Live sound speakers buying guide
Find the right speakers for your live sound needs.
In this article: You've heard a lot of professional audio gear as a spectator. Now, you're the person buying the audio equipment, not just sitting in front of it. Where do you start? This article will tell you what you need to know.
Active vs. Passive: You'll see those terms frequently when you're shopping for PA speakers. 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
- 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.
The convenience factor shows up best when a single powered speaker serves as the whole PA — all you need to do is plug in a source of sound, like a microphone or any music player's output, and you're set.
You can also use powered speakers as your band's primary speakers. Just connect them to your mixer's "main" outputs.
Powered speakers save space because you don't need to lug around external amps. If you're a touring musician, powered speakers are a smart, compact solution. They're easy to schlep and easy to use.
They simply your shopping, too. You don't have to worry about whether the speakers and amps are a good match.
Passive speakers are powered by outboard amplifiers. They're an outstanding choice for permanent placements, such as a church, school, or live music venue.
If you're building a large system, unpowered speakers will give you both versatility and room to grow. And they tend to be lighter and less expensive than their amped-up cousins.
Passive speakers are good for hanging or wall mounting because you don't have to run AC power to them, and 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." 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 venue.
When it comes to low tones like bass guitar and kick drums, live sound subwoofers are essential. 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.
A good subwoofer, like this Yamaha DXS12 mkII, 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.
- A chamber music quartet in a small room needs a lot less bass than a rockabilly band in a roadhouse.
- 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.
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 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.
A wedge-shaped speaker aims its sound up toward the musician
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.
"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.
A growing number of musicians are using in-ear monitors for both studio and stage work. They look something like earbuds, but they're a lot more complex. They'll improve what your audience is hearing by allowing you to refine your mix in a way that floor and stand-mounted monitors can't possibly match. For more info, check out our In-ear monitor shopping guide.
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 repurpose 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.