If you’re an enthusiastic still photographer who’s started to dabble with video a bit, you’ve likely run into issues with fine visual footage, but substandard audio. Crappy audio can ruin the viewer’s experience every bit as quick as lousy visuals. It soon becomes apparent that your camera’s built-in microphone records not just your subject, but also the camera’s noises (focus motors, VR, heavy-breathing operator) as well as the nearby highway, airport, dragstrip, playground or pig farm. The first step taken usually involves buying a hot shoe-mounted directional mike, AKA shotgun mike. This is great for emphasizing the sound coming from the direction the camera is pointed, but it gets not just the subject speaking or softly purring, but also the jackhammers in the construction site across the street behind your subject. It is a poor choice if you want to record dialogue. For recording talking subjects, the next step is to add a lavalier microphone system. A lavalier microphone, AKA lav, AKA lapel mic, is a tiny microphone that clips to the user’s lapel, collar, or ZZ Top beard. It is very sensitive to sound coming from very close to the microphone and not to sounds further away. Therefore it is ideal for recording the wearer’s words without too much interference from background noise.
The Polsen ULW-16 is a wireless lav system that comes with the tiny lav mic, one transmitter and one receiver, a storage case and all the various cords you need to connect it to your DSLR, camcorder or other audio recorder. This is a simple system to use if you’re familiar with audio recording.
Lav systems with one microphone/transmitter and one receiver can run you anywhere from just over a hundred bucks all the way to 1500 clams for the sort of rig network weathermen use when giving you blow-by-blow from inside the tornado’s funnel. At $229, the Polsen system tested is one of the more affordable options and not designed for hurricane conditions. Cheaper systems usually only have two channels, thus have trouble avoiding interference. More expensive lav systems have more rugged construction, weathersealing, longer working distances, more channels, and features like auto-scanning for open frequencies, etc.
1) Sound Quality
We gave this system to working pro Dawn Kish to test out and give us her feedback, which I’ve summarized here. This test/review is aimed at how well the ULW-16 works when shooting with a DSLR.
Under favorable conditions, the Polsen ULW-16 system produces good quality sound with little or no hissing or popping. As with any microphone, direct wind wreaks havoc. The lav mic itself needs to be carefully attached to the subject to avoid bad noise from rubbing on the subject’s clothing or beard. The omnidirectional mic allows the speaker to turn his/her head and keep the sound coming in evenly (you can see this in the test video when I turn to shoot and keep talking).
Using the headphones in the receiver gave an airy hiss, but reception was clearer when the headphones were plugged into the camera. Our reviewer was happy when the recorded sound came out much clearer than it sounded during monitoring.
When we tested range from well over 200 feet away, the sound came out loud and clear. There was a noisy lawnmower working just 100 feet from the camera recording the action and you don’t hear it at all.
3) Test Video
A few notes before playing the video. For your convenience, the editor put the bloopers at the front of the video so you wouldn’t have to fast forward to get to them. Also, wind is the enemy of any microphone used outdoors – give the video 90 seconds and you’ll hear the difference between the three systems.
As you can see and hear from the video, you’re better off just using subtitles when the wind kicks in. Nevertheless, there is a dramatic improvement going from the in-camera mic to the shotgun mic, then an even more dramatic improvement when we recorded on the lav system.
4) Other Notes
There are dials to adjust the signal level going from the transmitter to the receiver and from the receiver to the recording device (in this review, sound was recorded on the DSLR used, not a separate recorder).
With 16 channels to choose from, it’s easy to find one with minimum or no interference. To change channels you press the up/down buttons on the front of the unit – these don’t lock so it’s easy to accidentally bump the button and lose the signal.
The transmitter and receiver each run on 2 AA batteries that are easily accessed from the front of the unit.
The belt clip is quite stiff so a bit hard to attach to a belt or pocket. However as these aren’t ruggedly built, you’ll appreciate the belt clip’s aggressive grip so you don’t drop the transmitter.
Construction-wise, you get what you pay for here. It’s nearly all plastic. The parts seem well fitted together, however the antennae feel delicate. I wouldn’t want to sit on these or drop them, but they come with a foam-lined hard plastic storage case. To bring a lav system with these features to the market at this price, Polsen had to make some compromises. Fortunately they decided to go with good performing electronics in a cheap box, not the other way around.
The Polsen ULW-16 is a good entry-level lav system for the money, but not professional grade. It’s easy to use and delivers good sound, but you need to treat them delicately as they are somewhat fragile.
Here are the main pros and cons:
- Good sound quality
- Easy to use
- 16 channels to find one without interference
- Good distance performance
- Plosives well-controlled
- Line level output
- Easy to accidently change channel
- Not weatherproof
- Not durable – cheap plastic construction – flimsy antennae
6) Where to Buy
You can purchase the Polsen ULW-16 Wireless Microphone System from our partner B&H Photo Video for $229.95 (as of 05/08/2015).
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