Skip Navigation

Live sound speakers buying guide

Find the right speakers for your live sound needs.

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.

More from Jon Paulette

skipcastro

In a Nutshell

Live sound speakers aren't just for giant rock n' roll bands. You've heard them in school auditoriums, on sports fields, and in houses of worship. There are just a handful of things you need to know to get started:

  • Powered speakers — those with the amplifier and microphone connections built in — offer a simple, easily portable solution for many applications.
  • Old-school systems featuring non-powered speakers, separate amplifiers, and a mixer have their advantages in some settings. And there's no rule against using both types in the same system.
  • Want massive bass? If so, you're going to want a pro-quality subwoofer to fill out your live sound.
  • Stage monitors (speakers designed to be aimed at the performers) are a must for all but the simplest scenarios. Many powered speakers can be used as "mains" or as monitors.

We can help you get the most effective setup for your budget. Call a Crutchfield advisor at 1-800-555-7088 and let them help you choose the right speaker setup to suit your needs. And if you want to learn more, just read on!

Full Story

As a spectator, you've heard a lot professional audio gear. Now, you're the person buying the audio equipment, not just sitting in front of it. Where do you start?

Speakers

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

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 soud, 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

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.

Subwoofers

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.

Yamaha DXS-12 subwoofer

A good subwoofer, like this Yamaha DXS12, 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.


Yamaha STAGEPAS 600I Portable PA

A portable PA system, like this Yamaha STAGEPAS 600i, 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 600i, 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

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.

Yamaha SM-12V monitor

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.

In-ear monitors

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.

Last updated March 24, 2017
  • Brandon talamante from Capitola

    Posted on 8/11/2015 2:16:16 AM

    Hello, I just have a question. Will An instrument (guitar, bass) damper or become too "together" with the sound of a mic while plugged into the PA as well? Or not? I'm new at this, and thought only a mic was to be plugged into the PA. Thx so much if you answer this! Have a good one!

  • Jon Paulette from Crutchfield

    Posted on 8/11/2015 11:14:27 AM

    Brandon, As long as the PA has multiple inputs (and most of the time they do), the signals will remain separate and un-muddled.

  • rick from Glendale

    Posted on 1/27/2016 8:44:24 AM

    I'm having difficulty picking a stage subwoofer...I'm looking for a portable that will have good bass drum punch and not just low end frequency performance. How do I glean that from the manufacturer's specs?

  • Jon Paulette from Crutchfield

    Posted on 1/27/2016 9:09:04 AM

    Rick, It really depends on the music you play and the venues in which you play it. I'll send this to our sales team, and they'll be contacting you via email soon. For immediate help, you can contact them via phone or chat.

  • Jake Roe from Minneapolis

    Posted on 3/31/2016 8:21:35 PM

    Looking at getting a PA System. 4 man Rock Band. Classic Rock and Punk Rock. We play small venue shows inside and outside. No Drum Mics. Only things going through the Mixer is Vocals, Guitar through instrument mic from the amp. And Bass from Direct input from Amp to Mixer. Will I be okay with 15 speakers and being able to hear my Bass and everything else okay. Otherwise do I have to go the route of 12 Speakers and Subs. Also wondering If I can just run a Kick drum mic too or would that throw everything off and sound bad for the drums.

  • Jon Paulette from Crutchfield

    Posted on 4/1/2016 9:08:39 AM

    Jake, I've sent your question to our sales team for the best answer, and they'll be contacting you via email soon. For immediate help, you can contact them via phone or chat.

  • Steve from Calhoun, GA

    Posted on 4/19/2016 2:25:50 PM

    I am looking for a sound system to install in a new church building. The room will hold about 200 people and the stage is in the corner of a basically square room, so the seats go out in a fan shape. Can this shape of room be filled with only two mains speakers and two subs? According to the chart, 1000 watts should be sufficient, although I'd like to make sure I have enough. So what should the configuration look like? I have a new presonus 32 channel mixer already, was thinking of passive speakers with a power amp....Thanks for your help.

  • Jon Paulette from Crutchfield

    Posted on 4/19/2016 5:40:06 PM

    Steve, We'll be happy to help you design a system. I've sent your question to our sales team for the best answer, and they'll be contacting you via email soon. For immediate help, you can contact them via phone or chat

  • LE Johns from Nashville

    Posted on 9/15/2016 1:28:27 AM

    What size portable amp and speakers would you recommend I get to play R&B music in an empty, full size high school gym, with approximately 200 adults roller skating around on the basketball court for three or four hours, once a month?

  • Jon Paulette from Crutchfield

    Posted on 9/15/2016 10:14:25 AM

    LE, Rather than dish out an easy answer, I'm going to forward this to our pro audio team. One of our experts will be getting in touch with you via email soon.

  • Katie Termeer from Aurora

    Posted on 10/3/2016 2:10:46 PM

    Good Afternoon, I'm a dance teacher at a high school. Our room is approximately 40 x 40 feet. I'm looking to invest in a new sound system. I'd love speakers at the front and back of the room. Right now we just use ipods for music, sometimes cds. I know nothing about systems and i have a school budget to work within. Could you please give me some suggestions on what to look for? Thanks!

  • Jon Paulette from Crutchfield

    Posted on 10/4/2016 9:43:48 AM

    Katie, We sure can. I've forwarded this to our pro audio team, and one of our experts will contact you via email soon. For immediate help, you can contact them via phone or chat.

  • Craig from Scappoose

    Posted on 10/13/2016 7:55:21 PM

    The article didn't really answer one of the basic questions. How do I determine what PA wattage I need to build my sound system around?

  • Jon Paulette from Crutchfield

    Posted on 10/14/2016 11:19:06 AM

    Craig, The amount of power you need depends on how much space you're trying to fill. Use the reference chart in our Intro to live sound equipment to learn more.

  • Jane Jennings from Mount Carmel, Utah

    Posted on 12/17/2016 10:32:21 AM

    Hello. After a disastrous stage performance at a high school gym yesterday, we realize our 5 piece teen-rock band needs a lot of help with sound quality. We had too much loud, but poor quality sound. Bass and drums were overwhelming the vocals and lead guitar and all sound was distorted. It was a great performance other than that! :). What would our best bet (within a tight budget) be to come up with some good quality sound for medium/larger venues? Any help would be appreciated.

  • Jon Paulette from Crutchfield

    Posted on 12/19/2016 9:46:16 AM

    Jane, The first job of a teen rock band is to be loud, so that's good news! But loud doesn't have to be distorted, of course. Give us a call and let one of our pro audio experts help you find a system that suits your band and your budget.

Ask an expert advisor

No pressure, no commission — just lots of good advice from our highly trained staff.

Featured Products