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Roundup: Portable P.A. Systems

July 2, 2014
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PLAYING LIVE shows is great—but moving gear stinks. Compound the backache with the aggravation of setting up and tearing down a P.A. system, and it’s enough to make you want to tear your hair out. We can’t help if you’re running a Marshall double-stack in a cocktail lounge, but we can help you choose a small P.A. system that won’t BREAK your bank or your back. We’re talking about what Electronic Musician refers to as a “Portable P.A.” system: a compact P.A. that won’t require a truck to move—or a degree in physics to operate.

You’ll find representative examples of this new breed of P.A.s sprinkled throughout this roundup (note that all prices are MSRP). Although these systems have many similarities, they also have many differences and special features that might be deciding factors in helping you determine which type of system will be best for your needs.

Ground Rules Conventional P.A.s are too big and complicated for quick, easy setup, and the investment isn’t commensurate with the returns from the gig. Any band that carries its own P.A. knows the drill: Pack up the mics, mic stands, mixing console(s), outboard EQ and effects, power amps, speakers, and cables. Load everything into a van or small truck because it won’t fit into a car. Arrive at the venue (allow plenty of time to set up), get help to unload the gear, unpack it, set it up, wire it, test it, tune it . . . there’s a reason that engineers make money providing their gear and services.

If you’re in a full band, a portable P.A. is probably not appropriate. But if you’re a singer-songwriter, solo performer, DJ, or duo/trio playing gigs at coffee houses, small bars, clubs, or restaurants, a portable P.A. is the way to go.

Most of the portable P.A.s we examined run under a grand or two, so they won’t suck up your profit margin—but choose wisely, and verify exactly what’s included in the sticker price. Although stands, cables, and carry bags aren’t big-ticket items, they can add up, and they may not be part of the package.

What Goes In Must Come Out Most portable P.A.s accommodate a minimal number of inputs (typically not more than six or eight, although there are exceptions), so evaluate whether the system has enough inputs for your needs. Many solo performers really need just two inputs—microphone and instrument— although if you use backing tracks (from a file player, drum machine, or arranger), or intend to work with another musician, you’ll need additional ins. Some portable P.A.s support proprietary, optional-at extra- cost expansion mixers, while others might require that you add your own external mixer, then connect its output to the P.A.’s input—which kind of mitigates the easy-setup aspect.

Dedicated instrument inputs (e.g., for guitar or bass) obviate the need for direct boxes, simplify setup, and keep a hundred bucks in your pocket. An aux input (like RCA jacks or a 1/8-inch stereo mini-jack) that can accept an iPod or CD is useful for supplying pre-show music, music between sets, or backing tracks.

EQ on each channel is a must, but at best you’ll get a fixed, 3-band (low/mid/ high) EQ. Fortunately, this is usually sufficient. The mixer may feature an onboard 5- or 7-band graphic EQ for the main outputs, but if it’s not present, don’t let that be a deal-BREAKer.

Not all portable P.A.s provide an input gain or trim control on each channel, and inputs with fixed sensitivity can be problematic. Microphone output levels vary widely, and a “hot” condenser or a wireless mic receiver could overload a channel’s input stage. At the very least, look for a pad switch on the input; engaging this will let the input sensitivity accept hot signals. If possible, try your favorite mics with the system to ensure it can produce the desired volume level and still have a bit of headroom.

If karaoke is your main activity (hey, we all have to make a living), check for plenty of line-level inputs to accept the outputs of your disk player(s). Line inputs are also useful for connecting wireless mics, some of which may output a line-level signal only.

Other important mixer features include phantom power for condenser microphones; a polarity reverse (commonly referred to as “phase”) switch, which may help reduce feedback in certain instances; and feedback detection. (More on that shortly.) Most portable P.A.s include onboard effects processing such as reverb or delay, but may be limited to a few programs; an effects level control on each channel lets you add reverb or delay only where desired. A master effects mute button or footswitch effects on/off jack is a must. Nothing sounds more ridiculous than a bar singer speaking to the crowd with echo on his or her voice. Effects send and return jacks facilitate connecting an external processor if you decide you don’t like the onboard effects or need a wider variety.

A few portable P.A.s offer a “tape” output that’s suitable for sending your mix to one of the commonly available, inexpensive handheld recorders—but don’t expect facilities for multitrack recording, unless you’re willing to spring for an external mixer. (Some offer FireWire or USB interfacing.) While a tape out might not net you a release-quality master, connecting a recorder for documenting gigs (and rehearsals) or swapping song ideas via MP3s can help you hone your craft.

Speak Up, Please Speakers for portable P.A. systems come in a variety of shapes and sizes, ranging from compact versions of the typical live sound box to long, skinny “pole” speakers. Speakers for portable P.A.s can be passive (i.e., the speaker requires a power amp) or active (the power amplification is built-in). Active cabinets tend to be heavier but require less setup, while passive cabinets may be lighter but require a power amp. Ultimately, you’re probably lifting the same amount of weight!

Column-type loudspeakers tend to have a limited low-frequency response, and may require a subwoofer to produce meaningful low end. For these systems, ask yourself:

• How loud does the system need to play?
• Can speakers be daisy-chained for more volume or wider coverage?
• Do I need a subwoofer? If so, how will it be connected—and how many can I add?
• Is a crossover provided, or do I need to purchase one?
• Am I more concerned with amplifying vocals, or do I need to run a DJ system with thumping subs?

A dedicated subwoofer output makes it relatively painless to add low end when you need (and can afford) it, and may even feature automatic switching so that plugging a connector into the subwoofer output jack automatically applies a high-pass filter to the full-range speakers, relieving them of their low-end duties—and relieving you of dealing with a crossover.

Also consider the physical relationship between the sub and full-range speaker components. For example, the HK Audio Elements system can use either the power amp module or subwoofer cabinet as the base for mounting a pole that supports a full-range cabinet. This means you won’t need to carry stands, and in this particular system HK Audio’s unique “E-Connect” simultaneously provides the mechanical and electronic connection between sub, power amp, and full-range cabinets—making speaker cabling optional(!). A system like this is easy to expand for use in larger venues, while others may be more “closed” systems.

Amplifier power is important, but look past the raw power specs to how loud the system can actually play. As these systems integrate the power amp(s) and speakers, speaker sensitivity plays a huge role in the maximum achievable SPL—making the power rating less important than if you were mixing and matching power amps with traditional P.A. cabs. However, make sure your system isn’t underpowered. If it starts distorting, the high frequencies that result from clipping can fry your high-frequency drivers.

Unfortunately, not every manufacturer publishes a maximum SPL spec, so you’ll have to do something really radical: Listen to the system. Here’s where having a relationship with a local music/audio retailer is a huge help, because a salesperson will be more likely to set up the system for you if you’re a good customer. Failing that, you might propose renting a system with an “option to buy” so that you could try it in the field. As an alternative, see if any of your friends own one of these systems and check it out while they’re doing a gig. This will also give you a handle (pardon the pun) on how easy or difficult it is to transport. While certain systems BREAK down into many components, others from Fender and Alto mate the speaker cabs and mixer for transport, forming a single piece with a handle that requires only one trip.

Can You Hear Me Now? Every musician understands the importance of stage monitors, and a portable P.A.’s intended application defines your monitor requirements. When you’re providing a system for karaoke, your . . . uh . . . “talent” probably won’t be expecting a monitor mix, but it’s a good idea if the system can at least support connecting to a monitor. There’s a huge discrepancy in monitoring capabilities among portable P.A.s., ranging from “Monitors? What monitors?’ to “You don’t need a monitor because you’ll hear yourself through the P.A. the same way that the audience hears you.”

Mixers in certain portable P.A.s feature an aux send output for routing to a power amp or powered monitor speaker—a very good idea that could alternatively drive an in-ear monitor mix. You may not need a monitor for low-volume gigs, or if you can position the P.A. so that you can hear it without causing feedback (see setup tips below), but keep in mind that if your main axe is electronic—such as a stage piano sans built-in speakers—you need a way to hear your instrument. However, when playing an electronic keyboard, you can place the P.A. behind you without fear of feedback. On the other hand, acoustic guitar players will have to experiment to determine what’s acceptable, or explore using a soundhole cover to reduce feedback. The Fishman SA220 cabinet features monitor in and out jacks, so one performer can send audio to another performer’s cabinet for monitoring purposes.

Setup Tips The Prime Directive of Live Sound clearly states that in order to avoid feedback, the P.A. system must be in front of the musicians. It might be possible to place the speakers so both you and your audience can hear them—but if you can hear them, the microphone usually can, too. The exceptions are systems designed and voiced for placement behind the players. For example, the Bose L1 Model II system is intended to be placed next to a wall at a distance between three and eight feet from the musicians, so the musicians hear the house mix. Placing the subwoofer cabinet next to a wall reinforces bass response, though this characteristic is not unique to Bose; in general, anytime you move a speaker near a boundary you’ll hear more low-frequency response. Move the sub into a corner, and you’ll get tons of low end— but I make no claim that it’s going to be clear and tight.

For P.A.s not necessarily intended for placement behind the performers, onboard feedback detection helps avoid feedback, but don’t ask for miracles if you get overzealous with the volume. Ditto for the graphic EQ on the main left/right output, where notching down an EQ control can help pull out a problem frequency. And while we’re on the subject of feedback, aim stage monitors toward the rear of the microphone, where the mic has maximum rejection of ambient sounds. (In a future issue we’ll discuss mic polar patterns and monitor placement in detail.)

Almost all of the systems we profiled either come with, or require, stands to get the full-range component of the P.A. at ear height. Placing speakers on the floor guarantees poor results because sound won’t project toward the rear of the room. A practical reason for setting the cabs at the correct height is that many systems locate the controls on the speaker’s rear panel, and those controls should be easy for you to access. Do you always sit or stand when you play? Will you be bending down in a dark corner to find the volume control if you need to make adjustments? Is it likely that someone can spill a drink into the electronics? Yikes!

As with any pro audio product, portable P.A.s offer additional features as you spend more money: more power, extended low-frequency response, enhanced input channels, perhaps conveniences such as a tuner output, and the like. But remember that you’re not trying to cover a crowd of 15,000; you’re just trying to get your music across to your small audience and maintain your sanity by using a simple P.A. system. Fortunately, there are so many options, you’ll almost certainly be able to find a system that works for you— and your sanity!

 

 
The original Triflex was one of the first portable P.A.s designed for more than just presenters; the Triflex II carries on the tradition, but with serious power and enough bass for DJs.

Peavey Triflex II
$1,599.99

Basics 1,000W three-piece, 2-channel sound system with shared 15" subwoofer and pair of satellite speakers (10" woofer and 1.4" compression driver tweeter) with speaker pole stand adapters. (Speaker stands are sold separately, but 15-foot speaker cables are included.) Construction is typical Peavey—the company obviously doesn’t want to see it again after it leaves the factory.

Special features DDT compression on the satellite power amps helps control overloading and distortion. The subwoofer has locking casters for easier transportation, and it has heavy-duty, four-pin, twist-lock connectors on the amplifier outputs and satellite inputs.

Bottom line There’s enough bass and power for DJs, solo/duo acts, and smaller bands in mid-sized venues. You’ll probably need help transporting it, but the extra weight pays off in a big sound.

 
 
 
The ELX112P is a good example of a high-power “P.A. system in a cabinet,” with internal mixer and the option to daisy-chain.
 
Electro-Voice ELX112P
$949
electrovoice.com

Basics 1,000W Class D amp with 12" woofer, 1.5" titanium compression driver, and selectable 100Hz high-pass filter to accommodate an external subwoofer. Inputs are two Neutrik XLR/TRS combo jacks with level controls, stereo RCA jacks, and an XLR link output for daisychaining speakers.

Special features Can be pole-mounted for stacking on top of an acoustically-matched Live X Series sub, and its angled design facilitates use as a floor monitor. Built-in side handles make for easier setup, BREAKdown, and transport.

Bottom line At 42 pounds, the 12" woofer provides extra bass for medium-sized venues, with the 1,000W amp providing enough power to give it more push than expected.

 

 
The L3t uses advances in networking and DSP to produce a “smart” speaker that can serve as a standalone P.A. or a part of a larger “live sound ecosystem.”

Line 6 StageSource L3t
$1,679
 

Basics 3-way, 1,400W tri-amp design with integrated multichannel mixer (includes 3-band EQ with sweepable mids, feedback suppression, acoustic guitar modeling, and more); DSP sound optimization controls the two 10" speakers (one optimized for lows, one for lows and mids) and 1” exit compression driver horn. An output limiter with 12-band feedback suppression provides protection.


Special features Part of the Line 6 “live sound ecosystem,” the L3t is the basis of a scalable system that connects to other elements of the network, such as the Line 6 StageScape M20d digital mixer, via the L6 Link digital networking support. An onboard accelerometer and pole-mount sensors sense the speaker's orientation and set the speaker mode automatically;

Bottom line While designed for use with other elements of Line 6’s live sound system, the L3t can stand alone as a portable P.A. that weighs 57.5 pounds, or be augmented for larger venues.

 
 
 


The SA220 is seriously portable, yet includes numerous extras intended for performing vocalists and instrumentalists.

Fishman SA220
$1,538.38

Basics Line array with six 4" cone midrange drivers driven by 200W amp, and 1" neodymium softdome tweeter with 20W amp. Each of the two mic/ instrument channels has high/mid/low controls, anti-feedback controls, and pad, phase switch, and reverb. Phantom power is common for both. The system also features an additional aux input and monitor in/out.

Special features This is a very back-friendly unit, weighing 25 pounds, or 35 pounds with stand and carrying bag. Its mixer capabilities, including effects loop, DI out, tuner out, and four different reverbs, mean you probably won’t need to pack extras.

Bottom line This is sometimes categorized as “I don’t need something as big or expensive as a Bose L1,” but it performs extremely well, given its size, weight, and cost. Setup and teardown is super-fast, but the system can fill small- to mid-sized venues if you don’t need a lot of bass.

 
While the Mixpack Express has an extremely musician-friendly price tag, it still manages to put out significant sound levels without sacrificing sound quality.


 
Alto Professional Mixpack Express
$599

Basics This is the least expensive portable P.A. in the roundup. It has two 10" speakers, 350W continuous power, and multiple inputs (balanced XLR, balanced/ unbalanced TRS, and unbalanced RCA—but no instrument input). It includes two mic cables and two speaker cables. The mixer has seven input channels.

Special features Speakers attach and detach to the amp/mixer module using latches, and the top handle lets you carry the entire unit with one hand. DSP effects include reverb, delay, and chorus, with output 7-band EQ and monitor out.

Bottom line For small venues, parties, house concerts, and presentations, this system is highly portable and cost-effective. Don’t expect to shake the rafters—but the sound quality is there. Note: F-8 or F-3 speaker stands aren’t included.

 
The back of the GSR10 reveals the poweramp heat sink, and control panel for the input and daisy-chaining option.


 
M-Audio GSR10
$499
 

Basics Mixerless, single-input (dynamic mic or line-level signal) portable bass-reflex speaker cabinet with 250W Class D amp, 10" low-frequency driver, and 1" high-frequency titanium compression driver; can be pole-mounted but also has five fly points. Weighs 25 pounds.

Special features There are four EQ tunings: Normal, Hi-Fi, DJ, and Voice. Speakers can be stacked or pole-mounted on top of the GSR18 subwoofer to extend coverage; waveguide technology gives broader coverage, while the angled cabinet design allows use as a floor monitor.

Bottom line Putting this speaker on top of a pole mount gives a decent P.A. system for small- to medium-sized venues as long as you don’t need to mix, or already have a mixer. Speakers can be daisy-chained to accommodate different-sized venues.

 
Bose originated the “line array for the rest of us,” but the L1 Compact brings the company’s technology to a less expensive— and more portable—price point.


 
 
Bose L1 Compact
$999.95

Basics Six small drivers in a vertical enclosure and a sub in the power stand team with a 2-input mixer. (Channel 1 has XLR mic input, with ToneMatch preset optimized for dynamic mic; channel 2 has an instrument in, RCA stereo in, and one 1/8" stereo in, as well as a ToneMatch preset for acoustic guitar. )The mixer is on the rear of the speaker stand—one less box to carry around.

Special features Two setup options—extended or collapsed—accommodate various rooms. The system weighs 29 pounds, and sets up in less than a minute. Dispersion is extremely good, and allows placement behind the performer to eliminate the need for monitors.

Bottom line Although they were controversial when first introduced, few would now deny that the L1 and L1 Model II systems are outstanding—albeit pricey—systems for live performance. While not expandable like its bigger brothers, the L1 Compact is light, very portable, and hits an affordable price point.

 

 
Not only is the Stagepas the only mixer in the roundup with 10 inputs, but it includes Yamaha DSP for reverb and has a music/speech switch to optimize the system for different applications.

Yamaha Stagepas 500
$1,249

Basics Each speaker cab has a 250W Class D power amp, 10" woofer, and 1" high-frequency driver. The speakers can be stand-mounted. The 10-channel mixer has four mono mic/line inputs with switchable phantom power and three stereo line inputs with monitor and record outputs, plus an auto limiter to prevent damage to speakers or amps.

Special features In addition to featuring more inputs than the average mixer, the Stagepas system lets you apply limiting or compression to channels 1 and 2; all channels have 2-band EQ, reverb switches for the onboard SPX reverb on channels 1-4, and overall reverb level mix control. A music/speech switch optimizes the system for the two applications.

Bottom line Intended for medium-sized venues, the Stagepas 500 gets the nod when you need more than the usual 2-6 inputs typically found on similar portable P.A. systems, and at 53 pounds, it remains quite portable.

 

 
Although JBL is known for high-power, pro P.A. systems, the Eon brings the company’s expertise to a portable P.A. system.

 
JBL Eon 210P
$1,249

Basics Two bass-reflex speaker cabs, each with 150W Class D power amp, 10" woofer, 1.5" neodymium compression driver, 8-channel (four mono mic/line combo connectors, one stereo with paralleled balanced 1/4" TRS and unbalanced RCA, and one stereo with 1/8" minijack) powered mixer with digital effects; 30V phantom power.

Special features The mixer attaches to one speaker, with storage pod for cables to the other; includes onboard DSP limiter and multi-effects with four effects (inputs have reverb send controls). The entire system weighs in at 33 pounds (19 pounds for speaker/mixer, 14 pounds for speaker/storage pod).

Bottom line Significant volume, with clarity of sound, for up to medium-sized venues while being extremely portable due to light weight and “one unit per hand” carrying confi guration. Speakers can be pole-mounted (poles not included).

 

Behringer Europort EPA900
$1,523.99

 
The 360W EPA900 is the highest-powered system in a trio of portable P.A.s that includes 150W and 300W models.

Basics Two speaker cabs, each with 360W RMS amps, 10" woofer, and 1.35" aluminum-diaphragm compression driver; an 8-channel (four mono with phantom power and pad and two stereo, plus an 1/8" minijack input) mixer, and 7-band output graphic EQ. Total weight is 82 pounds.

Special features The system includes a 24-bit stereo FX processor, feedback detection system that displays feedback frequency, lowpass-filtered output for subwoofer, integrated storage compartment, and voice canceler for karaoke. Includes XM1800S mic and 20' cable. 100/240V power supply works globally.

Bottom line The EPA900 has enough heft for mid-sized venues, with plenty of inputs for multiple instruments and effects.

 
Fender’s Passport P.A. has been around for a while, but the latest version can record and play back performances with a USB flash drive.

 

 
Fender Passport 500 Pro
$1,399.99

Basics Dual-speaker cabinets and mixer pack up into a single package that weighs less than 60 lbs. The 8-channel mixer (six mic/line, two stereo line in) feeds a 500W, Class D amp; speaker sections use a 10" woofer and 1.2" horn-loaded tweeter. Stand adapters are built into each speaker cabinet.

Special features Records performances in WAV format to a USB flash drive that can also provide WAV/MP3 playback; other features include an effects loop (preamp out/power in), output jack for an external powered subwoofer, onboard reverb, phantom power for mics (no instrument ins), and docking connector for Passport wireless receiver.

Bottom line Intended for presentations, solo acts, seminars, and ensemble performances in small venues. As long as you don’t need to cover a big space (or lots of bass), this is a portable solution that can even be battery-powered.

 
The Soundcaddy One is derived from HK’s high-end Elements scalable portable P.A. system, but is smaller, more portable, and less expensive.


 
HK Audio Soundcaddy One
$3,999

Basics Line array/subwoofer combination with 600W Class D amp, three 6" bass speakers, and six 3.5” mid/high drivers. The mixer has two combo mic/instrument jacks and two stereo line inputs. Built-in wheels make it easy to move the Soundcaddy One into position.

Special features The line-array speakers and pole fit in the sub for transport, then pop up hydraulically for setup—set to the desired height, then lock in place. RCA out jacks are available, as is an XLR line out to feed a second Soundcaddy. The unit weighs in around 64 pounds—not bad, given the functionality.

Bottom line The Soundcaddy One is the most expensive portable P.A. in the lineup, but it boasts the lineage of HK’s Elements Series. It’s super-fast and easy to set up while delivering reasonable power (and clean sound quality) for smaller venues. 

 

Steve La Cerra is an independent audio engineer based in NY. In addition to being an Electronic Musician contributor, he mixes front-of-house for Blue Oyster Cult and teaches audio at Mercy College White Plains campus. Craig Anderton is Executive Editor of Electronic Musician magazine as well as a musician, author, and consultant.

 
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