Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Nikon ME-W1 Review

Nikon's ME-W1 is an affordable wireless microphone that has some interesting options. The device works by BlueTooth and has a transmitter with an omni-directional microphone; both transmitter and receiver have input ports for hooking up other microphones to the apparatus. It's a promising option for the hobbyist, but does it deliver?

Overview: The Importance of Good Sound

If there are two things that immediately set good videography apart from average movie making it's lighting and sound quality. For the hobbyist, the options in order of increasing cost and/or skill level are :

  • Built in camera mic (no cost, very low quality)
  • Lav mic (low cost, need to sync during editing)
  • Un-amplified external mic (low cost, moderate quality)
  • Amplified external mic (high cost, best quality)

Anything is better than the on-board microphone on a DSLR or mirrorless camera. No matter how well engineered the camera (and they have been getting better), you run into two problems. The first problem is that the microphones are too close to the camera body, meaning that they pick up the faint sounds of the lens focusing motors, the inner workings of the camera and the user's fingers operating the camera. Even if that weren't the case, the second issue is that the pre-amp's in digital cameras aren't particularly high quality. Proper pre-amplification is what turns thin sounding audio into full-rich audio, and for that, you need a dedicated microphone.

For interviews and general speech work, the lavaliere microphone (Rode Smart Lav+ et al) is the best option and the most reasonable cost. The problem for beginning videographers is that you need to sync the sound with the video during post processing, which is routine task for the experienced movie-maker but a daunting one for somebody who is just starting and who doesn't have quality editing software available.

For those who just want the audio recorded in with the video stream an external microphone that clips into the camera hotshoe is what's needed (Rode VideoMic Go, etc.)  The least expensive of these microphones don't have pre-amps built in, meaning that you are still relying on the camera's on-board pre-amp, but the quality will be better because you are using a dedicated microphone apparatus.

A better option would be for an amplified external microphone (e.g., Rode VideoMic Pro). The difference between the inexpensive un-amplified option is that that a mic with a built-in pre-amp does better in a nosy environment, and makes voices come out sounding fuller. It's the difference between head voice and chest voice if you will. These mics also generally have built-in bypass filters to reduce hiss and rumble.

However, you can see a gap in the above list. External clip on mics offer good quality but can't be put into discreet locations. Most lav mics are discreet but need syncing in post. This is where a wireless microphone comes into play. To be honest, the quality options that exist on the market aren't cheap and aren't small.

Nikon's wireless microphone works through Bluetooth®; it probably won't have the range and robust nature of a professional option, but it will open up possibilities for people who are looking for a casual option. Note that this device simply plugs into the standard microphone port, which means that it isn't specific to any one particular camera. Make no mistake, though; this is aimed at hobbyists, not professionals. Note the language in the official press release:

"Great for bloggers, aspiring videographers or even professionals, the ME-W1 makes recording audio for DSLR video simple, without sacrificing quality sound."

The ad copy is a bit transparent in terms of giving away what the marketing department is thinking. Price is set at $249.99 USD. It's simultaneously cheap and expensive. It's cheap for a unique product of its kind, all things given, but it's expensive compared to the result that you could get with something like the Rode SmarLav+. As always, the price of automation (or laziness) can be costly. PocketWizard TT5 shoppers know this all too well....

The ME-W1 in Action

In practice, the microphone worked reliably to a range of approximately 40-50 meters. Synching between the receiver and transmitter was easy and more importantly, consistent with no hiccups or interruptions.

If connectivity is the strong suit of the ME-W1, sound quality will be a let down for the serious videographer. The built in microphone is omni-directional and tends to pick up too much ambient sound when the transmitter is clipped on as a lavalier mic. There is noise reduction applied to the signal, but the fundamental problem is that the quality of the sound is very heavily biased to the midtone portion of the spectrum. Voices come through clearly, but sound tight and bound up. The sound quality is lacking in character as the bass and treble are weak.

You could pin that down to the quality of the microphone, but the bound-up sound quality also applies when you plug in a high quality microphone like the Nikon ME-1 stereo micropohone. There is a marked reduction in bass and treble when you use this microphone through the ME-W1 compared to plugging it directly into the camera port. Subjectively, the native ME-W1 sound quality is like listening to a clear AM radio signal. Using the better quality ME-1 through the wireless ME-W1 is like listening to a weak FM radio station, whereas using the ME-1 directly in the camera is like listening to a strong FM radio station.

Its hard to say why the ME-W1 is setup this way. High quality sound can certainly be achieved through BlueTooth (wireless headphones, speakers, etc.) but the ME-W1 seems to be tuned to be a jack of all trades microphone that can pull voices out of a noisy environment, but at the expense of outright sound quality. Vloggers might like this, especially those who do a lot of location work. However, wedding photographers will be disappointed.

Aside: It seems that the ME-W1 would be a natural pairing with an inexpensive lav mic like the Rode SmartLaw+, but be aware: the plug on smartphone-based microphones are not compatible with the standard input jacks used on most cameras.

 Concluding Thoughts

For its price, the ME-W1 is not outrageously expensive, but there are better quality options. The connectivity is reliable but the sound quality isn't appropriate for professional use. The ability to plug external microphones on both transmitter and receiver sides of the device opens up interesting possibilities. It's a microphone for fun and enjoyment, but it isn't a replacement for more expensive dedicated wireless microphone kits.

With thanks to Broadway Camera


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  2. Hello! I have my own Inernet cooking channel if I get the Nikon ME-W1 will hear the sound of the mixer that beats in the bowl of the kitchen; it is something that I do not want to be heard on the video

    1. It will be unavoidable as the decibel level of the mixer will drown out your voice no matter what mic you use. You might be able to get a word in whiel the mixer is going, but my suggestion is that you only do that to show your audience the process of using the mixer; if you want the best audio you should shoot around the situation or use a voice over in post processing.

  3. Weird opinion.Nikon ME-W1 is not exactly same as three times more expensive Rode or Sennheiser?I would be surprised if they have the same.

    1. You know and I know that even a Rode Film Maker kit is better, but the target audience for this type of microphone isn't that immersed in audio. There's no reason why they couldn't have made this better, it's the implementation, not the concept.