One of the great thing about audio gear is you generally don’t have to upgrade it as much as video gear. In the last 25 years I’ve had seven (main) cameras, and only two wireless microphone systems. For the first 12 years, I used a beginner’s Azden WMS-Pro VHF system. When I found I needed something more pro, I moved up to the Sennheiser G2 combo system, chosen because I needed high quality, interference rejection and flexibility. I got one receiver, with a lavalier/belt-pack transmitter and a plug-on XLR transmitter that can attach to any XLR Microphone or soundboard to record a mix. Over the last 11 years, the Sennheiser system has never let me down, but recently, needing a second system, I started looking into the new digital systems.
With all the talk of re-allocation of frequencies, I didn’t want to buy a new UHF system and find out the FCC made the frequencies illegal as they allocated them for another use. The first digital mic I tried, an entry-level unit for $199, was awful. I kept getting interference, causing a loss of signal. I saw the Audio-Technica System 10 for the first time at NAB 2016. After 18 months, the System 10 combo system arrived.
The system can be configured several different ways. I got a combo system that consisted of a one-piece handheld mic/transmitter, the lavalier transmitter with clip-on mic, and the receiver. The first thing I noticed was the large size of the belt-pack transmitter — it was 50% larger than the Sennheiser G2 transmitter. Next, I noticed the mic connector was semi-proprietary — if the supplied lav mic gets lost or broken, you can’t just pop on any standard 1/8-inch (3.5mm) mic in an emergency, as you can with the Sennheiser.
The handheld microphone/transmitter is a bit of a bulky unit, compared to the Shure SM58/Sennheiser plug-on XLR transmitter that I have been using for the last dozen years or so. As mentioned before, I prefer the plug-on transmitter, as it gives me an infinite choice of different microphones and the ability to take a feed off of a sound board. While I prefer the SM58 for interviews, I attach it to an Azden SM250 shotgun in cases where running a cable from the boom would be problematic. If any mic should break, I can swap it out. With the A-T you are stuck, unless you rig something with the lav transmitter and an optional cable — more about that later.
The receiver is actually not as big as the belt-pack transmitter. It has two antennas that must be screwed on before use. One of my concerns is the internal, non-removable rechargeable battery. The battery charges through a standard Micro-USB port and can work through most USB chargers or USB ports on computers. The factory says it should last for 12 hours of continuous use. My concern is what happens when the rechargeable battery fails. If it fails, you need to take it in for service or buy a new receiver. Why A-T chose to use AA batteries for the transmitters but make the batteries non-removable in the receivers is a bit of a mystery to me.
Depending on what camera you shoot with, the System 10 may need additional cables. A-T supplies an 1/8-inch (3.5 mm) stereo cable that will connect the receiver to a DSLR or consumer camcorder. If you are working with a professional camera with XLR audio, you will need to purchase an 1/8” (3.5 mm) stereo-to-XLR male cable. I happened to have a couple I bought from Hosa for $8. When using that cable, remember to slide the switch from stereo to mono. If you are going into a 1/8” (3.5 mm) stereo input on a camera, then keep the switch on stereo.
Setting up the system for the first time is a little tricky at first, and instructions weren’t quite intuitive. Once the System 10’s receiver is powered on, you select a system id # (I chose “1”) and then, on the handheld microphone, you select the same number and hit the “pair” button. On the receiver, I set up channel “2” with the belt pack. Now, in order to switch from one mic to the other, I need only change the receiver’s channel to get the corresponding transmitter.
The first shoot I used the System 10 on was a promo video for a fertility clinic. I had to interview five different doctors in two hours in an office building in Encino, CA, which is a busy, upper-class suburb of Los Angeles. This is important, because UHF traffic and Wi-Fi in areas like this can cause interference. My Sennheiser G2 system has a feature that can defeat some interference, but not all. When it doesn’t, you have to search for an open frequency. With the System 10, once paired, the transmitter and receiver are in duplex communication. If the receiver is in fear of interference, it actually changes the frequency of both the receiver and transmitter in real time. This is very different from traditional wireless, where there is no two-way communication between components.
The mic head that comes with the System 10 lav is rectangular and flat, instead of the more common ball-shaped mics found on other lav mics. I found the rectangular shape easier to place on the interviewees’ clothing. The body pack was a little harder to place. Because of its larger size, some of the doctors interviewed placed it on the chair next to them, rather than clipping it to their belt where it pushed into them, making them more uncomfortable. Once you’re set up, you may need to adjust the body pack’s input level and the receiver’s output level. This is done not with menu items and buttons, but with tiny screwdrivers under the access door to adjust a pot of the unit.
When I listened to the footage in my home studio, it sounded great. I didn’t hear a single drop-out and there was no discernible noise. Further, the sound sounded organic rather than sterile and digitized — some digital systems can have no noise, but the sound itself doesn’t sound natural.
On my next shoot I was recording a couple of people for a roast video. The first person I recorded went fine. The second person and location, something went wrong. Of course, this was in front of a big TV executive. The output level of the receiver suddenly went very low. Al of the switches were in the correct positions. I recorded it at the lower level, thinking ‘I can bring it up in post.’ For backup, I had an Azden SM-250 shotgun mic on the other audio channel. By mixing both channels, I was able to get pretty good sound out of it. The next day, I found that if I put the switch into the “unbalanced” position on the receiver, it would work. After a call to A-T’s tech support, they overnighted me one of their cables the next day to use in place of the third-party cable I had been using. Magically, the new cable worked as it should. Even after doing an autopsy on the Hosa cable, I couldn’t figure out why it didn’t work. It could be some minute tolerances that made them incompatible. I will be sticking with the A-T cable (model number AT8350).
My next shoot required two wireless lav systems, so I was able to put my trusty 11-year-old Sennheiser G2 directly against the System 10. It was a crazy shoot — I was running around a building with lots of Wi-Fi and walkie-talkie traffic. Both systems did really well; the Sennheiser had a signal drop-out for about a second. Other than that, performance was about equal.
On my last trial for the System 10, I used the optional full-size XLR-F adapter cable that allows you to connect the lavalier transmitter to handheld mics, mixers, soundboards, etc. We connected it to a Mackie 1402 VLZ soundboard to get a mix of all of the sound and fed to our main camera. The set-up was easy. Once we had the input level set, we didn’t need to adjust it for the rest of the evening. The sound, as in the other tests, was great.
There were a couple of things I didn’t like about the System 10, but they aren’t dealbreakers. One worry is what happens if the non-removable rechargeable battery runs out or completely dies. It is not user-replaceable. I suppose you could attach an external battery like the one I use for my cell phone and IDX C1 wireless HDMI system, but depending on what camera the receiver is mounted on, that can be clunky. That said, with the quality of today’s rechargeable lithium-ion and Ni-MH batteries, it should last a number of years. However, if you are using it on a long shoot, say more than 10 hours of continuous use, you may have to worry about getting external power or taking a break to charge it. I’ve had issues with some action cams with non-removable batteries, where I had charged them up days before a shoot but they went dead, inexplicably, and I and couldn’t just pop new ones in them. Audio-Technica can replace the internal battery at their service department, but you could power it off any standard USB power supply or power bank-type battery.
Another issue is the size of the lavalier transmitter, which is about 50% larger than the Sennheiser. If you have to hide it in the bottom of a bikini, as I had to do once, it may prove a bit bulky. Even subjects in suits thought it was a bit uncomfortable on their waistband.
The final issue is that both of the transmitters also lack input-level monitors. This is something I miss (the Sennheiser system has them) but not a necessity. It would make set-up and troubleshooting quicker if it was there. You need to check the levels of the transmitter on the receiver, but if there is an issue with levels, you may have to fiddle around more because you can’t tell if the level issue is on the transmitter or receiver.
The Audio-Technica System 10 is a very capable system with many options. The sound quality is great, and that is the most important aspect of a wireless mic system. It is also reasonably priced. If your budget doesn’t allow for you to get both the lavalier transmitter and the “all-in-one” handheld mic transmitter, I would go for the lavalier system. It offers you the flexibility, with Audio-Technica ‘s optional cable, to plug in many different sources such as my Shure SM58 on a short XLR cable. I would spend the extra $30 on the XLR-F cable for the lav transmitter and the extra $30 for the balanced receiver-to-camera cable. If you are are OK with the components being a little bit on the bulky side, this is a high quality, reasonably priced wireless system. If you are looking for a new wireless system for your field kit, Audio-Technica’s System 10 is definitely worth considering.