When I first started working in video production, in the mid-to-late 1990s, wireless or “radio” microphones were a luxury. Transmitters were bulky, receivers were even bigger (and often had to be plugged directly into household AC power), the signals were prone to hiss and drop-out, and they cost a fortune.
Today, wireless microphones are a necessity for video projects. Both transmitters and receivers are light, portable, and battery powered; audio quality is acceptable at worst, and indistinguishable from wired microphones at best; and although decent mic packages aren’t cheap, there are a wide variety of quality products available for well under $1,000.
In this review, I’ll compare entry-level wireless mics from the three “S” manufacturers: Samson, Sennheiser, and Sony.
It would be nice if we could all afford top-of-the line Lectrosonics 400 mic packages. But for most of us, a $2,500 microphone system just ain’t happening. So, let’s see which entry-level system delivers the highest quality per dollar.
The Sennheiser G3 system retails for about $630 as of this writing (January, 2013).
At less than half the price is the Samson UM1, which rings up for $300.
In between those two price points is the Sony UWP-V1, which sells for $570.
Right out of the box, the Samson attracts attention. First, because the word “Diversity” is amusingly misspelled on the front of the package. Secondly – and more importantly – because the product is packaged inside a very sturdy, reusable, plastic carrying case. By contrast, the more expensive Sony and Sennheiser products are typo-free, but come packed in disposable, white styrofoam.
As you might expect, the budget-priced Samson transmitter and receiver feel the most flimsy. They are made of not-particularly-thick plastic, and have only a few LEDs to communicate battery level and signal strength to the user. The mid-priced Sony components are encased in some kind of metal, and feel the most rugged. Surprisingly, the most expensive product, the Sennheiser, is also made of plastic, although it feels somewhat more durable than the Samson. Both the Sony and Sennheiser sport small LCD screens that display battery level and signal strength icons.
All three transmitters have metal belt clips. The Samson’s – a solid sheet of what appears to be steel – is the most sturdy and the least flexible. The Sony and the Sennheiser both have springy, shaped-wire clips.
All three transmitters are capable of fitting easily into a pants pocket, but the Samson transmitter is substantially larger than the other products. The Sennheiser is slightly thicker than the Sony, but otherwise almost identical in size.
The Sennheiser transmitter and receiver are virtually identical, which makes for a neat, unified, appearance, but can be a little confusing. The Sony receiver is almost as large as the Samson and, because of the metal case, is heavier.
Interestingly, the Samson microphone capsule – the part of the microphone system that actually needs to be concealed – is by far the smallest of the three.
Both the Sony and Sennheiser transmitters and receivers accommodate 1/8″ plugs, while the Samson uses a mini three-pin plug. All three manufacturers’ receivers come with plugs for both 1/8″ and XLR output.
The Sony and Sennheiser devices run on AA batteries, while the Samson uses 9v. Wireless mics are notorious power hogs, so whichever system you use, I recommend investing in a decent rechargeable battery package.
Sound & Self-Noise Test
My final evaluation of these microphone systems was a simple field test, using my Panasonic AF100. The Sony and Sennheiser receivers only have one level of output, while the Samson has a three-position switch that allows you to choose between -30, -20, and -10 levels. In reality, how “hot” the signal from a microphone system depends on the microphone itself, the transmitter, and the receiver, so it’s difficult to compare apples to apples, but I found that the -20 setting on the Samson is roughly equivalent to the non-adjustable setting on the other two microphones, so I used that setting for this test.
First, I identified the microphone, counted to ten with some intentional modulation in my voice, and then unplugged the microphone itself, to determine how much noise it was adding to the signal. For the sake of clarity, I edited out the unplugging noise. In my opinion, the Samson sounds a little muffled compared to the other two. Perhaps the tiny microphone capsule has some drawbacks.You can listen to the sound file here.
The bane of wireless work is the quiet (sometimes not-so-quiet) hiss that accompanies the signal. Since it’s hard to tell what’s coming from the microphone and what’s coming from the transmitter/receiver process, the easiest way to isolate that hiss is simply to unplug the microphone, so that’s what I did.
In this spectrogram, you can see a visual representation of what you’re hearing. In this image, pink/red/yellow represent the intensity of the audio signal, and blue represents silence, or absence of audio signal. I was interested to see that the Sennheiser showed virtually no change when the microphone was unplugged, while the Samson and Sony were dramatically noisier with the microphone plugged in.
Apparently, you really do get what you pay for in this category.
Years ago, I used Samson wireless mics all the time, so I was really rooting for the underdog to make a good showing. Unfortunately, between the flimsy build quality and the excessive noise in the signal, I would have a hard time recommending it as a purchase. The Sony is decent, but the Sennheiser’s signal is so much cleaner that, for another $50 or so, it really seems like the best choice.
Have you used any of these mics? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below.