NBA Updates On-Court Wireless Audio With Q5X CoachMic

New device reflects stakeholders’ influence on product development

Viewers listening to the coaches’ chatter during the March 7 NBA All-Star Game may not have noticed a difference, but there was one, and it will be part of the league’s broadcast-audio future. The NBA has adopted wireless-systems manufacturer Quantum5X’s new CoachMic for teams’ coaching staff.

Functionally, the CoachMic is similar to Q5X’s PlayerMic, worn by NBA ballers and developed in concert with the league and player representatives. It was developed with input from the league, coaches, broadcasters ESPN and Turner Sports, and Bexel, which purchased them, rents them to the broadcasters, and manages their RF. The transmitter, officially known as the Q5X-AD10 Digital CoachMic, is paired with a Sennheiser MKE-2 microphone capsule and is compatible with Shure’s Axient Digital receivers.

Operationally, the CoachMic shares key capabilities with the PlayerMic, such as the ability to be remotely controlled and monitored by the Q5X QG-H2 MicCommander: such functions as gain, battery life, on/off, and frequency choice can be accessed from anywhere in the venue during games. In addition, the transmitter has a rocker-type mute switch that can be accessed by the wearer and is designed to offer both visual and tactile confirmation of microphone on/off status, either by the color of an LED next to the switch or by the feel of the switch’s position, whether it’s worn horizontally on a belt or vertically a in jacket pocket.

Previously, the NBA’s coach broadcast audio was captured and transmitted by a mix of manufacturers’ systems — all digital — to ensure encryption and to maintain RF agility in a spectrum-constrained environment.

The new Q5X-AD10 Digital CoachMic is the result of collaboration by the NBA, its coaches, broadcasters ESPN and Turner Sports, and Bexel.

“We worked closely with all parties on the design and execution of the CoachMic, starting during the NBA’s Summer League in 2019,” says Q5X CEO Paul Johnson. “It went through several iterations, from conceptual to working models to the production models that Bexel has acquired for use by the league and that were introduced at the 2020 All-Star Game.”

He adds that the NBA has been using the original QT-1000 PlayerMic nearly since its introduction in 2007, with its first deployment at the All-Star Game that year, and the current, smaller QT-5100 PlayerMic S since it was introduced at the 2014 All-Star Game.

“And now they have a Q5X solution across the players and the coaches and, sometimes, on the referees as well,” Johnson says, noting that some officials have been trying them out for televised games. “That consistency of audio equipment lends itself to keeping the sound quality high.”

Broadcasters Speak

Chris Brown, VP, production and technical operations, Turner Sports, notes that the new wireless solution was a collaborative effort of the NBA, Turner, and ESPN to update the microphone package.

“We found consensus on the mic capsule,” he explains. “At the end of the day, we knew we not only needed to stay digital but [also] needed higher levels of encryption to be a part of the system.

“With the success of the PlayerMic systems we have been able to deploy,” Brown continues, “we definitely felt the technology was there as far as the remote-frequency agility, as well as other functions. Based on that, there was definitely a shorter learning curve for our A2s in the field. Over the past few years, our teams have had a great deal of experience with Q5X, which helped with integrating these new microphone systems into our production plan.”

The league itself was part of the team that had significant input into the CoachMic’s development. Paul Benedict, VP, broadcasting content management, NBA, notes that it participated in several meetings with broadcasters and also engaged with the National Basketball Coaches Association’s David Fogel and Rick Carlisle on the topic.

“Our concern was all about broadcast quality,” Benedict says. “We felt that [the CoachMic] checked multiple boxes in terms of also being a better fit for the coaches: reduced size of the transmitters (approximately 20% smaller, 30% lighter); a bigger and more visible on/off switch, which has always been an important piece of this for the coaches; a smaller antenna; and both vertical and horizontal belt-clip options. And the last point from the network side was increased durability and battery life, because it has happened [when] we’ve had to change out mics in the middle of a game.”

Steve Hellmuth, EVP, media operations and technology, NBA, says all those criteria were key elements in the new transmitter and contribute to carefully managing the coach-voice content during fast-paced games.

“It was a clear improvement in the entire access process,” he says, adding that slips with unintended content getting out were “a major impetus for the development” of the CoachMic, “along with digital encrypted quality.”

A Transitional Season

The new wireless platform for coaches is part of a larger inflection for basketball on television, according to Brown, as the sport moves from last season’s “bubble” to integrating more real effects sound.

“I think we have been pretty pleased with where things have come out,” he says. “The NBA has done a great job working with each of the teams to help enhance the broadcasts, and, now that fans are back, we are able to incorporate real crowd with the artificial crowd [noise]. It will only get better as the fans return and the games begin to get more exciting now that the playoffs are upon us.”

Benedict sees coach audio as part of the increased amount of content that the league is approving for use not only during broadcasts but also in alternative applications.

“We’re pushing that as much on-air as we can,” he explains, “but there’s also the mindset that, in this day and age, when a lot of people are consuming social and digital, there’s a longer shelf life for it.”

Helmuth sees the CoachMic as part of the NBA’s complex audio infrastructure in the transition from last year’s “bubble” to a more normal environment with actual fans in the stands but with augmented crowd sounds still part of the broadcast and in-venue mix.

“I think the A1s that are mixing the NBA, at the networks or at the RSNs, have steadily improved as the season has gone on, in terms of measuring audio levels relative to the [augmented crowd audio],” he says, noting in particular how well the real and the augmented “murmur” — the constant thrum of crowd noise that serves as the grout for sports broadcasts — are coming together. “I think they’ve done a spectacular job. And the NBA’s audio continues to improve as they get more and more practice. Hopefully, next season, we’re back to normal, we’ll have full buildings, and this’ll be a part of the past.”

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