Live sound speakers buying guide
The basics of buying PA speakers
Jon Paulette is a veteran automotive writer who has spent a fair portion of his life hanging out at racetracks and talking to amazing people who make extremely loud cars reach ridiculous speeds. Despite all that, he still has enough hearing left to enjoy a stupidly large music collection. A native Virginian, Jon lives in the Charlottesville area, roots for the Nationals and would like a good BBQ sandwich right about now.
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Active speakers have their own amps built in
From your first school play to your first rock concert to seeing your child's first school play, you've spent more time around professional audio gear than you probably think.
And now, you're the person buying the audio equipment, not just sitting in front of it. Where do you start? What do you need? And what's a "passive speaker," anyway? Someone who mumbles?
This brief buying guide will give you an overview of the types of speakers available, and get you on the road to finding the right speakers for your live sound needs.
How much power do I need?
That's one of the first questions to ask yourself when shopping for speakers. What size of speakers to get and how many depends how much space you need to fill. Refer to the chart in our Intro to Live Sound article to get an idea of the how much power you'll need.
Active vs. Passive: You'll see those adjectives frequently when you're shopping for PA speakers, often used interchangeably with "powered" and "unpowered." An active, or powered, speaker has a built-in amplifier, so you can connect it directly to a mixing board. A passive, or unpowered, speaker does not, so you'll need to plug it into an external amp. Which type to choose depends mostly on:
- How you'll be using the speakers: for a touring band or a permanent installation
- Whether you already have amplifiers or other gear
Active speakers have power amplifiers, crossovers, and other signal processors built into their cabinets. This simplifies set up tremendously, especially for portable systems that travel a lot. The convenience of having a speaker system self-contained in one box shows up best when a single powered speaker serves as the whole PA by itself — all you need to do is plug in a source of music, like a microphone or any music player's output, and you're set. You can also use powered speakers as your band's main speakers, connected to your mixer.
Pro audio speakers are built rugged to handle being moved from place to place
Powered speakers will save you space because you don't need to lug around external amps. If you're a touring musician, powered speakers are a smart, compact solution, especially if you're also the roadie who schleps gear from the van to the venue, and back. They're easy to schlep, easy to use, and, because the amp is already matched to the other built-in components, you get maximum performance.
Passive speakers use outboard amplifiers and processors. They're an outstanding choice for permanent placements, such as a church, school, or live music venue. And if you're building a large system, unpowered speakers will give you both versatility and room to grow. And they tend to be less expensive than their amped-up cousins.
Using passive speakers gives the operator a bit more access and control over each aspect of the sound because everything is controlled from the mixer and amplifier(s). This is especially convenient in large PA systems with speakers either hung in the air out of reach or permanently installed around a stage or in a theater's wall — you won't have to climb a ladder to make an adjustment.
How much power do they need?
Passive speakers need at least as much power as their program power rating in order to perform well. Most manufacturers suggest giving them up to twice that amount of power for optimum performance. See our Pro Audio Amplifiers Buying Guide for more details. And we're here to help you find the right combination of speakers and amps for your specific venue.
When it comes to low-range tones like male vocalists, bass, or drums, quality live sound subwoofers are essential elements of almost any system. Bass takes a lot of power, so having a sub to handle that responsibility leaves the other speakers to focus on the mids and highs. That makes them sound louder and cleaner, which makes your performance sound better.
A good subwoofer takes the bass-strain off of your main speakers
As with our discussion of speakers, the right sub for you depends on the music you're playing and the venue in which it's being played.
- If you're looking for portable gear for an acoustic guitar duo, you don't really need a subwoofer. Your regular speakers will supply plenty of bass.
- A chamber music quartet in a small room needs a lot less bass than a rockabilly band in a roadhouse. With good speakers, a subwoofer is purely optional.
- And those rockabilly cats need a lot less bass than the rap-metal band coming to town on Friday night. But both of these guys need the added bass power.
Powered or unpowered?
As with regular speakers, subs are either powered or unpowered. Which way to go depends on your system. Powered subs are easier to add to existing systems because you don't have to re-configure your amps. On the other hand, if you have an unused channel or two on your amplifier, an unpowered sub will be less expensive.
How much bass do you need?
Since it actually IS possible to have too much bass, it's important to have a realistic idea of how much bass you really need. Because it takes so much more power to play bass, your subwoofer's amplifier needs to be considerably more powerful than a full-range amp. A good rule of thumb is to provide your subwoofer with about three or four times the total power your full-range speakers will get.
Here's how to figure out how much power to allocate to your subwoofer and your full-range speakers:
- Take the total power you've decided you need for your entire PA (remember that chart we mentioned above?) and divide that number by 5. That's the approximate power you'll need for your front speakers.
- Now take that number and multiply by 3 or 4 — this is the approximate amount of power you'll need for the subwoofer.
For example: You've decided your rock band needs about 1000 watts of total PA power to successfully play the gigs you want. 1000 ÷ 5 = 200; 200 x 3 = 600 and 200 x 4 = 800 — you'll look for powered speakers totaling about 200 watts in output power and a subwoofer of about 600-800 watts.
These are approximate target numbers. In the above example, for instance, a couple of 150-watt speakers and a 450- to 600-watt subwoofer would also work fine together.
Of course, if you decide not to use a subwoofer and you still want to play those 1000-watt gigs, you'll still need speakers with about 1000 watts of total power.
A portable PA system is a great choice for small groups who need to change locations often
All-in-one speaker systems
If you need a compact, versatile sound solution, an all-in-one PA system is an excellent choice. With a built-in mixer and plenty of connection options, an all-in-one system is ideal for touring acoustic acts looking for a system that fits into a small SUV or even a car.
Modern all-in-one systems, like the Yamaha STAGEPAS 400i at right, are quality, professional-grade speaker systems that can fill a small venue with rich, vibrant sound.
A good all-in-one can handle anything from speeches to small musical combos. It's a smart choice if portability is a key factor in the purchasing decision.
Stage monitors (those wedge-shaped speakers seen on the ground facing the band) allow the performer (especially the vocalists) to keep track of what the rest of the band is doing. Without monitors, the only thing the band would hear is all the sound it's sending forth reflected from the back wall. That would sound awful, of course, and so would the band. Stage monitors help the performers hear themselves, which is an essential part of staying in time and in tune.
The wedge box angles the monitor's output up at the muscian
"Sidefill" monitors, which you'll see on the side of the stage at larger shows, especially the outdoor kind, can also be used to help the band members keep up with what everyone else is doing.
Powered vs. unpowered
Like the main speakers, monitor speakers are available in powered or unpowered form.
For solo acts, small groups, or intimate venues, a powered stage monitor is a smart investment. Bigger bands or bigger halls will probably want to run larger, unpowered wedges into a bank of amplifiers. Powered or unpowered, one wedge per front-of-the-stage performer is a good rule of thumb.
Tips from the road
Our Crutchfield team includes a number of current or former touring musicians with years of experience hitting the road with a vanload of instruments and gear. Among the many pearls of wisdom they've shared is that, whenever possible, you should buy a monitor that's similar to the main speakers. That way, if one of the mains goes down, you can grab one of the monitors and keep playing.
We're here to help
At Crutchfield, you'll find a wide range of speakers, subs, and monitors that deliver true concert quality sound for any size group or room. Whether you're a touring musician who doesn't want to buy a van, or a venue owner trying to re-vamp your performance space, you're in luck. Contact our advisors if you have any questions or want some smart help in choosing your speakers.