Choosing the Right Portable PA System
If you are starting to get serious about your DJing, then inevitably you will start booking gigs, some of which will occur at venues that lack a house sound system. If you don’t already have one, a solid portable PA system is definitely in your future, and it’s a great investment for your DJ career.
There are many options to choose from, but you should first determine your budget and specific needs before making your choice. How often will you be using it? Where will it be used, and how many people will you be playing for? How much power do I need to rock the party? There, there young padawans, we are here to help. Here’s some vital info that will help you in your decision to purchase a portable PA system.
Tabletop, Speaker Boxes, and the Bass below
If you are a DJ, then you probably have some sort of equipment set-up. This might consist of turntables or CDJ’s, a mixer, and your music, whether it’s from vinyl records, CDs, or a laptop. This also may consist of a DJ controller, your sound card, and your laptop. Either way, let’s go ahead and call this your tabletop. I’m not going to include the vital accessories or peripherals (headphone, needles, slipmats, timecode CD/vinyl, cables and adaptors) in this definition of tabletop, you should always have these for obvious reasons.
SO, you are booking the gig and they tell you that you need to bring your tabletop and your own PA. What type of PA? Glad you asked. A standard PA system is going to consist of two speakers, an amplifier to power them, all necessary cables (including power strips and extensions), and speaker stands. In most cases, a power receptacle, and booth area or table should be provided for you. ANYTHING beyond that, you should always be prepared to bring on your own.
Choosing your PA speakers can rely on several different factors and can be a complex situation or an easy one. Most DJs start with two loudspeakers, with the option of adding a sub woofer for more bass in the future. A pair of speakers can be powered by a single stereo power amplifier, provided you purchase one that will match the demands of your passive, or non-powered, speakers.
Quick lesson: If you have two 15″ speakers that are rated at 500 watts each (at 8ohms), you will need at least a 1000 watt (at 8 ohms) power amp, 500 watts on each side for each speaker. It’s not that difficult, and more power is better. Using a smaller, or lower wattage power amp will damage the speakers and your audio will be distorted and kill your audience, figuratively. Please feel free to comment below if you need any further clarity. If you do choose to add a sub woofer in the future, you will need another separate power amplifier, and a crossover. Again, I’ll be happy to expand on this if need be.
A passive speaker system is perfectly fine, as long as you follow the rules and do the math. However, in my experiences, an active (or powered) speaker system is much easier to use, more portable, and hassle-free. Powered speakers have their own amplifiers built in, and each of them require a power source or AC plug. Your tabletop system can connect directly into each speaker, usually with a balanced 1/4″ or XLR cable.
Often times there are multiple inputs and output options for daisy-chaining multiple speakers. A powered sub woofer is also very easy to add in this type of system, considering there would be no need for another external amplifier or a crossover. The amplifiers are matched perfectly and tuned specifically for the speakers in which they inhabit, but that is not to say you are completely safe from blowing or overheating your speakers. You must always be mindful of your levels, regardless of using an active or passive speaker system.
Choosing the proper level of amplification for your portable PA system is probably the easiest to determine, because let’s just face it, more is better. I mean, we are DJs, so we want maximum power, crispy highs, a sultry mid-range, and the biggest, chunkiest bass. Unfortunately, you might have “champagne wishes and caviar dreams,” but on a PBR budget.
Speakers will generally come with a 12″-15″ woofer, and a power handling capacity, or rating of 200-1000 watts. Subs range from 400-1000 watts, with a 15″-18″ woofer. The determining factor on which speakers, or sub and speakers that you choose first, is the application or the type of gigs you will regularly be playing. I say regularly because you definitely want this equipment to pay for itself in a few gigs.
From this point forward, I will be referring to every speaker cabinet and sub enclosure as a powered piece of gear for simplicity’s sake.
This is the most common speaker set-up, and the minimum amount of PA you should ever have. This consists of two 12″ or 15″ speakers on speaker stands, with a combined power output of 800-1000 watts. Once you have set up your tabletop and PA, take cables from your left and right main outputs from your DJ mixer or controller, and go directly into each speaker for a very easy set-up.
This portable PA is suitable for smaller pub or coffee house gigs, in-store mall gigs, or tail-gate parties for crowds less of less than 100 people. I love this set-up because it is quick and easy, all my cables fit in the speaker stand bag, and it could quite possibly be a 2-tripper if you have a rolling cart or dolly.
2 Tops and 1 Sub (The Trio)
The Trio, this speaker set-up is my favorite because it really rounds out the overall audio performance of your DJ set by providing the welcomed bass that an additional sub can provide. Since powered subs usually have a built-in crossover, you have the option of using 12″ or 15″ tops with the signal in full-range, or crossed-over with only the mid and high-range frequencies played through the tops.
You will need a total of four cables, two coming from your mixer’s main output to the sub, and then two going from your sub to you each of your top speakers. Your total power output should be 1500 to 2000 watts, providing adequate bass and crisp audio for your second or back room, small venue, patio, or dance music friendly gigs. You will use this PA system for indoor gigs of up to 300-400 people indoors or 200 outdoors.
2-4 Tops and 2 Subs (The Stormbringer)
If you are going to be a mobile/wedding or corporate event DJ playing in front of upwards to 800 people at an indoor venue, you will need at least two 15″ speakers and two subs. Your total power for your complete PA should be no less than 2000 watts, but I highly recommend 4000 watts or more. If you will be playing an outdoor venue, even if will be less than 800 people, you should consider adding two more 15″ speakers. This system, in full regalia, is the flagship of the three, transforming almost any venue or hotel ballroom into an instant night club that can truly meet all the demands of your DJ gig.
If you are regularly taking gigs that require more power or audio output than this system can provide, CONGRATULATIONS, you’re gonna be rich. But you should most likely start outsourcing the audio services to a concert PA rental house, because we are no longer speaking of a PA system in “portable” terms. The Stormbringer starts out as PA on a stick, but successful, constant gigging and the growing demand for your services can be very lucrative, and allow your PA system the opportunity to grow and mature.
What to Look For
Now that we have established the three basic types of portable PA and their applications, let’s talk about how we rate each speaker or sub woofer. There are four things to consider when choosing powered speaker enclosures. Let’s discuss.
Speakers that have a higher power rating usually translate to a louder output volume, and a wider frequency response. Powered speaker enclosures, by design, are matched pretty accurately with the amps that they are constructed with, and they almost always have some sort of clip indicator if you are driving your speakers in excess. If you have smaller gigs, in a low to mid volume level environment, you should consider a speaker with no less than 250 watts. For all other gigs, you should consider a powered speaker rated at 500 watts or more.
Speakers come with woofers in either 10″, 12″, or 15″ variety, with typically a 1″ HF driver, and Class D amplification. I can throw a lot of specs at you that you may or may not comprehend, but at the end of the day you really just need to know how something performs and how versatile it is. Pay attention to features like frequency range, audio dispersion (the angles that the sound will travel horizontally and vertically), and the construction of the drivers. You also want to note the versatility of the mixer section and the EQ controls. Some speakers have multiple channel inputs for mic or line, and control of bass and treble. You’ll also want to watch videos, and read customer reviews, especially if they used the speakers for sustained periods of time successfully.
The weight of your speakers may determine your decision, especially if you have to transport them often. Powered speakers can weigh anywhere from 30-60 pounds depending on the size of the amplifier and woofer. Subs typically weigh 50-80 pounds, so you’ll definitely want to invest in a dolly or a rolling cart. It is logical that more power, and a bigger sized speaker will weigh more, but you might be surprised to find that some products out there are very lightweight and still pack a punch. However, most times you might pay a little more for that convenient technology. You also want to check out what type of handles are on the speakers and subs, whether they are on the sides and/or top can determine how convenient it is to transport them. Subs with built-in wheels are a plus, too.
Pricing almost always determines which gear you will choose. Luckily, there are many different products and price points within the PA speaker market to choose from that will definitely serve your purpose. Sometimes you might compromise performance or portability in order to stay within your budget, but you have to do what’s best. If you are truly serious about your gigs and you need extremely reliable equipment, you most probably will invest a bit more than if you are just an occasional or hobbyist DJ. Don’t forget to check out the used or B stock market, too. You can save a lot of money and get some solid gear if you do the leg work.
Here are my picks for powered speakers and subs:
This series from JBL is their most popular. The EON515XT top gives you 650 watts from a class D amplifier, making it very efficient and also lightweight. Your audio comes through a 15″ woofer which give you nice dispersion and a wide frequency range, and it only weighs 35 pounds.
The EON518S sub is stout, delivering 500 watts (1000 watts peak) of chunky bass through an 18″ woofer. The tops are great as a pair for your mid-range PA system, but just add the sub (or two) and you’ve got a very nice set-up.
Mackie SRM450V2 and Mackie SRM1801
This powered set-up is Mackie’s work horse powered system. The SRM450v2 has a 12″ woofer and 400 watts of power. It has a super clean output and a decent amount of bass, even for a 12″ woofer, and it weighs around 40 pounds.
The SRM1801 sub packs a mean punch with 1000 watts peak power, delivered through an 18″ woofer. It weighs in at 70 pounds, which is still portable, but heavy after a long gig. We used this very set-up with two tops and two subs last summer for our Unique MobileStudio tour and it was amazing. This is a solid, reliable system as a pair of tops, or with even a single sub.
The QSC KW series is probably my favorite because their performance is impeccable and their quality is unrivaled. The KW122 delivers 1000 watts combined power in a 12″ woofer with a 1.75″ diaphragm compression driver. The mids and highs are crispy and very well defined, and the output is super loud without distorting. They are quite heavy (especially for a 12″ speaker) at almost 50 pounds, but they are worth the workout.
The KW181 sub is a perfect match for the KW122, giving you 2000 watts peak power, an 18″ woofer, and super loud bass. This sub can deliver the goods for prolonged amounts of time, too. At 88 pounds it is only right that it comes with castors to make transport of this beast a breeze. This is the priciest of the bunch, but it definitely sounds the best.
There are certainly loads more to consider, and you can check out the lot at our website here. Just remember to do some research, and ask a lot of questions before making your decision. You will definitely need a PA system if you want to start playing gigs and making those paper figures, and we are definitely here to help you reach your dream of doing so. Please feel free to leave me some comments or questions below if you need any more clarity, and thanks as always for staying subscribed to our blog. Until next time, happy gigs!