PA Buyers Guide
Choosing PA speakers
Published in PM December 2009
Technique : Live Sound
Like it or not, for most performers of amplified music, your PA speakers are effectively your voice; they are the means by which your audience hears you and forms their opinion of how you sound. Getting the right system may be the single most important gear-buying decision you make.
As a PA-system operator as well as a performer, people often ask me for advice about buying PA speaker systems. I always respond by asking them what they want to use them for. This may seem rather too obvious a place to begin, but its surprising how many times they then say that theyre not really sure, especially when it comes to organisations like clubs and village halls — but also to musicians. Often, they just seem to be thinking, “Its about time we got something better than our old system.” So, where to start and what to look for?
Think on this: if you were a sales person and you had two potential customers — one who wandered in saying “Im not really sure what I want but I have this much money,” and another who said “I know exactly what I want, and I want you to convince me that I should buy it from you” — which one would seem to be the softer target? Now, Im not suggesting for one moment that any sales person in the music world would have anything but our best interests at heart, but Id feel more confident of getting the right gear at the right price if I had considered the matter beforehand, and Id be less tempted to make an impulse purchase of something that didnt tick all the boxes.
So, youre looking to buy PA speakers — what exactly do you need, and how to decide? This can depend very much on your existing system, if any, and how much you like or dislike the gear you currently use, along with the reasons behind looking to buy something else. If you are happy with your existing rig but your excellent agent is coming up with somewhat bigger or more prestigious venues, it might be worth considering scaling up by keeping and expanding your system. You could consider adding powered subwoofers to your existing full-range units, which would have the advantage of being relatively inexpensive and would also give you the option to use the original setup for smaller gigs. If youre not entirely happy with your sound system, it would be well worth setting up a direct A/B comparison with someone elses gear or arranging a supplier demo. Either way, make sure that you refer back to the system you are familiar with to avoid the mistake of just buying a shiny new thing, which may be unsuitable and offer little in terms of improved performance. If your rig is simply on its last legs, too heavy to lift any more, or youre a first-time buyer looking to get on the PA ladder, then theres a whole world of gear out there waiting for your money, and a whole lot of interesting research to be done.
Choosing speakers for live work is all about you, your music, your venues, your fitness and much more besides, but here are some basics to get you started:
Sound — how does it perform?
Level — is it powerful enough to do the business?
Physical size and weight — how portable does it have to be?
Convenience — how quick and easy is it to set up and pack away again afterwards?
Ruggedness — how will it stand up to life with you/your band?
Serviceability — can it be fixed and can you get the bits for it?
Flexibility — can it be scaled to suit the occasion, and can it be added to in future?
All of these need to be considered in more detail.
Sound for your pound
“How does it sound?” is generally top of the list of obvious questions, and it should really be one of the easiest to deal with. If the gear is for your own use as a solo performer or as a member of a band (and lets assume this is the case), then Id suggest an analogy with modern cars: they may look different and have massively different price tags, but they all generally get you to your destination and I dont know of any that cant achieve the national speed limit. So, applying this to sound gear, its all been designed by professional people to fit within a certain price and performance bracket, and no manufacturer with any kind of reputation to maintain will spend their development and marketing budget on producing something that doesnt work or sounds bad. Over recent years I have road tested many different makes of full-range PA speakers and I cant actually remember one that sounded so bad that I couldnt have used it for anything at all. I remember playing in a marquee along with some very high-calibre musicians who made a point of commenting favourably on the sound, which on that occasion was being provided by a very downmarket budget system. For a vocal system you dont need a huge amount of bottom end (youd only filter it out anyway) so a modest 10-inch or eight-inch woofer would be fine in terms of frequency response, provided it was inside a sensible enclosure and paired with a suitable HF driver. There are a number of very nice two-way cabinets on the market that provide a sweet, focussed sound for voice and acoustic instruments such as guitar, flute and the like. Indirectly related to speaker choice is also the issue of what you use the PA for; just because theres an electric guitar or fancy keyboard in the band, it doesnt necessarily follow that it will benefit from going through the PA speakers. On smaller gigs its perfectly possible to get a good natural balance by working the backline with a dedicated vocal/acoustic rig. This has the advantage that each speaker is dealing only with a single or small number of sources and can therefore be chosen, adjusted and operated for best performance and efficiency. Most established groups of musicians will tend to achieve a natural balance anyway.
If more instruments need to be fed through the PA speakers, or recorded music forms a significant part of the material, it may be best to consider the bigger 12-inch or 15-inch formats. A pair of 12-inch cabs on tripods is a good general-purpose solution, but dont expect (and preferably dont try to produce) a lot of bass guitar or kick drum. When considering a larger system, a far better approach is to reserve the top cabs for vocals and higher-range instruments, and use one or more subwoofers to handle the lower stuff. The advantages will be a much better low end with a decent kick/punch content and more efficient working, allowing the upper cabs to deliver their full output in the MF/HF range. The downside is more boxes to carry and rig, and some active systems arent designed so that you can just use the top cabs on their own.
Active or passive?
This question is always a hot topic, and theres no simple answer. Both persuasions have their plus and minus points but, whilst were talking about sound quality, I suppose its fair to point out that a well-designed active speaker package should offer the best no-compromise audio performance as all the components are part of an integrated design, with the added advantage of built-in signal processing and protection. Depending on the particular application, passives can be a bit neater to cable up as you dont have to run a mains lead to each of them, which can be a bit of a pain with floor monitors, especially if they get moved around during a show. Active boxes are a bit heavier, must be located with regard to ventilation, cooling and the availability of a mains supply, and they do represent an all your eggs in one basket approach. This means that if either the internal amp or driver has a problem, you effectively lose the use of both. I still regularly use both types, mainly because some of my jobs are outdoors, and using passive speakers in potentially damp conditions is less problematic, but I also quite like the flexibility of being able to configure a system to suit the occasion. See the table (left) for a comparison.
When considering higher output levels, the speakers have to start coping with more demanding applications, and here the choices open up somewhat. It may be worth considering the traditional approach of moving up a size or two, or alternatively looking at the new breed of higher-spec compact units. For generally bigger or louder applications, where size and weight isnt an issue, there is always the good old 2 x 15 plus horn design, which — like all the others — is available over a wide price range. But remember that at higher output levels its a bit more apparent that you generally get what you pay for. I dont often use cabinets this large, but they can deliver a very big, satisfying body thump and they look impressive in the right venue. In general, the bigger and louder you go, the more the gap opens up between budget and more expensive equipment. For example, most cheap and cheerful 2 x 15s will handle lots of power (based on the specifications of the woofers alone) and will churn out a fair amount of bass and lower mid. The budget compression driver wont be the nicest thing youll ever hear and the crossover performance may leave quite a lot to be desired. The best cabs of this type that Ive owned are my JBL SRX725s, which have high-performance drivers throughout and can handle stupid power levels for long periods, but they dont get used all that often nowadays because of their size and two-man handling requirement. A word on brands and pedigree here: its not always the case, but when buying an entry-level model from a manufacturer who also produces top-end gear, theres a good chance that some of the established design work and even some of the components from the upmarket ranges will find their way into (or at least influence) the more budget-oriented products. This is what I call the Ferrari moped principle.
If much wallop is high on your list, but big boxes arent, then thanks to good old modern technology, you can now have it both ways. Recent developments in both amp and speaker design have produced small, lightweight systems that boast power-to-size levels unheard of in the fairly recent past. I bought one of those little HK LUCAS Smart setups a couple of years ago for a modest-sized conference, and was using it a week later for a jazz combo in a park — it obviously wouldnt do for a metal convention but its way smaller than my home hi-fi and powerful enough for small-act clubs and pubs. Theres a balance to be struck between power, size and cost. Small cutting-edge speakers are relatively expensive compared to big black boxes, so let your priorities decide — do you need a rig that looks kind of evil and that you can climb on, or something portable that no one really notices?
One last thing about larger cabinet formats, which is very important but often overlooked, is the question of where youre going stand them. If youre going for main speakers that are too big for poles or stands, the chances are that they wont be tall enough for the horn exit to be above head height when placed on the floor. They might be high enough when on the front of a stage but, depending on the stage construction, this could lead to a loss of LF output in, for example, the critical kick drum frequency range, and theres not much point in using big speakers if youre not getting the most from them. For full-band or music playback I would always use tall 2 x 15s or three-way cabs on top of subs on the basis that, if the gig is big enough to justify using full-range units of this size, subs would be essential anyway to deliver the required serious bass levels. For speech-only jobs, smaller, more efficient cabs at increased height would tend to be the way to go.
On the subject of power handling (amplifier rating in Watts) and output levels (SPL), the two are often confused. I replaced a blown guitar combo speaker for a young guitarist, and all I had to hand was a driver rated at 200 Watts, whereas the original was a 50-Watt job. I spent a good while trying to explain that it wouldnt sound four times as loud, and he had genuine difficulty in seeing how something that could do 200 Watts wouldnt make more noise. For PA speakers, efficiency is the thing to look for, as this will mean that more amplifier output energy is turned into cone movement and less into heating the voice coil. This means that the speakers should (if properly designed and built) perform well and live longer. When checking out the manufacturers specification, try to compare the sensitivity figures as well as the power handling/power output, and above all do a listening test with material you know well. If power handling and sustained high output levels are going to be your thing, consider cabinets with larger-format compression drivers, as theres only so much power to be handled by a standard one-inch exit design. If you look at a driver retailers website or the manufacturers figures, its hard to find a small-format driver with a continuous power rating much above 50 Watts, or a recommended crossover point much below 1.8kHz, and finding a combination of the two is even more difficult without spending much cash. If the crossover point is lower, the HF driver and horn handle more of the frequency range and will project well. However, the driver must be able to operate reliably at these frequencies and I remember one commercial design that suffered from mechanical failure of the HF unit because it was being driven with frequencies below its safe operating range.
In making the final decision about system power, the overriding factor is always what youre going to use the gear for on a regular basis. It needs to be fit for purpose, with some room to push harder on occasion, but Id say theres little point in buying something over-the-top for a one-off outdoor appearance if the rest of the diary is full of wine bar gigs.
A word about coverage, which can be important in some applications: in general, I like speakers that have a wide horizontal HF pattern but a restricted vertical one. In most venues I dont want the sound energy wasted on the sky or reflecting from the ceiling, likewise the floor, but I want a single pair of cabinets to evenly cover the entire audience area. Its worth doing a few listening tests, though, because speakers with a symmetrical dispersion (especially conical horn) can sound very natural and smooth. I quite like them for low-level indoor work, such as conferences or audio-visual presentations. I havent said much about monitors yet, but another potentially useful function is the ability to rotate the HF assembly so that a cabinet with asymmetrical HF dispersion can produce the same coverage angle when used on its side, or you could deliberately restrict the horizontal spill when using multiple monitors in a restricted space.
Size, weight, and easy-peasiness
On to the physical side of things, which includes everything from storage to lifting, carrying, transport and setting up. As I get older I increasingly tend to favour small, light things that dont hurt me, and when I review speakers I always take a good look at the carry handles, the protective grilles, rubber feet and the overall cabinet shape. In terms of outward appearance, I personally prefer dull-looking black or dark-grey boxes because theyre universally suited to almost any venue. I like those with straight sides as they dont roll around when being transported and they are much easier to pack or stack. This is, of course, a matter of personal taste — I dont go for red and silver speakers with rows of plastic piezos and grilles like hubcaps from a 57 Chevy, but each to their own. What I also think is important about appearance is that it can be effectively maintained, and from my point of view the choice of cabinet finish is something that should be carefully considered. Carpet covering doesnt scratch and hoovers up nicely, but it does tear (beware carpet cabs that feel squishy when you press the corners as the carpet covering can shift on this bed of underlying glue over time) and is difficult to repair neatly, whereas painted wood is easy to touch up but can get pretty grotty unless you use a good set of covers. Most smaller portable speakers are moulded from poly-something-or-other nowadays, and these are generally very good from a cosmetic point of view as the outer skin is waterproof and hard-wearing, and the inevitable scratches and scuffs can be sandpapered away.
The latest generation of drivers uses neodymium magnet assemblies, which are light and efficient, and Id think very carefully about buying anything that was equipped with traditional ferrite magnets purely on account of the difference in weight. Heavy magnet assemblies are also susceptible to shock damage: dropping a speaker cab from even a few inches can have the same effect as hitting the back of the driver with a heavy hammer. Remember that speakers usually have to be mounted on stands or lifted up in some way when setting up a PA, so its a good idea to check that the handle design works for you when trying to get them on top of a pole. Believe me, this can be something that really makes a difference over a period of time, and in the past Ive sold off speakers purely because of this. Be especially wary of orange box handles that are just shaped holes cut in the outer walls of wooden cabinets. These are fine for carrying a cab by yourself, but when lifting a larger enclosure between two people you have to turn your hand palm-out because theres no bar to grip and, as your fingers have to be hooked upwards in the recess, they are very awkward to lift much above waist height.
Many compact, full-range speakers are designed to perform monitor duties and are shaped accordingly. These are extremely useful not least because, if you use the same model on mains and foldback, you can swap them around if youre unlucky enough to encounter a blown driver — I say this from experience. Do check that the cabinets are stable and point in the right direction when used as floor wedges, because some are only intended to be used with additional feet or stands to achieve the correct angle. This is something I can never be bothered with when there are plenty of makes out there that are perfectly well-adapted to this application already. While on the subject, I reckon its worth spending a few quid more on at least one really good-quality monitor, because (especially if you have the opportunity to work with a guest singer or you provide your services to another band) its the monitor that they will hear and be impressed by, not the front-of-house cabs that arent pointing at them. Monitoring is, by its very nature, a tricky area and can do much to ruin or rescue a performance, so its always best to regard it as an integral part of the PA rather than an add-on to be dealt with if there are any funds left over.
No matter what your band line up — whether youre a solo artist, a party duo, folk trio, whatever — if you are running your own PA there will never be enough time to set up and do a decent soundcheck so that everyone is content and stress-free. Therefore, its important to think about how easy the PA is to rig, and also how flexible it is when it comes to speaker placement, as some venues just dont have enough floor or stage space. Of all the systems Ive used, the popular three-box active systems (where all the amps are inside a single, compact subwoofer, and two small six-, eight- or 10-inch passive satellite boxes handle the mid and high ranges) are by far the quickest and easiest to get up and running. Theres only one mains lead required — for powering the subwoofer — which usually sits over to one side and is therefore easy to cable up, plus a couple of speaker leads to the satellites. Its fully operational within five minutes! Operating these systems is easy too, as theres usually just a single level control plus a sub level for overall balance, and the usual processing and protection circuitry youd expect to find in separate active speakers. Another quick and easy configuration would be to use a pair of passive speakers with a powered mixer, which gives a minimum boxes solution where a subwoofer is not needed.
Im often asked if its better to have a pair of subs — one each side — and I still think some people are put off the single-sub systems because of a perceived need to have the same number of cabinets on both sides of the stage. In a small venue, it really doesnt make much difference as the lowest frequencies are not directional and tend not to be attenuated by people and things in front of them. Its arguably better to have a single audio source than two because there will be no cancellations other than those arising from reflections within the room. If you have two subs and want to demo this, just set them up either side of a wide stage, play a suitable track, and walk across from one side to the other. If theres a hole in the bass when you get to the middle, theres some cancellation going on, so try turning one sub off and turning the other up a bit, or putting both subs on the same side, or in the middle. Every venue is different and theres usually a solution lurking in there somewhere. On a purely practical note, a compact sub will have a considerably smaller footprint than a tripod speaker stand and will provide a good, solid base (and bass!) for a pole-mounted mid/top box, while taking up less room than a stand. I often use a pair of subs in this way with only one of them operating.
Rugged good looks
As well as sounding and looking the part, your PA speakers are likely to represent a significant investment in your musical project and will hopefully provide long and reliable service. When I review portable gear I make a point of checking out its construction as thoroughly as I can; I like to see what its made from, how its put together and how well its detailed. If my first impression is of a product that has been carefully assembled from pieces that obviously fit together properly, I tend to get a good feeling about it. Tell-tale signs range from major issues like poor construction (rock the speaker heavily and let it bump down gently onto its feet — if you hear any creaking or cracking put your money away or ask the seller to sort it) to things like the fit of metal grilles (look to see if any gaps are the same size all the way around a panel). Other issues include the consistency and thickness of sprayed-on finishes, and even little things such as how securely badges are stuck on! These small details can also tell you something about the retailer. If they take the trouble to present the product carefully, the chances are theyll be that way about supporting you in case anything goes wrong down the line.
I consider cabinet shape important, and sometimes its not until youve damaged your car, your speakers or your fingers a few times that you realise how annoying certain design features can be. If you will be carrying speakers in the back of a car, its really useful if they have at least one flat surface (and preferably not the front) on which to lay them for the journey. Im a believer in looking after my gear as much as I can because this pays dividends over time. Keeping the gear looking tidy and fully functional not only keeps the show on the road, but also gives a good general impression to the performers and eventually secures a better resale or trade-in value. A set of good covers is a great investment (try to get some thrown in free if you can), especially if they are padded and shower-proof, and its a sensible move to include these in your budget from the outset.
If used properly, good-quality speakers very rarely go wrong, but if they do it can be very frustrating trying to find replacement driver components. For active cabinets, its almost always best to have them professionally repaired if out of warranty, but with passives its relatively easy to replace the bits inside, provided you can find the exact part. Here the brand can make quite a difference. If the manufacturer also happens to be a company that makes drivers, it should be easy to track down new parts (even replacement diaphragms, which are pretty easy to fit), but its not always such plain sailing. Many big names will list replacement part numbers and will advise on what can be used if the original component is no longer available, and some use stock, off-the-shelf drivers (from other manufacturers) that are readily available. Others, however, use bought-in or bespoke components that are identified only by the overall speaker maker (eg. it may actually be a Celestion NTR12-3018D driver but labelled Winfield 12/PA, and thats all we would have to go on). I bought a few budget, active, plastic speakers when they were the new thing on the block, and I spent months trying to track down new compression drivers before getting fed up and just screwing in something to get them working again.
With powered speakers, the control panel will include at least one level control and various other knobs and switches, and its a good idea to look for a design where these are at least partially protected from accidental damage, especially as they are often mounted directly on to a printed circuit board behind the panel. Theres quite a lot of pain and expense to be had if one of these gets pushed inwards.
Your flexible friends
All the points weve looked at are concerned with finding what type of speakers might best suit your particular requirements, but flexibility and scalability are things that are easy to overlook. If your act is so established that you know exactly what youll be doing for your next hundred or so performances (if you play a residency, for example) then youll have a good idea of what will work for you. If this isnt the case, it would be a mistake to base your speaker wish-list entirely on what youre doing or planning at the moment. With this in mind, the ability to add to or scale down your speaker setup is an important consideration, and the most frequent question I get asked is about buying some subs to add to an existing system. As discussed earlier in this piece, adding subs is a great way to liberate extra power from the full-range units, but they shouldnt just be strapped in parallel with the original speakers. Ideally they need a separate amp, driven via an active crossover, or a passive crossover as a bare minimum. Were not getting into amps here, but you will obviously have to work out the speaker impedance needed to match your speakers and not overload your amp output stage. If you really do need a system that covers everything from very small to medium-sized venues, my recommendation would be to look at a single, compact, high-powered rig that is capable of handling the larger gigs but physically small enough for the others — after all, you can always turn it down. Id stear clear of using more than one set of speakers unless they are specifically designed to work together (mini-line arrays such as the JBL VRX928 boxes, for example) as arraying them side by side will generally detract from the quality, and the coverage will become inconsistent. If more power is called for on occasion, Id suggest adding additional active subs (but of exactly the same make and model to match the characteristics of the others), as subs where most of the output power goes, and this can make a big subjective impact. There are many excellent systems on the market that use only one full-range cabinet per side and deliver very high output levels, such that using multiple speakers for most portable PA applications just isnt going to be needed. The sort of flexible features I find useful are things like direct microphone inputs on active speakers so that you can use a single unit on a stand for announcements. I look for generous input and output connectivity, and combination XLR/jack inputs are very handy, as are front-mounted power-on LEDs so that you know the thing is powered up and ready to go. If you really do want to go for bigger speakers for bigger gigs, then you could consider buying small gig main speakers that are suitable to be used as monitors when you use your larger setup on bigger shows.
Go for it
There are so many things to include in any discussion about which speakers to use, and weve only really scratched the surface here. Everything comes down to knowing what you are going to use your system for, deciding which features are more important than others, and narrowing your requirements as far as possible before looking for the bargains. There are plenty of good retailers out there who will indeed help you find the right solution, and many will have in-house demo facilities where you can compare different products until youre happy to make your choice. Take a few favourite tracks with you and listen at different volume levels, including hitting the limiters just to make sure the speakers handle all that theyre supposed to. In the case of passive speakers, make sure they are being driven with the recommended amplifier power, and theres no harm in taking your own mixer and mic along, or even your old portable PA if you have one. Tracking down and buying the right gear can be most rewarding, but none of us want to risk a poor result. If you approach the project with a clear idea of what you need and why, youll come over as an intelligent customer, and they tend to get the best results. 0
50+ PA Systems Tested
Listed here www.performing-musician.com/pm/dec09/articles/pabuyersguide_reviews.htm are all the speaker systems weve tested in Performing Musician to date, along with summaries of each review, and technical specifications as far as they are provided by the manufacturers. Weve also provided links to the full reviews, which you can read on the PM web site.
Active vs Passive
Published in PM December 2009
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