Gear Review of Shure Axient Digital

by Vince Lepore

Shure’s Axient Digital is the latest addition to the Axient line of high-end, robust wireless systems. Building on a wealth of experience with both analog and digital wireless, and coupled with an array of available microphones and accessories, Shure is well-positioned 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’s 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. 

The AD1 and AD2 Transmitters
Both the AD1 bodypack and AD2 handheld transmitter are rugged and packed with useful features. 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 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. Aside from the typical features you would find on any wireless bodypack transmitter, the AD1 has a few unique and useful tools. There’s 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. The pack can also create markers in Shure’s Wireless Workbench’s RF timeline, so dropout events can be marked and later examined.

In mid-2018, Shure will release the ADX transmitter series. The ADX line will include the ADX1M micro-bodypack, the ADX1 standard-sized bodypack, and two handheld transmitters, the ADX2 and the ADX2FD. This review obviously does not include products that haven’t been released, but it’s worth noting the main differences. 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. 

The AD4D Dual Channel Receiver
If you’ve used Shure wireless over the last decade the AD4D dual channel receiver 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’s 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. A ¼” headphone jack and volume control sit next to the unit’s infrared blaster, which is used for syncing frequencies to the transmitters as well as to update firmware. 

The back panel of the AD4D 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. There’re four network ports—two for control and two for Dante/AES67.

I was disappointed that the Dante connections were not etherCON, but if you look at the AD4Q four-channel version of the receiver, there wouldn’t be enough room, so I’m guessing that Shure opted to keep everything consistent and use RJ45 for all network connectivity. Antennas are connected via BNC connectors, and there’re also BNC cascade connections for looping RF through. On the AD4Q 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’re two RJ45 ports that can be used for networking Shure’s Wireless Workbench or ShurePlus Channels iOS monitoring application. Should you need to clock the AD4D to an external world clock source, there’s a pair of BNC connectors for World Clock in and thru. Finally, for power, there’s a locking IEC input, as well as an IEC output for conveniently powering another receiver.

Quadversity
With the Axient Digital line, Shure has introduced a new technology they’re 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’s 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. Shure also notes that Quadversity can improve reception and coverage on a single stage where one would typically only use a pair of antennas. 

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. 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.

Dante Features
Shure is no stranger to the Dante world and 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 “Dante Cue”, which 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”, which 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’s 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. [Shure recently released an update that allows users to filter between Shure and “All” devices making this process more convenient.]

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. 

Overall, I found Axient Digital to be among the best wireless I’ve ever used. The sound of the product is truly second to none, and it’s likely the best sounding wireless that Shure has ever produced. The ability of Axient Digital to optimize and take full advantage of the shrinking RF spectrum, Axient Digital is bound to become a staple wireless product in live production. 

Specs and further info: http://www.shure.com/americas/products/wireless-systems/axient-digital