Shure Axient Wireless System: So What?

Over the last 3 posts, I’ve spent considerable time (and 3,000 words) telling you about the Axient system. Yes, it’s impressive. Yes it’s expensive. But the real question is, “So what?” Why should Axient even be on the radar? I think this is an important question. And it’s one that’s a bit tough to answer definitively at the moment, but I think will become more clear over the next 2-3 years. 

The reality is, our spectrum (or more correctly, available spectrum) is shrinking. The government has figured out it can make a boatload of cash by selling it off, and much like a heroin addict, will continue to do whatever it can to keep selling spectrum. There are a bunch of proposals before congress and the FCC right now that may (or may not) directly affect our ability run wireless mic’s in the spectrum we’re currently using. One proposal is to have TV stations re-locate to another channel, opening up their existing channel for sale. 

The FCC has been granted permission to sell more spectrum, and that option to sell has to take place by 2022, but we don’t know exactly what the plans will be yet. So while there is no immediate threat, change is coming. 

Second, as part of the DTV transition, we are starting to see TVBDs (TV Band Devices) showing up. The first stationary TVBD transmitter went live in Wilmington, NC on Jan. 12 of this year. As these devices start popping up, it’s going to mean all kinds of fun for us in the church world. The spectrum that was happy and clean at rehearsal could suddenly become a crowded mess when people start showing up in our auditoriums with TVBD-enabled tablets (or whatever they come up with). Again, not an immanent threat, but over the next 2-3 years, this is something we’ll be dealing with.

It will really become incumbent upon us as TDs to become experts at RF management. Of course, the first line of defense is to wire every mic that can easily be wired. But our pastors and worship leaders have gotten very used to being wireless, and telling them they can’t do that anymore is going to be a tough sell. 

On the other hand, they are going to be none too happy if their mic keeps getting knocked off air (or bombarded with interference) every weekend. That’s where a system like Axient really shines. You can set it up so that you are almost impervious to RF interference (at least from the congregation’s standpoint). 

Yes, Axient is expensive right now. But I suspect two things will happen over time; first, the price will likely come down a little bit as the system gains traction, and second, the technology will move downmarket. Other manufacturers will have to come up with a similar system as well, and competition will also force prices down. 

Several companies are already going to digital transmission (Line6 and AKG for example), and once you go digital, there are some cool things you can do. 

To some extent, the Axient system is sort of like early mini-computers in that it is offering unheard of power and performance at a premium price. Over time, that technology will migrate to the rest of the line, and in a few years I suspect that active interference avoidance will be “standard issue.” OK, maybe it will be 5-7 years, but I think it will happen—if only because it will have to.

Shure said they are working on more stuff based on this technology, and you have to know that other companies are as well. I think the upshot of this system is that it indicates we are on the cusp of a RF technology revolution. As someone who makes his living with technology, I am excited by this. 

Now I want to hear from you; what say you about the Axient line?

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Shure Axient Wireless System Pt. 3

 

So far we’ve discussed the transmitters and receivers, Spectrum Manager and ShowLink, and today we’ll move on to the final components of the system. First up is the AXT630 Antenna Distro (I told you the names weren’t that creative…). Like the familiar AWB845 we’re used to, the AXT630 is a wide-band distro; meaning you don’t have to select a frequency band. Unlike the 845, the 630 can be set up to filter the input to the band you’re using however. That keeps you from bombarding the receiver with a bunch of RF that’s outside their selected tuning range, presumably delivering a cleaner signal. 

Another new feature is adjustable gain and attenuation on the outputs. The 630 features 4 outputs plus an unfiltered cascade output. It also has two network ports that supply POE. Which, come to think of it, is something I should mention. All the Axient rack gear comes standard with 2 POE network ports and a built-in switch. So at a very basic level, you could build a system of a receiver or to, a Spectrum Manager and a ShowLink that can be powered right off the Ethernet port. But I digress…

The 630 is network controllable and boasts a very low noise linear design. And that’s about it. But what do you want, it’s an antenna distro.

AXT-200 Battery (left), AXT-100 Battery (right)

The other piece of the Axient puzzle is one that I’m particularly excited about; the new LiOn battery system. All of the Axient transmitters are designed to run on these new rechargeable batteries. You can buy a three AAA battery case for the body pack, but there is really no reason to do so, given how capable the recharging system is. 

The heart of the battery system is the AXT900 modular rack-mountable charger. There is a module for the body pack batteries, and another for the handheld cells. You can mix and match them, up to four modules in a rack (with each module holding 2 batteries each). They chargers are designed to hold the batteries for shipping, so after the show, you can throw the batteries in the rack, and the rack on the truck without worry. This is especially nice for portable churches. 

The batteries themselves are medical grade LiOn (Lithium Ion) with an onboard chip to monitor battery health and charge status. The chip communicates with the transmitters to deliver run-time information that is accurate to within ±15 minutes. Speaking of run time, because you have a lot of options with the transmitters, run time will vary. But you can figure on something like 7 hours with the body pack running at 10 mW; around 5 hours at 100 mW. The handheld will vary more, depending on whether you’re using frequency diversity or not. In single channel mode at 10 mW 9-10 hours seems likely; and it drops to 4-5 hours running in frequency diversity mode at 50 mW. 

The good news is that the chargers will put a 50% charge on the battery in 1 hour with the rest of the charge coming in another 2-3 hours if I remember right. As for life span, Shure claims the batteries will do 500 complete cycles and still be 80% of original capacity. 

As someone who has used and written about rechargeable batteries extensively, I’m glad to see the manufacturers going this way. It’s really not financially or ecologically responsible to continue to use disposable batteries any more, and this looks like a great system. 

Finally, the AXT620 is a ruggedized 10/100 Ethernet switch. It contains 8 ports, 4 of which are POE. Shure was careful to say that you don’t need to use their switch for the Axient system, but this one has some handy features on it. First, the ports are at the rear so you don’t have cables running from front to back (though there is a convenience port on the front). They also included a hard switch on the front to turn the DHCP server on and off. This is a great feature in and of itself. It’s also built to withstand the rigors of the road. Again, for a portable church setting, this would be a good investment.

Well, that’s the system. As I said at the beginning of this series, it’s pretty complete and well thought-out. The one question we’ve not yet addressed is the elephant in the room; how much does it cost? That question was brought up at the demo, and Shure was very cagy about it. This is the one point that I personally think will get them in trouble. When someone asked point blank, “How much is a receiver?” they couldn’t (wouldn’t?) tell us, saying only that it depends on how you configure the system. But let’s be honest, it’s a SKU; it has a line item price. Why can’t we just have that? 

The real reason is that it’s expensive; and I think justifiably so. When pressed, they said that a complete system would come in somewhere around $8,000 a channel. While that seems outrageous at first, consider that Sennheiser charges more than that for 5000 series, and it has none of the spectrum management and active interference avoidance Axient does. It is a scalable system, however, so you can build it in pieces.

But it gets interesting when you factor in the new ULX-D systems. I asked my rep to price out (at MAP) two systems; the first is a UHF-R system of 16 channels of ULX-4Ds, 16 UR-1s, 16 UR-2s (w/ SM58s) and antenna distro; the second consists of 2 AXT400s, 2 AXT100s, 1 AXT200 (so you can run the pastor and worship leader in freqency diversity mode), ShowLink, batteries, then 12 channels of ULX-D with both body packs and handhelds. Both are pretty complete systems, and would probably serve a 2000-4000 person church well.

When priced out at MAP (minimum advertised price, you may be able to get a better deal), the UHF-R system came it at about $54,000. But check this out: The Axient/ULX-D system came in at $52,000. I'm getting my first experience with the ULX-D as I write this, I my initial impressions are that I would replace UHF-R with ULX-D without a problem. 

Now, granted this is a 16 channel system with all the bells and whistles. It may be overkill to do both packs and sticks for all 16, and if you only need 12 channels, the price points may converge. But if you view Axient as part of a system, it's more affordable than you might think.

Now if you’re still thinking, “So what, it’s still too expensive,” let me have you defer that thought until my final Axient post next time.

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Shure Axient Wireless System Pt. 2

Last time, we looked at the basic building blocks of the Axient system, namely the AXT100 body pack, the AXT200 handheld and the AXT400 receiver. We finally got to hear actual voices and instruments played through those components for the first time, and I was impressed with the overall sound quality (especially on vocals). The RF section is solid as well. But if these three pieces are the cake, the next few pieces of the system are like a really good gnache frosting. Let’s start with one of my favorite pieces, the AXT600 Spectrum Manager.

The Spectrum Manager is basically a wide-band RF scanner that constantly monitors the RF landscape, building a list of interference-free, compatible frequencies for the systems in place, and hands them out as needed. Put this in a two- or four-space rack and pair it with Wireless Workbench 6 and you have a killer RF spectrum management tool. At the most basic level, Spectrum Manager will build the list of main and backup frequencies for your gig. You can manually assign those frequencies to the gear on the network, then use IR to pair the transmitters. That’s nice, but it gets so much cooler. 

The next piece of the system is the AXT610 ShowLink access point. The engineers at Shure were clever enough to include 2.4 GHz radios into each of the transmitters that will talk back and forth with ShowLink. They used the Zigby protocol, so it won’t interfere with WiFi networks. Each 610 can control up to 16 transmitters and gives you complete control over every adjustable parameter of the transmitter. Ever set the gain on a handheld and get back to FOH during the gig and see the audio meters pegging into the red? With ShowLink, you can just dial that right back. Or if you want to save battery life, you can mute the RF section between sets. But it gets better.

When paired with Spectrum Manager (I told you it was a system), Axient can automatically detect and avoid interference. Yes, you read that right; RF hits on your wireless mic’s are a thing of the past. Here’s how it works. Say your handheld is tuned to 625.00 MHz. And let’s say someone shows up with one of those fancy new TVBD (TV Band Device) wireless internet gadgets (they’re coming; just wait!), and it’s also operating on 625. When that little bugger fires up, it would knock a conventional wireless system off the air. But the Axient receiver sees the interference and requests a new, clean frequency from Spectrum Manager (which always has a list of several dozen standing by). The receiver re-tunes to the new frequency, and ShowLink tells the transmitter to retune as well. This all takes place in under a half-second, and the audio dropout is barely audible. 

In fact, when the Shure folks were deliberately tuning to channels in use by the band, we didn’t hear anything; there was enough sustain and overall volume to cover up the incredibly brief audio dropout. And we never heard any fuzz, hiss or RF noise. Now, what I’ve just described is the single-channel operation. Personally, I think it’s good enough for 90% of wireless applications. But for that last 10% where even the slightest audio dropout is unacceptable, you can switch to frequency diversity mode. 

As I mentioned last time, the handheld has two complete RF radios in it and can tune to two frequencies at once. To use frequency diversity, you put the receiver in frequency diversity mode, and like RF diversity, it constantly compares the the signals coming in and outputs only the clean audio. All the audio switching is done in the receiver; all four outputs (ch 1&2, analog and AES) output the same signal, so there is nothing the FOH engineer has to do. If one channel takes a hit, the system goes through the re-tuning process I just described, but only after switching to the clean audio. 

The result is completely uninterrupted audio at all times. It was really impressive to watch both Jenn and David trying to knock the band’s wireless off-line during an entire song. They had multiple transmitters that they were tuning to the band’s frequencies, and Axient just kept moving around the interference. It can be set up to happen completely automatically, or only after a human confirms the change.

If you are using body packs, you can also use frequency diversity; however you need to to use two body packs. This is a specific design choice made based on user feedback. The broadcast guys said they were going to double-mic the talent anyway, so they might just as well have two packs. Otherwise, the system works the same. 

By now, the system is getting pretty impressive, but like a late-night infomercial, just wait! There’s more! And we’ll get to it in the next post. 

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Shure Axient Wireless System Pt. 1

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.

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