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Sennheiser Digital 9000 wireless system is “biggest R&D project ever”

Sennheiser has revealed its new Digital 9000 wireless system to a 200-strong global audience in Hanover, Germany. The new system is reportedly the first to be able to transmit completely uncompressed audio, artefact-free and with superb dynamics.

Launched earlier this week in Germany – but making its official debut at IBC today – is the Digital 9000 system from Sennheiser. Billed as the “first digital wireless system able to transmit completely uncompressed audio, artefact-free and with superb dynamics”, the 9000 has been a decade in development at a cost of in excess of 12 million euros.

Ahead of IBC on 3 September, Sennheiser hosted a day of product presentations and demonstrations to an invited international audience of nearly 200 audio professionals in its home city of Hanover. During the proceedings, Prof Jorg Sennheiser, company CEO and son of the late founder, hailed the 9000 as a “benchmark for the audio industry”.

According to Sennheiser’s president of the professional systems division, Dr. Heinrich Esser the launch follows “the biggest and longest R&D project in the history of the company”, which began 10 years ago using technology that was too expensive or not available at the time, “hoping the world would catch up.”

In a presentation, Sven Boetcher, product marketing manager for pro audio, said the company had shown “courage” in a embarking on such a daring project.

The system is in production now and, according to Dr. Esser, is “already a mature technology” given the amount of testing it has been subject to.

Targeting broadcasting professionals, musical theatres and high-profile live audio events, the Digital 9000 system includes the EM 9046 receiver, SKM 9000 handheld and SK 9000 bodypack transmitters, as well as a comprehensive suite of accessories.

The EM 9046 incorporates up to eight receiving channels, each with 328MHz of switching bandwidth in the 470-798MHz UHF range. The SKM 9000 handheld transmitter is compatible with microphone capsules from across the Sennheiser portfolio, including the G3 and 2000 Series and the KK 204 and KK 205 heads (from Sennheiser-owned Neumann). In an unusual step, the transmitters are powered by rechargeable Lithium Ion batteries.

The system arrives with two transmission modes: The High Definition (HD) mode will transmit entirely uncompressed, artefact-free audio, as if a high-quality cabled microphone were used. The Long Range (LR) mode tackles difficult transmission environments with many sources of interference by way of a proprietary Sennheiser digital audio codec.

The Digital 9000 also features Sennheiser’s automatic RF cable calibration, which automatically compensates for any loss of signal volume during which may occur during transmission.

In a series of breakout sessions during the Hanover launch, Dr. Esser expanded on the processes and issues Sennheiser had encountered in creating the Digital 9000.

“When we started the project 10 years ago, the price for an FPGA was three thousand dollars, for one chip!” he told PSNEurope. (The cost of an equivalent FPGA chip is now around $70-80.) “Three – thousand – dollars! Ridiculously expensive. And the power consumption was significantly higher. So we had to look at the road map for the FPGA companies and hope that over time the price and power consumption would be low enough for our requirements. This was a typical situation for us. Back then, it was impossible to design the system that we have eventually developed today.”

Esser said the 9000 had been tested in extreme and harsh environments, such as those with high levels of interference and spectrum noise caused by, say, DVB-T transmitter signals.

“When we qualify new products at Sennheiser, we have a set of tests and checks. At the same time, we are very close to our customers, and they work in these harsh RF environments. So we have a list of critical environments, of difficult venues, from front of house engineers; and when we were testing the 9000 we were doing it in such venues – again and again and again – to make sure the system worked.”

On the subject of the battery choice, Esser said, “Most of our customers do not use rechargeable batteres, because they can’t rely on the remaining battery life. We are using Li-Ion batteries, and there is a chip inside the battery which allows us to very carefully calculate the battery’s lifetime, in hours and minutes, with a tolerance of +/-15 minutes.

“The feedback we have is that people want to use rechargeable batteries. But in a pro situation, its all about reliability, and that is what we are providing.”

Battery life in the handheld transmitters is around 5.5-6 hours, dropping to 4-4.5 after several hundred cycles of recharging. Had there been comments from those in large broadcast productions who wish it was more like 8-10 hours?

“It’s always a compromise between different requirements: a lot of power is invested in the rejection of channel intermodulation, that comes with higher power consumption, but it gives you an advantage, which means you can squeeze more channels into less spectrum, and that is the challenge our industry is facing right now. It’s better we do that, while still having a reasonable operating time. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution.

“We think in a couple of years there will be significantly improved batteries, while other components will have less consumption, so battery lifetime can only go up.”

The Digital 9000 will be on shown at both IBC and PLASA events.