Last week, Van and I had a really cool opportunity to fly out to Vegas for a day to see the newly released Shure Axient system in the wild. Well, perhaps not the actual wild; it was a Shure event, but there was a pretty good band there, and the Shure folks did their best to knock out the wireless during a couple of the sets. We’ve seen small, controlled demos of Axient before, but this was the first time we heard actual source material through it. Spoiler alert; it’s impressive. And expensive. But keep reading, because this is some pretty trick stuff.
The folks from Shure—Dave Mendez and Jenn Liang-Chaboud—emphasized throughout the demo that Axient is a system. There are multiple components, and you can pick and choose individual items and get some of the benefits. But if you want to realize the full potential of Axient, you need to buy the whole package. I don’t think this is a bad thing, but it does affect how you design your wireless system.
In this series, we’re going to take a look at the Axient components, talk about how they work (and work together) and finally why I think this is important (dare I say it’s a game-changer?). It’s a bit hard to know exactly where to start, but the Shure folks started with the transmitters, so that’s what I’m going to do.
The AXT100 is the body pack; the AXT200 is the handheld (as you’ll see, the naming is not terribly creative overall; though it does roughly follow what we know from the UHF-R series). The transmitters have 60 MHz of tuning bandwidth and operate in bands that correspond to UHF-R. In fact, it’s possible to use UR-1, UR-2 and UR-1M transmitters with the Axient system, albeit with scaled back functionality.
One of the biggest deals with the Axient line is the tight RF tuning. They call them “ultra-linear, custom RF amps.” We saw a demonstration of their tuning width, and they were about 20% tighter (meaning they don’t over-tune into adjacent frequencies as much) as UHF-R or Sennheiser 3000 series. That means you can pack about 20% more channels into a given slice of spectrum. As the spectrum becomes more cluttered, this is going to be a real issue.
The body pack can operate at 10 mW or 100 mW, and boasts a 113 dBA S/N ratio. The handheld has 10 or 50 mW options, and can actually transmit on two frequencies simultaneously for frequency diversity (more on this later). It can also be configured with a talk-back switch option, meaning you could have one frequency routed to the house and another one routed to the band’s in-ears, for example. This would be very handy for last minute set or order changes. They also stressed that all Shure wireless is built to Mil-Spec. I think they mean UHF-R and Axient; I’ve seen SLX and I’m not sure that would pass Mil-Spec. But whatever. Like UR-2 transmitters, the head is interchangeable with the standard Shure/E-V thread.
The AXT100 is in between a UR1 and UR1M in size, while the AXT200 is pretty similar to a UR2. The AXT200 is a little more ergonomic, with a pleasant taper for your hand. Both feel well-built and durable.
Perhaps the real star of the Axient show is the AXT400 receiver. It’s a dual-channel unit (the only configuration available) in a single rack space. While the audio in the Axient system is transmitted analog, there is some digital processing that happens inside the 400. In fact, the receiver has AES outputs available, which is a real boon to those of us with digital consoles. Latency is stated at less than 1 ms. Like the UHF-R+, the AXT400 offers networking with cascade, and RF cascading. Using the analog outputs, you’ll see an S/N of 118 dBA; but it jumps to 133 dBA with the AES outs.
But this is where it gets interesting; the AXT 400 is a wide-band receiver. That means it tunes to the entire UHF TV band, a full 228 MHz! Rental houses will love this; they can stock one receiver and send out transmitters tuned to the geographic region of the gig. This wide-band tuning does come with a catch; you must select the 60 MHz band you wish to tune to—you can’t split the bands. That’s not a really big deal, but it’s something you should know.
They touted the custom-matched IF filters, 250 KHz channel spacing and very low IMD specs. While that is all really cool, the proof is in how it sounds. When it was A/B’d with a UHF-R system, the Axient clearly sounded better. The Axient was much more open and natural with far better transient response. Through the Meyer House PA, it wasn’t possible to hear a difference in the noise floor, but I suspect it was noticeable through in-ears based on the artists comments.
So far, what we have is a really good wireless mic system. It’s quiet, sounds good and includes some great features. If the system stopped here, it would be on par with the Sennheiser 5000 series. But it doesn’t stop here; it only gets more interesting. And that’s where we’ll pick up next time.