Wireless Bodypacks: As Small as They Can Go — for Now

Wireless microphone bodypacks are reaching their size limits, which are now constrained mainly by the size of the alkaline and lithium batteries that most use. The reliability and availability of these standard types of batteries makes broadcasters reluctant to move to the non-standard and rechargeable battery types that many videocam operators now take for granted.

Lectrosonics has informally polled the market, including sports broadcasters, says Director of Business Development Karl Winkler, and has detected resistance to the idea – for now, at least.

“It’s really a battery-management issue for them,” he says. “In a pinch, you can run to a convenience store and pick up a pack of double-A batteries almost anywhere, whereas, with rechargeables, you have to really have your battery management in place, and that can be a killer for live work. That’s what we’ve been told.”

However, Winkler expects that the industry will eventually move to alternative battery types in the future, as demand for ever-smaller transmitters continues in sports and as alternative battery types become more reliable (able to hold a charge longer) and available.

The same goes for the transition of bodypacks to all-digital operation, he believes. Analog systems and digital hybrids, which use analog technology to manage transmissions and digital to handle audio, continue to be the primary choices, mainly because of analog’s better ability to handle the available spectrum, Winkler says.

“The all-digital products we see now sound great and can be encrypted but aren’t as spectrally efficient as analog is,” he says. “But it’s a matter of time until the innovations that will make digital more spectrum-friendly.”

Back to School
Collegiate and high school sports continue to emulate what they see on the big networks every weekend, and more manufacturers are trying to leverage those aspirations. Demand for wireless on officials and players, in the form of affordable bodypack systems, has increased as the trend migrated from college to the high school level, says Steve Sevanyu, director of educational services for Audio-Technica U.S. But, he adds, demand is also developing from within the venues.

“The secondary benefit and what’s also starting to drive it is the fact that these wireless systems are also being inputted into the stadium PA systems,” he says. “That’s really getting good reviews from the fans there, because most people simply don’t know what the referees’ hand signals mean. The stadium announcers can interpret basic calls like holding, but, when the ref needs to call a more complex call and penalty, they can get it across directly to the fans in the stands.”

High school referees, who Sevanyu says were initially cool to the idea of being saddled with wireless audio, are actually going out and buying their own wireless bodypacks and microphones, along with the large-format remote switches that are reliable and simple to use on the field, even with gloves on. The trend is also extending itself to the use of affordable shotgun microphones used on boom poles carried by bodypack-wearing A2s, giving more local broadcasts enhanced access to field sound effects. (One might also think that that being the first in their area to add wireless to their teams would be worth touting to alumni come fundraising season.)

Form vs. Function
Form factor is becoming more important in wireless bodypacks, not least of all in helping persuade reluctant players and league officials to approve their use more often during play. But, says Eric Vaveris, category director for wireless at Shure, when form meets function, function should win every time.

“Spectrum issues are more challenging than ever,” he says. “Bodypacks are subject to the same issues that all wireless systems have to deal with, including how they use the spectrum.”

Vaveris says much of the evolution of the bodypack will come as a result of small, incremental but very useful changes. He cites the recent modification of the battery door on Shure’s URM1 wireless bodypack that makes battery changing quicker and easier.

And while it’s hard to bring prices down on the very smallest of bodypack systems, he notes that systems in Shure’s high-end UHF-R series are able to let multiple units cascade using a single pair of antennas and no distribution amp, thus lowering the overall cost of multi-unit systems. “It’s challenging getting everything — performance, durability, form factor — into one small wireless package and getting it right.”