Investigating the updated version of Beachtek Audio’s respected DXA-Micro Pro: the DXA-Micro Pro+.
Undeniably, 2020 has been slow, leaving me, like countless others, with a fair amount of time on my hands. Rather than investing this in even more Netflix viewing, I decided to catch up on a couple of personal projects. My list of things to do included further exploration of using my Fuji XT3 stills camera to shoot video. I shoot most of my bread-and-butter video work with a fixed lens camcorder, the Panasonic AG-CX350, which fits really well with the blend of documentary, corporate, and ENG-style jobs I tend to do. I’m a solo shooter, so having one integrated unit for video and audio definitely suits my workflow. While I’ve often used my XT3 for informal filming and for capturing the occasional B roll sequence, I’ve never really had the time to get into using it more seriously, so I decided to do just that while I had a little downtime.
When I first started thinking about doing more filming with my XT3, I was aware that I’d need some kind of audio adapter, so I got hold of a used Tascam DR60D Mk2, on eBay. While this is a great device in many respects, I found it a little oversized for mounting on a Fuji Body and quite fiddly to use in the field, due to its largely menu-based operation. Being spoiled by camcorders with good onboard audio facilities, I also found recording sound separately was generally more trouble than it was worth. Consequently, I invariably ended up using the Tascam as a preamp rather than as a field recorder – a role for which it is definitely oversized! With all this in mind, I decided that a simple external mic preamp for my XT3 would better suit my purpose.
What is it with DSLR/mirrorless cameras and audio?
Despite camera manufacturers bestowing ever more impressive video capture capabilities upon their DSLR and mirrorless line-ups, the unfortunate issue of relatively poor audio capability continues to mar their use. In recent years, several manufacturers have improved the audio bit depth of their higher-end systems from 16 bit to 24 bit, thereby allowing considerably more dynamic range, which is welcomed. However, the elephant in the room weakness of relatively poor, often very noisy mic preamps on these cameras persists for the most part. Add to this that their form factor precludes the use of XLR audio connections and the delivery of phantom power, and you have a real Achilles heel.
There are two approaches to overcoming these issues, the first of which has long since been an accepted part of the filmmaker’s workflow, known as dual system recording, whereby audio is recorded separately and then synched to video during postproduction. Dual system recording has several advantages, not least of which is that a dedicated operator can take care of sound recording, while someone else concentrates on filming. In addition, discreet equipment can be made larger, thereby accommodating more flexible connectivity and sound processing options. Dual system recording presents a number of difficulties for the solo shooter, however, including added bulk, added weight, and also added responsibility in terms of ensuring two separate systems are running during filming. Synching separate audio and video files also adds a whole layer of complexity to postproduction.
An alternative to dual-system recording involves using an external mic preamp, which can accommodate XLR inputs, deliver phantom power, and boost the input gain from a microphone, thereby largely overcoming the audio inadequacies inherent in DSLR and mirrorless cameras. While pretty much all field recorders, such as the range of offerings from Tascam, Zoom, and Sound Devices, can easily be used as an external preamp, they can prove bulky, heavy, and expensive for this purpose. This is where devices like the Beachtek DXA-Micro Pro Plus come into their own.
US company, Beachtek Audio, enjoys a well-deserved reputation for producing high-quality external audio adapters. Their product range, though fairly small, includes devices for DSLR/mirrorless cameras, as well as system-specific units for both Red and Arri users. Their particular market niche is the provision of professional preamps for in-camera audio recording, rather than external field recorders. The Beachtek product range can be found at https://beachtek.com.
The Beachtek DXA-Micro Pro Plus is a compact, high-quality external mic preamp (no recording facility), which connects to the mic input of a DSLR/mirrorless camera and expands the audio capability of that camera considerably. It offers fairly extensive audio connectivity and has a range of mounting options, both for attaching it to a camera (or camera cage) and also for carrying peripheral devices, such as wireless receivers or an external monitor.
The Beachtek DXA-Micro Pro Plus is an updated version of the DXA Micro Pro, which has, for several years, enjoyed an excellent reputation in the single shooter video community. The original device did suffer from a significant issue, however, in that it had a reputation for chewing through PP3 9v batteries like there was no tomorrow; meaning users had to carry a number of spares just to get through a day’s shooting. Not good for stress, productivity, or the environment. The Pro Plus version houses an internal battery, offering up to 10 hours of battery life when Phantom power isn’t used. This is charged via a Micro USB port on the back panel, that replaces the battery door on the original version. The only other apparent difference between the two products is the inclusion of a removable cheese plate on the top of the unit, which, in addition to 1/4″ and 3/8″ 20 threaded holes, also has a very useful cold shoe channel running front to back.
The unit is quite small: 102 mm x 76 mm x 38 mm (L x W x H). The case is all metal, with only switches and knobs being made of plastic. All controls are neatly laid out on the front panel (no menus whatsoever) along with two stereo 3.5mm jacks, while the rear panel contains the Micro USB power/charging port. The two side panels contain all other connection ports and each also has a cold shoe mount. On top of the unit, as already mentioned, there is a removable cheese plate containing a cold shoe mount. Removing this plate reveals a 1/4″ 20 threaded bolt, operated by a thumbwheel, for connection to a camera’s tripod mount. On the base of the unit is a cold foot for mounting the unit on top of a camera. This can be removed to reveal a 1/4″ 20 hole for mounting on a magic arm, quick release plate, lighting stand, etc. The cold foot testifies well to the overall quality of this unit, in that it is made of brass and is therefore strong, but incapable of scratching the chrome plating on your camera’s hot shoe; very thoughtful indeed. The whole unit is finished in blue and black with white legend, save the orange Beachtek logo, making it an extremely robust but attractive little package.
The DXA-Micro Pro+’s 450g (inc cheese plate) belies its very solid build quality; believe me, this thing really isn’t going to get damaged easily. My Tascam DR60D Mk2 is considerably larger and weighs in at well over 600g (including 4 AA batteries and under camera mount), but is positively fragile by comparison, as I recently found out….ooops!
- Single XLR input, supplying switchable 48v phantom power for condenser mics.
- Two mono 3.5mm jacks, supplying 3.5v ‘plug-in’ power for directly cabled lavaliere mics or prosumer grade ‘video’ mics.
- Single stereo 3.5mm jack, supplying 3.5v ‘plug-in’ power for prosumer grade stereo mic. I guess this jack could also take a stereo line input from an external audio mixer or similar, but it would make more sense to go direct to the camera.
- Stereo 3.5mm jack for audio return from your camera (located on the front panel).
- Stereo 3.5mm Jack output to the camera
- Stereo 3.5mm Jack output for headphones (located on the front panel).
Front panel controls from L to R
- Hi/Low pad switch for each channel (to match up the gain range of each preamp to higher or lower mic output). Hi-gain = +30db, Low gain = +15db.
- Trim pot for each Chanel (for adjusting input gain within the range set by pad switches).
- Signal/overload LED (green = good signal/red = overload).
- Mono/Stereo switch (directs input channels to either 1 mixed output or two separate outputs and can be used either for stereo recording or for audio level bracketing).
- Phantom 48v power switch
- Unit on/off switch
- Battery level indicator green = good battery level, amber = intermediate battery warning, red = low battery warning.
- Monitor switch to select between monitoring input to preamp or output from camera (use for camera input monitoring or for playback of video clips).
- Camera audio return port and headphone Jack above which is the headphone volume control
- Also in the top center of the front panel is the wheel for securing the unit to 1/4 20 tripod mount on the base of a camera.
- Built-in battery giving up to 10 hours usage on a full charge.
- Can be charged from or powered by an external power bank or similar.
A word on noise and why it’s something to worry about?
We’re often reminded that half of film or video is sound and, like it or not, we do notice noise, particularly in a world of squeaky-clean digital audio. Our enjoyment of and engagement with a movie will definitely be affected by incongruous background noise that somehow seems to break the illusion that our storyteller is trying to create. Having a load of noise added to your audio track by poor mic preamps is, therefore, very undesirable. After all, generally speaking, the world around us doesn’t hiss!
To some degree, if noise is constant, we notice it less: For example, I’m writing this article in my kitchen and I’ve only just begun to notice the hum of the refrigerator (probably because I’m writing about background noise) even though it’s been there since I started work a while ago. However, we rarely shoot video as a continuous, unbroken shot, but rather as shorter clips and if the background noise in these clips doesn’t remain constant for any reason, we’re going to notice immediately. I guess the visual equivalent would be the colour of the sky changing inexplicably from shot to shot in the same scene; distracting, to say the least! So better to have as little background noise as possible to start with.
Comparative noise test
I decided to find out what sort of noise reduction I could actually expect between inputting directly to my Fuji XT3 and taking a mic via the Beachtek DXA-Micro Pro+. While the XT3 isn’t renowned for having the worst audio preamp in the world, when compared to other similar cameras, it’s definitely not the best either.
I first connected a Rode VideoMic Pro+ to one of the inputs on the DXA-Micro Pro+, with the output connected to the mic input of the Fuji XT3. With the input gain of the Beachtek boosted to it’s maximum (+30db) and the input gain of the XT3 set to its minimum to compensate (conveniently -30db), I recorded several seconds of silence. Next, I recorded the Rode VideoMic Pro+ directly into the XT3; this time with the camera’s preamp set to 0db boost/cut.
Before I did the recordings, I first tested the comparative gain structures by playing a sine wave from an iPhone app into the mic, in order to ensure parity. The level shown on the camera’s audio level meters was exactly the same for each signal path, so, the noise comparison would be fair.
When playing back the files there was a clearly audible increase in self-noise between the DXA-Micro Pro+ signal path and the direct signal path. Audiometers on FCPX registered this as around a 10db increase in noise when using the mic directly into the XT3. Bearing in mind that, all else being equal, adding more electronics, cable, and connections, should increase the system’s self-noise rather than decreasing it and the noise-reducing effect of using a decent mic preamp becomes even more apparent.
Watch the video below to hear the results of the noise test
What’s in the box?
- All necessary cables are included with the unit:
- Two gold-plated curly mini-jack cables (audio output to camera and audio input from a camera).
- USB A to Micro USB for charging the internal battery (there’s no USB PSU included, but these days most of our homes and business premises are awash with them, so hardly a huge issue).
- A small hex key for removing the cold foot.
What I don’t like
Beachtek has gone to a lot of trouble to use a three-stage LED battery indicator for power levels, showing clearly when something is worthy of your attention, but not yet critical. I’m a little surprised, therefore, that they haven’t adopted a similar approach to the input level LEDs, which, as far as I understand them, show only OK and bad. Call me picky, but even my ten-year-old IK Multimedia iRig has a three-stage input level indication and that device is aimed primarily at mobile phone users.
I can’t help but think that Beachtek has missed a trick by not including a second XLR input on this device. OK, I’ll admit that most of the time I only use a single SDC or shotgun mic and that I’m more likely to use a pair of Lav mics for shooting dual talent than I am to pull out a pair of condensers. But there have definitely been occasions where the twin XLR ins on my AG-CX350 have been a godsend. I’m no engineer, but I don’t think that moving the four 3.5mm jacks from one end of the device to the rear panel, thereby making room for a second XLR would be so difficult. OK, the rear panel would need to be redesigned, but they’ve already done that to accommodate a different power regime. I’m probably not alone in thinking that I would have been willing to part with a good few quid more for this!
Prepare Ye for a rant:
One of my personal bugbears is unnecessarily wasteful/polluting packaging – we should know better by now! I’m pleased to see that many manufacturers, Sennheiser, for example, are going for quite austere, plain, un-laminated cardboard packaging on many of their products these days. Unfortunately, the DXA-Micro Pro+ comes in a heavily printed, glossy box, which opens book-style to reveal a rigid plastic insert that shows off the goods inside (just in case you missed the photos on the box). Surely, anyone who is thinking of purchasing this kind of product will almost certainly know what it is, what it does, and what it looks like; not to mention the fact that they will almost certainly order it online. So why is all of this necessary? I can understand why mass-market products, which are very much about visual aesthetics and that will likely be purchased in-store, are displayed in all their glory, but a camera audio interface, really?
At circa $230/£230 for an external preamp with only one XLR connection, the DXA-Micro Pro+ can’t be considered cheap. Alternatives include the SRPAX2 from Saramonic, at around half the price of the Beachtek, or the Comica CVM-AX3, at around one-third of the price, with both of these products boasting two XLR inputs and otherwise similar basic functionality. However, if it’s quality you’re after, this comes at a price.
Many shooters will be attracted by the extra capabilities of a full-blown field recorder, but for those who don’t relish the prospect of synching dozens of audio and video files after a long day’s filming, the Beachtek can improve your in-camera recording significantly, delivering both simplicity and audio quality in spades.
Pros and cons
- Excellent audio quality and low self-noise.
- Plenty of gain.
- XLR input with Phantom power.
- 5mm jack inputs with Plug-in power.
- Long internal battery life.
- Great build quality
- Compact form factor
- Additional mounting points
- Generally good connectivity
- Good power level and charging indication
- Well laid out, all physical controls
- All necessary cables included
- Input peak level indicators could give a more nuanced idea of the input level.
- Only one XLR input.
- More expensive than many similar devices, though you inevitably get what you pay for.
- Wasteful packaging…..grrrrr!
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