Choosing your first PA system
07 Mar 2020 - by Graham
So you are thinking of buying a PA system, but the problem is that you have no idea where to begin. You have looked through a few websites and have seen a bewildering range of systems that are in your budget, but you have no idea which one to go for in amongst all the talk of watts and active vs passive. Your mate swears by the XT4-37B system but you can only find the XT4-37A, and the reviews on everything else are confusing as no-one seems to agree on anything. So how do you make sense of all this and pick something that works for you?
Any PA system is likely to be a significant financial investment, so choosing your first one can be a difficult decision, especially with all the conflicting advice given by companies and individuals trying to guide you towards their preferred solution. So whilst we would never be so bold as to say "this is what you need", here are a few of the things you need to consider to help you choose the best solution for you.
These simple to set-up systems are aimed at single musicians or singers, or maybe a small acoustic group that needs a bit of extra sound reinforcement. They come in various formats, from battery-operated speakers on wheels with a few inputs and not much volume, up to the impressive Bose L1 system with clarity and depth to meet the requirements of even the most discerning ear. These systems are extremely portable, and you can often be up and running almost as soon as you have decided where you are going to set up. Some of them are floor-standing whilst others need a speaker stand to lift them up to an appropriate height, but that is usually all there is to the set-up process.
This sounds like an ideal solution for everyone, but this simplicity comes with down-sides too. For a start the number of inputs tends to be limited, so you might find that you can connect one or two microphones, an iPad, and maybe a guitar as well, but that will probably be it. If the keyboard player turns up one night then he's on his own, and you have no way of adding any other singers at all. The only way to increase the number of inputs is to add a mixing desk, and if you are doing that soon after buying the system then you might have wanted to consider another solution from the start.
Another issue with all-in-one systems is that they are usually designed to operate on their own and do not generally have an obvious way to scale them up. So if you buy a system that works for small pub audiences and then find yourself on a local stage, you might have difficulties with adding more speakers or more power to cope, and it may be easier to simply buy or borrow another system.
Active Speakers plus a Mixing Desk
In recent years this has become the classic pub band setup, and for very good reasons. Active speakers are speakers with amplifiers built into them, so all you have to do is to put your speakers on their stands, connect them to your mixing desk, plug in your instruments and microphones, and you are good to go. In terms of setup time it tends to be similar to an all-in-one system, with the advantage that you can have two main speakers which can be separated and angled better to give more coverage around odd-shaped rooms. These days even the cheapest active speakers generally give an adequate sound quality, but if your budget can stretch to it you can get some pretty awesome speakers of exceptional clarity.
Having a separate mixing desk means that if your band expands you can buy or borrow just a larger desk and cope with the extra inputs. Most active speakers are designed to work in conjunction with other speakers as well as on their own, so expanding your system does not necessarily mean buying from scratch again. And if you start to play at larger gigs you can take more speakers with you and use them together with your normal kit.
This extra versatility does come with extra complexity of course, and so you will need to find somewhere to put the mixing desk (not always easy in pubs), and to not trip over the additional cables connecting the desk to the speakers and to plug the speakers into the mains. Setup is straightforward, if a little more complex than the all-in-one system, but this is more than offset by the greater options it gives you.
Passive Speakers plus an Amplifier and a Mixing Desk
Often considered to be "the classic" PA configuration, this is the type of system used by most venues and professional mobile sound engineers. Here you would have a mixing desk connected to one or more amplifiers, which would then be connected to passive speakers (ones without built-in amplification). This offers the greatest flexibility in setup and the greatest opportunities for expansion or reconfiguration to meet the requirements of different gigs, but that flexibility comes at the cost of greater complexity.
Everything has to be connected up separately, with cables from the mixing desk to the amplifier, and from the amplifier to the speakers. There is no need to supply mains power to the speakers in this system, but that is the only reduction in cabling you will get. Everything else is more complicated and takes longer to set up.
So why would anyone opt for this kind of system? The answer all comes down to flexibility, as with every part of the system being separate this gives the greatest opportunity for expansion and reconfiguration possible. You can add components with ease, and upgrade individual parts of the system as money allows. A system like this will easily integrate with a venue's existing PA, and you can rent or borrow components from anywhere that will connect to yours without difficulty. Yes, you will need to understand your system and the setup process more than if you had just bought an all-in-one, but the scope for expansion and reconfiguration makes it all worth it.
Those are the main types of PA system that you will encounter, but how do they compare on things like cost and reliability which are what really matters to a first-time buyer?
Whilst you can certainly get a very cheap all-in-one system for a fraction of what it would cost for either of the other solutions (and that may be all you need for an entry-level system), quality will most certainly be compromised. For a good quality all-in-one you may well end up paying as much as you would for the others, so cost is not necessarily your prime motivator.
We all know that the more complicated a system is the more likely it is to fail, but it is easy to forget that this applies to components of a system as well as the system itself. Any PA system is by its very nature complicated, but in an all-in-one system all that complexity is concentrated into a single device. The failure of any single part means the failure of the whole system and you are unlikely to be able to repair it during a gig. The same is true for active speakers as with the amplifier built into the speaker housing if one part fails you will need to replace the whole unit (or send it for repair). But in an "Active Speakers plus Mixer" system you will generally have a second speaker to fall back on. Yes, one speaker will be quieter than two, but it will be a whole lot louder than no speakers, and so you have a fall-back option. You can pick up small mixing desks extremely cheaply these days, and so it is not impractical to think about keeping a spare in the van in case your main desk has an unfortunate encounter with beer during a gig. And if you have opted for passive speakers with a separate amplifier, then a cheap spare amplifier off eBay may well be something else you want to keep in the van.
Without a doubt the most portable system is the all-in-one, so if you are a single singer or a duet who sings over backing tracks then this is the obvious solution for you. But check the weight of any components that you plan on buying as speakers with amplifiers built into them can be surprisingly heavy, and you may find that separates are easier to carry (even though you will end up making more trips).
It used to be the case that if you wanted quality speakers you had to make sure that the cases were made of heavy wood and to avoid plastic ones at all costs, but this is no longer true. Modern materials and mathematical modelling mean that plastic housed speakers can sound as good or better than wooden ones, and at half the weight. So choose not only on the sound, but on whether you can lift them.
This has not been intended to be a direct "buy this system" article, but to provide guidance and to help you make an informed choice without having to rely on sales staff and website blurb to make your decision. Hopefully this has given you something to think about and demystified the process a little.
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