If you’ve ever attended a live music or speaking event, you have likely seen a portable PA system. As one of the most important sonic inventions in the last 100 years, PA systems have completely changed the way we perceive live sound, allowing people to amplify almost anything with nuanced control.
PA systems are an essential part of our world’s current soundscape, but many people don’t even know they exist. There are also many common misinterpretations about what these products are. For example, how are PAs different from amplifiers? Is the term interchangeable with speakers?
To help you understand more about portable PA systems, we have created a guide with information on what they are and how to use them!
Before we begin our guide, it’s important to note that you should always read the manual of the product that you buy before using it. This is because each product is different and will have different safety precautions.
What is a PA System
A PA system is a type of amplification system that contains multiple parts. A common example of this is a loudspeaker that amplifies the sound received from a microphone. The microphone captures the sound that needs to be amplified and processes it. Using coils and a metal diaphragm, the loudspeaker is able to amplify the sound of the microphone, making it easier to send across a crowd of people.
Though associated mainly with microphones, this setup can also be used to amplify any type of input source. Examples of devices that can be input sources range include keyboards, guitars and even smartphones! Regardless of the input source, PAs often come with small mixing knobs on them so users can adjust different aspects of the sound. This makes it possible for consumers to adjust the equalization and volume of specific sounds.
There are many different variations of products available, but all of them will adhere to the following process:
- Convert some form of acoustic sound (i.e. a human voice) into electric signals
- Process the signals
- Amplify the signals with the use of a speaker
What is the difference between a PA and an Amplifier
One of the most common misinterpretations of PA systems is that the phrase is interchangeable with amplifiers. Though they can help amplify sound, they are not the same thing—a PA system typically refers to a series of different products (i.e. microphones, speakers, mixers, etc.) that are combined to create a fully functioning sound system.
What does PA System stand for
PA is a shorter way of saying Public Address, a phrase that relates to the origin of the technology. In order to truly understand why these setups got their name, it’s important to take a closer look at history.
Before the 1900s, a majority of people did not have access to electricity, let alone commercially accessible electricity. This is because the invention was quite new at the time and people were still experimenting with how it could be used to improve society.
Though architecture is still an important part of sound engineering, before the 1900s it was the only way to control sound. Public events or concerts that utilized public space had to be held at venues built specifically for amplifying sound, relying on natural acoustics to make sounds louder. This was helpful at the time, but ultimately pales in comparison to modern amplification methods.
This would change in 1875 when the British-American professor David Edward Hughes would make history by inventing the world’s first carbon microphone. A carbon microphone changed the way we perceived sound by using metal plates and carbon granules to process sound. To use a microphone, all one would have to do is speak into it and the sound waves would vibrate off of the metal plates, increasing the volume of one’s speaking voice.
The carbon microphone would put society on the path to developing the modern PA system, giving us a way to process voices to be amplified. However, the microphone was not very useful without something to process the sound through, eventually leading to the development of the coil loudspeaker.
The coil loudspeaker was patented in 1898 by Oliver Lodge, a well-known British physicist. This device became incredibly well-known for containing a coil that would vibrate in response to sound waves, subsequently being amplified by a horn. This simple system became the backbone for modern audio systems, providing amplification for voices and instruments.
However, it’s important to reiterate that neither of these devices are considered PA systems. The term does not describe a single piece of technology, but rather a few pieces that make one setup.
In 1906, Le DeForest created the Audion, a device that would be able to amplify electrical signals. This was quite different than something like the microphone, a product that technically relies on sound waves.
The road to the modern PA system became much straightforward once all of these elements were invented. The first device that can be labeled as a modern PA system was actually called the Magnavox and was invented by Peter Pridham and Edwin Jensen. The Magnavox would combine aspects of the aforementioned devices to have a larger voice coil, a diaphragm for vibration and a very large horn (34 inches). This was very advanced for 1915 and caused a significant stir when it was first premiered in San Francisco, California.
Because the Magnavox was used to make a public address, it then became associated with the name. To this day, PA systems are still most commonly used for public addresses. For example, announcement systems at schools, malls and airports all fall under this category.
The Magnavox started a trend of innovation that would continue to develop through World War II. This was also when setups were becoming more and more advanced due to the adjacent development of radio.
However, sound engineering would change drastically with the advent of rock and blues music. Because the industry standard was to only have setups that outputted 25 watts, rock and blues musicians became increasingly frustrated with the devices. These musicians also became impatient, calling for the industry to create products that could get significantly louder.
The incorporation of loud drumkit playing into rock music made the need for louder PA systems even more apparent, something that was eventually recognized by manufacturing companies.
Since the advent of rock and blues music, PAs have only become more advanced and are still the backbone of the audio engineering industry. Though they are still used to make public addresses with, the concept has evolved far beyond its original name!
What should I look for in a Portable PA System
When looking for your own setup, you should be aware that there is a very large market out there with a variety of options. However, don’t let this overwhelm you—we’ve tested almost every type of PA out there and are here to let you know how to figure out which system is best for you.
The most common types of products on the market
For those who aren’t interested in combing through the market to find their specific preferences, it can be wise to invest in a prepackaged system. As the name suggests, these types of products are prepackaged, giving you all of the components you need to set up and start using your system immediately. Though they are typically more expensive than buying all of the components separately, the convenience of these types of PA systems makes them more than worth the purchase for many people.
- Best All-Around Portable PA System
- Watts: Unk RMS/2000 Peak
Depending on when you purchase your prepackaged system and from where you purchase it, you might even find a great deal in the process! We especially recommend these products for those who want to use their system for amplifying bands. The only downside to prepackaged systems is that you will likely be saddled with a lot of components to keep track of each time that you assemble or dismantle your setup.
Though they might seem similar to prepackaged systems, all-in-one PAs are unique. Instead of containing multiple different parts that you must use together, all of the components necessary to amplify sound is included in one piece. All-in-one systems are often the best options for those who want to have a setup for only public events. These products are also very light and easy to wheel around! This convenience will cost more, but is well worth it for those who want something intuitive.
- Best Budget Portable PA System
- Watts: Unk RMS/100 Peak
Categories of components
Input devices will typically be microphones, but they can also refer to any type of cord or adapter that allows you to connect a device into your system. For example, if you are looking to play music off of your phone or computer, then you should be focused on getting an 1/8″ adapter. On the other hand, if you are only planning to amplify your guitar playing, then you might not need to get an input device at all—guitars typically come with 1/4″ cables, the necessary type to plug into a setup.
In order to transmit the signals from your input devices to your PA system, you’ll have to get cables. The specific cables you’re looking for can vary depending on how you want to use your PA system, but generally you will want to invest in XLR to 1/4″ cables (for microphones and synthesizers) or 1/8″ to 1/4″ cables (for electric guitars and bass guitars).
Once you have all of your devices plugged in, you need a mixer to make sure that the sound is balanced. This is often included in the speaker portion of many products, but those looking to get detailed with their sound design should invest in getting a separate mixer.
These aren’t necessary for a basic setup, but are essential for those looking to get a lot of power out of their sound without having to use distortion. Power amplifiers are often used to compress the overall mix, allowing you to blend instruments more easily without having to adjust individual knobs. They can also affect the clarity of your overall sound!
Out of all of the components involved in a setup, the speakers are the most essential part. This is because they not only determine how good your setup sounds, but also how loud it sounds. You can customize the other components of your PA, but your system will not work if there is not a speaker for it all to be run through. Familiarizing yourself with the different types of speakers available on the market is a great start to finding the right product for you.
How do you expect to configure your setup? If you have two normal loudspeakers, the sound might project better if they are perched on stands. These stands can come in various shapes and forms, so you should be familiar with which one is most efficient for you. On the other hand, if you only need a speaker that focuses on low end sounds, then you likely won’t need a stand.
Areas of functionality
This might seem redundant in a buyer’s guide about portable PA systems, but the degree to which some is portable can greatly affect its quality. For example, getting a large and prepackaged setup for amplifying bands can be convenient, but it can also be stressful if you’re not prepared for lugging around your entire setup each time that you change venues. On the other hand, if you are creating a setup for a fixed space, weight won’t matter.
What You Are Amplifying
If you are only amplifying a voice at a public assembly, you likely don’t have to have a large setup with a complicated mixer. Instead, you can just focus on getting a microphone and a speaker! If you’re lucky, you’ll also be able to find a bundle that gives you both of these items for a discounted price.
There are different benefits and detriments to certain setups depending on which type of sound you are creating. If you are somebody hoping to get a PA system for a dance party, you should make sure that you purchase a subwoofer, as that genre of speaker is a backbone of electronic dance music.
At the end of the day, the setup that is right for you will depend on your personal preference. Though we can give you as much information as possible on how PAs work, this information cannot replace your personal experience. We recommend that you try out different products and think about what you need in a system. Basic needs won’t require basic setups, but those wanting to project sound from rock bands should probably invest in more comprehensive technology.
How to set up a Portable PA System
In many ways, setting up a PA is a self explanatory process. This is because the system itself acts as a chain of events, with the consumer needing to simply connect the different components together in chronological order.
To start, you connect a microphone to the mixer. After this, you can plug the mixer into the powered amplifier. The powered amplifier is then plugged into the speaker, completing the setup. If you want to add more instruments to the mix, you just connect them to the mixer while keeping the rest of your plugs the same.
If you have a singer using a microphone, though, not setting up the system properly could lead to feedback. To avoid this, you should make sure there is proper distance between the microphone and the speakers. You also should avoid pointing the microphone towards the speakers!
When setting up your PA, you also need to be careful about mixing. If you have both a separate mixer and a speaker in your setup, you need to be aware of the fact that you should be adjusting the sound primarily in the mixer and then adjusting the final levels with the speaker. This is because the mixer will allow you to customize the nuance of the sound, while the speaker will only turn up the volume louder. If you keep the sound low in the mixer, you also risk the signal becoming too distorted.
How to Stream with a Portable PA System
If you’re someone who wants to upgrade your streaming set up so you can broadcast video games on sites such as Twitch and YouTube, it might be a good idea to invest in a portable PA system. In order to stream this way, all you need is a microphone, a mixer, and a speaker.
Not only can you put the audio into the mixer and adjust it however you like, but you can also have it come out of both the speaker and the mixer! After doing this, you can send the sound directly to your computer so your audience can hear!
In our technological age, having a portable PA system is essential for anyone associated with audio engineering or music. They help fill the room at shows, provide bands with audio mixing during practice and even form the backbone of political rallies. We hope this guide has been helpful so that the next time you are in the market for a new PA system, you know exactly what to get and how to set it up!