What is a PA System?
A “Public Address” system is anything that amplifies sound so more people can hear it. The most basic example might be a megaphone, or single microphone and speaker, used to make someone’s voice louder. These days most PA systems are used for music too. Prices vary widely, anywhere from several hundred dollars for a little karaoke set up to several thousand dollars for just one of Bruce Springsteen’s concert speakers. A few things that affect choices for a PA system include:
• The kind of music or speech being played
• How loud it needs to play
• The space where it’s being used
• How portable it needs to be
• Who is running the system
• Desired sound quality and durability
Most basic systems these days include several different parts such as:
• one or more microphones
• one or more speakers
• a “mixer” that allows the user to control the volume, tone and balance of different voices or instruments
• an amplifier (built into the mixer, built into the speakers, or purchased separately)
• stands to hold the speakers and microphones at appropriate height and angles
Additional items worth including:
• appropriate cases to protect the equipment when not in use
• quality surge protectors and/or power conditioners
• quality extension cord
• roll of Gaffer’s Tape (no duct tape residue) to secure things
• removable marking tape and pens to label the mixer (Staples has these)
Better systems often add more items, such as monitor speakers, effects devices, graphic equalizers, etc. But the main thing isn’t the number of items, but how well each piece is made and how well the system works as a whole.
In over 20 years of performing and recording, I’ve seen a lot of different equipment in a lot of different settings. I’ve seen too many people spend money on equipment that doesn’t last, or isn’t appropriate to the task at hand, or that they don’t know how to run properly.
How to Choose an Effective PA System
Whether or not we realize it, PA – or “public address” – systems are a ubiquitous part of everyday life. Retail stores, bars, restaurants, art galleries, schools, gyms, houses of worship, airports – and, of course, music venues – rely on PA systems to deliver music, speech, and other audio. Some systems are small, even hidden; other PA systems are built like virtual walls of sound, intended to blast audio to millions. The Grateful Dead’s 1974 “Wall of Sound” is an iconic example; the Dead’s concert PA system included hundreds of speakers tethered together to produce over 25,000 watts of power. This was certainly a far cry from a 1920’s-era Magnavox PA system – capable of only 10 watts. “PA system” is a nebulous term, and can include speakers, inputs, amps, preamps, mixing boards, etc. – whatever delivers live or recorded signals to an audience.
PA Speakers and Subwoofers
Speakers are the most prominent part of of every PA system. They take electrical signals from an amplifier, and convert them into room-filling sound. PA speakers demonstrate a huge range in power, size, and function. For example, the QSC K12 packs 1,000 watts of power, with a maximum SPL (sound pressure level) of 131dB – ideal for larger venues. The JBL Control 28 8″ loudspeakers deliver 150 watts, and are better suited for classrooms, retail stores, or other small-to-medium spaces. On the other hand, the Behringer Eurolive is a 250-watt bi-amp, often used as an onstage monitor for live venues. Some people opt to supplement PA speakers with separate PA subwoofers – like the Peavey Dark Matter 118 Sub, for example. Subwoofers like the 118 enhance bass frequencies, and provide a rumbling, venue-shaking low end.
Portable PA Systems
Choosing the right portable PA system depends on how – and where – you plan to use it. Most of today’s portable PAs combine live audio inputs, mixing, and speaker amplification into an “all-in-one” unit. If you’re a singer-songwriter bouncing from one gig to the next, solo performance systems like the Yamaha StagePas 600i is perfect for your live audio needs.The StagePas 600i has four mic inputs, onboard mixing, and 680 watts of combo amplification, yet it weighs just 56 pounds. Worship leaders or public speakers might look into the MIPRO MA-7080 – a sleek way to bring 190 watts of crisp sound into any boardroom or other small venues. For a compact coffee-house setup, or small-scale public speaking, check out the Behringer Eurolive B207MP3.
If you want more radical portability, the Mackie FreePlay Portable PA runs on D-cell batteries (for up to 10 hours) – which means you can take it virtually anywhere. Perfect for outdoor events, concerts, and public address, the FreePlay boasts 300 watts, three inputs, and 16 onboard mixing effects. Portable Bluetooth speakers, like the Bose Soundlink III, remain the most portable PA systems – great for parties, meetings, or an afternoon by the pool. At only three pounds, the rugged Soundlink III is ultra-lightweight; and its Lithium-ion battery means it can run for 14 hours without external power. Bluetooth speakers connect instantly to laptops, smartphones, etc. – all without a mess of cords.
PA System Accessories
Of course, sophisticated PA systems include more than just speakers; Sweetwater carries a variety of wall mounts, speaker stands, carrying cases, and more. If you’re looking to permanently elevate PA speakers throughout a ballroom, school auditorium, or venue, you might look into speaker wall mounts: Gator’s GFW-SPK-WM100 mounts are a great example – each can support up to 100 lbs. Speaker stands offer a more portable way of elevating speakers; The On-Stage Stands All-aluminum speaker stands adjust to over six feet high, and their sturdy tripod bases help to support speakers of up to 120 pounds.
Carrying cases and bags provide a smart way to safely move gear – speakers, stands, etc. – from location to location. When it comes to speakers, most carrying cases are made for specific speaker models; for example, JBL EON612 speaker bags are custom-made to transport EON612 speakers. Padded interiors and reinforced carry handles make these bags a convenient, durable way to protect your JBL gear on the road. Whether you’re looking to expand your PA system, or you’re starting from scratch, Sweetwater carries a huge variety of products and brands for every setting. Call one of our Sales Engineers for advice, or browse our extensive online catalog today.
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