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Selecting A Wireless System - What Do You Need?

Wireless microphones offer many advantages. There is a degree of freedom not available with wired microphones, allowing full attention to be focused upon the performance or presentation. Natural and expressive movement is encouraged, enhancing visual appeal and heightening impact. Wireless also conveys a desirable image of polish and professionalism.

Although the benefits of wireless microphones are clear, selecting a wireless system may not seem like an easy task. The technology can appear a bit mysterious, the terms might be unfamiliar, and it may be difficult to obtain knowledgeable advice. In addition, a wireless system is usually a significant purchase and there is a natural desire to be certain that the right choices are being made. Fortunately, it isn't really all that difficult, especially if you are willing to spend a few minutes picking up the basics.

The first step should be to define your needs. That is, what are you going to do with the system? What are the expected uses? Will the system be used for live music performances, corporate presentations, religious services, the theater, or general audio-visual tasks? Will it be used mostly for one purpose in one location, or will it be used for many tasks and in several locations? If it is to perform many tasks, which are the most important? A little thought regarding these questions will not only help you make a wise choice of equipment, it will assist with determining what special features or accessories might be necessary.

Once the uses have been defined, the type of equipment needed can be considered. Most of the choices are straightforward once the basic requirements have been identified. The key points to consider are described below, together with brief explanations, comments and suggestions.

  • What level of equipment is needed?
    More expensive wireless systems will almost always provide diversity operation, and will have better sound quality, longer range, and more useful features. More sophisticated circuitry will reduce the chances of harmful interference and allow more systems to be used in a particular location. More expensive systems may also offer other conveniences such as internal power supplies, extra audio outputs, ground lift switches, etc. If audio quality, operating range and rejection of interference are very important, higher-performance equipment should be considered.

  • Is UHF operation, as versus VHF, important?
    VHF systems usually work very well if a small amount of care is taken when selecting frequencies. There are times, however, where UHF operation is preferable. These include situations where there are many existing VHF systems present, where certain types of interference are troublesome, and a few others. For more information, see UHF Versus VHF.

  • Is non-diversity operation an acceptable compromise?
    This is really a simple decision; diversity should always be used unless there is a significant budget problem and the operating range will be short. For more information, see Diversity Versus Non-diversity.

  • Which type of transmitter is needed?
    Wireless systems are available with body-pack or handheld transmitters. Handheld transmitters include both the microphone element and the radio transmitter in one package and are similar in appearance to wired vocal microphones. Body-pack transmitters are housed in thin, flat packages and have a connector to attach an external microphone. Handheld transmitters are usually the best choice for vocal performances, live interviews and situations where the transmitter is passed from person to person. Body-pack transmitters are appropriate for most other applications.

  • For body-pack transmitters, what kind of microphone is needed?
    Many types of microphones, including several specialized types, are available for use with body-pack transmitters. In most cases, however, small lavalier microphones are used. Omnidirectional lavalier mics are most common, but there are many situations where directional microphones will give better results. For more information on the various types of microphones available, see Selecting Microphones for Wireless.

  • Is the transmitter for use with a musical instrument?
    Body-pack transmitters may be used with electric guitars, as well as many acoustic instruments. Transmitters that have special circuitry to accommodate guitar pickups and other types of special-purpose pickups will usually provide considerably better performance than transmitters that do not have such circuits. For more information on using wireless systems with musical instruments, see Using Musical Instruments With Wireless.

  • Will the system be used for a wide variety of applications?
    If so, the choice between a body-pack transmitter and a handheld transmitter may be difficult. There are three solutions: buy both types of transmitters and one receiver, buy both a body-pack and a handheld system, or buy a body-pack transmitter, an adapter cable and wired microphone. The use of an adapter cable will probably be the least expensive, while the added expense of a second complete system will be the most flexible solution, since both systems can be used at the same time.

  • What features are needed?
    Sometimes the availability of a specific feature is highly important. Perhaps there is a need for interchangeable microphone elements for the handheld transmitter, or the ability to mount two receivers side by side in a single rack space is very desirable. If so, the availability of the feature should be confirmed before making a final choice.

  • What accessories are needed?
    Accessories to consider include rack mounting kits, remote antennas, antenna mounting hardware, antenna splitters, coaxial cables, audio and adapter cables, carrying pouches and foam windscreens.

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