Review: Sennheiser ew D1

When a new Sennheiser product carries the Evolution label it has “a lot to live up to”, our reviewer Alistair McGhee says. So is the new D1 system worthy of the title?

It was only after unpacking the new Sennheiser Evolution Wireless D1 digital radio mics that I realised how much Sennheiser radio kit I had. Two VHF diversity kits with mains powered receivers, three VHF location kits, an Evolution G2 personal system and ew 500 plug-on, oh and a 300 IEM transmitter. I guess all that is testimony to the success (and longevity) of Sennheiser’s radio product. 

So a new departure from Sennheiser in the world of wireless is always going to raise a lot of interest. And when that product carries the Evolution label it has a lot to live up to. There have always been cheaper alternatives to Evolution kit but I’ve never found any that were compelling purchases. Of course if you have more money, Sennheiser has more expensive options. However, today we’re concerned with the Evolution D1 radio mics operating license-free in the 2.4GHz band.

Out of the box the finish is very good and all the gear (I had a handheld and a beltpack system) felt good in the hand. The mains powered receivers are not housed in quite the bulletproof sleeves of the old G series I have, but they are well finished and offer some significant technological advances.

First, 2.4GHz is license-free. Hooray, I hear you cry. There is a word of caution of course – 2.4GHz is home to the WiFi party and the Bluetooth bonanza so it’s a busy old bit of spectrum. Don’t sit your ew D1 receiver on top of your wireless router – that is a bad idea. In fact, keep your D1 receivers at least five metres from your WiFi transmitters. On the other hand I tried out the ew D1 on gigs in suburban houses of worship – pretty much bang on the target market – and despite the plethora of networks flying round I had no problems at all. 

The digital Evolution tech involves time and frequency diversity and redundancy to protect against burst disruption. Sennheiser advises that under ideal conditions you can run 15 systems, but I reckon you’re ahead of the game at anything over seven – more than you can run license-free without intermod in channel 70.

Second, tuning is a thing of the past; pairing is the new tuning. All parts of the system have a ‘Pair’ button. A long press on Pair at the TX end brings up ‘Press Pair on RX’ and indeed a long press on Pair at the receiver links you up. Once a pairing is established a short press on the pair button at either end flashes the LEDs or both RX and TX to show you which channel is which. Nice touch.

The handheld and the lavalier have small squinty screens – I guess there’s no need now to show frequencies and other tuning info. However it will show the name of the receiver the mic is paired with. On the receiver you get a lovely OLED screen, which will even display QR codes linking you to the Sennheiser help site! 

The SK-D1 body pack is a beauty – really nice ‘Made in Germany’ finish with the battery sled – which has come down from the higher range – in which both AA batteries fit in the same direction. What an idea . 

The mic input on the SK-D1 is a locking 3.5mm jack and the supplied mic is the decent-enough ME 2-2. Sadly my Sanken Cos 11 is wired for Micron and my AKGs to XLR, which is a shame as it would have been nice to try a mic upgrade. One thing that will strike you straight away is the stubby little aerial – higher frequency = shorter waves = shorter aerial. This is great, but there is a price to pay. Shorter waves = more directional and less bendiness round corners. And due to EU restrictions the 2.4GHz system is restricted to 10mW and therefore range is lower than its UHF brethren. I tested the D1 against my older Evo kit and the analogue does indeed best the D1 for range. Sennheiser quote 60-odd metres for D1 against 100 metres for the G3, best case and line of sight. 

Round the back of the receiver, in addition to the XLR and jack outputs you also get a network port, which allows firmware updating and wireless control of the receiver. There’s an app for that – well there will be soon, Sennheiser says June. Of course you want to be careful with the amount of 2.4GHz you are chucking around – set your network to 5GHz or remember the 5m rule! The great thing about wireless control is it helps overcome the reduced range of 2.4GHz systems like the D1, when you might have to site the receivers nearer your talent than you would otherwise. I’m hoping for a windows or OSX version because I want wired control of my wireless! 

Which brings me to one other shortcoming of digital wireless – latency. The ew D1 system has about 4ms of latency, which is not a problem for performers but will be a problem if you want to combine analogue and digital mics on the same stage. 

The D1 system uses the AptX audio codec and in my tests the sound was good. The handheld capsules are industry standard and off-axis rejection is comparable to an SM58. The closest match I had to the e835 capsule in the handheld was a Sennheiser MD46. Running that through the ew500 plug-on the sound quality was very close, and even down a cable I wasn’t getting significantly better quality than the ewD system on a rock vocal. 

So where does this all leave us? I think there are three points to ponder: do you have a hostile 2.4GHz environment, is maximum range your biggest concern and do you have to run a mixed analogue and digital environment? 

On the sunny side the ew D1 is really well made, highly featured, has long battery life and sounds good. It is relatively inexpensive and with the promised network control of the receiver, very flexible. I think the 2.4GHz R-Evolution has landed.

Alistair McGhee began audio life in Hi-Fi before joining the BBC as an audio engineer. After 10 years in radio and TV, he moved to production. When BBC Choice started, he pioneered personal digital production in television. Most recently, Alistair was assistant editor, BBC Radio Wales and has been helping the UN with broadcast operations in Juba.