Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Wireless Speaker Systems Overview | Sennheiser? Shure IEM? Alto Stealth? Others?…Which method is best?

Wireless Speaker Systems & Methods | Sennheiser vs Alto Stealth vs Shure vs IEM’s vs Phonic…Which method is best??

By Rick Whitehead

DJs, musicians, and everyone in between have been chatting it up about the best possible ways to broadcast their music, sound, or audio wirelessly from one speaker to another.  Whether you call it wireless speakers, wireless zone fill speakers or wireless remote speakers, we’re all talkin’ about the same thing: how do I get the sound from here to there without running a spaghetti mess of XLR/mic cables?  Heck, just Google the phrase “wireless speaker systems” and you’ll find a host of videos on YouTube available.  Everything from garages & backyards, to actual real life events in action.  The systems we sell (and use ourselves out in the wild), are Sennheiser wireless speaker systems.  Over the course of a few years now, we have found that the Sennheiser systems outperform any other methods on the market, for a variety of reasons ranging from audio quality, to frequency agility, to transmitter & receiver robustness.  We don’t just sell stuff at agiprodj, we research & use gear out in the wild just like you do, then we turn around and sell solutions that really work.

“But wait right there, Rick.  I’ve been doing this for years with my old Shure PGX system without any problems.”  Or, “I just picked up the brand new Alto Stealth Wireless System and used it for my first event flawlessly!”  Well, to that I would answer in turn…”But wait right there!“  I’m always amazed to hear people say they’re happy with their wireless mic because it has never had a dropout.  Uh-huh.  Right.  To that I would say you’re either 1) incredibly lucky and blessed in some way or 2) haven’t used it in enough situations.

If I haven’t completely offended you, read on…

Let’s begin with the new Alto Stealth Wireless System.  This is the perfect product to start with because the product is brand new, it’s been developed to fill a very specific need, and I get to touch on a number of points all at the same time, things you should always be thinking about in the back of your mind with anything wireless.  This product is going to create a lot of chatter.  After reading this blog, you’ll be able to take what you read here and extrapolate that out to every other wireless speaker system method you can dream up.  Here’s my own two cents on Alto Stealth vs Sennheiser for wireless speaker systems, and again keep this in mind with any wireless products:

1.         Only 16 manually-selectable UHF channels with Alto Stealth, which means in a crowded market this system would be completely unusable with no possible way to predict or anticipate interference.  Think of it this way, there are number of frequency finder websites out there.  These are invaluable tools that can help you know which frequencies to broadcast on before your event.  Shure makes a great one: http://www.shure.com/americas/support/tools/wireless-frequency-finder.  Sennheiser has one as well: http://en-us.sennheiser.com/service-support/frequency-finder.  (of course at the time I’m writing this, Sennheiser’s frequency finder is not available due to the FCC website being shut down as a result of the government shutdown.  Man, what is not being affected by that?!)  Anyway, my point is this; you will never look at a wireless frequency finder website and see anywhere on that site to use Alto Stealth Channel 14.  Never.  Channels 1 -16 are a crap shoot at best.  You might as well just guess at which number you pick because your chances will be about the same.  Are you working in the Bay area, or Manhattan, or any number of similarly crowded UHF markets?  Good luck to you.  For many of our customers, we have carefully hand-selected the right frequency band for our Sennheiser systems that have over 1,600 frequencies to choose from.  Which system would YOU want at a wedding?  Or a corporate event?  The system with over 1,600 frequencies to choose from, or just 16?  In many markets throughout the U.S. the 470-698 MHz range is jam packed.  16 frequencies to choose from simply ain’t gonna cut it.  You will know it, and so will your client.

2.         No scanning of frequencies is available with Alto Stealth, so even if you picked a good frequency to broadcast, other powered up devices in the area could compete with this one without you even “seeing” them. Ever set up a wireless microphone that sounds perfect during your sound check, but then it drops out during your actual event?  That is random RF chatter and it KILLS your confidence with wireless.  Not to mention your client is unhappy.  With wireless, you have to…have to…HAVE TO have a system that scans.  Did I mention you have to?

3.         Output power on the Alto Stealth transmitter is < 10mW, resulting in a 200′ range (IMO, Alto is being a bit optimistic with that number). Add a few hundred people or obstructions and you might as well cut that range in half.  Sennheiser transmitters have 30 mW of power output.  The difference between 10mW & 30mW is enormous. If given the choice 15 minutes before your event, which one would you use for yours?

4.         Only 50Hz-17kHz frequency reproduction with Alto Stealth.  Many guys in the industry debate whether or not this spec even matters.  Bottom line? A wider frequency response is better. Period. And if you’re feeling like you could give up one end of the spectrum or another, you’d be wise to give up some of the top end, not the bottom end.  Anyone wanting any sort of credible bass response from a wireless speaker system should be outraged with a 50 Hz cutoff.  I’ve read forums where some pro guys are challenging the idea that you can’t run subs wirelessly.  Well, I have done it.  You could blindfold anyone in the room and they wouldn’t have known the difference.  These guys also claim that tops (main speakers) don’t go down much past 50 Hz, so what’s the big deal?  For those of you who own a home theatre system, ask yourself the next time you sit down to watch your favorite movie if you’d mind if someone came in and replaced all your audio components with ones that run 50Hz – 17 kHz.  Better yet, do you mind if someone comes in and replaces your 320kbps MP3’s with 192?  Yeah, that’s what I thought.  Funny how some things don’t matter until it impacts you personally.  IMO, clients deserve great sound.  I read a very interesting comment from a thought leader in the industry awhile back.  He said that the 50Hz – 17 kHz range found in Alto Stealth (and similar ranges from other wireless manufacturers) would be sufficient for zone fills.  What exactly does that mean?  Are the people in those zone areas less important than the people in the main zone?  That would be like Disneyland saying the guests in the back of Fantasmic! or World of Color don’t need the same type of sound experience as the guests that are front of house.

(Fun Fact: The internet is a fascinating, powerful source of information.  Some of it is spot on.  Some of it is not.  Always keep that one in mind when you read anything online).

5.         Only one receiver antenna with Alto Stealth. No true diversity. When’s the last time you used a wireless microphone with only one antenna on the receiver? Think about that one.  But you might say, well your portable Sennheiser receivers only have one antenna, too.  While that’s true, the Sennheiser portable receivers also turn whatever cable you plug into them into a second antenna, making for an adaptive-diversity receiver.  Pretty slick.

6.         The sensitivity robustness of the Alto Stealth transmitter is lacking. Alto doesn’t even list this specification in their product details.  At NAMM in January I spoke with the folks that make Stealth and this feature alone was a deal breaker. They didn’t know the answer to this question, or why it mattered.  What does transmitter sensitivity mean, and why is it a big deal? That means that if you try to use a system like this at high volumes (which a lot of guys do) or with instruments or mixers with hot outputs, you’re going to overdrive the Tx immediately. Imagine a trumpet player being mic’d with an inexpensive handheld microphone.  The workaround with this is that guys will bring down the master or gains on their board which in essence means they have to change the way they mix.  Again, imagine that trumpet player being asked to play more quietly so the microphone can handle it.  Not possible.  And, although this is a bit nitpicky, using the Alto Stealth transmitter Min/Max knobs to control the system volume makes the signal chain subjective instead of objective.  You’d be going by feel and a little guesswork vs an actual number like -30dB or -60dB, a number that’s very easy to know, remember, and share with other coworkers that are doing events for you.  Telling someone to set a transmitter at -45 dB is very different than saying “put the knob at about 10 o’clock.”  There will be situations in which the Alto product will work, don’t get me wrong.  But there will be a number of situations where it flat out won’t.

7.         AF Out is not adjustable on the Alto Stealth receivers or Stealth Wireless Expander Pack (which is what Alto is calling their extra add-on receivers).  Again, this is huge in terms of finessing the sound.  Great wireless speaker solutions need lots of finesse points.  Having the ability to control the sound at the end of the signal chain is important, even on powered speakers despite the fact they almost always have their own gain control.  Garbage in always equals garbage out.

8.         Alto Stealth receivers only have LED’s to indicate the presence of RF & AF (RF being radio frequency signal strength and AF being audio frequency or the actual music or sound being broadcast).  This means you have no visual way to really gauge the overall signal health of your system.  If you get 200’ away with an Alto Stealth receiver, you could very well have an RF indicator LED lit on the receiver.  What you would NOT see is the receiver is barely hanging on to that signal, and by the time people start arriving that signal will be long gone.  On a Sennheiser portable receiver, you have very clear visual indication of just how strong your RF signal is, and how well your music or sound is coming through on the AF.  That kind of real time visual feedback is priceless when it comes to wireless.

9.         The Alto Stealth Wireless System only works with AC power.  There is no battery powered option with this system.  Is that a deal breaker?  Not necessarily.  But try setting up a real quick wireless relay in a hallway or on a tripod, tree, etc where there is no power anywhere.  Our Sennheiser systems are more versatile and will be able to do just that.

10.        Lastly, the Alto transmitter is larger, making it more difficult to place wherever you need it (like inside the handle of a speaker, or in a tree for a relay, etc).
The Alto product is a nice idea, but this product falls short. One or two failed events with the Alto product, and your confidence in all wireless speaker methods will be 100% shot.  Keep in mind, our main goal at agiprodj is not to sell stuff for the sake of selling stuff, or to move as many boxes as we can and then kick you to the curb.  We are a solution-oriented company.  Our goal is to research, test, do the homework out in the field, and then sell the stuff that works.  And I really wanted the Alto product to be successful.  When the Alto Stealth reviews start to trickle in, you’ll see exactly what I mean.

What about using Shure, Audio-Technica, or Phonic wireless transmitters & receivers?  Say you have a Shure PGX1 body pack & PGX4 tabletop receiver, or an Audio-Technica 2000 or 3000 series wireless system, can you use those for wireless speakers?  You absolutely can, but keep in mind all of the above points and compare those points to the systems you’re considering using.  The real test will always be sound quality, flexibility & versatility, setup time, power requirements, and appearance of the system.  What about Phonic Wireless Speaker Kits and components like the WM-SYS3, WM-SYS4, WM60, WM70 & WM400?  That’s an easy one.  In a word, Never (see above points).

What about IEM’s?  I know DJs and musicians have used In-Ear Monitors (IEM’s) for years to do wireless speakers.  Surely a Sennheiser IEM like an ew 300 IEM G3 could do every bit as good a job, right?  The components are darn near identical to the Sennheiser systems we use & sell at agiprodj.  Well, not exactly.  For those of you not familiar with in-ear monitor systems, they work in reverse of a normal wireless microphone system, and are used by performers to listen to their mix in their ears rather than just relying on a floor monitor.  A stereo transmitter located next to the sound board sends a L & R signal out to a portable stereo receiver which is placed on the performer (in this case a remote speaker).  That receiver can either send out L & R stereo, or two separate mono feeds which terminate to ear buds, the last device in the signal chain.  Which begs the question, “If I have two zone fill speakers in separate rooms/areas, what good does it possibly do me to have a portable receiver with stereo Outs?”  Well, not much good at all.  You would still need a separate receiver.  The Achilles’ heel of using IEM’s for wireless speakers is that they are overkill.  They are more expensive simply because they do more “stuff” than you need them to.  You don’t need stereo transmission on the receiver end.  And for that matter, you don’t really even need it on the transmitting end.  I can think of very few instances where you would need to provide stereo sound to a zone fill area.  Can you?  Zone fills will almost always sound better in mono.  Also, the IEM transmitter is typically a rack mount or tabletop device.  Try putting an IEM transmitter on the top of a tripod, or in a tree, or gracefully on top of a powered speaker without it looking like a science project.  And heaven forbid you needed to do this without convenient AC power for whatever reason.  The Sennheiser wireless speaker systemswe use & sell at agiprodj can be operated with or without AC power.  Pretty nifty.  Not to mention versatile.

So in your quest to provide a great wireless speaker system solution to your client, begin with the end result in mind which should always be, “How do I provide the best possible sound to a client in all zones, and what kind of system should I buy to ensure that I’m not just getting lucky with wireless?”  My answer to that is to always know the specs of your wireless gear, and ask the following questions:
  • How many possible frequencies can I choose from (think bandwidth…the higher that number is the better)
  • Does this system scan frequencies and select the best ones to broadcast on?
  • Do the transmitters & receivers have adjustable ranges on them for versatility (Sensitivity on the Tx, AF Out on the Rx)?
  • Can I visually see the strength of my signal chain with my wireless components?
  • Am I restricted to only AC power operation, or is there a battery option as well?
With wireless, you get what you pay for almost every single time.  Believe it or not, your equipment sometimes sells itself.  The guy out there that says you can’t sell the quality of your gear to a client is sadly mistaken.  I say it all the time, great wireless systems produce great confidence.  And your confidence gets conveyed to the client every single time.

Rick Whitehead is on staff with agiprodj as a Mobile DJ & Wireless Sales Specialist, and has been DJ’ing since 1989.

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