Shure debuts game-changing Axient wireless solution

At the recent NAMM Show, Shure introduced Axient, a coordinated suite of wireless products that goes far beyond the usual series of transmitters, receivers and networking devices. So specialized that it required a separate demo booth, Axient addresses the issues of frequency crowding through an all-new, dual-frequency transmission scheme to detect and avoid interference and dropouts in real time. In addition, Axient offers full backchannel communication between transmitter and receiver that enables the operator to change settings, even during performance. The system also features significantly upgraded Wireless Workbench software and offers a road-ready wireless Ethernet switch. Transmitters use custom Li-Ion batteries that outperform alkaline.

This new approach to wireless is so radically different from anything else on the market that it’s difficult to know where to begin. I sat down with Shure’s Christopher Lyons for a briefing during the show. Lyons describes the system in terms of total control and user confidence, with every major wireless worry, including spectrum management and control, addressed in a robust combination of software, hardware and insightful design. Axient is made to excel at live events, where failure is not an option — specifically, live broadcast.

In short, Axient is a significant upgrade to Shure’s premium UHF-R system, already a standard at high-profile live events including the Super Bowl, Grammy Awards, etc.

The core system is based around the familiar architecture of a dual-channel, rack-mount receiver and accompanying handheld and body-pack microphones. The audio signal path is pure analog, while the associated monitoring and control functionalities are all driven by a combination of new DSP and RF technologies networked into a cohesive, intelligent system.

The Axient receiver, the AXT400, is a dual-channel unit with a tuning range across the entire UHF broadcast band (470-698MHz), while the transmitters use Shure’s familiar 60MHz bandwidth. Similarly, Axient transmitters sport a familiar look that belies some groundbreaking technology inside them.

The most groundbreaking single feature of the Axient system is the idea of frequency diversity. Going far beyond standard diversity, which switches between the receiver’s two antennas, Axient transmitters actually broadcast on two separate frequencies, ready to switch, either manually or automatically, whenever interference or dropouts are detected. Frequency diversity addresses both multipath (dropouts) and RF integrity, with the potential to basically eliminate the problem of audible artifacts in the output.

Axient packs more usable channels into the available spectrum, both because of its advanced RF filtering and through its AXT600 Spectrum Manager, a 1RU box that continuously scans the global UHF spectrum and assigns the best frequencies. The AXT600 accommodates non-Shure products like IFB/intercom systems, can be programmed to include/exclude whatever frequency ranges are required (e.g., local TV channels), and features an adjustable threshold to exclude frequencies above a given noise floor. Operators will also appreciate the front-panel spectrum plot with cursor and zoom, along with the listen feature, which demodulates FM signals for headphone monitoring.

What’s impressive about this is that the AXT600 is not just doing intermodulation calculations, but continuously evaluating each channel, maintaining a ranked list of available frequencies, detecting signal degradation and interference, and then alerting the user of both the problem and solution. When a live frequency degrades, Axient is always ready to seamlessly deploy another.

The key to this type of dynamic control is the ability to address the transmitters remotely, which Axient does via a fully addressable back channel called ShowLink. Operating in the 2.4GHz range and using communications protocols licensed through ZigBee, the ShowLink remote control provides the operator with both monitoring and adjustment of all transmitter settings, including frequency, RF power output, gain, RF mute, etc.

Connectivity for even the most complex systems is eased by the introduction of the AXT620, a road-ready, rack-mount Ethernet switch with nine ports (one front and eight rear). The AXT620 includes a DHCP server that automatically configures IP addresses for all network devices and includes four PoE ports for ShowLink access points.

Unifying the system is Shure’s Wireless Workbench software, now updated to Version 6 (WWB6). Completely rewritten for Axient implementation, WWB6 allows management of every aspect of the system, using scan data, TV channel database and advanced compatibility algorithms to create and assign a list of clean frequencies for any number of channels, plus backup frequency management. Similarly, all transmitter functions can be addressed directly from the computer interface.

Another integral aspect is power management.

“High-end users have always had a love-hate relationship with rechargeable batteries,” Lyons said. “They love the economic efficiency, but they’re scared to death of reduced performance and reliability. Axient addresses those issues.”

Shure has designed a rechargeable Li-Ion smart battery system that out-performs conventional alkaline in terms of stability and battery life, providing up to 10 hours of run time with zero memory effect. With a form factor that is integral to the transmitters they power, the battery packs contain a chip that monitors the battery’s status and communicates it to the receiver and computer network.

“Instead of a bar graph, the battery tells you how many minutes it has left,” Lyons said. “Our panel of advisors and beta testers really love that.”

Operating temperature, percentage of original capacity and number of charge cycles are also accessible. Batteries lock into their charging station, allowing them to be transported in place and ready to charge at the next venue. While charging, the operator can see all status parameters on the rack-mount charging station’s front panel. Both an eight-position rack-mount charger and two-position portable chargers (handheld and body-pack versions) are available.

Looking at the entire Axient package, we see a comprehensive approach that addresses every major issue involved in staging a major event. Shure used key personnel from many major wireless providers across the broadcast and live event industries when designing the system, assuring that the solutions provided would be relevant to the problems these high-risk operations face daily. And the results, as demonstrated at NAMM, speak for themselves.

High-density RF environments, like studio complexes in Hollywood, the New York theater district, Las Vegas entertainment centers and major live broadcasts, can look forward to a significantly brighter future of more trouble-free channels, flawless RF performance and, most importantly, exactly the audio they intend.

The final piece of the puzzle, of course, is sound quality. The Axient system shares its audio platform with the current UHF-R system, but it has been refined and improved through a lower noise floor and better transient response. Similarly, the transmission scheme has been improved for more linear output, while the receiver has a more selective tuning window, allowing frequencies to be packed closer together.

With a likely ship date of mid-2011, pricing has not been established.

“We wanted to show Axient here at NAMM so our customers could see what we have and start planning accordingly,” Lyons said. “Unlike our other systems, Axient will likely be sold on more of a component basis, so we can give each customer exactly what they need. It will obviously cost more than the UHF-R, but by no means obsoletes it. The UHF-R system is more than enough wireless for most customers, and we plan to keep it in our line for the foreseeable future. But for the power wireless user, the future is Axient.”