IFBs: Is it Finally Broadcasting?
Updated: May 5, 2019
If you're renting generic IFBs, you're probably doing your Director, Script Supervisor and client a disservice especially in the RF busy NYC. IFBs: Interruptible Foldback, or some may call them IEMs / In Ear Monitors. They are the wireless headsets that Directors, Assistant Directors, Producers, Clients, etc. wear in order to get a personal wireless feed of the sound of the show; like a monitor for sound in order to hear what talent is saying without being in the same room. As a location Sound Mixer, I often rent these out to Production on the shoots on which I work. They're not our top priority as they don't effect our soundtrack so it's often overlooked but they do help other departments, namely production / Director and Script Supervisor do their jobs, so I'd like to dig deeper into IFB options and compare a few of the most popular IFB systems in the industry.
What seems to be the most popular to me is Comtek, led by their 216 series, which transmits its frequency signals between 216-217MHz frequency range which is as narrow of a range as it can get. The second most popular may be Lectrosonics R1a IFB system which is often used with a T1, T4 or T4B IFB Transmitter but more often, I see it used on reality shows with a UM400a or SMQV transmitter which has more power options. Thirdly is the Sennheiser EW 300 IEM which looks very similar to the G2 or G3 receivers but with a volume knob on the top; these can be powered by a Sennheiser EW300 base station or a standard G2 or G3 transmitter or even an SMQv if you so wish.
If you ask for "IFBs", you'll likely get Comteks which are cheap, low quality sound and lack range. I own and have been using Comtek 216s for many years as they are industry standard, easy to use and robust, however, I often find myself saying to a Director, "Don't worry, it sounded fine on my end." I have not been impressed with the sound quality or range from the Comteks. Since I use Lectrosonics R1a's on most reality shows that rent gear from another house and have had fewer complaints, I decided to purchase myself an R1a. I used it on a shoot and it certainly had much better range and sound quality than a Comtek. This is important because some Directors I work with expect higher quality than Comtek and I don't blame them. This also makes it important for field producers or script supervisors to hear and take notes when they cannot be inside the room, a situation very common for Docu/Reality shoots. The sound quality is so good on this, it's better than it needs to be. However, you could say this option is a bit pricey; it's the top tier option for IFBs price-wise, but is not the only premiere option.
I've heard good things about the sound quality from the Sennheiser EW 300 IEM system, so I started looking into that. The Sennheiser EW 300 can operate on the same frequencies as R1a, so they can be integrated with those systems. It also has an antenna on the receiver unlike the R1a or Comteks, so I figured it might work as a better receiver. On the R1a, however, you can push the volume knob inwards which changes the preset frequency you are receiving which is very useful if a Producer or camera person wants to listen to a different source such as sound from Audio Bag B rather than Audio Bag A; they can easily switch back and forth. When this is not a factor, in my experiences, that button is often accidentally pushed and I often get people coming to me saying they aren't hearing anything anymore. I'm sure I could Macgyver a lock onto that but stay tuned.
Of course, all of this calls for a side by side comparison, a Battle Royale between IFBs. So a few of us sound nerds, "Fader Fire" Hayley Wagner and The "Meter Master" Allistair Johnson, got together and did what we do best; go out for a walk casually talking to ourselves. Hayley spoke through a mic hardwired into a mixer that I wore in a bag which transmitted 4 separate IFB feeds into a stationary mixer with the receivers inside. The Contestants are the Comtek m-216 going into a PR-216 receiver, back inside, we had an older Comtek 82 transmitter going into a Comtek mrc-82 receiver (operates at 82-86 mHz), a Sennheiser G2 operating at 20mW power going into a Sennheiser EW300 IEM, and a Lectrosonics SMQV operating at 100mW power going into a Lectrosonics R1a. The results are below:
This test was done in Bushwick, Brooklyn, NY; results can vary anytime, anywhere. But it was obvious that Lectrosonics and Sennheiser far outperformed the Comteks. The 216 seemed okay at best when in the next room over or closer. The quality of sound was bad overall. The Comtek 82 got reception from quite far away but had some serious drop outs and stopped transmitting a signal for a while, but the range in this test seemed better than the 216, probably because the 82-86 range may have been more clear than the 216-217. The sound quality on the 82 wasn't bad either. The Lectrosonics and Sennheiser were a toss up; sound quality were great on both and range were both great, not perfect and had minor RF issues around the same times.
My takeaway from this was: Comtek can be acceptable if you're in the same room, maybe the room next over; anything past that, you're really rolling the dice. It's also not acceptable for musician's in ear monitors. Comtek is not recommended for reality shoots. The R1a and IEM are both great and can be used in almost any situation. Of course they cost more. But after these tests I decided to sell my R1a and invest in Sennheiser EW 300s. I like these because they are great sound quality, great range, can be integrated with the popular Lectrosonics R1as but also because that test was done at 20 mW power vs 100mW power of the Lectrosonics. That means if 20 is enough, I'm saving on batteries and less likely to get intermod issues on my talent receivers. If 20mW is not enough, I can use a Lectrosonics transmitter with the Sennheiser IEM receivers and go 50, 100, or 250 mW power for more range. In addition, I have been using a G3 transmitter with my IEM so my power has been 30mW and I have had 0 issues or complaints after using it for a few months now. You can also get the IEMs modded to replace the stock whip antennas with higher quality SMA antennas. You can do this yourself or a few people can do it for you, Allistair Johnson did a great job with mine.
I figure the reason why Sennheiser performed so well compared to Lectrosonics despite such low transmitting power was because it has an actual antenna built onto the receiver whereas the R1a does not and therefore uses the attached headphones as a makeshift antenna instead.