Gear & Now: Headsets and Intercoms
Posted Apr 11, 2005

One of the most important tools to bring to a video shoot is good communication - between producer and client and, of course, between director and crew. A private system that lets two or more people (in two or more locations) communicate with each other is crucial to the success of the production. There are different intercom types to meet different requirements: simplex, duplex, and digital matrix. Each has its own advantages.

The simplex-type has two communication stations cabled to each other with a push-to-talk (PTT) switch; some may be voice-activated. Users may send and receive, but not at the same time.

When you need to get rid of push-to-talk switches, you want full duplex. It's more complicated, with transceivers programmed to transmit on one frequency and receive on another, allowing both (or all) persons to talk at the same time. It's sometimes called party-line technology for that very reason.

Digital matrix intercoms are multi-channel, multi-functional communications systems, and are fully programmable so that any simplex or duplex communi-cations can be sent and received by all. Digital matrix systems also let users control audio levels, giving each person a unique mix.

In any case, users communicate via gooseneck micro-phones connected to a headset or headphones, all driven from belt-worn packs or rackmount components. Some intercom rigs are compatible with a variety of headphones to further customize the system, depending on the type of production. Be aware that headphones come in different types, too: circumaural, in which a small speaker is enclosed in a padded device that blocks out most or all other sounds; intraural (like a hearing aid, the listening device fits inside the ear canal itself); and supraural, in which the speaker sits outside the ear.

Circumaural headphones can be either single- or dual-muff; this catchy phrase refers to the covering of one or both ears.

Whichever you choose, know that choice of headgear can be just as crucial as choice of intercom technology. If the headset isn't hygienic, comfortable, and convenient to use over long stretches of shooting time, or if the sound itself is not clear, a video crew may be less inclined to use an intercom properly.

So comfort, configuration, and even the ability to easily wash the earphone covers are important considerations when you are selecting headset components at this level.

MAX headsets from Riedel are designed for noisy locations like Formula One race tracks. Nevertheless, they are comfortable and light, with soft detachable headset cushions. The rotatable gooseneck allows the microphone to be on either your left or right ear.

Production Intercom single-muff headsets are very lightweight (about seven ounces) yet come with a flexible steel reinforced boom mike. And the comfortable ear cushions are machine-washable.

Beyerdynamic DT 297 headsets are extremely comfortable padded headphones, featuring full frequency sound and speech reproduction (10Hz-30,000Hz) for clear, crisp communication in any shooting situation.

There also are several connection standards for intercom headsets; they may or may not be universally compatible. Clear-Com, Telex, and RTS each have their own, for example, but adaptors or other interface devices are available.

Another issue to consider is wired versus wireless. Many event videographers would normally not think twice about such a choice—wireless is so much more convenient (especially during set-up and strike).

But wireless intercoms (like wireless anything) pose hurdles on location that you will want to overcome long before the actual production day. Generally, they operate on VHF or UHF frequencies, and may be susceptible to interference (not to mention FCC licensing requirements, depending on operating power and frequency) in many places.

Wired systems bring their own considerations. Cables, shielding, and connections must be solid and robust to survive heavy usage. Capacitance (resistance to signal strength and high frequency response) can be an issue in systems with total cable length—not just the longest single run—of 500 feet or more.

One of the least expensive and still functional intercoms available is the Nady PRC-3X/DM wireless unit. For $139, you get a single or double muff adjustable headset that's part of a full duplex (VHF) system. The unit also features a call or page mode if the receiver is not being worn, a low-battery LED, and removable steel-spring belt clip.

A very efficient and economical choice of many event videographers is the TD 902 system from Eartec. It's a wireless, full duplex system configured for two, with prices starting at $300.

The package includes a pair of TD 900 transmitter/receivers, two single-earpiece headsets—not headphones—with attached mic (optional head-sets or padded headphones available). Rechargeable Ni-Cad batteries are included, and the kit comes in a molded, foam-filled carry case.

The lightweight body packs have volume, channel, and lock switches right on top, with headset and battery charger connections and power/channel indicators easily accessible.

The unit performs well over a few hundred feet, users con-firm, and it has juice to spare after a five- or six-hour day.

Production Intercom (PI) offers standalone, industry-compatible intercom components, including headsets, power supplies, and base stations, as well as complete systems for two to ten users. Its EconoCom line (two-sta-tion with single-muff headsets) begins around $600, and is a flexible and functional wired set-up using reliable XLR connections and power supplies operating at 24 VDC. PI products are covered by a three-year warranty.

Also popular among event videographers is the Portacom system from Anchor Audio. Configured as a two-channel wired system, with central power supply, belt packs (featuring call-light button, mic on/off but-ton, A/B channel select, and volume control), cables, and dual or single noise-canceling headsets, the system can be rackmounted or carried in the optional case. It is AC/DC powered, and available with up to 20-headset capability. The two-channel kit is priced around $850. The system performs well in a wide variety of locations, but longtime users note that wear and tear on cables may be an issue. Fortunately, the manufacturer offers a six-year warranty.

Anchor also offers a variety of accessories, including single or dual headsets with mic; extension cables, extra belt packs, and power supplies.

Clear-Com recently began shipping its new 600 Series, which brings new control to simply party-line beltpacks, like listen-only, call button bright/dim/flash/steady, and supervisor lockout. As well, four programming modes and optional software allow for set-up and control over intercom parameters from a computer.

The 600 Series replaces the previous five-model 500 Series, and adds two RTS-compatible models. A selection of headsets is available with electret or dynamic micro-phone compatibility (mini or XLR jacks) with prices starting at $238.

The Telex BTR-600 is a high-end, two-channel, full-duplex pro UHF wireless intercom system, with digital encryption and more than 65,000 available settings for operation in crowded airspaces, priced around $3,000. It consists of a base station and beltpack transceiver, with controls and electronics housed in a weather-resistant and shock-proof all-metal chassis of die-cast magnesium.

It functions as a standalone system, but can drive up to 16 sets for more complex event video production assignments. A wide variety of headsets and microphones is sup-ported, with either standard or RTS pin configurations.

Vega's $18,000 Q700 UHF wireless intercom system offers just about everything a live event video crew would need: a master station and up to six full-duplex belt packs, operating over some 1,200 different frequencies between 470MHz and 740MHz for full transmission confidence. Each beltpack has two volume controls for independent intercom and program-level adjust, or for separate control on channels one and two.