VoiceCouncil’s Guide to Buying a PA System
Answer these 7 questions to find the best live sound solution for your music – says Chris Kennedy.
Bigger isn’t always better.
In the last few years we’ve reviewed many PA systems – some of these pack a punch above their small weight.
But – before you lay down your hard earned money – here are top 7 questions you need to ask.
1. Should I buy an active or passive system?
Active speakers contain a power amp within the speaker enclosure (or sometimes just within the sub on a 2.1 system); whereas passive speakers need an external power amp to drive them. There are advantages and disadvantages to both systems, however active systems do appear to be a more popular choice these days for acts playing in smaller venues. One advantage of active systems is that the power amp and speaker has already been correctly matched and optimised. With a passive system you will need an external power amplifier. This has the advantage that you do not need to run mains power to your speakers and that if a speaker or amplifier breaks; you won’t necessarily have to replace the entire system. On the other hand, you will have to make sure to correctly match the amplifier to the speakers and, when compared to some active systems, setting up at the venue may be a little more complex and take longer.
2. Do I need a mixing desk?
A mixing desk allows you to adjust the relative levels of the instruments going through your PA system. If you have passive speakers you will certainly need a mixing desk. This will connect to your power amplifier, or you can also mixing desks with inbuilt power amplifiers to directly drive your passive speakers. If you decide to buy an active system you may also need an external mixing desk; however some systems come with an integrated mixing desk or separate microphone and line-level inputs with adjustable levels – meaning you might be able bypass the need of a mixing desk altogether and make your setup as simple as possible.
3. How many watts should my system have?
Although the amount of power a PA system has is important, it is not necessarily the most important aspect and is a lot more complicated than you might think. There is no industry standard way of measuring the power of a system and, as such, some manufacturers will use methods that make their system appear more powerful than they actually are. For example some manufacturers will list the peak power of the system whereas others will list the average power. If you are matching a power amp to some speakers you will also need check the impedance of your speakers as the power output of an amplifier will vary dramatically depending on the impedance. The sound level produced is also related to the sensitivity of the speakers – meaning some speakers will need to be driven with more power than others to achieve the same volume. Essentially, until you try out a system it is very hard to know if it is loud enough (or even too loud) for you – or what the sound quality is like. If you can’t try out a PA before buying it, make sure to read as many user reviews as possible before purchasing.
PA systems we have reviewed that had surprising power for small sizes include the SR Jam 150 (Review) and the Fishman SA220 (Review) – but these may be best for small venues as there is always going to be a limit to how loud a smaller system can be made to go.
4. Do I have the right cables?
It is important, and in some cases vital, to use the correct cables when setting up your PA system. Speaker cables are designed to carry more power than instrument cables and connecting speakers with the wrong cable can cause damage to your equipment. Issues can sometimes arise when the same connection type is used for cabled deigned for different purposes. For example, some passive speakers have ¼ jack inputs that are the same as the inputs on a guitar lead; however guitar cables are not designed to take the amount of current outputted by a power amplifier so you’ll need to make sure not to get your cables mixed up. If you have an active system this is not generally going to be an issue, however some active systems have a power amplifier in a bass speaker that powers two satellite speakers, meaning you will need to make sure you connect them with right type of cable.
5. Do I need a separate subwoofer?
Subwoofers are great for music with a lot of bass – however they are of little use for vocals. So, if you are performing pop/dance songs to backing tracks; adding a subwoofer to your system will help you get more of a party vibe going as the bass and kick drums will sound bigger. On the other hand, if you are singing along with an acoustic guitar (or even a piano) then a sub is unlikely to be of any real use. If you are using a subwoofer it is worth remembering to use the low-cut switch on your mixing desk for your vocal channel as it will reduce the chance of low frequency feedback caused by your microphone.
6. How can I help make my vocals sound great?
You will sometimes see singers simply plug their microphone direct into their PA system and expect to get a great vocal sound. Without extra EQ and effects processing, vocals can sound dull and lifeless. Some mixing desks have on-board EQ and reverb, which can help remedy this; however often the best results will be found using a separate vocal processor. Manufacturers such as TC-Helicon, Digitech and Boss produce multi-effects devices that can be used for this and help take your vocals to the next level.
We have reviewed a wide range of vocal processors with our highest rated being the TC-Helicon VoiceLive Play GTX (Review).
You can view a list of all the different models we have looked at here:
7. What makes should I look out for?
While it would not be fair to single out any specific manufacturers, not all speaker systems are built to the same quality. As well as build quality, the main difference between budget and premium brands will be in the sound quality produced by the speakers – and ultimately the better the PA system, the better you will sound. Unfortunately, like most things in life, top quality products cost more money; however a good quality PA system should last you for many years and if you are serious about your music it is a worthwhile investment.
Take a look at our reviews of 14 PA systems here – you’ll notice our “Mic rating” system which is a summary of other reviews on the product:
About The Author:
Chris Kennedy is the principle product reviewer for VoiceCouncil Magazine. He is also a singer-songwriter and composer, performing and writing in a range of styles from rock to jazz. Chris has released several albums as a solo artist and with his group The New Inventions. You can find more about him on his website: http://www.chriskennedymusic.co.uk