The Ultimate PA Speaker Buyer’s Guide 2021


So you’re wondering which PA speaker(s) you should buy, rent or otherwise try out. In this comprehensive buyer’s guide, we’ll go through everything worth considering before you make any decisions about public address system loudspeakers.

If you’ve found yourself asking, “which PA speakers should I buy?” this extensive resource is for you.

Please feel free to jump around this article and read all additional resources I have provided links to.

With that, let’s get into this comprehensive PA speaker buyer’s guide to help you in your next PA speaker purchase!

Related article:
Top 11 Best PA Loudspeaker Brands You Should Know And Use


Table Of Contents


What Is Your PA Speaker Budget?

The first thing to consider when making any purchase is your budget. Money can be a touchy subject for some, and so I’ll keep this section brief.

I would never advise anyone to overspend on any audio equipment. Know what you can realistically afford, and do your best to stay within those limitations, whatever they may be.

PA Speakers, like many audio devices, range significantly in price. The market is rather large, and so there should be a good selection for any budget.

Note that some retailers offer payment plans, which could be an option.

Consider the cost to benefit ratio of the purchase of the PA speaker(s). For example, if the PA speaker(s) are needed for business, perhaps stretching the budget is more appropriate. If, on the other hand, you don’t plan on making money with the PA speaker(s), perhaps a more conservative budget is appropriate.

Also, consider any additional accessories or upkeep that may be required for your PA speaker(s).

Only you can determine your budget. All I’m here to say is that you should consider it.

Related My New Microphone article:
How Much Do Loudspeakers Cost? (With Pricing Examples)

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What Is The Intended Application & Size Of The PA System?

As the name suggests, a public address system addresses the public. The setting and the size of the “public” varies widely from one application to the next.

For example, if you’re looking to buy PA speakers for your garage band jam sessions, you’ll likely need a lot less than if you’re setting up sound reinforcement for a huge music festival.

So knowing the size and intended applications is the first step in deciding what PA speakers to buy. Opt for bigger or more speakers if there are opportunities to use them, even if only a smaller setup is required most of the time.

Generally speaking, there are three size ranges for PA systems. Let’s list them and discuss the typical applications and speakers:

Personal: Personal PA systems one or more speakers or small speaker arrays that act as main speakers and monitors. These setups are often found in jam spaces, coffee shops, and other small venues.

Medium-size: Medium-size PA systems consist of two or more main speakers (on either side of the stage), speaker monitors, and even subwoofers in some instances. These setups are found in small-to-medium-sized clubs, halls, outdoor venues and other venues.

Full-scale: Full-scale PA systems consist of multi-speaker line arrays, subwoofers, and elaborate monitoring systems. These setups are found in theatre halls, stadiums, large clubs, large outdoor music festivals, and other venues that require lots of sound level.

Of course, these systems also require mixers, amplifiers (unless you have a small system with a single powered speaker), and cables. A lot more goes into a public address system than just the speakers and knowing the intended application(s) will help you choose the best speaker and other components.

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How Loud, How Much Power & How Many Speakers?

When choosing your PA systems, it’s critical to have an idea of how loud you’ll need it to be.

An outdoor 100,000-person festival is going to need magnitudes more power than your local coffee shop open-mic night.

Small rooms need less power, and the fewer people in the room, the less power is needed. Though far from standardized, I recommend the following loose power requirements for small rooms:

  • Under 500 square feet: 200 Watts RMS or less
  • Under 1,000 square feet: 800 Watts RMS or less
  • Under 2,000 square feet: 2,000 Watts RMS or less
  • Under 4,000 square feet: 4,000 Watts RMS or less

Large stadiums and outdoor events often require hundreds of thousands of watts being sent to large numbers of speakers, including subwoofers.

Unfortunately, there are no hard rules for the optimal amount of power for a PA system. That being said, here are some points to keep in mind:

  • Indoor spaces require less power than outdoor spaces
  • The more absorptive material in the space (including people), the more power is needed
  • Subwoofers need more power

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Powered Vs. Unpowered PA Speakers

Powered and unpowered speakers, often called active and passive speakers, respectively, are easy to understand. Powered (active) PA speakers require power to function, while unpowered (passive) PA speakers do not.

What would a speaker need power for? Powered/active speakers have internal amplifiers. Amplifiers require a good amount of power to amplify line level signals to speaker level signals to move the speaker drivers and produce sound effectively.

Additionally, powered speakers tend to have built-in volume control (control over the internal amplifier), along with EQ and even wireless connectivity in some cases.

Powered speakers do not need external power amplifiers to drive them. There’s no need for an additional power amp, nor is there no need for a powered mixer (which, like a powered speaker, has a built-in power amp). We can plug line level signals directly into powered speakers and have them work.

As we’d expect, powered speakers are generally heavier and more expensive than their unpowered/passive counterparts.

However, they benefit from ease-of-use as standalone units or as parts of a larger system. Since each powered speaker has its own power amp, there will be no extra strain on any external power amp from connecting more speakers. The built-in amplifier is also designed specifically for the driver(s), so we don’t have to worry about matching the two.

Unpowered/passive speakers do not have any active components. They are essentially driver(s) in an enclosure with passive crossovers.

Therefore, passive speakers require an external power amp to amplifier the audio to a level adequate to drive them properly. These amps can either be standalone units or built into the powered mixer.

When choosing one, two, or more passive speakers for a PA system, it’s essential that the amplifier(s) is capable of driving them. Matching amplifiers and speakers is a science of its own.

Passive PA speakers tend to be lighter, making them easy to set up and transport.

So which should you buy? My advice would be to consider the application.

When setting up huge full-scale PA systems or even medium-sized systems, opt for passive/unpowered PA speakers with dedicated power amplifiers. Many passive speakers make for a lighter setup, and having separate power amps allows for better control over the system.

An active/powered PA speaker (or several) will likely be best for all smaller setups. They’re heavier, but with a small setup, this isn’t a huge deal. With no external amps or need for a powered mixer, they’re also easier to set up.

Related articles:
Why Do Loudspeakers Need Power & How Are They Powered?
What Are The Differences Between Passive & Active Speakers?

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Speaker Power Handling, Sensitivity, Max SPL & Coverage Angle

Let’s discuss a few important specifications to consider when choosing PA speakers:

PA Speaker Power Handling

What is speaker power handling (wattage rating)? The speaker power handling specification (aka wattage rating) is the measured or theoretical limit of electric power the speaker is capable of handling before burning out. The spec is given in watts and can be measured/calculated as a continuous, peak, or root mean square (rms) value.

Power handling applies mostly to passive speakers, which need separate power amplifiers to drive them. It’s critical that we do not exceed the rated power handling/wattage rating to keep our PA speakers working properly. Exceeding these levels, especially over extended periods, will cause irreversible damage to the speaker’s driver(s).

Unfortunately, there are numerous ways in which the power handling spec of a speaker is given (peak, RMS, average, continuous, program, and nominal power/watt values can be given). Some manufacturers bend the truth to make their speakers look more powerful than they actually are. Do your research to find out exactly what the specification means according to the manufacturer’s datasheet.

Additionally, power handling doesn’t tell us how loud a given speaker will be. That information is to be found in the sensitivity and max SPL specifications.

For more information, check out my article The Complete Guide To Speaker Power Handling & Wattage Ratings.

PA Speaker Sensitivity

What is speaker sensitivity? Sensitivity is a specification/measurement of how well a speaker converts amplifier power (electrical energy) into acoustic (mechanical wave) energy. Sensitivity specifications are generally given as decibels of sound pressure level per 1 watt of power at 1 measurement distance of 1 meter.

Put differently, speaker sensitivity is generally given as a dB SPL / 1 W @ 1-meter rating.

Higher sensitivity PA speakers will produce more volume given the same amount of power. Therefore, if two speakers have the same power handling/wattage rating, the more sensitive speaker will have a higher maximum level.

Note that the sound pressure level produced by the speaker is halved (-6 dB) for every doubling of distance. This is why the 1-meter unit is critical in the sensitivity specification.

Confusingly, the perceived loudness is doubled or halved for every +10 or -10 dB change. Additionally, a doubling or halving of power is defined by +3 or -3 dB. The math is rather complex, but it’s important to note.

As an example, a maxed-out 500-watt speaker with a sensitivity of 93 dB SPL / 1 W @ 1 m will be the same volume as a maxed-out 1,000-watt speaker with a sensitivity of 90 dB SPL / 1 W @ 1 m.

The main takeaway is that sensitivity should be considered when choosing a PA speaker.

For more information on speaker sensitivity and decibels, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
The Full Guide To Loudspeaker Sensitivity & Efficiency Ratings
What Are Decibels? The Ultimate dB Guide For Audio & Sound

PA Speaker Maximum Sound Pressure Level

What is the maximum SPL specification of a speaker? The maximum SPL specification of a speaker refers to the maximum sound pressure level (typically at a distance of 1 metre from the speaker) the speaker is capable of producing before burn-out.

The maximum SPL specification of a speaker refers to the maximum sound pressure level (typically at a distance of 1 metre from the speaker) the speaker is capable of producing before burn-out.

That being said, some manufacturers will give ratings at different distances and even include long-term maximum SPL ratings that are analogous to the continuous power handling ratings.

Maximum SPL ratings are sometimes measured but are often calculated theoretically.

Obviously, choosing a PA speaker with a higher max SPL will give you more perceived volume.

PA Speaker Impedance

What is speaker impedance? Speaker impedance, measured in ohms (Ω), is the electrical impedance (AC resistance) encountered by the audio signal (electrical AC) at the input of the speaker driver. Impedance affects the load a speaker places on an amplifier and is an important spec when matching speakers and amplifiers.

Speaker impedance is a significant specification when connecting passive speakers to power amplifiers. Impedance specs matter less with active speakers, which accept line level or even mic level signals.

A speaker with a lower impedance will require more power to achieve the same voltage (signal level) across its driver.

The power amplifier output driving the passive PA speaker should ideally have less than one-tenth the nominal impedance of the speaker input for proper signal transfer.

Amplifier output impedance specifications are generally given as “rated impedances,” which refer to the speaker impedance(s) the amp can drive properly. The real output impedance of a power amplifier is usually less than 0.1 Ω, but this is rarely specified.

Impedance is also critical when connecting multiple speakers to a power amplifier. Speakers can be connected in series or parallel.

Speakers connected in series are connected along a single conductive path. The same current flows through all of the speakers, but voltage is dropped across each of the speakers (due to the speaker’s impedance).

The combined impedance of the series speakers is as follows:

ZT = Z1 + Z2 + … + Zn

Speakers connected in parallel are connected along multiple paths so that the current is split up, but the same voltage is equal across each speaker.

The combined impedance of the parallel speakers is as follows:

1 / ZT = (1 / Z1) + (1 / Z2) + … + (1 / Zn)

For more information on speaker and amplifier impedance, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
The Complete Guide To Speaker Impedance (2Ω, 4Ω, 8Ω & More)
What Is Amplifier Impedance? (Actual Vs. Rated Impedance)

PA Speaker Coverage Angle

What is speaker coverage angle? The coverage/dispersion specification refers to the directionality of the speaker’s sound output. The coverage spec is often given as an angle along the horizontal plane that cuts through the on-axis line of the speaker and another angle along the vertical plane that cuts through the on-axis line.

The coverage can be imagined as a 3-dimensional conical-shaped sound front emanating from the speaker. The coverage limits are often defined as a -6 dB drop from the on-axis (directly in front of the speaker) SPL.

If we’re planning on projecting sound to an audience with our PA speakers, we should note the coverage angle(s) of the speaker to help position them for optimal performance across as much space as possible.

To learn about all the specifications related to loudspeakers, check out my article The Full List: Loudspeaker & Monitor Specifications w/ Examples.

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Main PA Speakers

The main PA speakers are the audience-facing full-range speaker tasked with projecting sounds to the audience. In smaller systems, there may only be one main speaker or, usually, one on either side of the stage. In larger venues, main speakers may be more numerous on stage and even positioned along the sidewalls and ceiling. In large venues, including stadiums and outdoor stages, large speaker arrays may carry multiple main speakers in several locations.

These are the most important in the system, so choose wisely.

If you’re forgoing a subwoofer, choosing a larger main speaker (or speakers) will help produce some of the low-end that would otherwise be produced by the sub. 15 and 18-inch main speakers will typically cover a good amount of the low-end frequency response.

Smaller main speakers (8 and 10″ are common) work as well, especially if a subwoofer is included.

The size will play a role in the overall weight of the speaker, which may be a concern.

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Subwoofers

Subwoofers are essential for producing the low-end audio information of bass guitars, kick drums, and other bass elements.

The long wavelengths of bass frequencies require a lot of power to be heard (and mostly felt) by the audience. A separate subwoofer with a separate amplifier will perform the task of producing the low-end, leaving the main speakers to cover the clarity of the mids and highs.

Bigger subwoofers tend to have more extended low-end frequency responses. As we’d expect, they also require more power.

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Foldback/Stage Monitors

Foldback or stage monitors are the wedge-like speakers positioned on stage that allow the performers to hear/monitor themselves.

Since the main speakers and subwoofer face away from the stage toward the audience, the sound on stage may be a bit lacklustre for the performers. Monitors tend to have performer-specific mixes, allowing those on stage to hear what they need to hear to perform at their best.

When setting up foldback monitors, we must be cognizant of the potential for feedback between the monitors and microphones. Position the monitors and microphones appropriately is paramount.

To learn more about feedback, check out my article What Is Microphone Feedback And How To Eliminate It For Good.

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Understanding Speaker Connections

There are plenty of different connectors in audio equipment. This is, of course, true of loudspeakers. When it comes to PA speakers, the typical options are minimized to 4 main connection types:

TS

TS stands for Tip-Sleeve, a connector type that has two conductors and carries unbalanced audio signals. These connectors are typical for instruments like electric guitars but are rare with PA systems.

That being said, TS cables (typically 1/4″ form factor) can be used with 1/4″ TRS jacks, which we’ll get to next.

TRS

TRS stands for Tip-Ring-Sleeve, which is a 3-conductor connector that carries balanced audio signals. These connectors are also typically 1/4″ (though some speakers may have 1/8″ options).

XLR

XLR is a common circular connector with 3 pins (yes, there are other pin counts, but they are not used with PA speakers). These connections are often used to carry balanced mic level or line level signals to powered speakers but are also used in unpowered speakers (typically lower power ratings).

SpeakON

SpeakON is a multi-pin connector popular on PA speakers and power amplifiers with high wattage ratings. These connectors are reliable and can handle high-level speaker level signals better than the previous options.

Combo Jacks

Note that combo jacks off the combination of 1/4″ TRS and XLR in a single jack.

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Understanding Speaker Driver Configurations, Crossovers & Bi-Amplification

A speaker driver is a transducer responsible for converting audio signals into sound waves. Many speakers have multiple drivers, each with its own designated frequency range where it performs optimally.

Much like how separate subwoofers will improve the bass response of a system, separate drivers within a single PA speaker will likely improve its overall frequency response.

A single driver tasked with producing the entire frequency range will suffer in one way or another due to the physical nature of drivers and the wide range of audible frequencies. A speaker with multiple drivers will be able to reproduce the entire frequency spectrum with greater accuracy so long as those speakers are configured correctly.

Typical drivers include subwoofers (generally in their own speakers), woofers (produce low-mids and mids), mid-range drivers (produce mids), and tweeters (produce high-end frequencies).

A proper PA speaker will typically have at least a woofer and a tweeter. The number and style of the drivers included in the speaker are known as the speaker driver configuration.

To send the proper audio signal frequencies to the proper drivers, we need a crossover. The crossover effectively splits the audio signal frequencies with filters.

Crossovers can be passive or active and can be built into the speaker or in a separate unit. Knowing the frequencies at which the crossover splits the signal can help you hone in the mix in the sometimes-awkward crossover points of the system.

Note that a speaker with 2 different driver types (and, therefore, a single crossover frequency) is called a 2-way speaker. A speaker with 3 different driver types (and, therefore, two crossover frequencies) is called a 3-way speaker.

Bi-amplification is the process of splitting an audio signal into two frequency ranges and sending these two new signals to separate amplifiers, which driver their own speakers. This is similar to a crossover, except the process happens mostly outside the speakers and offers additional control over the systems gain stages. It is, therefore, largely a practice of large-scale PA systems.

Bi-amplification is ideal for a separate subwoofer and main speakers. Tri-amplification, quad-amplification, and so on are also possible.

Differences Between Mid-Range Speakers, Tweeters & Woofers
What Are Speaker Drivers? (How All Driver Types Work)
What Is A Speaker Crossover Network? (Active & Passive)

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Know The Additional Costs Of PA Speaker Accessories

PA Speaker Stands

A PA speaker stand holds a PA speaker in place, off the floor/ground or even, in some cases, the wall. Stands are often adjustable, allowing users to select the ideal height for the speakers. They also work, to some degree, to mechanically isolate the speaker from the floor, thereby minimizing the transfer of mechanical vibrations to and from the speaker.

PA Speaker Covers

A PA speaker cover is a protective jacket that goes over the speaker during transportation and storage to help keep the speaker from getting wet, scratched or otherwise damaged.

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Beyond PA Speakers Into General PA System Design

This article is far from providing a full picture of an entire PA system.

A PA system can be super-simple or ultra-complex. There are all-in-one/pre-designed systems on the market, and there’s really no limit to how involved you can become with PA system design.

Though the main focus of this article is to help you choose the loudspeakers of the PA system, there are plenty of other pieces worth considering. In addition to the speakers and the speaker accessories mentioned above, PA systems may include any of the following items:

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This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.

Arthur

Arthur is the owner of Fox Media Tech and author of My New Microphone. He's an audio engineer by trade and works on contract in his home country of Canada. When not blogging on MNM, he's likely hiking outdoors and blogging at Hikers' Movement (hikersmovement.com) or composing music for media. Check out his Pond5 and AudioJungle accounts.

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