Years ago, any camcorder you used that wasn't a consumer VHS or Betamax camcorder was a professional, shoulder-mount rig that—aside from being big and heavy—had plenty of space for Velcro'ing multiple accessories to the body of the camcorder itself. More recently, with the dawn of prosumer camcorders that offer the features videographers need in more compact unit, the available on-camera real estate for attaching accessories has diminished to almost nothing. Aside from adding some sort of harness that increases the entire rig size to what you had before and generally looks like a cumbersome workaround, what can be done to maintain wireless capability with tiny camcorders?
To get a sense of what solutions are available and how well they’ll work for us, I'll compare five relatively inexpensive wireless systems from Azden, Samson, Sony, and Sennheiser (alongside an Audio-Technica from my own kit) to see how well they work and sound when I run and gun with my HDV.
I've used Lectrosonics systems in the past and love them. But these days, I'm hard pressed to justify putting a $2,000 wireless system on my $3,000 camcorder. And it’s not just the price that makes these systems seem top-heavy; the bulky size of the big wireless systems is hard to deal with as well. I don't want to add a complex external harness for the few times I need a wireless system throughout an event. I want to be able to add it and remove it without issue.
Lectrosonics does make a smaller system: the 100 Series. These go for a street price of around $1,200, with various kits in the series costing more. On the other hand, I have an Audio-Technica ATW-T102x wireless I keep around because it just works. It cost only a few hundred bucks, so its value to me as a backup is worth more than I would get selling it. This system is a comfortable match for the cameras I use to shoot events, so it will be the basis for the size comparison in these tests.
For this review, I secured four systems, each with a handheld mic or plug-in transmitter, lavaliere mic with belt-pack transmitter and the compact receiver that I would attach to my camcorder:
- Azden 100LT Combo Mic system (street price around $490)
- Sennheiser Evolution G2 100 Series ($600)
- Samson Airline Series ($400)
- Samson Micro 32 Series ($460)
I also had a Sony WCS-999 wireless system laying around, so I decided to add it to the mix. Although only a lavaliere belt-pack and receiver, the WCS-999 system retails for about $100.
The test set (above, left to right): the Audio-Technica ATW-T102x, Samson Micro 32, Azden 100LT, Sennheiser G2 100, Sony WCS-999, and Samson Airline. All photos by Anthony Burokas.
My Audio-Technica system (left) is very rugged, with a steel case for both the plug-in transmitter and the receiver. It is one of the few receivers I have used which uses two 9 V batteries. Unfortunately, doubling the 9 V power doesn't double the run time in the receiver.
The audio quality is very good, with a balanced XLR jack in the bottom of the receiver and a headphone jack on the top. Each has its own output setting. The cube transmitter uses a screw design to lock it into place in a microphone. So does the Sennheiser. I've used these, as well as Lectros with their spring-loaded pull/twist system. Samson has only a regular mic pin. I do not understand the benefit of any variation on the established microphone pin. Push in the pin and pull out the cable—simple and established modus operandi for dealing with most anything microphone-related.
The problem with the AT receiver is that it is big—even bigger than standard Lectro receivers. You'd definitely need some sort of external sled system to use the AT with a prosumer camcorder, because it is too big and too heavy to Velcro anywhere.
The Azden 100LT (left) is a frequency-agile diversity system. The receiver and the belt pack transmitter use 9 V batteries. The handheld transmitter is all-in-one and it uses two AA batteries. The individual units are very lightweight and easy to use. The handheld requires unscrewing the base to change the batteries or frequency. It has a plastic screwdriver in the base to help change the channels. There are no tools in the belt-pack transmitter or the receiver.
The handheld has one power button conveniently located on the outside of the unit. Powered up, it lights up. This is actually preferable to those systems that merely blink once. Did you see it? Was it bright enough? Give me a good, steady green power light any day. If it changes color to amber or red as the battery dies, all the better.
While the audio captured from both lavaliere and handheld didn’t distort during a reception, neither proved very high fidelity. Also, the windscreen on the lavaliere head is glued on. You could rip it off if you really hated seeing it in the video, but then, there's nothing to hold it when you need to put it back on.
Another oddity with this system is that it uses two different types of batteries: AA and 9 V. No other system I tested uses different types of batteries in different pieces of hardware.
The receiver features both a headphone and a mic-level output with one dial adjustment inside the battery compartment.
I've had Sony’s basic little WCS-999 system (left) for many years. I bought it on a whim because it was under $100 and figured it might be useful here or there as a second or third system. Mostly it just sits in my bag. Once I did have to use it when my primary system failed, and the WCS-999 saved the day.
The belt-pack and the receiver are similarly designed and, actually, hard to tell apart. Each takes a single AA battery and has an internal antenna. At 900 Mhz, it doesn't have to be very big, and trying to load the long mic cable or the output to the camera would not be the best solution. It is not diversity, and it only offers three channels: 1, 2, and 3.
The transmitter comes with an unbalanced mic that is powered by the belt-pack. The receiver has an integral mono 3mm microphone output, a headphone jack and a "mix microphone" which I don't dare bother with. No output level adjustments whatsoever.
The power buttons illuminate a red LED on each. When set to the same frequency, the receiver illuminates a green RF LED to indicate reception.
With just a single AA, the system doesn't reach terribly far, but 30-50' is doable if there's no interference. Audio from the included mic is passable, and the built-in auto level control ensures everything is heard, even whispers and clothes rustling.
The mic clip is awful, but it doesn't come off, so I'm never at a loss as to where it may be. It rotates left and right. I’ve added Velcro to the packs and now I just squeeze them together for safe-keeping. I toss them both in an outside pocket of my camera bag.
I’ve looked forward to trying out this system ever since the first time I saw it advertised. The tiny size seemed a bit unbelievable for a working wireless set. But I've used it and it is true.
The Airline system (left) is a non-diversity (one antenna), fixed frequency set. However, you can buy sets on different frequencies (U1- U6) and use them at the same time. Also, you can buy multiple systems of the same set and hear the same audio on different cameras—a very handy feature.
The cost of the Airline is very close to the larger, diversity Samson Micro 32. But what you get here is quite possibly one of the smallest wireless audio systems made. Both Lectrosonics and Zaxcom make diminutive transmitters, but these cost over $3,000. The Samson is a steal at $400.
It is also very innovative. The belt pack for the lav mic also has its own built-in microphone. So if you have an event where the mic will need to be passed between several successive speakers, then clipping on one small transmitter with the built-in mic is actually pretty darn convenient.
There's a mic gain adjustment on the transmitter, a headphone level adjustment on the receiver, and a mic/line adjustment for the main output of the receiver. Yes, that's two separate adjustable outputs on one tiny receiver.
Each of the three pieces run for about six hours off a single AAA battery, so you can be sure you're not outputting "high power" here and won't have the same range as bigger systems. But with the tiny battery, the receiver weighs just a few ounces and easily fits on the side of most any prosumer camcorder. All in all, a very nice system.
The audio quality of the Samson proved better than the Azden, even with the built-in mic, but not by a big margin. I suppose a better lav mic capsule could improve things, but this system is built for simplicity and ease of use, not audio fidelity. That said, I found the audio fidelity fine for event video, with the focus on voice instead of music.
Samson Micro 32
Samson’s Micro 32 (left)is a fairly compact system, halfway between the bigger traditional systems and the Samson Airline. Samson has long advertised the Micro series with the receiver Velcro’d to the cassette door of a Canon L-series camcorder. It works perfectly that way.
The Micro 32 is similar to a more basic, fixed-frequency system from Samson, except the Micro 32 is diversity and frequency-agile. Even with so many Samson systems out there, it is often pretty easy to find an open channel. I have, however, arrived at locations and heard the DJ on my receiver. Then I just have some fun and wait until they turn off their mic and I talk through their system. Scares them every time.
The Micro 32 system takes 9 V batteries. The power switches are inconveniently located inside the battery door which, on these models, is difficult to open with one hand. The handheld requires unscrewing the base to change frequencies as well as to turn the power on and off. Again, for work that doesn't require the mic to be left on all the time, it's a pain to turn it on and off.
The Micro 32 system has a small tool for changing the frequency inside each transmitter and the receiver. This is very convenient. The receiver has a four-stage LED display to show battery strength, audio level, or RF level. This is way more functional than a single LED.
The receiver has two movable, but dangerously sharp antennas. It is the only receiver that allows the user to properly orient the antennas in a 90° pattern.
Samson's audio output, again, features a headphone out with a volume dial, and a specialized balanced audio jack that can be set to -10, -12 or -30 dB. That level is also available out of a second 3mm unbalanced jack.
This makes the Micro 32 the only receiver with three separate audio outputs built-in. The build quality is better than the Azden, but not as good as the Sennheiser or the Audio-Technica. The plastic enclosures are light, but not flimsy. The audio quality is also better than the Azden, and better than the Airline, but not as good as the Sennheiser.
Sennheiser G2 100
The little Sennheiser units (left) surprised me. First, they are heavier than they appear because the core is all metal. This also makes them weigh a bit more than the larger Azden. Secondly, the battery system, aside from using just two AA batteries, is simplified so that the batteries all point in the same direction. I cannot tell you how much time is wasted with every other AA device in the world trying to figure out which battery points which way. Whoever the mastermind is who decided to just engineer the casing so that everything points one way should get a medal.
The display on the Sennheiser is hands-down the best of the bunch, even besting basic Lectro systems. Not only does it tell you with clear bar graphs battery level, RF level, and audio level, but there are indicators for pilot tone (to assist with squelch) a mute indicator that tells you if the user switched the transmitter mute on, and a clear readout of the frequency. Not A7, 0B or whatever—I mean 661.850 Mhz. You can pick channels and blocks if you prefer that.
But wait, there’s more! Hit the Set button and you can adjust Bank, Channel, Tune, Scan, AF out, Squelch, Display, Name, Pilot, Lock, and Reset. Even though I don’t have the space to explain what any of those features are, you can understand that this goes far beyond what any of the other small systems offer. The Sennheisers give you the control and flexibility of a much more expensive pro system in a compact and easy-to-use package.
I should also mention that the backlight on the LCD display is nice and even, and easy to read in the darkest situations. Even at a distance, you can read the two LEDs next to the display that show power and RF reception. This way, at a glance, from several feet away, you can see how well the system is working.
I have a few small points of contention. First, the power light is red, which is a color I would normally reserve for low or bad battery level. The RF light is green, and I would prefer to see two green lights when things are good. Then, when it turns red, I know the battery needs changing. Same for the transmitter.
Second, when the microphone is muted, the RF light goes out, which is incorrect. RF is still there, just the audio was muted. So the fact that the RF light goes out is actually incorrect information.
The belt-pack transmitter and receiver have a flip-down door like the Samson Micro 32, but the Sennheiser is flawlessly easy to open. The door is one of the only plastic parts on the Samson system. Behind this door are the Power and Set buttons. No need for little "tweaker" tools here.
While frequency-agile, the Sennheiser G2 100 is not diversity. However, with the pilot tone and other features in the menu, I feel that the Sennheiser is not any worse off than the rest of the competition in this test. Truth be told, diversity receivers with two closely spaced, parallel antennas are not much better than a single good antenna.
The receiver only offers one audio output, a balanced 3mm jack. Like the transmitter, the 3mm jacks in the Sennheisers offer the ability to screw and lock a 3mm plug into place. This way you do not have to worry about a cable being accidentally yanked out of either the belt pack transmitter or the receiver, yet they are easily change for other cables if need be.
When it came to actually using the Sennheiser system, I was again surprised by the fidelity of the audio, both from the included lavaliere microphone and by plugging the cube into a very basic Electro-voice dynamic cardioid RE-10 handheld microphone. Again, it rivals systems well above this price level.
The only downside within the scope of this test is the higher cost of the Sennheiser and the increased weight. In fast run and gun, I did have the receiver pull away from the camcorder once. The Velcro didn't break hold; the receiver pulled away from the glue on the back of the Velcro. Better and bigger pieces of Velcro would fix that. The receiver didn't go far because the cable to the camcorder is only 12" long. It could not pull out of the receiver, and, with a right-angle plug, no damage occurred to the camcorder.
Wow. What a variety of wireless systems!
Unfortunately for Azden, both Samson system are better and cheaper. You have to provide your own handheld mic, but better mics can be had than come with the Azden system, so you still come out ahead here. The Sony will probably remain in my camera bag because it's small, light, and it actually works. It won't win any awards, though.
The Samson systems are price comparable to each other. If you absolutely needed the tiniest system, the Airline system is excellent. Without frequency agility, you'll have to hope no one is on the same (or nearby) frequency. Wither that, or buy a second system. If you are that worried about frequencies, the Micro 32 or Sennheiser is the smarter buy.
The Micro 32 is a tour de force at the price. While not the most user-friendly of the bunch, it is light, cheap, and very capable. With 32 channels to pick from, it's very unlikely that you'll be unable to find a clear channel. The Micro 32 is pretty stingy on 9 V batteries as well. Used sparingly, I can keep the same set of 9 V batteries going for a month or more.
The Sennheiser is pro-grade audio—excellent design, excellent audio, excellent capability. All for just $150 to $200 more than the others. If you can deal with the weight, it is well worth the price.
Anthony Burokas of IEBA Communications, a self-confessed "gadget guy," has been an event videographer for more than 15 years. He has shot award-winning video internationally and is technical director for the PBS series Flavors of America.