Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Sennheiser G3 Wireless Mic System Review

 Sennheiser Evolution G3 Wireless Review : Updated

By Steve Oakley

 
The G3 wireless units from Sennheiser have been out for a while now. I decided to try a set out since one of my Lectro 195 transmitters bit the dust a few months back on a shoot. I've had the G3 unit now for a good month or so, and used it on a couple of real shoots. I've also done some simple but I think real word testing that shows both the good and bad in these units. 
 
Sennheiser G3 Wireless Mic transmitter reciever ME2 mic
 
What got my attention with these units was the price and reputation for being considered the low end of pro quality wireless, at least for the G2 series.  I figured the G3 must be better as a newer generation product. I've spent a little bit of time using the G2's in the past, but I have used a lot of Lectrosonics units. I'm quite familiar with how Lectro's just work and sound great, once you get past the price. The G3's certainly have their compromises to hit the price point that they do, but still offer solid performance. Lets take a more detailed look at them.
 
 

Audio Performance

 
The overall sound quality of the G3's is very good. You can certainly get more then usable dialog sound through them. They have a lot more bottom end then I am used to, mainly because the transmitter lacks a LF cut filter. Its really pretty amazing that they left this key feature out. Low frequencies can make for all sorts of badness in the audio gain chain when its not usable sound such as mic or wind rumble messing with your limiters. Even so, I didn't have any problems with overall signal handling with the units. 
 
The G3's have quite a bit of headroom overall when used with mics. The transmitter has a large range of adjustment which runs from -60db mic level to line level, adjusted via a menu. While I didn't get to try running a true line level through these units, I've always found a -10db or -20db pad was required when using the G2 transmitters because it was easy to push them into clipping. The closest test was running the headphone jack from my laptop into the transmitter. Once I got the level trimmed, it worked great without any problems. This was a very handy way of running music and dialog through the transmitter to test its overall performance using uncompressed and original sound files.
 
On a shoot with a lot of air handling noise, I didn't hear any compander noise. Quite room tests also seemed good. I did my test with a Sanken COS-11 lav. 
 

The Included ME2 Lav Mic

 
If you don't have a lav mic, it will get sound for you. If you want to have a mic you don't care about for use in situations where the mic could be damaged, its fine. Its overall sound quality is very bright and its not anywhere near as good as the sound the G3's can transmit. I had Trew Audio make an adapter for me to go from Lectro wired TA5 to 1/8" mini jack. With this adapter I can use my Lectro wired lavs on either transmitter. With a good mic in place, I found the sound quality was somewhat better them my older 195's. There was more bottom, and more HF. Overall it was better, fuller sound. However, if you don't put a good quality mic onto the G3, you won't hear it. So I'd very much recommend that you save the ME2 as a back up mic, and use something better.
 
The transmitter also has a weird control called "cable compensation". Reading the manual, this is supposed to be used when simulating a certain length of guitar cord when used on an instrument. My educated guess is that this adds some capacitance to the line cutting HF. I'll certainly say that the unit does sound brighter then my 195's with it off. I'd recommend leaving it off.
 
The receiver's specs indicate line level output levels of +11dbm. In reality, I have no idea where that number comes from. Setting the receiver to +12db on its output is still a low line level signal that required opening up the channel level higher then you would normally want. The receiver really is a mic level output, and it works best this way. Used with a quality mixer or recorder, you'll get the best and cleanest gain structure this way. Trying to run at line level will not result in a quiet clean signal.
 

Ergonomics

G3 Wireless mic with battery door open
 
This brings me to a key point with this sort of lower priced compromise product, every adjustment is done in a menu. There are no external controls on these units such as a easy to get to a trim level. The transmitter does have a MUTE switch, but thats it. This means you must flip the battery cover door down to fiddle with the adjustment, then hit enter to make it stick. I do dearly wish that they had an external level trim control. 
 
On the receiver, its the same thing - no output level, no head phone level, or a headphone jack at all. I'll note that the 1/8" output jack will not drive a standard set of headphones, at least not to a useful level. Having a headphone jack is handy simply for checking your signal at the source, as well as having a spare output when you need it. 
 
The receiver is not bag friendly at all. First is that the menu display is on the side of the unit where you can't see it, and second you don't have any controls to work with on the top. More annoying is that the output jack is on the top of the unit. If this wasn't enough, there is also the lack of a real external power connection to run on bag power. There is a charging connection for use with the Sennhieser battery packs, but I don't know if it can be used to really power the unit.
 
Can you use it in a bag ? sure. Will you like it ? probably not. My Lectro receivers simply live in the bag and never get moved, the G3's would require constant removal to adjust them, change frequencies, power them on or off, and change the batteries. If you can find an odd way of mounting them so you can see the display and not over flex the 1/8" output jack, this might work for you.
 
The receiver certainly works fine on camera. I had a bracket they were able to grab, or you could remove the wire clip and velcro them on where ever they fit. The kit also includes a plastic hotshot adapter mount. The mount works, but I would not call it a long term mounting solution. It works best as that once in a while problem solver.
 
The mounting clip is an odd piece of spring steel that is identical on both units and the same as G2's. Out of the box its way too stiff to slip into most people's clothes. Bend it out a bit and it looses its grip, but if you don't, you won't get it onto thin light fabrics. Sennheiser seriously needs to redo the mounting clip to a more conventional spring loaded clip like those of other brands have. The mounting clip is a serious failing, I've seen G2's bent up and useless way too many times. Perhaps there is an aftermarket bracket that can be found and mounted with double sided foam tape. 
 

The 1/8" Jacks

 
I'll say it, of ALL the connectors they could of used - TA5, TA3, Lemo, they choose the worst possible connector. I'm sure this was in part to keep the costs down. Now the 1/8" jack does have a screw collar to lock the plug in, and its the toughest looking 1/8"s jack I've seen, but either way its a poor choice. If anyone could mod these units for TA3/5 connectors, they would have a very steady stream of customers getting their units modified. 
 

Exceptional Battery Life

 
Using a set of new 2500ma AA's I got 12+ hrs of continuous use on the transmitter. The receiver went maybe 18hrs or so. Compared to my power sucking Lectros, is is great. It should be noted that the transmitters are only 30mw. This is typical of cheaper units. The lower power of course translates into longer battery life compared to other units at 50, 100 and 250mw. 
 
As much as you may want to argue that great receiver design is critical, and it is, having more RF power always helps. RF power is especially important when you want to go for some distance, because the inverse square law applies now matter what brand of wireless you are using. Put more simply, a hotter RF signal at any distance always wins in my book.
 

RF Performance

 
The new G3's are diversity receivers. There is one antenna sticking out of the top of the unit, and the ground of the output wire is used as the second. Does it work ? yes.
 
The receivers can scan their frequency ranges for in use channels. It seems to work ok, even when I tried them in a major US city as well as more rural locations. Whats very cool is that once you setup the receiver, and select a frequency, you can transmit your setup info via infrared to the transmitter. This feature is brilliant and works great. 
 
There are 1628 channels in the frequency band my unit covers. They are separated into banks with sub channels. You can use all the frequencies in the bank's subchannels safely together without worry of intermodulation problems. This is a great feature to have and makes multi unit use much simpler. There is also a user programmable bank as well. You can also manually set frequencies if you want too.
 
I ran my urban RF performance test. I setup the transmitter and fed it from my laptop's headphone jack playing itunes. I also used a Y splitter to feed my lectro 195 transmitter for a side by side comparison of a unit I knew well. 
 
I was able to easily transmit through sheetrock and wood walls without a problem inside the house. Outside of the house generally worked fine too. I then went for a walk around my neighborhood. I"ve run my lectros 500 to 1000 feet or more with this test.This warm summer night I was testing, neither unit wanted to go much further then a few hundred feet outside the structure. The lower RF output power of the G3 certainly seemed to limit the distance it would go compared to the Lectro at 100mw of RF power. I think that result was to be expected. However, the diversity design did generally give me better reception then I expected while I was in range. 
 
My conclusion is RF performance is fine for close range work. Walls shouldn't present much of a problem. You could certainly use these units for mixer to camera hops if you wanted to, and feel safe you were not going to have major problems. Sure I know purists will argue you should be using a digital type transmitter for a camera hop. However not everyone can drop $5k for a digital wireless setup especially if you don't need it everyday. Sometimes issues of safety, convenience, and the need to move fast in congested situations mean you do what you need to order to get the job done. I think that for close use like this, the G3's are good enough quality for most people's needs and reliable enough. I"ve certainly used G2's a couple of times like this for broadcast gigs and no one has every complained.
 

UPDATE : Using your Lectro 195 transmitter with a G3

This isn't supposed to work, but it does. I was able to tune a G3 RECEIVER to 475.375MHZ manually to match a Lectro 195 transmitter, and guess what ? it works ! The G3 receiver was happy to see the 195's pilot tone, and open up. Sound worked ! This means that G3 receivers can be used as spare or backups for 195 transmitters if you can get every one tuned the same. It did seem like the audio performance wasn't quite as good, but it worked. OTH, using the G3 transmitter would not get the lectro 195 reciever to work. If I had time to fiddle I could probably of turned off the pilot tone on the 195 and gotten it to work.

 

Conclusion

 
The only real downfall of these units is the lack of top mounted displays and controls for bag use and the mount clips. If you can work around this, the price is right, the quality of the audio is very good, and RF performance is decent. The very long battery life is great for any application where its critically important. If you can deal with the quirky ergonomics of the units, they are a bargain. They are great starter units if you have nothing but spend a little extra and get a better lava mic. The G3's are also good secondary wireless units for backup or extra channels when you use up all of your primary premium brand wireless.
 
Special Thanks to Guy Cochran at  DVinfo.net for special support on this review