How to Choose PA Speakers
Achieving consistent high-quality live sound can be a challenge. Your choice of PA speakers can determine whether you’re mixing to make something good sound great, or struggling to solve sound-reinforcement problems. We’ve created this Sweetwater Buying Guide to provide you with information you need when you’re getting ready to invest in new PA speakers. Since there’s so much more to consider than we can possibly cover here, give your Sales Engineer a call at (800) 222-4700 after checking out this guide, for help choosing the best PA speakers for your situation.
Powered (Active) vs. Unpowered (Passive)
If you’re not familiar with active PA speakers, the important thing to know is that the power amplifier and crossover are built into the same cabinet as the speakers. The benefit of this is that all you will need are the speaker and a sound source, whether it be a mixer, music player, or even your instrument in certain circumstances. Powered speakers simplify your PA system and are faster and easier to set up, but they aren’t always the best option for designing complex systems for permanent installation in large auditoriums and halls.
Passive PA speakers require separate power amplifiers and sometimes crossovers, too. For most gigging bands or small- to medium-sized venues, passive speaker systems may not be the simplest option for a sound system. But for larger, more complex systems, it can be a huge benefit to have your system components separated. Because of the extreme amount of power required for large systems, keeping the amplifiers separate prevents your speakers from being overheated by the amps, and system maintenance in the long term is much easier when you don’t have to climb to the rafters to adjust your amplifier settings.
As you can see, choosing between active and passive PA speakers has more to do with how you’re using the system, than whether one type is superior to the other. Gigging bands and small venue owners may prefer the simplicity and reliable sound quality of active systems, while touring professionals and large installations may prefer the versatility and modular nature of a passive system.
Bi-amplification is the process of dividing an audio signal into two frequency ranges, which are then sent to two separate amplifiers that, in turn, drive separate loudspeakers. An active crossover network sends low frequencies to the larger driver and high frequencies to the smaller driver. Bi-amping also allows the amplifier(s) to be chosen or designed specifically to match your speakers and enclosures. Bi-amping, tri-amping, and beyond have been used in sound reinforcement systems for years and have become quite common in active studio monitors as well.
A crossover is a device that divides an audio signal into separate frequency ranges, ultimately routed to different drivers (speakers, tweeters, horns, etc.) in an audio system. For example, a 2-way crossover may comprise of a lowpass filter that passes a signal with low frequencies to a woofer and a highpass filter to send frequencies appropriate for the tweeter. Crossovers can have passive or active designs. You don’t need to know everything about crossovers to set up a decent system, but knowing where the crossover points lie in the sonic spectrum can help you set up a better mix.
An All-in-one PA Solution
If you’re a solo performer, you’re probably researching PA speakers and equipment without much enthusiasm. You need to sound great whenever you perform and don’t want to invest more time, energy, and money into your system than you do into your music. There are all-in-one solutions for you that integrate active speakers, signal processing, and even effects into a simple, compact design. For singer/songwriter types, coffeehouse gigs, and small acoustic ensembles, these PA systems can save you money, time, and space.
Intelligent Speaker Systems
Hey, it’s the 21st century! There are now speaker systems that can automatically recognize what you’re plugging into them and will optimize their sound accordingly. Some can recognize whether you’ve arranged them vertically on speaker stands or horizontally on the stage as floor monitors and will automatically optimize their sound for that orientation. Other built-in intelligent features can include automatic feedback suppression, networking capability, and remote control. How you plan on using your system on a regular basis determines which of these advanced features, if any, will ultimately benefit you.
Do I Need a Subwoofer?
You’re probably aware that subwoofers are just speakers optimized for reproducing the lowest bass frequencies. What isn’t as commonly recognized is that adding subwoofers doesn’t necessarily make your system louder: they can actually allow you to run your system at a lower overall volume while still maintaining full-range punch and impact.
Subs usually focus on the 20Hz to 100Hz spectrum, which is difficult to reproduce accurately with standard PA speakers. If a subwoofer was incorporated into a full-range speaker, the performance of the mid- and high-frequency drivers would be compromised due to the intense vibrations of the powerful bass frequencies. Said another way, larger PA speakers can respectably reproduce low frequencies, but for true full-range sound, you need a dedicated subwoofer.
Subwoofers aren’t just for dance music and bass-heavy material. They can also play an important role in filling out the sonic spectrum for any performance. Subs also allow your main speakers to sound better, giving them valuable headroom to better reproduce the dynamics of your performance. As with full-range speakers, subwoofers can either be active or passive.
Speaker Connectors Explained
At least this is one area where you won’t have to make too many tough decisions. Normally your choice of cable connectors is simply determined by the connection types on your gear. When you’re connecting a mixer’s outputs to multiple crossovers, then those to power amplifiers, and then those to speakers, you’ll most likely be using at least two different cable connector types. Because some audio equipment does give you a choice of connections, this reference guide should help you determine which cable connector type is best for your situation.
speakON is a type (and brand) of multi-pin connector that’s commonly found on speakers and amplifiers with high wattage ratings. speakON connectors offer a very reliable connection, can handle extremely high power, and are very durable.
TRS is the abbreviation for Tip-Ring-Sleeve. This term describes 1/4″ (or 1/8″) balanced connectors. A TRS plug can be found at the end of most headphone cords if you want to know what one looks like. It looks like a standard 1/4″ plug with an extra “ring” on its shaft. TRS connectors are used wherever you need to have two conductors plus a ground (shield) in one plug.
XLR is a circular 3-pin connector with positive, negative, and ground pins, and it’s normally used for transmitting balanced mic- and line-level signals to mixers or audio to speakers.
TS is the abbreviation for Tip-Sleeve and refers to a specific type of 1/4″ connector that is set up for 2-conductor unbalanced operation. The tip is generally considered the “hot,” or where the signal is applied, while the sleeve is where the ground or shield is connected.
A banana plug is designed to join speaker wires to the binding posts on the back of many power amplifiers or to special jacks called, of course, banana jacks. A common configuration of banana plugs is to have two of them molded together and spaced 3/4″ apart, which is also the spacing of the binding post receptacles on the back of power amps.
What to Look For…
The best way to start building a PA speaker system is to create a checklist of your needs.
How big, and how many?
Without getting into the math of acoustics or the volume of air in a room, being able to generalize how much space you need to fill with sound is a great place to start. Both the room and the amount of people in it will determine what type of speaker setup would work best. Coffeehouses and small bar gigs obviously don’t require as much gear as you’d need for a larger club. For those larger venues, think in terms of how many seats are in the venue. For outdoor shows, room acoustics aren’t a consideration, so you’ll need to base your choice on how many people you need to reach. Remember that your audience members are all absorbing sound from the speakers: the more people who attend, the more power you need to compensate for that sound being absorbed.
Powered or unpowered?
If you’re a gigging musician and managing your own sound system, we can almost guarantee you’ll be much happier with the convenience of powered speakers. If you’re running a quickly growing production company, you may prefer the flexible, modular nature of passive speaker systems. As we covered in the powered vs. unpowered section above, you should let your workflow determine which is best. If you’re not sure if one has more benefit for you than the other, call your Sweetwater Sales Engineer at (800) 222-4700, and we’ll be happy to discuss your situation in more detail.
How much power do I need?
If you’re using powered speakers, you don’t have to worry about matching an amplifier to the speaker. But if you’re using passive speakers, it’s crucial to provide them with the correct amount of power. Fortunately, you can determine this without having to do (much) math. JBL recommends that, in general sound reinforcement situations, you use an amp that delivers equal to or up to double the IEC power rating of the loudspeaker, for example, a speaker rated at 300 watts capacity needs a 300- to 600-watt amp. Contrary to popular belief, you’re more likely to damage your speakers with an underpowered amp than with one that has too much power.
Do I need a subwoofer?
As we mentioned in the subwoofer section above, any live sound situation will sound more rich and vibrant with the full-range performance you get from adding a sub to your system. But do you really need it? Well, if your system is mainly for spoken word and a cappella singing, you can probably get away without one. It’s the same if you’re mostly playing very small rooms. Often a good subwoofer can make a small space sound worse if you don’t have the time to really dial it in. But other than very specific situations, most performances will simply sound better with the extra bass power added by a subwoofer. If it’s not in your budget now, don’t simply buy bigger speakers to try and compensate. Plan your system and budget with the aim of adding a subwoofer in the near future and you’ll be much happier in the long run.
Once you’ve got a general idea about what types of speakers you’ll need, call your Sweetwater Sales Engineer at (800) 222-4700, and we’ll help you determine what your best options are.