A Guide to Building Your PA System


Whether it is rooftops, backyards, block parties, or the gallery of a museum, night clubs above and below ground, and every happening, get together, and hang-out in between, one of the joys of living in New York City is being able to experience the thriving cultural scenes surrounding art, live music, and dancing. We live in what we call "the present moment” for a reason, because life is a gift. One of the most fun ways to receive that gift is by throwing and going to awesome parties.

If you’ve ever been to MOMA’s PS1; the Brooklyn Museum’s Target First Saturdays; Soul Summit in Fort Greene Park; or a summer concert to honor the life of Michael Jackson, in Prospect Park; you get what I’m talking about. From the Paradise Garage to Studio 54 and every past, present, and future club that shares in that sublime legacy, NYC loves to party.

To have a great party, you need music. To really experience great music you need a sweet sound system. The highs deserve to be clear, crisp, and coherent. The mids need to be articulate, warm, and personable. The bass should drop with both a nuanced precision and exhilarating definition throughout all of its assigned octaves.

"The highs deserve to be clear, crisp, and coherent. The mids need to be articulate, warm, and personable."

Whether you are providing sound for a birthday party, a barbecue, a wedding, anniversary, holiday, or just for fun, B&H is excited to support you with a vast variety of sound system reinforcement technologies from an innovative roster of manufacturers around the world. My intention in writing this guide is to help you begin to explore the broad array of options available within our online catalog.

This guide will overview a selection of PA systems, from portable solutions with rechargeable batteries all the way up to systems capable of providing live sound reinforcement for concert halls, entertainment venues, and professional touring rigs. Whatever your needs may be, however large or modest your event—there is a sound system that is right for you.

While no guide can be complete or exhaustive, my sincere hope in writing this overview is to discuss a few of the fundamental considerations involved in assembling a sound system, as well as elaborate on some of the technologies that differentiate one loudspeaker design from another and how they might be effective when implemented in a wide range of applications.  

Small, Portable, Rechargeable Systems

The first group on our list is for small PA systems intended for applications where AC power may or may not be readily available, such as while camping, hanging out at the beach, exercising in the park, barbecuing in backyards or on rooftops, parades, and other outdoor activities in need of casual sound reinforcement.

These systems are a bit larger than the portable Bluetooth speakers that have become increasingly popular over the last few years and are more adaptable to live concert applications. By distinction, these portable Bluetooth-enabled PA systems are larger, louder, and sometimes incorporate features such as wheels and telescoping handles, much like you would find in a piece of carry-on luggage.

In this category, some of the key questions to consider are:

• What kind of I/O connectivity options are offered (e.g. Bluetooth to a mobile device, wireless microphones, XLR jacks, ¼" jacks, ⅛" auxiliary, etc)?

• How loud can the speaker play while maintaining a sufficiently low level of distortion?

• How long does the rechargeable battery last and how long does it take to recharge?

• How big and heavy is the PA system? Can it be moved by one person? Can it be easily transported in the trunk of a car?

• Is there any easy way to move the system such as with a carrying bag, hard case, or by integrated wheels?

In this category, there are a number of great systems available, but four that stand out in my mind are the following:

Behringer Europort MPA40BT-Pro All-In-One Portable Bluetooth-Enabled PA System

Weighing only 23 pounds, the Behringer Eurport-Pro All-in-One uses an 8" woofer and high-frequency driver with 40W of Class D amplification powered by a 12-hour run time rechargeable battery. I like the “Pro” version of the Europort because the built-in handle and rolling wheels make it much easier to transport to and from events. 

The Europort-Pro comes with a cabled dynamic microphone and is also compatible with Behringer’s ULM Microphone Receiver—a USB thumb drive that inserts into the “Wireless System” section of the speaker’s back panel plate mixer and amplifier, thereby enabling wireless microphone use on the 2.4 GHz bandwidth using Behringer’s ULTRALINK ULM100USB High-Performance Digital Wireless Microphone System. The speaker also features an integrated Bluetooth receiver, which enables music streaming from a computer, tablet, smartphone, or other Bluetooth-enabled device.

In addition to ULTRALink and Bluetooth, the Europort includes two XLR/TRS combo jacks with independent gain dials for mixing additional microphones or musical instruments, as well as an RCA stereo pair with its own gain dial for use with wired media players, such as turntables with line level output, CD players, or classic iPods and other Digital Audio Players (DAPs) that are not equipped with wireless Bluetooth capabilities.

A 35mm pole socket makes it compatible with common speaker stands so you can use it for a main PA or as a DJ monitor. All in all, it’s a powerful portable solution that is good for everything from making a speech at a wedding to providing party music for your friends at the beach. And if the battery runs out, the unit can also be operated on AC power or an AC to DC Power Inverter using your car’s battery… for a list of these devices, click here.           

Behringer has always offered its customers a broad catalog of products in different categories with a balance of powerful features at accessible prices. What’s especially cool about Behringer as a company is that it has reinvested its success into building a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility with automated assembly, as well as optical and x-ray inspection/testing equipment. I think this might be among the reasons the company now offers a 3-year warranty (with registration) on many of its products.

The merging by Music Group (the parent company of Behringer) of companies such as Midas, Klark Teknik and, more recently, TC Group (TC Electronic, TC Helicon, Lab Gruppen, Tannoy) could lead toward the integration of many different audio technologies through the collaboration of respective engineering teams into a unified product family. The Behringer X32/ Midas M32 Mixing platform is a great example of this and, in a more modest way, I think the Europort speaks to this effort, as well.


Denon DJ Envoi Portable Battery Powered Speaker System

Weighing slightly less than twice the weight of the Behringer, and with 240W of amplification when run on its 12-hour rechargeable battery, the Denon DJ Envoi uses a 10" woofer and a high frequency compression driver to deliver a full-frequency response.

The speaker features integrated wheels and carry handle, a Bluetooth receiver for your mobile device, two XLR.TRS combo jacks, a 16-Channel UHF wireless microphone with automatic tuning and batteries, a built-in USB/SD (MP3/WMA) player for unattended playback, a 2-band reverb effect, a ¼" aux input, a pole mount for use with a speaker pole, as well as a convenient storage compartment for microphones and cables, the Envoi is an excellent option for everyone from acoustic gigging musicians, small bands, event planners, sports coaches, teachers, or anyone who wants a combination of connectivity, capability, and capacity to run for half a day. 

Mackie Freeplay

If you’re looking for a portable PA solution with a smaller form factor, you might want to check out the Mackie Freeplay. Equipped with an 8" woofer and stereo wave-guided tweeters, the unit sports an integrated 4-channel digital mixer, which makes it suitable for both parties, as well as Live gigs. By downloading the company’s Freeplay Connect App for iOS, you can stream music to the unit over Bluetooth, as well as control the integrated feedback destroyer, sixteen digital reverb and delay effects, adjust EQ and select application-specific settings.

It offers a bit more flexibility in regard to the kind of tuning and control over the digital signal processing via the app. What also makes the unit quite flexible is the inclusion of multiple ways to power the device. It can be plugged in via AC power, run on eight D-cell of batteries or you can purchase an optional Li-Ion battery pack, which can provide up to 10 hours of playback before needing a recharge.

If you intend to use the Freeplay for live shows as a PA system or as a DJ monitor, I suggest you also pick up the Mackie Kickstand/Pole Mount accessory, which attaches to the battery compartment of the device and allows the unit to be angled up at 45 degrees as stage monitor (kickstand mode), or placed on a standard speaker pole.

Unlike the other two systems in this category, the Mackie does not include integrated wheels. However, the integrated carry handle and 15.5-lb weight of the unit make it relatively easy to carry. To make carrying the speaker even easier, Mackie also sells a form-fitting Carry Bag, which includes a fabric carrying handle, as well as an adjustable shoulder strap.

Portable POWERED Turn-Key Systems

Sometimes your coverage requirements may exceed the capabilities of the rechargeable systems described above and, in this case, the next group of systems might be more appropriate. They require AC power but are designed to be portable and integrate components such as mixers, cabling, and a way to transport the system all into a compact form factor.

If you are doing a small event where you know you will have access to AC power and want to easily transport the system by yourself in a vehicle with minimal stress, the following four systems are worth a look.

Fender Passport Vocal PA

A classic, easy to carry, and fully capable PA system can be found in the Passport series from Fender. Available in three sizes and power levels, the Passport Conference (175W), Passport Event (375W), and Passport VENUE (600W) all feature stereo speakers and a combination amplifier with a 5, 7, or 10-channel mixer module. The elements latch together to form one solid molded plastic case that can be carried like a briefcase by a recessed top handle.

The Passport Conference uses 5.25" woofers that deliver clear mids, suitable for public speaking. If your intention is to play music for a party, the Passport Event offers lower bass response because it uses larger 8" woofers in its speaker enclosures, and the Passport VENUE offers even more still by using 10" woofers. There are many factors to consider when choosing a system. Consider your application, how much weight you feel comfortable carrying, and if there might even be a need to upgrade the system to something larger over time.   

As an aside, Fender also partnered with Focal to produce a passport solution that is suitable for recording, mixing, and mastering engineers on the go. The Fender Passport Studio takes on a comparable form factor to the PA versions with 150W of Class-D amplification, but incorporates an iteration of the French firm’s famous aluminum/magnesium inverted dome tweeters and 5" polyglass cone woofers. Level, Bass, and Treble controls allow for the system to be tuned to a room once set up, and the inclusion of a ⅛" stereo mini headphone jack allows you to use a pair of flat studio-appropriate headphones, such as the Focal Spirit One Professionals.

Peavey Escort

If you are looking for a turnkey solution capable of covering a larger audience than what’s covered by the Fender Passport series mentioned above, the Peavey Escort systems may be a good option. Available with 300 Watts, 500 Watts, and 600 Watts of total output, the systems consists of two 2-way speakers, a pair of foldable stands to raise them to ear level, a 7, 8, or 9-channel live mixer (depending on the model) combined with an amplifier, in a rolling transport case, and the necessary cable to make your connections between the speakers and mixer.

An integrated feedback detection system allows you to use a 7-band graphic equalizer to remove problematic beaming frequencies from microphone feedback, while a host of digital effects and a USB MP3 player afford flexibility in a variety of applications.

I especially like the included storage compartments for microphones and cables because, by providing a dedicated space, it helps ensure that these essential accessories are not forgotten when traveling to and from gigs.

LED Lighting

Colorful mood lighting can make a big difference when throwing a party. A recent trend that I really enjoy in loudspeaker design is the inclusion of some LED lighting element(s) into the speaker cabinet, for example, as in the Numark Lightwaves. These speakers use three 6.5" ported woofers for tight and punchy mid-bass with a 1" tweeter for clear highs. Each cabinet includes two arrays of LEDS with controllable brightness and selectable patterns such as mood, meter, mix, pulse, and party. I saw some cool demos this year of the light waves at NAMM, and definitely enjoy the synchronization of light and sound all in a compact and easy-to-manage speaker.

Special Drivers and Arrangements

Personally, I find loudspeaker design fascinating because it involves considerations in material science, electrical engineering, acoustics, as well as aesthetics in the overall result. I am especially interested in driver technology (the electro-mechanical elements that generate the sound within the cabinet) and so get very excited when companies experiment with new technologies.

For example, consider the PeaveyRBN 112. What’s special about this powered speaker is the use of a ribbon tweeter comparable to the one found in the company’s Vessarray ribbon line array systems for touring and install applications. Typically, ribbon tweeters are found in specialized studio monitors available at B&H, such as those offered by ADAM, Avantone and, more recently, companies such as Behringer and Samson. And like a ribbon microphone in reverse, a ribbon tweeter is capable of extremely fast transient response for highs that are airy, detailed, and directional.


Compact Designs

For gigging DJs who work out of their cars, with limited trunk space, Denon has a compact solution in the form of the new Axis powered tops and subs.

Available with 8 or 12" woofers, the reason for the Axis’s compact form factor is their co-axial design, wherein the tweeter is positioned on a concentric axis with the woofer. This alignment also improves the coherency of the speaker's sound as both the low and mid/high parts of the sound originate from the same position.

Combined with Denon's recently announced MX8000 DJ controller, a pair of Axis tops on sticks atop a pair of Axis subs makes for a complete, compact, and highly capable DJ PA system.

Another compact and well-designed line of loudspeakers worth consideration is the RCF EVOX series. The tops use 5, 8, or 12 vertically aligned full-range “2” drivers to provide 120 degrees of horizontal coverage. What I especially like about the Evox 8 model is the way the top element is designed to recess into the subwoofer for an incredibly compact travel form factor. RCF is a highly regarded Italian manufacturer of speaker drivers and complete loudspeaker solutions that is well worth a listen.  

PRESONUS Studio Live AI Speakers

Co-actual or co-axial speaker designs are a bit more complicated than traditional two-way or three-way speaker designs. The placement of the different speaker elements on the same axis requires careful planning to achieve the correct phase and time alignment.


Presonus offers a line of co-actual speakers with exceptional design. Created in partnership with legendary speaker designer Dave Gunness, of Fulcrum Acoustics, and previously EAW, the Presonus 328AI, 312AI, and 315AI speakers combine separate dual 8", a single 12", or a single 5" woofer with a specially designed co-actual mid/high driver. Mr. Gunness’s genius stems from his deep understanding of how sound behaves in both the digital and acoustic domains.

Many manufacturers now incorporate digital signal processing into the Class-D plate amplifiers included in their boxes. This processing, with the exception of a few brands, such as Electrovoice's very well-regarded EVX line of powered speakers, utilize infinity impulse response (IIR) filters for signal processing functions such as equalization, presets for specific genres of music, compression, limiting, and delay for aligning with other speakers in your room.

Like the EV ETX series, the Presonus Studiolive PA speakers use Finite Impulse Response (FIR) filters for DSP processing. The Presonus Studiolive speakers implement a Texas Instruments OMAP processor running a special version of Android, powerful enough to run Angry Birds to perform Finite Impulse Response (FIR) filtering to process the audio signal before amplification. What’s unique about Gunness's design is that the FIR filter DSP processing was developed in conjunction with the physical design of the co-actual mid-high driver.

By developing both the software processing of the audio signal and the acoustic properties of the driver that will reproduce the signal, an exceptionally clear and coherent sound is achieved.

I remember the first time a heard the Presonus 328AI being demo’ed. We were listening to Michael Jackson's "Wanna Be Starting Something." I remember hearing percussion elements in the mix during the intro that I had never heard before, even on studio monitors. It was amazing to hear so deeply into the mix of a song that I have known since childhood. The experience put the 818Ai on my short list for my own PA needs and I encourage you to give them a listen. I also especially like the way Presonus’s studio live equipment works as a complete eco system. Imagine making a tune using a pair of S6 Sceptre Coactual Studio Monitors, then playing it out live on a PA system that features the same brilliantly designed driver. It’s true translation from studio to stage.

Classic Powered PA Speakers

If you would prefer to take a more traditional route, consider the QSC K and QSC KW series. Tried and true around the world, the California-based manufacturer makes some of the most reliable powered loudspeakers in the industry, with a generous 3-year warranty that can be extended to 6 years with registration. This is probably one of the reasons that the QSC K10 is one of the most common DJ monitors I see when visiting small-to-medium-sized sound camps at Burning Man. The difference between the K and KW series is that the KW series uses a birch cabinet, which provides a tonality that many people feel is warmer than an injection-molded enclosure.

Another popular option is the JBL Eon series, or if you need more output the JBL PRX700 series. The SRX800 series adds network control. A friend of mine recently bought a JBL EON 615 for barbecues and testing his productions on a PA. I was very impressed by the clarity of the box and I attribute this to JBL’s advanced waveguide technology for both the tweeter and woofer. If you remove the grille of the speaker, you can see that the tweeter has the same "Image Control" waveguide found in the company's LSR line of studio monitors, which has technology adapted from the company's super high-end M2 Master Reference Monitors. A pair of LSR studio monitors for production and a pair of EON, PRX700, or SRX800 PA tops for playing out could be a very powerful combination.

The fact that the EON series won a 29th annual Music and Sound Award, as well as a 2015 Readers Choice award, that the PRX700 Series won a 29th NAMM TEC Award, and that the SRX800 Series was Pro Sound News 2015 NAMM Best in Show award, means something.

Professional Touring and Venue Installation

B&H is also excited to offer our global customer base an ever-expanding line of PA systems designed for professional touring and venue applications. I want to briefly highlight a few boxes that I find especially interesting.

Intended for advanced users and PA companies, the dB technologies DVAS2585N Subwoofer is a clever engineering achievement. What's special about this subwoofer is that it combines a front-firing 18" driver for low-frequency output with a DSP-processed, back-firing 15", which plays the signal out of phase. The summation of the front-firing wave with the inverted back-firing wave creates a cardioid or heart-shaped polar response.

The purpose of a cardioid subwoofer polar pattern is to control the bass response on stage, so as to limit microphone feedback, while directing the majority of the low-frequency energy away from wall reflections and into the audience, where it belongs. A cardioid polar pattern is usually achieved by using multiple subwoofers positioned vertically or in a row, so it's exciting to see a company innovate upon the concept by realizing the effect within a single cabinet.

Digital BEAM Steering

For improved control over mid- and high-frequency wall reflections, B&H currently carries one brand of loudspeakers with models capable of what's called “digital beam steering.” Based on concepts developed by the US military for control of radar signals, Beam steering involves building a column speaker with multiple identical drivers in a vertical column. DSP is used to delay the firing of the signal between the respective drivers to steer the sound within a venue. I've heard this technology demonstrated in an empty warehouse for a club on which I'm consulting. The room was completely raw, without acoustic treatment of any kind, and it can indeed be used to manage incidental surface reflections with a high degree of precision.

For more information on digital beam steering, check out the RCF TTL11A Active Digitally Steerable Loudspeaker Array.   


I enjoy all genres of music and generally do my best to make the most of any situation. Often, this means settling for over-worked, partially blown-out speakers in less than ideal acoustic spaces, especially in New York. Sometimes the sound can be so harsh that to stay in a venue could mean risking permanent hearing damage. This is why it's always a good idea to carry a pair of earplugs with you at all times. B&H has a pretty large collection of different styles available. Currently, I've been using the Etymotic XS model because I appreciate the even attenuation across the frequency spectrum, with the appropriate adjustments for the Fletcher-Munson Curves.

The aim of this guide was to provide an introduction and highlight a few favorites from the ever-expanding catalog of speakers for live sound currently available at B&H. While we are well known around the world for being a leader in photography, our global customer base should be delighted to know that the same level of technical expertise, customer service, depth and breadth of catalog offerings is available for live sound.  

So, whether you are looking to provide amplified sound for a picnic, a coffee house gig, or are ready to build a Mega Club, we are here to help. For more information on any of the topics covered in this article or related questions about live sound, please contact one of our experts today, via email, phone, or live chat.   





The design is called co-AXIAL, not co-actual.

Hi DW,

As a point of clarification, the Denon Axis and Presonus Studiolive Ai speakers are both co-Axial designs, wherein either the high/mid (Presonus) or high/mid/low (Denon) drivers are mounted on the same axis. The term "co-Actual" refer's to Presonus's specific implemention of a co-Axial design (as found in the Sceptre Studio monitors and the Studiolive AI PA speakers) that utilize Fulcrum Acoustics’ Temporal Equalization DSP algorithms and a horn-loaded tweeter to address issues with intermodulation distortion posed by co-Axial alignments. It's a remarkable bit of engineering that definitely deserves an audiiton.