Unreliable transmitters and receivers, cheap (plastic) 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.

One more important, recent development: digital wireless. Early systems (like the Line 6 Relay) were buggy at best and really intended for short-range use like wireless electric guitar hops. Now, there are several systems offered for filmmakers, videographers, and news shooters that operate in the digital “WiFi” spectrum. Audio Technica’s System 10, Sennheiser’s AVX, RØDE’s RØDELink, and Diety’s Connect all operate in the 2.4GHz band. Deity’s system is the newest in the lot, and hasn’t been out long enough to have a lot of user experience.

Why use 2.4GHz? There are advantages to these systems. They are literally plug-and-play as far as tuning. There are no frequency scans to fool with; just turn on both TX and RX and they will automatically pair. This can be great for traveling shooters who often run into RF-saturated environments. Sound quality may not be the absolute best, but is perfectly acceptable in many of these systems.

There are a few caveats with digital systems, though. First, a cluttered WiFi environment can be problematic. Imagine shooting in an arena with house production crew all on WiFi communications, a video company live-streaming the event, and just about everyone in the stands trying to Instagram the whole thing on the public WiFi (if it’s even offered). There’s only so much that can happen at any one time on WiFi frequencies. With no way to manually select channels on these systems, there’s no way to coordinate frequencies with the venue.

Film sets are saturated now, too, with wireless client monitoring and wireless follow focus, among other things. There’s also a limit to how many WiFi wireless mic systems can run at once. A recent online discussion with Deity estimated 5 transmitters as a maximum number of concurrent systems in use. This may not be a big deal for 1-person or 2-person interviews and on-cams, but it certainly knocks WiFi systems out of the race for larger production needs.

Last, and quite importantly, is that these digital systems suffer from latency. Some more than others, but they can have latency of up to 21ms. The lower-latency systems may not cause many noticeable artifacts, and if the only audio source is from these systems it also may not be as much of an issue. The higher-latency systems will be noticeably off, and this will be even more problematic if other mic sources are used at the same time (such as a wired, boomed mic overhead).

As with VHF and UHF, there are also plenty of super-cheap 2.4GHz systems on the market. And again, buyer beware because even with WiFi systems you do get what you pay for. As for bluetooth (there are some cheap bluetooth wireless mic systems out there), forget about it. Bluetooth has a very limited operating range and cannot keep up with the bandwidth needed for decent sound quality.

When you're ready to get serious about wireless audio, consider something from Lectrosonics, Zaxcom, Wisycom, or Audio Ltd. Here begins the range of wireless that costs well over $1000/channel (really over $2000/channel), 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 in the United States, and as of July 13, 2020 the 600MHz band has gone the same way. There are wireless systems in these bands that still pop up on the used market, so be sure to check when you buy used and make sure it's still legal (or will remain legal long enough to justify the purchase).

One last thought: it does not matter what projects you're working on, whether they're student projects or indie films/shorts or wedding/event videography or ENG/EFP or full-blown feature productions. These rules do not change; you just need to learn to work within them based on your budget.
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