Roundup – Portable P.A. Systems
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
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
• Am I more concerned with amplifying
vocals, or do I need to run a DJ system with
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
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.
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.|
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
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.”
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
|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.
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.|
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.
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).
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.
|The 360W EPA900 is the highest-powered
system in a trio of portable P.A.s that includes 150W and 300W models.
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.
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
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.
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.