Wireless Microphone System Buying Guide

Wireless Microphones: Handhelds, Lavaliers, Headsets, and Combination Systems

Wireless microphones let performers move freely onstage, unrestricted by cables. Musicians, teachers, corporate meeting spaces, and houses of worship can all benefit from the freedom of a wireless microphone system. If you're thinking about adding a wireless system to your school, theatre, or karaoke bar, this wireless microphone buying guide can help you find the system that's right for you.

The Basics -- Transmitters and Receivers: Every wireless mic system has two components: a transmitter, typically worn or held by the performer -- and a receiver, which collects the wireless signal from the transmitter, converts it to audio, and sends the audio through a cable to your mixer or power amp. Handheld wireless microphones integrate the transmitter into the microphone's handle or base. Lavalier/clip-on microphones typically have a bodypack transmitter that clips onto a belt or fits in a pocket. Headset microphones might use a bodypack, or integrate the transmitter into a neckband. We've organized this guide by type of transmitter: handheld, lavalier, or headset. "Combination" or "combo" wireless systems come with multiple types of transmitter in one system, so you can choose between a handheld or lav mic as needed -- but be aware that some combo systems have just one receiver channel, which means you can't run both transmitters simultaneously.

Running Multiple Simultaneous Wireless Mics: If you plan to use several wireless microphones at the same time, each microphone must operate on a different radio frequency, or channel, so their signals don't interfere. Look for frequency-agile systems, which allow you to choose from a range of frequencies to find an open channel. For two-mic setups, it's a good idea to choose a "Dual" system that's designed to run both microphones simultaneously.

Fixed-Frequency vs. Frequency-Agile: Fixed-frequency wireless systems are just that: they always run on one predetermined frequency band. Frequency-agile systems can hunt around for an open channel. If you're installing a wireless system in a venue, a fixed-frequency system may do the trick. But if you're planning on bringing your wireless system on the road to use in multiple venues, a frequency-agile system is far more likely to work in more places.

VHF vs. UHF Bands: The majority of wireless microphone systems operate in the UHF (Ultra High Frequency) band of 450-952 MHz. Some operate in the VHF (Very High Frequency) band of 49-216 MHz. While VHF systems are typically more affordable, they have fewer available channels, and must use very long antennas. UHF systems are the professional standard. Diversity receivers -- which use two independent antennas to improve reception -- are very effective in the UHF range, and UHF systems can use shorter antennas due to their shorter wavelengths. However, the UHF spectrum has potential for interference from TV stations, and since the FCC has reallocated the 600 MHz band (614-698 MHz) for wireless broadband use, those frequencies are no longer available to wireless microphones. Wireless microphone manufacturers do offer Frequency Finder tools to help you find clear frequencies in your local area -- take advantage of those tools before buying a UHF system to avoid UHF-TV interference.

2.4 GHz Band: Many entry-level and digital wireless microphone systems run on the 2.4 GHz ISM band (2.400-2.483 GHz), which offers worldwide license-free operation, and very short antennas. The 2.4 GHz band works best if you're running just 1 or 2 channels of wireless. However, don't expect to run more than 4 to 8 digital wireless channels simultaneously -- this part of the spectrum is crowded with Wi-Fi devices, and in many corporate settings and venues where Wi-Fi is the priority, you're better off sticking with the UHF band.

Analog vs. Digital Wireless Microphones: Digital wireless systems convert audio to a digital signal before sending it through the air. High-quality 24-bit digital wireless systems deliver extremely clear audio, with a wider dynamic range than traditional analog systems. However, since most entry-level digital systems run on the 2.4 GHz band, they offer potentially fewer simultaneous compatible channels. So if your channel count is in the double digits, analog UHF wireless systems are likely your most affordable choice. High-end digital wireless systems that run on the UHF band offer the best of both worlds -- superb audio quality, plus high channel counts -- and are very much worth their more expensive price tag. Sennheiser EW-D wireless systems are one example of digital wireless that runs on the UHF band.
Handheld Wireless Microphone Systems
Perfect for reinforcing singers, handheld wireless microphones look similar to wired microphones, but with a thicker handle to house the transmitter's antenna and battery. Most wireless handhelds have cardioid or hypercardioid pickup patterns that reject sound to the rear of the microphone, making them less susceptible to feedback on stage. If you need to mic up two singers at a time, choose a dual-channel system with two microphone transmitters, and one multiple-channel receiver.

Lavalier/Clip-on Wireless Microphone Systems
Wireless lavalier microphones are designed to be worn on your lapel, which makes them perfect for presenters who need their hands free. These tiny, inconspicuous clip-on microphones can even be hidden in a performer's costume or hair. Lav mics with an omnidirectional pickup pattern are very easy to place, since they pick up in all directions. Lavs with a cardioid pickup pattern offer higher gain before feedback, but for best results, they should be carefully aimed at the performer's mouth.

Due to their small size and delicate electronics, lavalier microphones require a separate transmitter. The transmitter is typically housed in a "bodypack" or "beltpack" about the size of a deck of cards, which is worn on the belt or tucked into a hidden pocket. The lavalier microphone plugs into the bodypack transmitter with a short, thin cable that can easily be hidden under clothing.

Headset Wireless Microphone Systems
Headset and "earset" microphones are worn over the ear or around the back of the head. They vary in size and appearance, but they can be very small and inconspicuous. Head-worn microphones are great for fitness instructors, or any presenter who can't hold a handheld microphone or clip on a lavalier mic. Since head-worn microphones can be placed so close to the sound source -- the performer's mouth -- they can deliver higher gain-before-feedback than a microphone clipped to the chest. Most headset microphones come with a bodypack transmitter, but some models incorporate the transmitter into the neckband.

Combination Wireless Microphone Systems
Can't decide between a handheld, lavalier, or headset? "Combination" wireless mic systems include at least two types of transmitters -- like a handheld/lavalier combo, or handheld/headset combo. And some combination systems have one wireless vocal microphone, plus one instrument wireless system: a bodypack transmitter with a 1/4" cable that can plug into a guitar or bass.

Single or Dual? Single-channel combination systems are perfect for venues that want to offer a performer the choice of a handheld or clip-on mic. Single-channel systems only let you run one microphone at a time, not both together. If you plan on using two or more wireless mics simultaneously, choose a "Dual" combination system with a dual-channel receiver.