Has it really been more than six months since Winter NAMM? Dang. Thinking back to that ancient time… There was a bit of a war of digital guitar wireless units. Audio-Technica and Shure had booths literally across from one another and both of them intro’d stompbox-style wireless guitar units operating in the 2.4 gHz frequency range.

I have had the A-T unit for a while now and have used it on a bunch of gigs. I like it. A lot. Here is the lowdown.

First I do not have to be convinced about how great digital wireless is. I have been using nothing but digital wireless for well over a decade. I had one of the original X-Wire systems. Which last I remember, I had lent it to Jake Kelly and never saw it again…

Guy Coker founded X-Wire and was the first one to figure out how to make digital wireless work. He sold the company to Sennheiser and to this day I have not seen anything come of that. When his non-compete was over he hooked up with Line 6 and for more than a few years, the company had pretty much a monopoly on digital wireless. I used and loved one of their Relay units for at least five years.

But that has now been replaced on my pedal board with an Audio-Technica System 10. And that ain’t going nowhere if I can help it.

So, why digital? It sounds better. Period. Quick lesson. Traditional analog wireless—without even taking the increasing complexity of making it work in many environments—requires that the original analog signal be compressed substantially before transmission. Every company that makes pro-level wireless mics or in-ear systems or guitar packs has spent a ton of time and money and brain power minimizing the effects of this compression. The resulting process is called companding and the basic idea is that the signal is compressed before sending and then expanded at the receiver end in an attempt to make the resulting sound as close to what it would be with a wire as possible. And some of the companding is very, very good.

So the goal is to make wireless sound like a cable. But, IMHO, a good digital wireless actually sounds BETTER than a guitar cable. Cable=Copper=Resistance. No matter how good the cable, some of the high frequencies are lost when you plug in. This is REALLY noticeable on a good acoustic guitar and for those of us who play more clean guitar tones than overdriven.

Final general wireless comment before we get into specifics. You will see some reviews online from some of the “traditional” audio magazines that make sure to note that units like the System 10 are not “pro-grade” because they transmit in the 2.4 gHz range and that is a swath of bandwidth also occupied by stuff like wireless routers.

I call BS on this one. Without getting too far into the hassles with wireless and how the govt and cell phone companies are seemingly on a mission to make sure that guitar players can never again go running through the crowd while playing a wailing solo (which will—of course—drastically decrease the number of guitar players getting lucky on any given weekend), let us just say that the next few years will likely see the “pro” frequencies (right now that pretty much means the 600 mHz band) get just as congested as 2.4. So don’t let asinine comments like that influence your buying decisions. It all comes down to just a few basic questions.

    1)    Does it sound good?

    2)    Is it easy to use?

    3)    Will it take the abuse of typical gigging?

    4)    Can I afford it?

    5)    Does it have a cool bonus feature that i can brag to other guitar players about?

The System 10 scores on all counts.

Let’s start with unboxing and setting it up. I don’t know about anyone else, but replacing something on my pedal board is a pain. And the pain is usually the power part. Most of us have power supplies mounted under the main surface. Mine is actually in the “lid.” My pedal board is a custom job that I built out of an old leather suitcase and all the power and cable storage is in the part that you would call the cover if it was removable.

My band was in the middle of a five night run at the Casablanca Resort in Mesquite, NV. I actually set it up AFTER sound check and used it on that same gig. And it could not have been simpler. I took the Line 6 off, put the A-T System 10 on and plugged it into the power supply that was already there for the Line 6 in and it fired right up. This was not luck that the two units used compatible power supplies. In fact, I gave the Line 6 and the power supply that came with the System 10 to my bass player to use and the combo would not work at all.

That is because A-T understands that us guitar players are lazy sods. So the System 10 receiver can accept pretty much any power supply you can throw at it as long as the actual connector is the same size. Polarity and voltage (within reasonable limits) don’t matter. This move alone is genius.

Next, setting it up. You don’t choose and set frequencies like you do on a traditional wireless. Which is a good thing. You can run up to eight units on the same stage. And each unit gets an “ID” but that ID is not the frequency. All of the heavy lifting of choosing a clear frequency is done behind the scenes. And the System 10 transmits and receives the same audio data on two different frequencies and constantly chooses the best stream to get converted back to analog before it hits your amp. I literally set it up and began using it in less than five minutes and have made exactly zero adjustments since then. Just give it an ID, hit the Pair button and the receiver—which has already found the clearest frequencies when it was turned on—seeks out the transmitter on the same ID and “bonds” with it. So next gig in a different room with maybe a wireless router sitting just feet from the stage. The receiver finds DIFFERENT clear frequencies and when the transmitter it is paired to comes on, it does the digital equivalent of saying, “Hey dude, I used to be over THERE, but now I am over HERE. Why don’t you join me over HERE.”

Bottom line, it’s like the Apple of guitar wireless. Turn it on and it works.

Next, The stomp box receiver is actual metal. Not plastic. I didn’t try it but i bet I could trow it across the stage and it would still work. The transmitter is plastic but I had no problems with it. Controls are easy to access but it is unlikely you are going to accidentally turn it off or mute it during a set. And replacing the batteries is a snap. (More on that in a minute.)

Can the typical guiding guitar player afford it? It is pretty reasonable. The MSRP is a scoosh over six bills but we found it all over the place online for right at $350.

And on the bonus front… there are a couple of cool things. First, there is an actual switch like you would expect on any stomp box. What does it do? The System 10 receiver has a built in A/B switch. So you can send one output to your amp and the other to a tuner for silent tuning or even set up two totally different signal paths and switch between them. GREAT for guitar player who use more than one amp. Second, and this one will set you back a few bucks but it’s cool if you can swing it. A receiver can be paired to more than one transmitter but will only take signal from one at a time. So if you switch guitars a lot and hove the dough for a couple of extra transmitters, you can have the transmitter attached to the individual guitar straps. When you are done with one and ready to use the next one, just turn it on. The receiver gives priority to the most recently fired up transmitter.

Finally, the first thing on that list. How does it sound? Indistinguishable from a very high quality 10-ft cable.

It’s a review so i am trying to come up with a criticism but there is really nothing I don’t like.  There is one little thing but it is about digital wireless in general and not just the System 10. Digital wireless eats batteries for lunch. Think about it. It is not just transmitting. It is converting from analog to digital AND transmitting the resulting data. It is crucial that you get good batteries. I had stopped on the way to the gig and hit a 99 Cent store for road munchies and soda (Mesquite is a 100 mile trip from my home in southwest Las Vegas). and I did not realize until much later that they were zinc-carbon and not alkalines. A pair of cheap-o creep-o AAs did not even make it through a set. (Which is how i know that swapping them out is a cinch. I had to do it in mid song.) If you are going to get ANY digital wireless from ANY mfg, I would invest in some good (there’s that word again…) rechargeables. Some research seems to point to Enloops by Sanyo and Panasonic being the best out there. I just ordered a brick of ‘em.

But again, the battery thing is a digital issue. I like everything about the System 10. I even like the fact that the included cable that goes from the guitar to the transmitter is about a foot longer than the one on the unit I had been using. Trust me, when you get inspired to play that solo with a Gibson ES335 behind your head and you forcefully lift the guitar into place only to discover that the cable is just a tad short and you give yourself an epic wedgie…

Little thing can make a big difference…