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Published Oct. 12, 2021

Public address systems (or PAs) are a set of equipment that amplifies sound to an audience. While many people think of a PA as the powerhouse amp, speaker, and monitor combos atop an arena stage, PAs can range from single speakers with a microphone input to a complete multi-speaker surround sound system professionally monitored by an engineer at the back of the house.

If you use smart technology, you’re already using many of the components of a PA on a daily basis, from the microphone/speaker combos of home assistants to video conferencing apps with custom sound settings that block background noise. And for many special events, community presentations, and performances, you don’t have to be an engineer to set up a PA and produce great sound.

Choosing a PA from the vast array of audio equipment on the market may seem overwhelming, but a careful assessment of your needs and knowing what to look for in detailed product specifications goes a long way toward demystifying the world of live sound. These portable PAs from brands trusted by pros is a great starting place to help you make your next event a success.

How We Picked the Best PA Systems

Methodology

As a pro musician, one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that louder and more complex sound systems are not necessarily better. It’s incredibly fun to hear your acoustic instrument run through a PA with the volume and reverb jacked up like you’re shredding on heavy-metal guitar, but if your genre is chamber music, that’s not going to be as much fun for your audience. We focused our picks on equipment that excels at the main job of a PA — amplifying your speech, original music, or playlist so your audience can listen comfortably throughout your event space.

  • Portability: We only selected systems that would be relatively easy to transport and set up for small to medium size private or community gatherings and performances. If you’re looking to outfit a large venue, working with an audio engineer to design a system will give you the best results.
  • Watts: Blasting EDM at a party in a mid-size hall will require more watts than a singer-songwriter playing at a house concert. We referenced this guide from audio company Harmon Professional (JBL Professional and Martin are two of their name brands) to shape the range of wattage we cover in this article.
  • Brand: We focused on brands carried by reputable companies that cater to musicians, to ensure that the PAs we selected were adaptable to a variety of uses, from performances to lectures.
  • Components: As we made our picks, we considered the fact that the PA systems can often be expanded based on personal preference. We factored in the ability to add extra components like subwoofers and mixers to a PA system depending on the setting or profession we chose it for, and considered personal reviews from a variety of use cases to widen our understanding of the importance of certain features.

The Best PA Systems: Reviews and Recommendations

Best Overall: Fender Passport Conference S2 Portable PA System

Convenient Clarity

Excellent flexibility for live music and lectures. Fender

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Why It Made The Cut: We love this Fender bundle because its two separate speakers and mixer with three mic inputs offers versatility without requiring complex audio knowledge.

Specs:

  • Power: 175 Watts
  • Number of Channels: 5
  • Weight: 31 pounds

Pros:

  • Two Class D speakers 
  • Each speaker contains a 5.25-inch woofer and two 2.75-inch tweeters
  • Includes speaker stands, mic, and cables for quick setup
  • Bluetooth connectivity

Cons: 

  • Wattage not sufficient for large venues

The Fender company name is beloved by many guitarists for their signature Stratocaster and Telecaster guitars as well as their amplifiers, including the coveted Princeton Reverb and Deluxe models. The Fender Passport Conference S2 is an excellent option for musicians who provide their own PA on gigs, and small venue owners who want to use a PA across multiple settings.

This system is already designed to support two speakers, which provides great coverage from both sides of a stage. If you run a community center, you can easily mic three panelists, use the system to boost one lecturer from a podium, amplify a jazz combo, or stream music for a dinner party using Bluetooth

It’s worth noting that the Class D digital speakers are an optimal design choice for brightness and clarity of sound in a portable package. The entire set weighs just 31 pounds and fits neatly into a handy carrying case.

Best Line Array: Bose L1 Pro8 – Portable PA System

Cover a Wider Field

Maximize sound capability in a small venue. Bose

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Why It Made The Cut: This Bose setup delivers pro-level audio with a footprint that fits comfortably in the often quirky performance areas in clubs and coffeehouses.

Specs:

  • Power: 300 watts (240 watt low frequency, 60 watt high/mid frequency)
  • Number of Channels: 3
  • Weight: About 40 pounds

Pros:

  • 180-degree horizontal coverage and 40-degree vertical coverage
  • Integrated subwoofer with high excursion RaceTrack driver ups the bass
  • Phantom power on two channels 
  • Wireless control with Bose’s L1 Mix app

Cons: 

  • Not at an entry-level price point

Audio equipment maker Bose is known for home audio systems that deliver a full spectrum of sounds with sleek designs that don’t take up a lot of space. And if you’re a professional singer, musical duo, or mobile DJ who performs in a variety of locations, you often don’t know exactly how much space you’ll have to make a setup work. 

This makes the Bose L1 Pro8 line array speaker system an excellent choice. This model features a C-shaped line array consisting of eight drivers in the mid/high frequency range, which shapes the sound output to cover a wider field. If you’re performing in the corner of a restaurant for example, this type of speaker system allows the audience to hear the same mix wherever they are in the room. 

In addition to the bass clarity that a separate subwoofer can provide, the bottom-heavy design minimizes the risk of your PA tipping over. Bluetooth connectivity is great for launching a playlist during set breaks, and the L1 Mix app can be controlled from your smartphone or tablet so you can tweak the mix during soundcheck while you’re standing in the audience.

Best for Outdoor Events: Bose S1 Pro Portable Bluetooth Speaker System

Battery-Powered Beats

Take the party anywhere. Bose

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Why It Made The Cut: This wireless Bose model has enough wattage to launch a dance party by itself, but is flexible enough to function as a practice amp, monitor, or as part of a stereo pair.

Specs:

  • Power: 150 watts 
  • Number of Channels: 3
  • Weight: 15.7 pounds

Pros:

  • Up to 11 hours of power from the rechargeable lithium-ion battery
  • Auxiliary input can be used with wired DJ equipment
  • Wireless range up to a maximum of 30 feet
  • Can double as a practice amp 

Cons: 

  • Not water resistant

Singer-songwriters in a small venue can find a lot to like in the surprisingly light Bose S1 Pro, especially if they are performing outside on a patio or other outdoor location without access to a power supply. However, we recommend this PA primarily for (no plug) and play entertainment. 

It’s all you need for many backyard barbecues, leading workout classes in the park, or DJ-ing a birthday party. The two mic inputs don’t offer a lot of options for a live band, but provide lots of fun for singing karaoke or MCing a DJ set. 

Tilt it up for intimate audiences, or take advantage of the model’s compatibility with many speaker stands to set it up at the perfect height. Using the onboard mixer, refine your mic inputs using the ToneMatch presets, reverb, and EQ. Bluetooth connectivity and customization within the Bose Connect app offers additional control over your guest’s experiences.

Best for Solo Acts: Samson Expedition XP106w  Rechargeable Portable PA

Affordable and Wireless

Sometimes all you need is a little boost. Samson

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Why It Made The Cut: We chose this battery-powered PA for its easy-to-use features at an inexpensive price point, with the added bonus of wireless microphone support.

Specs:

  • Power: 100 watts
  • Number of Channels: 4
  • Weight: 16 pounds

Pros:

  • Fully wireless capability and Bluetooth connectivity
  • Speaker contains 6-inch woofer and a 1-inch high frequency driver
  • Up to 20 hours of continuous use with internal rechargeable battery
  • Singer-songwriter-friendly inputs for a wired mic and keyboard or guitar 

Cons: 

  • Not a good fit for bands or medium to large venues

There are two main reasons we like the Expedition XP106w from audio equipment company Samson. First, for less than half the price of a Bose S1 Pro, you can get a battery-powered amp with similar wattage (100 vs. 150) at a nearly identical weight.

If you are a vocalist who accompanies themselves on keyboard or acoustic guitar, this might be a nice backup PA when a venue doesn’t provide a backline, or you are performing at an intimate outdoor gathering. The sound quality is not going to compare to the higher-end Bose brand, but it might be completely appropriate for the setting depending on your preferences. It’s also great for busking at the local farmer’s market or a downtown area that allows amplifiers. 

The second reason we like this system is because it comes with the Samson XPD1 USB Digital Wireless System and handheld microphone transmitter. This makes this little PA perfect for teachers, business professionals, and entertainers (like magicians) who like to walk and talk. Your mileage may vary, but the supported wireless range is up to 100 feet away from the USB receiver.

Best Value: JBL Professional EON208P Portable All-in-One 2-way PA System

Command the Room

Get your act on the road. JBL

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Why It Made The Cut: We chose this JBL model because it packs 8 channels into the onboard mixer, includes two separate speakers, and supports up to four microphone or instrument inputs at an affordable price.

Specs:

  • Power: Two 150-watt speakers 
  • Number of Channels: 8
  • Weight: 38.8 pounds

Pros:

  • Speakers are two-way, meaning each contain a woofer and a tweeter
  • Comes with handheld AKG vocal mic
  • Bluetooth connectivity for streaming during set breaks
  • Designed to be carried in one hand

Cons: 

  • AC adapter power only

If you’re playing shows with a small band, it can be tough to find an affordable PA system in one package with more than a couple of microphone or instrument inputs.  You can build your own PA system by purchasing multiple separate powered speakers, but the cost for all of the components can add up quickly and your selections won’t be designed to fit together in a single carrying case.  

The standout JBL Professional EON208P is an all-in-one pick that also lets you control bass, treble, and reverb individually on each of the four input channels for mics or instrument cables through the detachable mixer. Channels 5 and 6 are RCA stereo inputs so you can connect consumer electronics like a turntable, and channels 7 and 8 include a 3.5 mm stereo jack input and two ¼-inch TS inputs that can accommodate a keyboard. There’s even a subwoofer output if you require more bass. 

Things to Consider Before Buying a PA System

Setting

The first thing to consider before selecting a PA system is where you’ll be using it. The room size, audience capacity, and genre determine how many watts of power you’ll require to get the volume you want without compromising sound quality. For example, a performer with an acoustic guitar generally requires less wattage than a rock band. If you are having a house party and want to DJ playlists from a smartphone or laptop from multiple places within a space using Bluetooth (such as changing up the music in the living room from your kitchen) double-check that the Bluetooth range of your PA is sufficient.

Power Supply

Most PA systems draw power from adapters, so you’ll want to make sure that the location for your event has ample outlets near where you’ll be setting up. If you’re throwing an outdoor event somewhere without outlets, like in a park, look for a battery-powered PA. Maximum battery life will vary according to each product and how you plan on using it, so check the specs to ensure it can handle what you’re planning.

Noise Ordinances

A trip to the park or hiking trail reminds us that our world is already getting louder from the power of tiny speakers that tuck into your backpack. And for less than a grand, you can purchase a PA system for a backyard party with enough wattage to fill a mid-size venue. To make sure you get the most bang for your buck, check your city or town noise regulations for decibel restrictions and rules on outdoor amplification, so you can enjoy your event without being ticketed or annoying your neighbors.

FAQs

Q: Why is a PA system required?

There are two distinct reasons why you may need a PA system for your event. The first is so everyone who attends can enjoy the audio you are producing as if they were standing right in front of the band or person speaking. If you have an acoustic guitarist playing classical music at the front of the room, a good PA will allow the people in the back of the room to hear the full spectrum of the guitarist’s sound. The second reason would be to use the PA system itself as an instrument to create an immersive, surround sound experience with multiple speakers (like when you hear special effects in a movie theatre that make you feel like you’re in the middle of live action). This is more complex and falls into the realm of professional sound design.

Q: How much does a good PA system cost?

PA systems can range from a couple hundred dollars for a single speaker with a microphone input to tens (or even hundreds) of thousands of dollars for outfitting a theatre or concert venue. While you can save money in the short term by purchasing cheaper equipment from lesser-known brands, investing in a higher quality PA system can deliver years of good sound.

Q: What should I look for in a PA system?

What you should look for in a PA system varies greatly depending on how and where you want to use it. You’ll want a different blend of features depending on whether you are a musician or a presenter, the size of the event space you’d like to fill, musical genre, and access to power outlets. For the highest quality audio experience, prioritize reputable brands with any special features you’d like over models that provide sheer wattage. Louder and more powerful does not mean better.

Final Thoughts

We believe that great audio should be accessible to everyone, from performing musicians to lecturers and friends planning a backyard dance party. The Fender Passport Conference S2 Portable PA System is both accessible and high quality at a good price, which made it a no-brainer for our overall best pick. By breaking down the pros and cons of other excellent models, we aim to show how anyone can select PA systems with richness and clarity that are sufficiently loud, without overwhelming the senses or making enemies of your neighbors.

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