Audio/Video, Business, Hardware, Reviews

Battle of the Blue: K-Tek vs Orca Bags

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Forward

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On any film or TV set, those responsible for recording clean dialogue and sound effects are the production sound mixers. They use a plethora of carts and rigs to rack mount most large mixing equipment, and ideally have a boom operator and utility/assistant part of their team too. When productions need to be more mobile, especially for reality TV or documentaries, there isn’t enough space or time to manage a hefty cart setup.

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Sound bags have been around for decades, housing all kinds of portable recording and mixing hardware. But until recently, they’ve all been missing one element — a solid internal frame. Bags would immediately flop over or lose balance when placed down, sometimes damaging the equipment inside. Moreover, having a properly balanced bag while harnessed reduces strain to the body.

Since last November, three manufacturers have stepped up to the plate: K-Tek, known worldwide for their boom poles, teased its Stingray, a self-supporting bag with plenty of room inside. When K-Tek presented its pre-production units in the following April, during the 2014 NAB Show, newcomer Orca Bags showed off its OR-30 line. PortaBrace, another widely-recognizable name, also introduced prototypes of their new AO series, with a firm internal frame.

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For this review, we’ll be focusing on the Stingray and the OR-30, two models that are very close in features, but with different approaches. Location sound mixers, especially those who are working primarily out of bag, have all kinds of preferences. While there isn’t a perfect bag for everyone, both companies have been very attentive towards feedback from those working in the field.

We’ve been following both models from their beta stages to final release — which one will be the right choice for you?

Before we begin

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The K-Tek Stingray, the first model of its kind to have a rigid frame, is an audio bag that is advertised to be built “by sound people, for sound people.” Up until K-Tek’s announcement, other big players like Petrol Bags and Portabrace weren’t offering much innovation, or even having a dedicated designer for audio products.

The Stingray is a triple-bay bag, with a dedicated first row for a mixer/recorder, and a row above for wireless receivers. A third row is placed on the outside, with a surrounding exterior frame that could be used to clip on more hardware. The bag stands tall and wide, with plenty of storage in its multi-layered side pockets.

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The Orca system, managed by former executives of Petrol Bags, was initially presumed to be piggybacking on the demand aroused by K-Tek. First seen at NAB 2014, with its strikingly similar characteristics and features, down to its blue color scheme, Orca was an aggressive competitor from the start. Its design elements definitely has roots with Petrol, but with as many demanded features as they could fit inside a smaller form factor.

The OR-30 is a more compact solution, advertised for easier installation, that also has three bays. Its third row for wireless receivers is shared with its front storage pocket. More hardware can fit inside the included side pouches, which are familiar accent from Petrol. Batteries another other accessories are placed in the back, allowing for a balanced bag.

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Both the KSRA1 and OR-30 are the companies’ smallest models, designed for smaller mixers and recording equipment. During this head to head review, we will be simulating both bags with the same configuration, that represents a median of many gear setups:

  • (1) Sound Devices 633 Mixer/Recorder
  • (2) Dual channel wireless receivers
  • (2) Single channel wireless receivers
  • (1) Wireless IFB transmitter (for directors to hear dialogue)
  • (1) Pair of reference headphones
  • (1) Battery distribution system with Lithium-ion NP1 battery
  • All necessary power & signal cabling
  • Third-party bag harness

Because the Sound Devices 633 has six inputs, we will test as if the rig was to be used in a wireless-only situation, without a hardwired boom microphone. One of the single channel receivers could be replaced by a boom mic, but this setup would illustrate a “fully loaded” configuration. We’ll also be assuming that all wireless transmitters, mics, expendables, and other accessories are kept in a separate container.

First glance

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With both bags side to side, you can already see a visible difference in approach to the same solution. Sound professionals need a bag that is roomy and lightweight, but one that can support itself.

The KSRA1 is longer with a proportionate width and height, and about 2 inches taller. The OR-30 has smaller dimensions overall, but both bags have roughly the same empty weight. The OR-30 may be slightly heavier because of its additional external frame.

While the Stingray is supported by a single internal polygonal frame, the Orca utilizes both an internal and external exoskeleton to hold its shape. Upon closer inspection, both frames are made of aluminum surrounded by nylon fabric cushioned interiors, and scratch-resistant exteriors. Based on stitching style, QC labeling style, zipper source, molding technique, and packaging materials, both bags seem to come from a similar region in China.

Accessibility is key

During productions, when problems need to be solved, it must be done quickly. Being able to access, re-patch, and troubleshoot connections without fuss is very important to sound mixers. Looking at both bags, there are definite pros and cons to each design.

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The Stingray uniquely relies on its zipping side doors for all installation and access. Those extra 2-2.5 inches of height means more room for excess cabling, NP-style batteries, and easing stress on bottom-exiting connections. This is crucial for mixers like Zaxcom’s MAXX, which has XLR inputs on its rear, and beneficial for bottom battery mounts on Sound Devices’ 633.

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Each side door is also a dual pocket for all storage: one internal mesh for more important gear, and one external for accessories. The only other opening on the Stingray is a bottom flap for cabling, or access for hardware placed in the exterior bay. Both side doors have dual zippers too, with enough space to route hardwired input and output cabling.

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Because the Stingray’s length is kept to a minimum, most side-exiting connectors will protrude past the internal framing, which means the cable end will sit up against the side doors. The doors are soft, which at least gives enough flexibility, but may not protect the connectors from bumps. This also may affect storage space in both pockets.

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Orca’s compact OR-30, on the other hand, follows a more traditional design that addresses current demands. All four sides, including a bottom flap, are held together with zippers, velcro, and buttons, that fully open up for easy installation. Once the bag is zipped up, it becomes clear how compact the OR-30 really is.

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Nearly all side connections are pressed up against the side doors, and the zipper side openings don’t offer easy access. Because of its limited height, users have found themselves making a balance between the 633’s knob reach and side panel access. This becomes very noticeable when trying to access the 633’s memory card door, which can only open about 45 degrees, even when completely opening the right flap.

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There is enough space for excess cabling, but bottom-exiting connections may also sit against the bag floor. The OR-30 also has available “Orca-Lift” pieces that compensate for this, helping hold up recorders that have rear connections above the floor. However, using this piece may conflict with wireless receiver slots in the middle bay. With the 633, unless you’re using L-style batteries on the bottom, you’re better off using the included cushions instead.

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The OR-30’s front pocket is dual layered, accommodating all storage, and is shared with the extra receiver slots. The back pocket is dedicated for an NP1 battery, but space is very tight, so it’s better for storage than powering your rig.

Overall, both bags accommodate this setup well, as long as your day is peachy and stable. But if there’s ever a quick re-patch or hardware swap needed, the Orca’s tighter spaces will require more attention, which potentially means more downtime.

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When it comes to accessibility, the Stingray wins this round.

Compatibility

Both bags seem to hold the equipment comfortably, with sufficient access to the mixer knobs and buttons, and other hardware controls. The slots to hold wireless gear are roughly the same size and flexibility too, so fitting single or multichannel receivers is no problem. Both the 633 and MAXX are quickly compatible in the KSRA1, but the OR-30 requires extra installation and handling.

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One more consideration is the third row placement. The Orca’s third row is shared with its front storage, so zipper folds may interfere with hardware controls. But it can at least fully zip closed, protecting the gear inside. With the Stingray, the third row is placed on the outside, protected by an exterior frame, but potentially more exposed to the elements.

The Stingray has a better chance of storing six wireless transmitters with accessories inside, compared to the Orca’s single front pouch. However, for this test, we’ll assume that the sound operator stores all of this in a separate case.

Because both models can fully support this setup without performance issues or modification, this round is a tie.

On the move

With sound bags, recordists have the flexibility of fitting into tight spaces or mobile situations where a cart setup may not be ideal. The good news is that the Stingray and Orca both have that covered. Any difference between the two comes down to personal preference.

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The Stingray has handles that slide away when not in use, while the OR-30’s handles are secured by detachable plastic clips. Both bags also include a padded shoulder strap for easy transportation. K-Tek and Orca both also have harnesses available for their systems. But because we’re focusing on the bags for this review, we’ll be using a third-party Versaflex harness that is widely used by sound mixers.

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Because of the Stingray’s added height, we needed to experiment more to find the right body placement when harnessed. The sweat resistant backside of the Stingray is concaved to accommodate a variety of recordists’ body types, without affecting hardware space inside. An outer mesh layer allows some airflow to keep the bag dry — a big plus for hot and humid climates.

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With the OR-30, there is less surface area contacting the wearer, and it seems to keep a better self-balance. Even though the load weight of both bags is roughly the same, the Orca’s smaller footprint makes the rig feel more contained, closer to the body. This allows for more flexibility during long hours on foot.

Another consideration for the OR-30 is that it has a better chance of fitting inside a larger container, like a Pelican case, during transport. Most sound mixers travel with their bag as a carry-on or shouldered item, but this is an option nevertheless.

Both models are built for mobility, but the Orca’s compact size and balance makes it a winner in this category.

In a nutshell

The KSRA1 and OR-30 are both innovative and awkward in their own rights, approaching a market demand from different angles. However, what K-Tek and Orca Bags have contributed to the industry is a crucial first step in the right direction. A good sound bag, like any other valuable accessory, should not just contain your equipment, but continue to adapt to your changing needs.

To wrap up (or if you skipped all the way to the bottom), here are the top reasons to decide which of the two location bags to choose:

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K-Tek’s Stingray KSRA1 and Orca Bag’s OR-30 are now available across the US. At around $300-350 USD, they aren’t cheap, but the premium features are ultimately worth the investment. There is no clear victor to this battle — but only the beginning of a competitive future.

 

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Additional photo cred. ToneMesa Inc.