It’s a digital world, right? Well…yes and no. Both digital and analog wireless mics have their own unique advantages and disadvantages, and also hit different price points. For example, although digital systems tend to be somewhat more expensive, there are also high-end analog units—like the Sennheiser EW 500 series—that deliver what analog does best, with performance that equals the better digital systems. The fact that Sennheiser makes both analog and digital systems underscores that analog is better for some situations, while digital is better for others. The goal is to figure out which option is right for you.
One of the main advantages of digital is that, like wi-fi, you either get a signal, or you don’t. Lower-cost units benefit from this, because if the mic is in range, you have less concerns about stability. However, when a digital signal is out of range and stops (the “cliff effect”), there’s nothing you can do about it. When an analog signal starts hitting end-of-range, you’ll likely get a warning because the noise will increase, but the system may still be able to lock on to the signal. So, you can head back in range without going silent.
It’s a myth that digital systems are somehow immune to interference; all wireless systems can have stability issues due to interference. As a result, any system needs a scanning mechanism capable of finding frequencies that are free from interference.
There’s also the sound quality issue. Analog systems like the EW 500 series use companding (compression/expansion) to give the best possible signal-to-noise ratio. Digital systems use A/D and D/A converters. In either case, high-end components give the best sound. A high-performance compander can outperform an inexpensive set of converters, while quality converters will outperform inexpensive companders.
Another differentiation is that digital mics have latency, the amount of which depends on the way the system handles RF and processing. Pro systems usually achieve latencies under 5 ms or so, but analog systems have no latency. A performer’s sensitivity to latency varies, but it becomes more of an issue when using in-ear monitors because of the disconnect between when the performers sings, and when they hear it in their monitors.
I never quite understood why unboxing videos are popular on YouTube (“Hey look!” There are things in the box, and they look just like the pictures you saw on the web site!”). Anyway, here’s what happens when you open up the box, and remove the plastic coverings from various elements. The AC adapter and most of the rack mount kit components are below the visible packaging.
The EW 500 G4-935-AW+ comes with the following:
- SKM 500 G4 handheld microphone
- e935 capsule (other capsules are available, see next)
- EM 300-500 G4 rackmount receiver
- G3 rack mount kit
- 2 antennas
- 2 AA alkaline batteries for the mic
- Wall wart power supply
- International, slide-on power supply adapter plugs (US, Europe, UK)
- Mic stand clip
- Printed quick start documentation
- And of course, the various printed specifications, safety instructions, and manufacturer declarations (I think the European Union must have passed a “Translator’s Employment Protection Act”)
Sennheiser.com/download hosts the full instruction manual, PDF version of the quick start guide, frequency sheets with info on the frequency presets, and other technical/safety data.
It Starts with the Microphone
The EW 500 G4 series is designed for vocals in live performance, conferences, houses of worship, and the like. You can choose from three different Evolution mic capsules: e935, e945 or e965. The review unit shipped with the cardioid e935 dynamic mic, a Sennheiser best-seller which is a bit less expensive and slightly less sensitive than the supercardioid e945. Both mics have Sennheiser’s well-known build quality, a shock-mounted capsule, and resist the rigors of the road. Note that there’s no mic on-off switch, which some will consider an advantage and others, a disadvantage. My feeling is that if someone is mixing the sound, the on-off button gives the person onstage the option to mute the mic unwittingly. Whether to mute or not should probably be up to the person doing the mixing, not to chance.
Although the e945 is technically a somewhat better mic, it has a supercardioid pattern so you have to be more careful to talk or sing directly into it. The e935 has a cardioid pattern, which is somewhat more tolerant of vocalists who move off-axis. This has nothing to do with fidelity, but it’s an important consideration in some situations, and with some types of people using the mic. (Note that the e965 is a condenser mic, so comparing it to the e935 or e945 is an apples and oranges scenario.)
I’d also add that subjectively speaking, vocals seem to cut through well with the e935. This is likely due to the lift that starts around 2 kHz, and peaks at about 10 kHz.
As always, make sure the batteries are at full strength before the gig—but if you forget, it’s easy to change batteries. The transmitter has a four-LED battery indicator, whose status is mirrored at the receiver.
Ease of Use and Setup
This is an important consideration in choosing a wireless mic. With the radio spectrum getting more crowded every day, the 500 series’ ability to handle 32 channels within an 88 MHz bandwidth for the AW+ version (over 3,000 available frequencies) is helpful. It’s also one reason for the higher cost compared to the 100 series, which handles 20 channels.
I followed the Easy Setup menu to verify whether setup is, in fact, easy…it is. The receiver auto-scans for useable frequencies, you select the frequency you want (if needed, otherwise it’s plug-and-play), and hit the Sync button. Once the mic syncs, you’re done with setup unless you want to do a multi-channel frequency setup. If you make changes, simply re-sync. Receive mute on and off is easily accessible. The AW+ model covers the 470-558 MHz band, while the GW1 models covers 558-608 MHz—you need to specify the model you want when ordering.
A “soundcheck” feature is particularly useful because you can verify signal strength yourself. Just go into soundcheck mode, walk around where you expect the mic to be used, and the display shows the minimum and maximum signal strengths. Pretty cool.
If you’re working with multiple channels, you’ll appreciate the RJ45 connector that’s compatible with Sennheiser’s cross-platform WSM (Wireless Systems Manager) program. Its stellar feature is the graphical user interface for frequency planning that shows which frequency ranges can be used, the number of channels that are needed, the frequency ranges covered by receivers and transmitters, and more. Granted, this isn’t a WSM review, but it’s good to know you’re covered if your system sprouts additional mics and receivers.
As to the true-diversity receiver, it’s pretty much what you’d expect—a half-rack mountable metal box, LEDs to show sync and warn of dropouts, an escape button, and both balanced XLR and unbalanced 1/4” jack outs. The OLED display is bright enough for most outdoor conditions, but features automatic dimming if that’s more appropriate for a venue. There’s also a headphone jack, and the user interface is a simple, jog wheel-based design. (It probably goes without saying that the system abides by the most recent FCC rulings regarding wireless systems.)
I usually don’t test line-of-sight distance, because the real world isn’t so forgiving. My favorite testing environment is where I set up the receiver on one floor, and bring the mic to a lower floor so there are multiple walls, ceiling, a floor, and various metal objects between the two—then I turn on anything I can find that generates RF. According to the Soundcheck function, even then the signal strength was much more than needed for reliable operation. I continued testing in different environments, but the bottom line was the same—unless someone on stage wants to stray really far from the receiver under nasty RF conditions, you’re not going to have problems.
Although not sent for review, the website gives info on the many accessories available for the EW 500 series—colored rings to differentiate mics, rechargeable batteries, charging adapter, etc. You’ll also find info on the site about how to create multi-channel and multi-unit systems, and the various ways you can expand the EW line.
Is It the Wireless Mic for You?
Ultimately, that’s all that matters. For starters, you can’t go wrong buying Sennheiser gear. They get it right. Of course, that doesn’t mean others don’t—but the odds are remote that a piece of Sennheiser gear will disappoint, assuming you choose the right tool for the right job. In that respect, I hope this review has conveyed the EW 500 series’ gestalt: solid performance and construction, choice of quality mics, easy setup, the alternative that analog offers to digital, and perhaps most importantly, the expansion options (including the use of body packs). The bottom line is that if set up correctly—which isn’t difficult—you can count on the EW 500 series. For me, that’s the most important aspect of any wireless system.