The Price Is Right, But Can This Budget-Minded System Live Up to the Expectations of Pro Videographers?
Azden has put out some interesting products lately. My first set of wireless microphones, 25 years ago, was their VHF WMS-Pro set. The VHF band got crowded with TV and walkie-talkies, so I needed to upgrade. Around 2000, I found I needed a more professional, heavy-duty set. I tried Azden's 500 and 1000 systems, but the UHF frequencies they used were the same as many Los Angeles TV stations, causing lots of interference. After a lot of trial and error, I wound up getting a Sennheiser G2 system, and that has been my wireless workhorse for the last dozen years or so. At NAB last year, Sennheiser introduced their digital AVX wireless system. The benefit of this system is there is no real set-up or frequencies to choose — it automatically pairs the transmitter and receiver. The lavalier/transmitter and receiver system is about $1050. Azden's new Pro-XD system is very similar, but only $199.
Taking the Pro-XD out of the box, you will find the transmitter, receiver, mic, AC charger, USB charger, and mobile device adapter. Both the transmitter and receiver have internal, non-removable, rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. While you may worry about not being able to change batteries, the transmitter can last up to six hours and the receiver eight hours. If, for some reason, you need to go longer without a recharge, you can attach the same external batteries you use with cell phones with a USB cable. The transmitter has a 1/8 inch (3.5 mm) mini stereo output jack and connects easily to DSLRs and consumer cameras with the included stereo cable. If you want to connect to an XLR jack, you may find you need a couple of adapters. First you will need a 1/8-inch-to-1/4-inch adapter, then a 1/4-inch-to-XLR adapter. (I haven't found a single 1/8-inch-to-XLR adapter yet.) Azden makes an adapter cable for a 1/8-inch stereo mic to dual-XLR to go into a camera's XLR input. You only need one XLR plugged in to get a signal, but you have the option to use both if desired.
There are very few buttons on the system's two units. On the receiver, you have the power switch and output level. On the transmitter, there is power, input level, and, most interestingly, the input selector. If you have read any of my articles, you know one thing I find extremely important is flexibility. Besides the microphone input for the included lavalier, there is also a stereo line in, for hooking up to the output of a mixer or other line-level device. The three-position switch lets you not only choose between the two inputs, but there is a middle position that lets you do a mix between the mic and line inputs for transmission.
So is there anything not to like about the Pro-XD? Well, unfortunately, yes. My first issue is with ease of use. The rubberized buttons are not well marked. They have impressions in them to mark what they do, but the black-on-black markings are difficult to read in good lighting, let alone the dark that camerapeople normally find themselves in. I'd suggest that Azden use some white printing to make mistakes less likely — I know I would like to put some stickers on it, to prevent accidentally turning it off when I only mean to adjust the power level.
Azden's Pro-XD lavaliere, left, vs. the one included with Sennheiser's G2 wireless system.
The other issue is the size of the lavalier mic head, which is huge compared to other lavs. Lavs are generally supposed to be smaller, more discrete, and easily hidden if needed. The one included with this system is about the size of a large almond.
The most important feature is sound quality. I have tried the Azden Pro-XD on a few different shoots to give it trials in different situations. It is definitely OK, but it lacks any warmth. The sound is very sterile, like good-quality cell phone audio at best.
Equally important is the ability of the transmitter to get to the receiver without interference. While the digital signal may be free of analog issues, digital signals have plenty of their own. The Pro-XD operates on the wide but popular 2.4 GHz spectrum. This is the most common frequency for Wi-Fi. In the number of times I tried to use it — once in a home with lots of Wi-Fi devices and several times in a school with Wi-Fi all over the place — results were not good. In the home where I was doing an interview, everyone had to shut off their smartphones to get a good take. In one attempt at a school, I plugged the Pro-XD's aux input into the soundboard and got an erratic signal. Yesterday, I used the large lavalier, clipped to a stage curtain in the same school auditorium, to record all the actors on the stage. While I had much better luck this time, there a number of moments when the signal just dropped out, like someone hit a mute button. Good thing I always run an on-camera mic as backup.
On Azden's website, they show an employee demonstrating it in the parking lot of their offices, about 100 feet from the camera, and it sounds good. That makes sense, as there is generally no Wi-Fi in parking lots. So while the Pro-XD may be great shooting Bear Grylls or Naked and Afraid out in the wilderness, or maybe in an Amish village, chances are you won't be happy with this mic under many of the real-world conditions you'll need to use it in.
Circling back around, I had an event where I was running the audio system for a client that ordered only handheld mics. However, the 94-year-old Auschwitz survivor to be featured said he preferred a lavalier, as he likes to walk around while talking. The only one I had was the Azden VHF WMS-Pro I keep in my emergency camera bag. It had not been used in years. I popped in some nine-volt batteries and a couple of adapters to get it into my powered amplifier, and — much to my amazement — it was perfect, without a single dropout, for the nearly two-hour talk. My guess is that the analog VHF band isn't as crowded as it was 10 to 15 years ago, so VHF microphones will work better now, as the digital signals bunch up. I recently loaned my WMS-Pro set to an amateur videographer friend that has her own Azden 105 series UHF system, but needed a second mic. She loved the WMS-Pro so much she is purchasing one.
In conclusion, I cannot recommend the Azden Pro-XD for any critical work near modern civilization, even as a backup, as Wi-Fi and mobile phones interfere with it more than any other mic I've tried. But if you do need a better sounding, more reliable system on a budget, Azden's WMS-Pro VHF system is great for $150 (and about $10 in adapters to make it work with an XLR input). My two original WMS-Pro systems are about 25 years old and have been really beaten up, to the point where the battery doors need to be held in place with gaffer tape, but they still work and I keep them in my truck for emergencies. Skip the $199 Pro-XD, unless you live in a Wi-Fi-free world, and give Azden's WMS-Pro a try for $50 less.
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