Shure Axient Digital

by Vince Lepore
in Road Tests
Shure Axient Digital road test, FOH Nov 2017
Shure Axient Digital road test, FOH Nov 2017

Shure’s Axient Digital is the latest addition to the Axient line of high-end, robust wireless systems from the industry leader in wireless microphone and in-ear monitoring. Building on a tremendous wealth of experience with both analog and digital wireless, and coupled with an array of available microphone capsules and accessories, Shure is the most well-positioned company during a transitional time for the U.S. wireless spectrum.

Having recently lost a large portion of the 600Mhz band to the FCC incentive auction, Axient Digital is as timely as it is powerful. Digital wireless systems are spectrally efficient compared to their analog counterparts. In standard operating mode, Axient Digital can tune 17 channels in a 6Mhz TV band. In “high density” mode, it can tune a whopping 47 channels into 6Mhz, allowing RF technicians to manage even the most complex wireless demands.

Shure sent me a demo system that consisted of an AD4D dual channel receiver, along with an AD1 bodypack transmitter and an AD2 handheld transmitter with a KSM9 capsule. For such a high-end system, when I unboxed the components, I found that the packaging was rather bland. I know it is superficial to even consider, and maybe I’ll be the only Axient Digital user to ever think about this, but I felt that Shure could have spruced up the packaging a bit.

Setting the boring packaging aside, I was quickly singing a different tune when I held the AD2 handheld transmitter in my hand. It’s a beautiful transmitter from top to bottom. Fitted with a KSM9 capsule, it is a thing of beauty. The AD1 bodypack transmitter, while not as attractive as its handheld counterpart, feels top of the line in your hand. Finally, upon unboxing the AD4D receiver, I knew that Axient Digital was truly something special. The front panel controls ooze quality, from the recessed power switch to the tactile feedback of the buttons. Everything about this system felt like top of the line gear.

Image 1: Shure Axient Digital AD1 bodypack

‡‡         The AD1 and AD2 Transmitters

Both the AD1 bodypack and AD2 handheld transmitter are rugged, high quality transmitters packed with useful features. The AD1 bodypack receiver (See images 1, 2 and 3) is available with either TA4 or Lemo connectors.

Image 2: AD1 receiver with TA4 connector

My demo unit came with a TA4 connector and an accompanying TA4 to ¼-inch TS instrument cable for guitar. Looking over the bodypack, I noticed a few nice features before I even powered the unit on. First, the antenna is easily removable and replaceable, and the belt clip on the back is reversible, so the antenna can be oriented pointing up or down. Powering the AD1 can be achieved by either regular double AA batteries or a Shure rechargeable battery pack option. When using the rechargeable battery pack, the transmitter can be docked into one of Shure’s recharging stations, which is a nice convenience.

Image 3: AD1 receiver with Lemo connector

Aside from the typical features you would find on any wireless bodypack transmitter, the AD1 has a few unique and useful tools. First, there is a tone generator that can generate either 400Hz or 1kHz back to the receiver. This could be useful for walk-testing the transmitter’s range and looking for dropouts or problem areas without having someone talk into a mic continuously for minutes on end. The pack can also create markers in Wireless Workbench’s RF timeline, so dropout events can be marked and later examined in the software.

Image 4: The AD2 handheld transmitter is available with a black or nickel finish.

The AD2 handheld transmitter (Image 4, above) was the piece that I was really interested in. A wireless handheld, especially one that costs this much money, should feel just right in your hand. The AD2 was a pleasure to hold. It feels robust without feeling too heavy. My demo AD2 was fitted with a KSM9 capsule and came with a black finish, but it is also available in nickel as well if you are looking for something a bit more conspicuous. Like the AD1 bodypack, the AD2 handheld can be powered with regular AA’s or Shure rechargeable batteries, and it has many of the same features as the AD1, including the tone generator.

Image 5: The AD4D Dual Channel Receiver - front

Image 5: The AD4D Dual Channel Receiver - rear

In mid-2018, Shure will release the ADX transmitter series, the most advanced set of transmitters for Axient Digital. The ADX line will include the ADX1M micro-bodypack, the ADX1 standard sized bodypack, and two handheld transmitters, the ADX2 and the ADX2FD. The review obviously does not include a product that has not been released yet, but it is worth noting the main differences between the AD and ADX series. ADX adds ShowLink control and frequency diversity to Axient Digital. This enables the transmitters to be controlled remotely and to provide interference avoidance by switching frequencies automatically in case of interference. The ADX2FD even allows for a single handheld to transmit on two separate carriers simultaneously. If ADX lives up to the currently available information, it promises to be the most advanced set of transmitters on the market.

Image 6: The AD4D Dual Channel Receiver

Image 6: The AD4D Dual Channel Receiver, rear panel view

‡‡         The AD4D Dual Channel Receiver

The AD4D dual channel receiver (See Images 5 and 6, front and rear panel views, above) is a sight to behold. If you have used Shure wireless over the last decade, it will feel familiar, yet new, all at the same time. Once plugged in, the receiver powers up via a recessed power switch on the right side of the 1RU face panel. Moving to the left, there is a large knob that acts as both a scroll and push-to-click for the adjacent screen, where all the receiver’s menus reside. Continuing across the face of the unit, each channel of the dual channel receiver has their own dedicated RF and audio metering, as well as dedicated buttons labeled “1” and “2” that allow each channel to be selected and then controlled in the menu. Finally, a ¼-inch headphone jack and volume control sit next to the unit’s infrared blaster, which is of course used for syncing frequencies to the transmitters.

The back panel of the AD4D has many interesting features as well, as the unit boasts a veritable smorgasbord of audio, RF, control and power connectivity. For audio output, the receiver has just about everything you could ever ask for, including transformer-balanced analog outputs on XLR and TRS (each with mic/line and ground lift switches), an AES3 output on a single XLR, and Dante/AES67 outputs on a pair of RJ45s.

Image 7: Shure Wireless Workbench screenshot

I was a bit disappointed that the Dante connections were not Ethercon, but if you look at the four-channel version of the receiver (the AD4Q), there wouldn’t be enough room, so I’m guessing that Shure opted to keep everything consistent across the platform and use RJ45 for all network connectivity. Antennas are connected via BNC connectors, and there are also BNC cascade connections for looping RF through to multiple units. On the AD4Q, which is the four-channel version of the of two-channel AD4D, the antenna cascade ports can be configured as “Quadversity” ports, allowing four antennas to be connected for better RF reception and stability (more on this below). To remotely control the AD4D, there are two RJ45 ports that can be used for networking Shure’s Wireless Workbench or ShurePlus Channels iOS monitoring application [See Images 7 (above) and 8 (below)]. Should you need to clock the AD4D to an external word clock source, there is a pair of BNC connectors for Word Clock in and thru. Finally, to power the AD4D, there is a locking IEC input, as well as an IEC output for conveniently powering another receiver.

Image 8: The ShurePlus Channels iOS app

‡‡         Quadversity

With the Axient Digital line, Shure has introduced a new technology they are calling Quadversity. If you are familiar with diversity antennas on most current wireless systems, then the term Quadversity should be somewhat obvious to you. Yes, Quadversity allows four antennas to be connected to a single receiver. I was anxious to try Quadversity, but disappointed to find that it is only supported on the AD4Q four channel receiver. Nonetheless, Quadversity looks to be a compelling feature that could extend the usable range of an Axient system into another zone, such as backstage during a theater performance or to a B stage area that’s geographically separated from a main stage. Shure also notes that Quadversity can improve reception and coverage on a single stage where one would typically only use a pair of antennas.

Shure Wireless Workbench Inventory List screen shot

‡‡         Channel Quality Metering

New on the Axient Digital line is the helpful Channel Quality Meter. This meter measures the receiver’s signal-to-noise ratio and displays the quality of the channel’s RF on a 5-segment display. This is, in fact, different than the RF signal strength meter on most Shure (and other manufacturers) products. The Channel Quality Meter isn’t just measuring signal strength, but signal strength relative to the RF noise floor. For example, if there were an interference frequency (an intermodulation frequency or other source of interference) close to the frequency the receiver is tuned to, the Channel Quality Meter might display only two bars, indicating the potential for interference or dropouts. This really is a helpful tool when used in conjunction with the customary RF signal strength meter.

Shure Wireless Workbench Timeline screen shot

‡‡         Dante Features

Shure is no stranger to the Dante world, as the digital audio networking protocol is integrated into many Shure products. Axient Digital incorporates Dante features that you would expect from any high end digital wireless, but it also incorporates some unique Dante features as well. The first is called “Dante Cue.” The feature allows a technician to cue any Axient Digital channel on the Dante network to a single receiver’s headphone jack. Imagine sitting in front of a rack containing 16 channels of Axient Digital. If you want to cue and monitor these 16 channels into your headphones, you’d have to move your headphones from receiver to receiver. Dante Cue allows you to plug headphones into a single receiver, and cue any Axient Digital channel to that receiver over the network. That’s a very handy usability feature. The second Dante implementation is called “Dante Browse.” The feature allows an Axient Digital receiver to scan the entire Dante network and cue any Dante channel into that receiver’s headphone jack. It can even pull channel names from the Dante network and it is not limited to Shure hardware. While the feature is interesting, it could get cumbersome scrolling through long lists of devices and channels, even on a small Dante network.

‡‡         Controlling Axient Digital

Wireless systems can be cumbersome to program and monitor from the front panel. Axient Digital has a very nice faceplate, and the menus are bright, clear and easy to navigate. I performed a group scan to find clear frequencies, deploy frequencies to the receiver channels and sync the frequencies out to the transmitters in under a minute. Of course, I was working with a two-channel receiver. On a larger system, control and monitoring via a computer is essential. Shure leads the industry in this regard with Wireless Workbench.

In addition to frequency coordination, spectrum plotting and system monitoring in Wireless Workbench, I took this opportunity to try out ShurePlus Channels iOS application for the first time (See Images 7 and 8).

If you are not familiar with ShurePlus Channels, it is an iOS application for monitoring and control of networked receivers. Just the freedom of monitoring RF channels on my iPhone was a nice convenience, and the fact that the app allows you to change channel settings makes it even more powerful. The combination of Wireless Workbench, ShurePlus Channels and the AD4D receiver’s menu system makes configuring and monitoring Axient Digital a breeze.

‡‡         In Practice

I integrated Axient Digital into an existing wireless system consisting of 16 channels of mics and 4 channels of IEMs from another leading wireless manufacturer. This system is not comparable to Axient Digital in terms of price or quality, so I was bound to favor the Axient because it is so feature rich. I have however had the opportunity to design and use this same manufacturer’s top of the line digital wireless system, so I have something to compare Axient Digital to. Getting Axient integrated into my day-to-day wireless rig was rather easy. I performed a group scan on the AD4D receiver with all my other transmitters turned on and Axient identified plenty of clean frequencies. I live in Orlando, Florida so I’m hardly in a hostile RF environment. The frequencies were deployed to the two Axient channels in a matter of seconds, and the IR sync to the transmitters was lightning fast. On my existing system, I would describe the IR sync as a bit unreliable. Axient synced frequencies to the transmitters immediately with virtually no lag. The sound of the AD2/KSM9 handheld transmitter was a stunning improvement over my existing wireless handhelds. On other digital wireless systems, I’ve experienced some weird artifacts when the transmitter was near clipping. Axient Digital was transparent and smooth at low and extremely high levels. After our worship service that Sunday morning, I overhead the vocalist commenting to one of our audio engineers how much he liked the sound of the “new handheld.” I didn’t have the heart to break the news that it was only a demo system. Although my AD1 bodypack transmitter came with a ¼” cable for guitar, I ended up testing it with a headset mic instead. This gave me a more direct, one for one comparison with what I use every day. While the difference was subtler with the AD1, the Axient was still a notable improvement in sound quality over my existing system.

Overall, I found Axient Digital to be among the best wireless I have ever used. The sound of the product is truly second to none, and it is likely the best sounding wireless that Shure has ever produced.

At a Glance

Very Impressive So Far, with More To Come

Having used high end analog and digital wireless from multiple manufacturers, I feel that Axient Digital competes with the highest end digital wireless on the market.

As an ecosystem, Shure has a comprehensive line of transmitters, receivers, access points, capsules, headsets, lavs, control software and educational resources to support the Axient line.

With the ADX line of transmitters hitting the market in 2018, and the ability of Axient Digital to optimize and take full advantage of the shrinking RF spectrum, Axient Digital is bound to be a staple wireless product in the live production industry for years to come.

Shure Axient Digital

  • PROS: Superb sound quality, comprehensive control and monitoring, complete audio connectivity (Analog, AES3, Dante, AES67).
  • CONS: Pricey — definitely beyond the reach of the casual user. No Ethercon connectors for Dante. ADX transmitters not available until mid-2018.

MSRP:

  • Axient Digital AD4D Two-Channel Receiver: $2,300
  • AD1 Bodypack: $799
  • KSM9 Capsule: $699
  • AD2/KSM9 Combo: $1,649
  • WA302 Guitar System Cable: $18

Manufacturer: Shure

More Info: www.shure.com