Shoot Review Lectrosonics SM and UCR401
In my experience, wireless mic systems on the market today often come up short — with substandard construction, RF and signal interference, and limited range. So when I heard that the Video Systems team would cover the 2005 Siggraph convention in Los Angeles with video blog reports that (naturally) included audio, I was curious how they planned to capture voices on a noisy convention floor full of RF interference.
Enter the new wireless mic system from Lectrosonics. The system, which is claimed to be the smallest available, includes three components: the M152 Omnidirectional Lavalier mic, the Lectrosonics Super-Miniature (SM) UHF mic transmitter, and the UCR401 Digital Hybrid Wireless receiver. Together they make up a tough, cost-effective wireless mic system that's perfect for the video shooter on the go. By all accounts the system ran effectively during four days on the show floor. Based on what I saw on videosystems.com, the video blog entries' audio came off perfectly.
The M152 is a standard lavalier microphone. The tiny mic has a wide, flat frequency response with a little more EQ at the high end of the sound spectrum for a nice, crisp sound that's great for the spoken word. With a long cord to the small SM transmitter in your pocket, you can place the little mic out of sight under a collar or lapel. It has special casing that suppresses mechanical noises and a BNC-like connector that locks in place. All in all a good, traditional lapel mic.
According to Lectrosonics, the SM transmitter is the smallest and lightest currently on the market. It certainly is the smallest full-featured 100mW wireless mic transmitter I've ever seen. It's smaller than a box of Tic Tacs and weighs less than 3oz. Yet the SM is built like a rock. It is even tough enough to be stepped on and still operate properly. It is also “splash-proof,” so while it can't actually be used underwater, it can be sprayed with water (rain, snow). All of the controls are “membrane switches,” each covered with a thin film to keep moisture and dirt out, yet still allow them to operate. Additionally, the very small LCD settings screen on the SM is bright, making it easy to program and use.
The SM operates for almost six hours on a single AA lithium battery, or for four hours with a rechargeable 2500mAh NiMH battery. I tested a standard alkaline AA, which will run the unit for about 60 to 90 minutes. Aside from its rock-solid contraction, the other thing that impressed me was that you can use the SM unit with any mic. Very handy. The SM wireless transmitter encodes a 24-bit digital audio signal into analog for transmission over a UHF FM carrier, compression-free and delivering a healthy 107dB signal-to-noise ratio and a flat frequency response. It is a strong and innovative component of the Lectrosonics system.
The third piece of the wireless mic system is also the newest. It should be shipping by the time you read this. Video Systems was the first publication to put this new receiver to the test. The UCR401 UHF receiver is a significant upgrade from the popular UCR201, and the new benefits justify the increase in cost. Like the UCR201, the new UCR401 wireless receiver is compact, offers ratio diversity reception, a dual-band compander system (more on that later), RF frequency scanning, transmitter battery telemetry, and XLR audio output. But the UCR401 goes a step beyond these user-friendly features.
First and foremost is that the 401 uses Lectrosonics' new Digital Hybrid Wireless technology. Combining 24-bit digital audio with an analog FM radio link to provide outstanding audio quality, the patent-pending Digital Hybrid Wireless technology extends the unit's operating range and effectively overcomes any channel noise. The audio bitstream is digitally encoded by the SM transmitter and then decoded by the 401 receiver, but the encoded information is sent via an analog FM wireless signal.
Lectrosonics' proprietary DSP algorithm eliminates a compander (compression/expander) circuit — and the accompanying artifacts. According to the company, this processing preserves the RF spectral footprint of analog FM designs, which simplifies multichannel coordination with existing analog wireless systems. All I know is that it all works, and works well.
The audio from the SM transmitter is compression-free when used with a compatible receiver such as the 401, producing crystal-clear 24-bit, 88.2kHz digital audio. Compatibility modes allow these devices to be used with a variety of analog wireless equipment, including the older Lectrosonics 100 and 200 series units. These Lectrosonics units are also cross-compatible with specific units from other manufacturers. The 401 receiver and SM transmitter are compatible with Shure and Sennheiser wireless mic systems. Contact Lectrosonics for details.
Using proprietary Smart Diversity technology (as does the 201), the 401 receiver almost eliminates undesired crossover of transmissions from one circuit or RF device to another. A little larger than a pack of cigarettes, the 401 runs off just two AA batteries, giving it a longer operating time than the older Lectrosonics receivers. But even if you optimize your power usage, you still can go through a lot of batteries. So high-quality, rechargeable AA batteries will pay for themselves in no time.
As if being a great receiver weren't enough, the UCR401 also functions as an audio spectrum analyzer and generates a 1kHz audio test tone.
I first used the Lectrosonics system on a small independent DV movie. Setup was as simple as taping the mic to my victim (er, talent), plugging the mic into the SM transmitter, and then the XLR audio out from the 401 into the camera via a custom-made cable with XLR plugs on one end (in) and RCA on the other (out). Quick and simple. The unit is so small and lightweight that both my actor and my cameraman forgot all about it. With its long-range reception, I was able to go to the top of a hill (about a football field-length away) and do a sweeping panorama shot, slowly zooming to the talent, who all the while was delivering his lines. It looked like a million-dollar money shot, and sounded like it too.
My second test was a PSA about hurricane preparedness for my local cable access TV station. Shooting at the station with lots of other wireless systems and RF devices around, I was concerned about dropouts and cross-talk interference. In every instance the 401 searched for and found the next-best frequency, switching to it with silent perfection. The unit performed flawlessly in both of my workouts. If you do have problems or questions, the company offers a one-year warranty and free tech support, as well as an informative website.
Testaments to the solid construction of both the SM and the URC401 come from first-hand flubs. My talent dropped the SM unit out of his pocket and accidentally stepped on it with more than 300lbs. of Hawaiian. The unit took this pressure in stride with no trouble. Similarly, the 401 fell off of the camera tripod to which it was affixed with gaffer's tape — about 3ft. to the hard ground. Not a problem at all, as both units are built to take the knocks and bumps that go along with field shooting.
The only problems I had were that naturally I found both the LCD menu screens and the switches too small for my aging eyes, and the controls were sometimes to small for my fat Irish hands to operate. But small is the name of the game. From its ability to run for extended periods of time to its rugged design and flawless audio transmission, this is a wireless mic system that will make you very happy. And you won't outgrow it. Once you've used a high-quality wireless mic system, you'll never want to go back to cords and cables again. I won't.
When it comes to capturing good audio for video, it all starts with the microphone system you use. And getting away from your on-camera mic is a vital and necessary first step. Before I had used the new Lectrosonics wireless system, I would have told you that, to achieve a truly clean audio signal, you needed a hard-wired external mic. Now professional, clean audio acquisition is easy to achieve, and there are no more wires or cables to deal with. It was easy to see why this product won Video Systems Vanguard and Pick Hit awards this year for innovation and excellence. The freedom and safety of being wireless cannot be overstated. With the Lectrosonics M152, SM, and URC401, acquiring pristine professional audio has never been easier nor more reliable and affordable.
Company: Lectrosonics Rancho Rio, N.M.; (800) 821-1121 www.lectrosonics.com
Product: M152 mic, SM transmitter, and UCR401 receiver
Assets: Lightweight, reliably captures clear audio, super-solid construction.
Caveats: You need a recharger or lots of AA batteries.
Demographic: Anyone needing a professional wireless mic system.
Price: $190 for M152 mic; $1,650 for SM transmitter; $1,625 MSRP (anticipated) for UCR401 receiver.