Wireless Mic Comparison: Samson vs. Sennheiser vs. Sony

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.

Price

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.

Packaging

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.



Build Quality

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.

Size

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.

Compatibility

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.

Conclusion

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.

  17 comments for “Wireless Mic Comparison: Samson vs. Sennheiser vs. Sony

  1. Joe
    January 6, 2013 at 2:00 am

    This is super convenient timing because I was debating this myself, and had seen the samson previously recommended here and was surprised.

    Curious to know if you’d recommend a cardiod mic or the omni directional? I thought I’d get better interview sound but I’ve heard of complaints of significant drop in levels if the lav shifts in place. http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/618743-REG/Sennheiser_EW_122P_G3_A_EW122_p_G3_Camera_Mount.html

    • Alexander
      January 6, 2013 at 1:51 pm

      Traditionally, lav mics are (more or less) omnidirectional. I’ve actually never used a cardioid lav, and it would make me a little nervous, for exactly the reason you mention.

      • jp
        January 25, 2013 at 8:07 pm

        I bought a cardiod lav from Shure (WL51B). It did a great job of isolating the speaker’s voice, BUT it had to be amped up so high, that the noise level was ridiculous.

        It was a $250 mic, I paired with a Behringer Xenyx 802 mixer (which ain’t bad, but also isn’t a top notch mixer either, yet sounds great with other mics: Rode NTG-2, Shure SM58, BETA58A, BETA87A).

        Anyway, the cardioid lav, I found out, had a very low Sensitivity, which resulted in having to increase the Gain, thus the noise too. If you’ve decided on a cardioid, take it’s Sensitivity into consideration. The higher the better, because then you won’t have to increase the Gain setting as much, resulting in less noise being audible.

  2. January 6, 2013 at 8:27 am

    Nice review. I’m testing the Sennheiser right now as a rental and comparing it to my old Samson and finding pretty much the same as you have described. One point of correction though: the Sennheiser does have an adjustable level. It is in the “AF Out” menu. It goes from -30db to +12db in 6db increments.

    • Alexander
      January 6, 2013 at 1:47 pm

      Thanks for the info! I did not get into the Sennheiser menu, so I appreciate the correction.

      • tahrey
        September 27, 2013 at 11:27 am

        On top of that, if the G3 transmitter is anything like the G2 ones I use, it will also have an adjustable mic sensitivity setting, so you can effectively alter the strength of the output signal from the antenna (presuming that you don’t also end up with signal clipping at some stage before that). The range is 0 to -30db in 10db steps.

        As we have fixed, AC powered (and diversity) receivers in a relatively small theatre, most of the time we end up running them at -30db, only going to -20 if the speaker is very quiet, and with the AF output on the receivers set to 0db we still only need to have the faders up about halfway for a good sound even with the board’s own input clipper set to the supposedly right level. No real noise apparent in this setup, so there’s probably a further 30 to 40db of acceptable boost available between the transmitter, receiver, and fader, if you need it for some reason…!

        • John
          December 26, 2016 at 9:12 pm

          Yes the g3 system has gain control from -60db to 0db (input level) in 3db increments. The receiver also has control of the output level from the receiver.
          On a separate not the Sennheiser is metal not plastic (cast aluminium) but the front battery cover is plastic hence the sennheiser system seam solid, it’s because it is.

  3. January 6, 2013 at 5:17 pm

    I first bought Samsons, very price competitive. I loved the cases. I found they either worked very well, or not. Sometimes there would be just so much blooming and noise that I found them unusable, and in other circumstances OK. That is the trouble with them, they obtain varying results in different environments. So I sold them on Ebay in hours.

    I bought the Sony UWP, always work great. Others prefer Sennheiser and sometimes I wonder if I should have gone with Sennheiser.

    In general I always prefer to boom with my Sanken CS-3. Just somehow having a wire involved gives me peace of mind and the side noise rejection seems to be a help.

    I need some kind of way to hook the receivers up to my FS700, any ideas there? Use velcro? Some kind of mounting bracket?

    • Alexander
      January 6, 2013 at 6:44 pm

      I bought the Sony UWP about a year ago, and have been using it since then. It’s reliable, but I wasn’t surprised to hear that the Sennheiser was cleaner. I also prefer to use a boom mic when possible.

      The best solution for the receiver that I’ve found is to use the shoe-mount bracket that came with the Sony. I stick it on top of the camera, and am good to go. Short of that, I tighten up the hand strap and stick the receiver in there.

  4. Marko
    January 31, 2013 at 9:39 pm

    Range?

    • Alexander
      January 31, 2013 at 11:04 pm

      That’s a good question. I didn’t do a range test on these mics, but to be honest, I’ve never run into a situation where that became an issue.

  5. Andrew
    March 4, 2013 at 3:55 am

    One other thing you should note is that both Samson and Sony receivers are diversity receivers. Without going too deeply into the physics behind this, the receiver unit has 2 radio modules and chooses the signal with the hottest reception level. This lessens the effect of intermodulation and harmonics causing mic reception drop out. In close range this is usually less of an issue when there’s direct line of sight to the transmitter but worth noting regardless. When radio waves bounce off things, they can confuse themselves, a little like standing in an echoy room, which causes the receiver to mute.

    I can vouch for the Sennheiser systems though, I use them daily in theatrical applications. Usually have the high end 3000 or 5000 series but other than clarity and a better compander system (used to make the best use of limited radio bandwidth) there’s not a lot in them. I’d recommend the sennheiser system any day. One thing to note also is that sennheiser’s wired receivers are true diversity receivers.

    • Michael
      November 16, 2013 at 1:26 am

      HI Andrew,

      Regarding Sennheiser diversity…. The portable receivers (EK100G3) are actually diversity receivers as well. The first antenna is the one that you obviously see. The second antenna runs on the shield of the audio output cable.

      Also a slight correction on the other two recievers. Even though they have two antennas there is only one RF receiver/demodulator in the units. This type of diversity is called “antenna diversity” or “adaptive diversity”, switching occurs on the front end of the receiver. In a “True Diversity” system such as the larger wired Sennheiser 3k/5k that you use in theater, there are two physical RF receivers and switching occurs on the back end of the receivers.

      Michael Drainer, CTS
      Sennheiser Integrated Systems

      • Alexander
        November 16, 2013 at 11:02 am

        Michael, thanks so much for adding your expertise to the conversation!

  6. April 28, 2013 at 1:09 pm

    I have a set of sennheiser g3 and love them. The only thing I regret is that they are so expensive that I can’t afford two sets right now for side by side interviews.

    I’ve used them in the US and India with very little audio interference at all. Simple to use, clean sounds, great buy

  7. Mike Toivonen
    December 6, 2013 at 6:07 pm

    Thanx for the review! Just one small correction: Sennheiser G3 both the receiver and the transmitter are made of metal, not plastic.

  8. March 18, 2015 at 8:41 am

    I’d been using those Sennheisers for years back at the TV station I used to work. In my following freelancer days I could only afford wired mics (sometimes attached to a Zoom that was hidden in the talent’s pocket so they could freely walk, BUT that meant more pain in post). Your post is helpful in reassuring me that, when I can, investing in those same Sennheisers really would still be the best thing to do. I wonder how decent those Polsen knock-offs are from B&H.

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