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Old January 23rd, 2015, 05:59 AM   #1
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What is the barrier to cheap, GOOD wireless mic systems?

Hi All—this is a somewhat rhetorical question, but also a real one...

In this day of dirt-cheap, ubiquitous electronic devices that are absolutely bombproof and last for years, why is it that producers on a budget STILL have to fork out $600+ for a reliable wireless mic system?

I ask because I've been assembling a list of equipment for the school I'm working for to purchase for general video production. In almost every category (cameras, lenses, tripods, etc.) there is an abundance of inexpensive, decent-quality alternatives to known higher-end products...*except* in wireless lav systems.

Oh sure there are the Azdens and the Samsons and the like, but after pouring through dozens (hundreds?) of reviews, all I read is "Crap, crap, crap—spend the money and buy a Sennheiser G3 system."

What is going on here? Why is so something as (seemingly) simple as reliably sending sound through the air from one point to another so ridiculously expensive?

Is it really impossible—from a technological standpoint—to do this for a less than a $600 price point? Or is there some sort of industry-wide price fixing going on?

I should add that the barrier doesn't seem to be the mics themselves, as their are lots of (ATR-3350) cheap lav mics out there that—while not as good as a Sennheiser mic—still provide perfectly usable, reliable results.

Yes, you can probably tell I'm a bit frustrated. Only a bit, because I don't mind just telling the school to buy a G3 system. But this question has been nagging at me for a while.

Anyone have an answer or care to speculate? :-)

Scott
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Old January 23rd, 2015, 06:14 AM   #2
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Re: What is the barrier to cheap, GOOD wireless mic systems?

Perhaps a direct comparison might help answer my question above.

What do folks here think of this Polsen UHF wireless system for $349?
Polsen ULW-96 Camera-Mountable UHF Wireless ULW-96 B&H Photo

Is it reliable? Is the sound quality good enough for an average listener to easily make out what the subject is saying? Is it likely to last for at least a few years if cared for? Will it operate without interference most of the time (if not ALL the time)?

Or is it total crap, a waste of $349?

---
Part of what drives my question is: I'd rather have 2 "just okay" wireless lav systems than one "really good" system. Because I want the added flexibility to mic more than one person at a time.

Thanks,
Scott
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Old January 23rd, 2015, 06:57 AM   #3
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Re: What is the barrier to cheap, GOOD wireless mic systems?

Price is driven by production cost as much an anything else, and production cost is driven in large part by sales volume and by features and "quality" of the build (which can translate into reliability and durability), after sale support, and warranty. Brand name also figures in - some brands just naturally can demand a higher price, and distribution channels also can add to cost. Use of proprietary technologies can also drive up costs, as can exclusive distribution agreements and import restrictions.

I have no information on the Polsen, and I see B&H has no posted user reviews of it as of today. It not is NOT a diversity receiver, which I expect would be a down-side for many applications.

A low cost wireless system may work well in some venues, but may have problems when things get crowded, or the talent abuses the system (e.g., dropping it, spilling their coffee or coke on it).
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Old January 23rd, 2015, 07:13 AM   #4
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Re: What is the barrier to cheap, GOOD wireless mic systems?

I can think of two reasons why professional audio systems cost so much:

1) superior design, build and component quality
2) the level of support available

If my Zoom H6 starts doing funny things I'll probably have to bin it and buy something else, whereas a Sound Devices recorder (apart from being much more robust and less likely to go wrong in the first place) will have parts and servicing available for years to come.

I've had very good support from Sennheiser on wireless gear (other makes are available :-). Even their budget stuff is well made.

Radio systems work by a mixture of magic and good luck at the best of times - I don't fancy increasing the odds.
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Old January 23rd, 2015, 08:07 AM   #5
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Re: What is the barrier to cheap, GOOD wireless mic systems?

Good points all, but they don't really answer my question. I guess ultimately it comes down to volume (which you mentioned, Don).

My original point is that outstanding quality and durability *has* been achieved in countless other electronic devices—but I suppose this is due entirely to millions of units of said devices being manufactured and sold.

But what I would think (not being an electrical engineer) is that all the components that go into (for example) a Sennheiser G3 system are produced very cheaply and on a mass scale. It's difficult to believe that there are any transistors, printed circuits, etc. in those $600 systems that are custom-manufactured specifically for Sennheiser.

That's why I can't figure out why the same quality can't be had for less.

Scott
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Old January 23rd, 2015, 09:08 AM   #6
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Re: What is the barrier to cheap, GOOD wireless mic systems?

Certainly the printed circuits *are* specific to that product. Every product has its own custom designed circuit board(s). And that is *not* a trivial part of the final price.

In the case of wireless mics, I suspect it's a combination of manufacturing quantity and R&D costs. R&D is especially tricky when it comes to RF devices. As frequency goes up, the "magic" becomes important. And as the product size becomes smaller, the "magic" becomes still more important.

Good RF performance isn't just a matter of having a certain set of components and a certain electrical flow. Dimensions and placement are surprisingly critical. Move one part by a few mm, and the performance can change. Use a right-angle turn in one trace on a circuit board, rather than a 90º radius, and the performance can change. If you've never contemplated the intricacies of RF design, you can't begin to envision the headaches involved.

You use your [expensive] CAD program to design a multi-layer circuit board. Have the board factory make a dozen prototype boards. Program the [expensive] robotics to assemble and solder the components to the board. Run some engineering tests using your [expensive] test gear. All this work is done by your [expensive] skilled and experienced staff. Then you decide you want to make some improvements, so you go back and repeat all those steps with your "rev. 2" circuit board. Etc. etc.

All that R&D is time-consuming and expensive. If you're going to spread those costs over 1,000,000 smartphones, it becomes a trivial part of the total. (And some of those phones cost $600, just like your wireless mic!) If you're going to spread those costs over 1,000 wireless mics, it becomes a significant part of the final cost.

There is no free lunch. If you want steak (i.e. respected name-brand mic) you pay for it. If you want baloney (i.e. a third-world knock-off) it's cheaper.
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Old January 23rd, 2015, 09:59 AM   #7
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Re: What is the barrier to cheap, GOOD wireless mic systems?

Ahh...I am now enlightened. :-) Seriously, I have no clue what goes into manufacturing these things. And I was thinking that the number of wireless mic systems made/sold in the world actually would number in the millions...but I suppose when you divvy it up between all the manufacturers, the numbers drop.

I wonder if designing/manufacturing a wireless RF system is any more expensive than coding a software video editing application? I ask because I wouldn't think there would be any greater demand for Adobe Premiere than for wireless mics...and yet Adobe Premiere is relatively cheap (for what it is)...while good wireless systems aren't.

Your explanation of the complexities of designing RF systems make sense...although it seems, in general, like the "desktop revolution" has yet to even come close to the wireless mic industry—which still seems mired in the days of "it's expensive broadcast stuff, or it's total crap!" :-)

Literally with everything else: lighting gear, bags, cameras, lenses, tripods—you name it, there are inexpensive alternatives that will last for years (when cared for) and do a perfectly adequate job. Yet this still doesn't seem true of wireless mic systems...

Scott
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Old January 23rd, 2015, 11:05 AM   #8
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Re: What is the barrier to cheap, GOOD wireless mic systems?

I have taught a few classes and bought low-end gear, and while it is easy to find a $25 tripod and a $10 mic, it's my experience that that stuff doesn't last long. The first class I ever taught I was given some hand-me-down gear from the previous instructor that included cheapo lights, cheapo tripods, cheapo cameras, and Sennheiser G3s (for the reason you mention). 7 years later when I'd bought new tripods, new cameras, new lights, and handed them down to the new instructor... all we'd done to the G3's was upgrade to rechargeable AA batteries.

I own some cheapo gear myself, and I baby it pretty good. (LED lights are also in the category you speak of). In my experience, student work and babying gear don't go together. You can have pro's baby gear, or you can have students manhandle it, but seldom do the two meet.
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Old January 23rd, 2015, 11:26 AM   #9
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Re: What is the barrier to cheap, GOOD wireless mic systems?

I suspect you have a faulty premise. Not all cheap products last a long time, are reliable and offer the same list of benefits to the user.

I have many direct imported Chinese products that are excellent value for money, and the electronics are actually very reliable. The real problem with cheaper products are that corners must be cut.

You mention the Sennheisers, as an example - we have alloy castings, metal covers properly engineered metalwork on the rack mount versions of the receivers. In the cheaper products, metal is replaced with plastic. The cheaper construction is in many cases fine, when treated with care. However, today I knocked two Sennheiser packs off a 7ft high shelf, and they fell to the hard floor. Both are undamaged. However, the plastic case on the network switch which also fell cracked right across. Doing one event, some crook swapped one of my genuine Sennheiser hand-held for a counterfeit. I used it for the next show and didn't notice anything apart from a small difficulty in getting gain before feedback - eventually tracked down to a cheaper mic insert with a few peaks in the frequency response - but it didn't sound bad. I spotted the swap when I removed the coloured tape around the head - it pulled off the paint sprayed over the alloy tube!

Next day, I went to do some more tests and discovered that even turned off, they draw current and the batteries were flat.

If you operate just one channel, things are pretty good - but cheaper designs often don't bother spending time on the receiver performance. Filtering either side of the operating frequency in the proper brands is tight, and helps ensure that multiple channels can exist happily together. Cheap systems have wider band spread in the transmitters, and poorer filtering in the receiver.

Radio systems of all kinds suffered similar problems. You can buy dirt cheap handheld walkie talkies from China - a tenth of the price of a Motorola or Icom, but again the RF design has limitations. They work pretty well actually, but the same things apply - poorer construction, less well designed RF stages.

It's not just radio systems. I have some DJ4000 GoPro lookalikes. Picture is fine, nice and simple to work, but the build quality is obviously not as hot - so they're cheap to make, but I doubt they will last as long. I buy moving head lights. Again, the construction is poorer. The aluminium chassis can be bent with your fingers, the plastic mouldings crack when given a whack, the optics are poorer, the design isn't bad, borrowing much from other expensive makes, but the implementation is poorer - so matching with others is a little off - one unit may well focus sharply at DMX value 100, while another needs a setting of 95 to achieve the same result.

So cheap products do the job - but slightly less well, with slightly less reliability, with very little resale value. Spare parts if you need them after a year are impossible to get, but you pay less for the product.

On a budget, I often take the risk. However, with radio systems, where failure wrecks the entire thing - I do not use cheaper products, it's just too risky when it's your income and reputation . I will save money in ancillary kit. I have a great zeppelin style housing that I use when there's a danger of wrecking it - because by Sennheiser one is now nearly 20 years old! The cheap one, however, has a kink in it - something heavy sat on it in the van, and distorted the plastic.

So don't fall into the mindset of believing cheap kit is as good - it isn't! It is, however, very cost effective and nearly as good - so that's a choice.
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Old January 23rd, 2015, 01:00 PM   #10
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Re: What is the barrier to cheap, GOOD wireless mic systems?

Quote:
Originally Posted by Scott Wilkinson View Post
I wouldn't think there would be any greater demand for Adobe Premiere than for wireless mics...and yet Adobe Premiere is relatively cheap (for what it is)...while good wireless systems aren't.
Surely you jest. Adobe nearly gives away their software by means of "educational discount" to tons of students taking media-related courses. Of course it costs them about $10 per user to stamp out the DVDs, so this is a big source of revenue. The same economies of scale do not apply to hardware devices.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Scott Wilkinson View Post
it seems, in general, like the "desktop revolution" has yet to even come close to the wireless mic industry
Obviously! Walk down the street a mile from your house. How many computers do you pass? Probably an average of at least one per home ... maybe more like one per person. Everybody has some use for a computer. How many wireless mics do you pass in that same mile? Most people have no use for a wireless mic. It's a specialty product.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Scott Wilkinson View Post
Literally with everything else: lighting gear, bags, cameras, lenses, tripods—you name it, there are inexpensive alternatives that will last for years (when cared for) and do a perfectly adequate job.
Compare the technical complexity of making a camera bag with the complexity of making a wireless mic. Compare how difficult it is for a camera bag to be "perfectly adequate" to what a wireless mic needs to do. Comparing the two is naive at best.

--

There's another way to look your question: why does a Mercedes cost more than a Yugo? Do you think that the "automotive revolution" should have brought the price of a Mercedes down to the same price as a Yugo? Surely not. (At least I hope you don't think so!) Likewise, the economy of scale that affects the mass market for computers does not apply to wireless mics. Some mics are made better, for the subset of users where quality is of prime importance; other mics are made cheaper, for the subset of users who are reasonably satisfied with a "less perfect" product.
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Old January 23rd, 2015, 01:21 PM   #11
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Re: What is the barrier to cheap, GOOD wireless mic systems?

I've used Azden wireless kits for over 20 years, as have many of my local associates, and they have performed just fine for our needs (wedding, event, corporate). I feel they provide good value for the money. Do $1000-3000 units have cleaner sound, longer range? Quite possibly. But the Azden units have been good to me and I would never consider them an off-brand or "cheap" system.

Mine have taken a lot of abuse, and when I did break a crystal inside my handheld when it rolled off a table onto concrete, it was repaired quickly - and without charge! I should mention that the mic is very sturdy metal construction and did not have a mark on it after the drop. My receiver is also metal and built like a tank.

I don't think you'd be disappointed with Azden for the students to work with.

Thanks

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Old January 23rd, 2015, 01:25 PM   #12
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Re: What is the barrier to cheap, GOOD wireless mic systems?

Go look at Rode's new wireless system. Might work for ya.

Last edited by Bruce Watson; January 23rd, 2015 at 01:29 PM. Reason: controlling my bad attitude
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Old January 23rd, 2015, 01:46 PM   #13
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Re: What is the barrier to cheap, GOOD wireless mic systems?

Frankly, significantly MORE population of wireless devices NECESSITATES more (and expensive) technology like digital encryption BECAUSE of an increasingly crowded frequency spectrum. It is becoming nearly impossible in Vancouver to consistently find a "clean" spectrum with non-digitally encrypted/locked wireless systems.

Back when a wireless system like Sony's venerable WRT/WRR8xx series was the defacto standard at over $5000 to "pitch-and-catch", only the Big Boys could afford them and we didn't have anywhere NEAR the difficulty finding clean spectrum.

But nobody wants to hear that - they want CHEAP and reliable, without considering what that really means.
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Old January 23rd, 2015, 09:33 PM   #14
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Re: What is the barrier to cheap, GOOD wireless mic systems?

For many years prior to my using the AT 18XX dual channel receiver, I used Azden 500U systems with Sony ECM44 mics along with the Azden plugin on my Shure SM63. The 500U receivers were built like tanks. All metal cases and frankly solid as a rock. My main reason for switching when the AT unit came out was the AT unit, dual channel so I could continue to run 2 lavs or a lav and HH at the same time, was about 1/2 the weight of the Azdens. In the years I used the Azden units I NEVER and I mean NEVER had an issue with them and frankly the sound I got was as good as the Lectro 100 units and the Sennheiser units that were out at the time. I believe they were the G1.
I'm just sayin' that you don't necessarily need to spend thousands if you shop wisely and get the right stuff.
BTW, the lavs I've been using on the AT unit are Countryman EMW although I had the AT899 for a while and they were outstanding. The right combination makes all the difference.
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Old January 24th, 2015, 07:15 AM   #15
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Re: What is the barrier to cheap, GOOD wireless mic systems?

In spite of the "you gotta pay big bucks for quality products" mindset, it appears that quality lesser-cost options (not LOW-cost, but we're heading in that direction) are in fact appearing. Bruce mentioned the new Rode wireless system which I also found while digging around. It's getting RAVE reviews and only $400.

http://www.dvinfo.net/news/rode-brea...-launches.html

Audio-Technicas's System 10 is also around $350 and gets rave reviews.

Both of these operate at 2.4ghz...so this appears to be a bit of a breakthrough for wireless audio.

Here's another thought: it's been suggested that the demand for wireless systems is nowhere close to the demand for other products, but consider this: wireless audio systems aren't just used by video producers; they're used by musicians (a HUGE market)...and by churches (probably an even bigger market). The reality is that video production is probably the smallest market for wireless audio.

When you look at the music and religious markets, I'd say there is plenty of opportunity for someone to innovate and bring down the cost of these systems.

It's no different than the days (which I remember well) where if you wanted to produce REAL quality video, your only choice was to fork out $30,000-40,000 on a Sony BVW-300 Betacam system. Now you can get better video from a $1,000 camera. This is going to happen with audio too. Lectrosonics better be looking over their shoulder! :-)

Scott
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