Tech Focus: Bodypacks, Part 1 — Wireless Transmitters Grow in Importance With Rising Demand for On-Field Audio
Additional functionality marks products in a small but crowded market
Bodypack transmitters have undergone massive change over the past decade: adapting to two rounds of critical spectrum reductions and a shift from largely analog to increasingly digital formats, driven in part by those reductions and by televised sports’ demand for enhanced encryption capability. At the same time, brands looked for ways to differentiate products in a niche but crowded market, adding such functions as audio recording, remote control, and battery-status monitoring. The only other product that has met so many demands and can still fit in the palm of your hand might be an iPhone.
“The bodypack transmitter has had to become all things to all people — and continuously get smaller and lighter doing it,” says Karl Winkler, EVP, product design and distribution, Lectrosonics.
He cites functionality increases such as encryption — now mandated by the NFL on game days — and multiple I/O configurations to enable them to serve as sideline microphone devices one day and camera-mic interfaces the next. Plus, there are the ongoing requirements for smaller and lighter form factors required to avoid injury to wearers.
“There’s increased emphasis on smaller and tougher units,” he says, “as well as features like variable power settings and a wide tuning range.”
The proliferation of sideline-type audio collection, by technicians and reporters, has stimulated demand for smaller, lighter “bag systems,” products that enhance the mobility of live sound gathering during games. Winkler says the electronics-laden totes that A2s have to lug around the playing fields can reach 10-20 lb. — significant heft over the course of hours of a game or match.
“Now we can get that bag down to 3 or 4 lb. and still get eight channels in there,” he says. “The wireless bodypack receiver has come a long way, but there are still things about them that are getting better.”
IFB Is a Use Case
Defeating eavesdropping on inter-team communications has taken on new emphasis as the amount of close-up audio in sports has increased in recent years. The matter poked through the backstage curtain in 2015 when the radio broadcast signal from the New England Patriots’ official radio station, The Sports Hub on 98.5 MHz, was reportedly heard in the headsets of the Pittsburgh Steelers during the Pats’ home opener. Subsequent investigation concluded that the signal got into the stream prior to either the radio-modulation stage or the encryption stage (at least one less bit of monkey business that could be attributed to the Pats). But it did underscore the need for encryption at all levels of inter-team comms.
(The interference was ultimately attributed to “a stadium-power-infrastructure issue, which was exacerbated by the inclement weather,” the NFL said in a statement.)
That’s the reasoning behind the latest wireless product from Zaxcom, supplier of the wireless systems the league deploys for the audio feed at the line of scrimmage, according to Zaxcom President Glenn Sanders: the VRX-1 can manage IFB encryption for both analog and digital wireless systems. One of the unit’s key features, he notes, is its range, bolstered by use of the 215 MHz frequency band, well away from the 470-900 MHz range that coach and player intercoms generally use.
“Eavesdropping on intercoms can be a problem for sports,” he says. “That has made encryption of those communications much more important.”
In recent years, major leagues themselves have become larger consumers of wireless audio, using it to beef up social-media content, as broadcasters continue to seek more on-field and on-player audio, such as the live, in-game conversations between outfielders and on-air announcers in Major League Baseball. That trend has driven a steady expansion of the product lines at Q5X, the Canadian supplier of wireless bodypack transmitters that are designed to absorb the shocks of high-impact sports — the NBA and NHL players and officials are large users of its PlayerMics and RefMics — and use flexible and impact-absorptive form factors and materials to prevent injury to wearers.
“The increased interest in having more on-field and on-player audio continues and has been extending more to officials and coaches,” says Paul Johnson, CEO, Q5X, whose PlayerMics and RefMics have been doing much of that capture. He notes an inflection in the process, from simply eavesdropping on on-field interactions to active two-way conversations.
“The technology of the wireless bodypack transmitter,” he notes, “has reached a high degree of development, in terms of functionality and the ability to navigate a new spectrum landscape. What’s changing in the sector is the expansion of its use. There are more microphones than ever, on athletes and referees, and it’s spreading from the major leagues to newer sports, like the XFL and USFL.”
Johnson adds that, starting next season, in addition to the PlayerMic transmitter on selected ballplayers, the MLB will also use the Wavenet NESO 2.4 wireless IFB device, of which Q5X is now the North American distributor, as the receiver on players. “As a result,” he says, “there’ll be broadcast-quality audio in both directions next season.”
Mic deployments on pro-football players, coaches, and officials have increased almost exponentially: from usually one player per side to, in the case of the USFL, every player on every team — 32 player microphones per game, 16 per team — as well as on coaches and officials. League all-star games are also putting more microphones on more participants.
“It’s being driven by fans who want to get closer to the action and the athletes,” says Johnson, “and by the broadcasters who want to give that to them and increasingly deliver that audio live during the game. [Wireless transmitters] are still a very niche segment of the broadcast-audio market, but it’s an exploding one.”
Like other maturing tech-market sectors, wireless transmitters have experienced recent changes at the business level. In 2021, for instance, Shure and Q5X announced collaboration around new wireless transmitters combining Q5X’s hyper-compact form factors and safety-conscious industrial design with Shure’s widely used Axient Digital RF technology. Axient’s digital operation allows versions of Q5X’s primary models — CoachMic, PlayerMic, AquaMic — to function as digital devices, adding key features of signal encryption and improved spectral efficiency to Q5X’s diminutive form factors. The new product, named the Q5X QT-AD10 Axient Digital wireless transmitter, is sold through each company’s own distribution channels.
Bodypacks also felt the sting of COVID, mainly in the form of FPGA chip shortages, a problem throughout the pro-audio sector for the past two years. Remarkably, however, transmitter prices haven’t risen substantially, driven more by inflation than by component costs.
“If you calculate for inflation, prices aren’t much higher than they were several years ago,” notes Lectrosonics’ Winkler. “But the software is letting [users] do a lot more. So, in a way, they’re even more cost-effective.”
Not many products, in any category — including iPhones — can make that claim.
Click here for Tech Focus: Bodypacks, Part 2 — A Look at Leaders in Wireless Transmitters.