I was never a fan of analog wireless, because it sometimes had the potential to turn from “wireless” into “w1reL3 ss,” if you catch my drift. I also didn’t like the companding that was usually employed to overcome the inherently questionable signal-to-noise ratio.
My initial experience with digital wireless was Line 6’s XD-V70 wireless mic, and it made me a believer. First, of course, was sound quality—no companding, just PCM linear digital audio. Second was what happened when you got out of range: It just stopped. There was no noise, chattering, weird fades, or artifacts; either the receiver picked up the audio, or it didn’t. Chalk up another area where digital has bested the analog world, although in the case of wireless, the tradeoff can be a higher price point.
Now Sony has entered the affordable digital wireless arena with their DWZ line. We’ll look at the DWZ-B30GB for guitar/bass first, and then proceed to the DWZ-M50 handheld wireless mic for vocals.
This is a license-free 2.4GHz system that includes a bodypack transmitter, receiver, belt clip, guitar-to-bodypack cable, printed manual, and CD-ROM with manuals in English, French, Spanish, German, and Italian (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1: The package contents. Clockwise from top: AC adapter, receiver, cable, bodypack transmitter, belt/strap clip, CD-ROM with the manual in five languages, and printed manual in English.
The digital audio format is 24-bit linear PCM, with no compression or other processing, so the sound quality blows away the average analog wireless system.
The body pack is about 2.5" x 3.75" x 0.75", with a stubby antenna protruding about 7/8" from the body. It has two switches, for mic/instrument level and attenuation (0, -10, and -20dB). The instrument jack is an 1/8" type, which mates with the included 1/4" to 1/8" cable (it’s about 32"). The only other controls are switches for lock/unlock to prevent accidental changes of channel or power/muting, and channel select (complemented by a seven-segment LED readout to show the channel). Power comes from two AA cells; an LED indicator shows battery strength (but only two states—“good” and “almost dead”), while another LED shows the audio state—signal present, excessive level, weak, or mute enabled. In other words, it’s pretty easy to deal with.
The receiver is light and compact—about 5-1/8" x 2-7/8" x 1-5/8". There’s an XLR balanced out (Fig. 2), additional 1/4" main out jack (both can be used simultaneously), and 1/4" tuner out jack.
Fig. 2: You can send audio to the front of house mixer from the XLR, while driving a guitar amp from the 1/4" output and feeding a tuner with the second 1/4" jack.
A very nice touch is that muting audio at the bodypack doesn’t mute the tuner output, so you can still tune no matter what. A switch chooses between narrow and wide RF modes (more on this later), with one six-position rotary switch for Channel, and an eight-position rotary switch for Cable Tone. The latter lets you match the wired and wireless sounds as closely as possible by using high-cut filtering to emulate the loading effect of different length cables on your pickups; the switch is calibrated in meter lengths, from 1 to 25 (but really, any guitarist who uses a 25m cable is certainly the target market for a wireless system!). There are also several indicator/status LEDs.
Power comes from either the included 12V adapter, a 9V negative tip input (e.g., from a pedalboard power source), or 9V transistor radio type battery. The pedalboard power feature is great when you have a wired connection from the pedalboard back to your amp, but want to be liberated from patching into your pedalboard.
With alkaline batteries, Sony estimates about 10 hours’ battery life for the belt pack, and 3.5 hours for the receiver. Note that both units also have mystery USB micro-B connectors; these aren’t referenced in the documentation, but Sony confirmed they’re included for potential software updates.
It’s very easy to get the system going. There are two RF modes: Wide Band (optimized to reduce interference to other wireless equipment) and Narrow Band (optimized for avoiding interference from other wireless equipment). You do need to stick with one mode or the other when using multiple units on different channels.
For the bodypack, you choose one mode or the other on power up—hold the channel select button down while turning on power, choose the mode, then do a long press to confirm the mode and set the channel. If you want to change the channel, another long press lets you do so, and short presses cycle through the channels. Normally I wouldn’t go into this level of detail in a review—this is more the province of manuals, right?—but I wanted to get across what’s involved in doing setup, as it’s pretty painless. At the receiver end, just switch-select the mode, then spin the channel dial until it matches what you set on the bodypack.
There are six channels total, and as long as the transmitter and receiver are set to the same mode and channel, there’s not much that can go wrong other than a dead battery or going out of range.
As to the Cable Tone function, it’s both weird and brilliant—weird because I’m always trying not to load down my guitar, but brilliant because cords do load down guitars with passive pickups, and that has become part of some musicians’ sound. Now they can dial in the desired amount of degradation.
The DWZ-M50 is somewhat more ambitious and expensive than the DWZ-B30GB, but is equally easy to use and also works in the 2.4GHz band with 24-bit PCM audio. Here’s what’s included (Fig. 3).
Fig. 3: The package contents. Clockwise from top: AC adapter, receiver, CD-ROM with the manual in five languages and printed manual in English cable, handheld microphone, and the two antennae. The mic stand clip is in the center.
Let’s start with the cardioid, unidirectional dynamic mic. Even with batteries it feels a little lighter than an SM58, despite an overall slightly larger diameter and a body that extends about 3.25" beyond that of an SM58. However, when you consider that the SM58 is invariably wedded to an XLR connector at the end, and of course the Sony isn’t (hey, it’s wireless!), then practically speaking Sony is only about 1.25" longer due to its protruding, stubby antenna. I’m not sure what mic capsule Sony is using, but it’s in the same sonic league as popular stage-oriented dynamic mics. I did find it necessary to use a wind screen (as I do with all mics), and being a dynamic, I appreciated the 5-band EQ included the receiver so I could boost the highs just a bit.
The mic has a removable/interchangeable wind screen, and removable/interchangeable capsule (specified as needing a 31.3mm diameter and pitch of 1.0mm pitch; Sony says the mic is compatible with their CU-C31, CU-F31, and CU-F32 mic capsules). Unscrewing the element lets you access an attenuator with settings of 0, -6, and -12dB. Furthermore, you can unscrew the mic grip to reveal the lock/unlock slide switch, channel display, channel selector button, and (like the guitar system) a USB micro-B connector. The power/muting button is always accessible, and the battery/muting indicator is always visible; like the DWZ-B30GB, the battery indicator displays one of two states: good, or “you-better-put-in-new-batteries-soon.”
The receiver is larger than the one for the DWZ-B30GB, although it has the same complement of output jacks (including—yes—a USB micro-B connector); one difference is that the XLR is switchable between mic and line levels (Fig. 4). There are also connectors for the two antennae. The receiver can’t be battery-powered, but uses the included 12V (positive tip) adapter.
Fig. 4: The receiver’s rear panel has balanced and 1/4" jacks, as well as all other connectors.
The front panel is dominated by a large and extremely readable color LCD, and all adjustments are menu-driven from a variety of menus (Fig. 5). Again, you can choose between wide and narrow band operation, but channel setup works somewhat differently than you might expect; instead of choosing a channel on the mic and having the receiver hone in on it, you instead can have the receiver scan for the optimum channel, or scan for clear channels and display which ones have low, moderate, or high interference. In either case, you then set the mic channel to match. You can also select channels manually, but I don’t see any reason not to the let the receiver do the work for you unless you’re using multiple units.
Fig. 5: The display prior to turning on the mic.
Goodies in addition to the graphic EQ include the option to set whether the aux/tuner out jack passes or blocks signal when the mic is muted, and the ability to optimize the remaining transmitter battery time display for alkaline, Ni-MH, or lithium batteries. In use, the display shows the selected channel, signal strength for each antenna, audio levels, estimated remaining battery time for the transmitter, and whether the equalizer is on or off (Fig. 6).
Fig. 6: The display indicates signal strength, audio levels, and other parameters.
I tested both systems for range. It’s important to find a location that’s not next to a major interference source; out of curiosity, I set the receiver up within a few inches of a wireless modem, and not surprisingly the receiver couldn’t find a clear channel. Moving it just a few feet gave a couple clear channels, and a little further away, all the channels were available with minimal interference. Under real-world conditions, when using both the guitar and mic transmitters indoors with various objects in between them and the receivers (as well as some random RF interference), I was able to get a 100\% reliable connection at 70 feet away. I ran out of open space at that point, but Sony says the maximum line-of-sight range can be up to 200 feet for the DWZ-B30GB and 300 feet for the DWZ-M50.
When I put three walls between the transmitter and receiver at 70 feet, the connection was no longer reliable, which based on prior experience, was expected. The squelching when going from signal to no signal wasn’t as elegant as some more expensive systems, but thanks to digital technology, as long as I was in range the sound quality didn’t change within that range—no cut-outs or pops. You probably can sing from the balcony seats if you’re line-of-sight and there’s not a lot of interference; for typical distances—i.e., anywhere on a big stage—you’re good to go.
It’s clear Sony’s intention was to combine performance with cost-effectiveness. Of course, being digital the DWZ systems start off with an inherent advantage; but the implementation is also noteworthy. The guitar/bass version is simpler, less expensive, and slightly easier to set up but also includes clever options, like the cable emulator and the ability to run the receiver from a pedalboard’s power supply in case you want to go wireless to your pedalboard rather than your amp (or if you just don’t want to carry around one more AC adapter).
The mic is equally adept at performing its duties, but with a somewhat heftier feel (and price). Again, there are extras—like the graphic EQ, excellent display, ability to use other capsules, as well as somewhat greater range. It also helps that the mic “feels” right, with sound quality comparable to “industry standard” mics; the battery life is excellent, too.
This is Sony’s first foray into affordable digital wireless for musicians, but they got it right from a technical standpoint, as well as in terms of the user interface. The bottom line is as long as the power sources are doing their thing, you’re not in a super-dirty RF environment, and the transmitter and receiver are set to the same channel, you really can’t go wrong.
Craig Anderton is Editor in Chief of Harmony Central and Executive Editor of Electronic Musician magazine. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.