Allow me to paint a picture for you….
The weather outside is in the high 80s, bright sun, not a cloud in the sky. You decide to take full advantage and head to the beach for the day. You pack all the essentials — sunscreen, drinks/food, maybe a book or tablet, and possibly the most important essential: your small Bluetooth speaker!
A portable Bluetooth speaker is certainly nothing new. Nowadays, they are everywhere, and they’re even used as free swag at various conventions and trade shows. What is “new,” however, is the current wave of portable and powered loudspeakers that have taken the commercial AV world by storm. They are allowing end users to have what I call “Anywhere Audio.” This term refers to the ability to bring your audio with you regardless of application, space dimensions or overall needs.
Portable PA Category is Growing
The portable PA category continues to grow and, as it does, we are now faced with more speaker options than we’ve ever had in the past. Essentially, there is a portable option for just about everyone! The speaker you choose is normally dictated by what you are using it for, as well as what the size of the listening area is. Over the past two-plus years, there has certainly been a drastic increase in outdoor activities, whether they are fitness classes, educational/corporate presentations, outdoor dining or outdoor performances. What’s more, over the past year, we have seen more powered-line-array options hit the market for those larger, production-type applications. When you have that many unique applications, it becomes imperative to match up the right speaker for each one.
We also cannot ignore the current supply/chip shortages. The ability to choose a powered speaker, rather than sourcing a separate amplifier, can be viewed as a benefit of this category. In this article, we’ll examine some of the features that could determine whether you have a good audio experience or a poor one.
When discussing loudspeakers as a category, there are a few questions I always ask during the conversation. First, I want to know if portability is a desired need. In other words, will this loudspeaker be permanently installed, or will there be times when it needs to be carried from one place to the next with ease? Portable loudspeakers can range in size/weight from approximately 17lb. up to 85lb. (or more!). Although 85lb. is pretty heavy, it is still technically considered portable and will normally have fixed handles on the speaker cabinet to assist in moving. There might also be an optional carry case.
Passive vs. Powered
My second go-to question is whether the application requires a passive speaker (requiring an external amplifier and mixer to power/control) or powered speaker (having an amp and mixer/DSP built in). As we can probably all attest, not everyone is an experienced audio engineer. Having an “all-in-one” solution, such as a powered or portable loudspeaker, might be extremely attractive for those who are beginners and who simply want to turn the speaker on and go.
For the sake of this discussion, we are going to talk about powered options due to their ease of setup, control and functionality. Some of the vendors that are players in this category also have Android/iOS apps that can turn your phone or tablet into a control panel. I have seen a musician performing while someone in the back of the bar is controlling the mixer of the speaker from an iPad. That type of simplicity makes this category quite popular regardless of whether you are a beginner or an experienced musician or sound engineer.
Another question we certainly want to ask is how the speaker will be used. As I mentioned earlier, we have seen numerous applications over the years, and the ones mentioned are only a small fraction of the overall segment. For example, if someone intends to simply connect a phone via Bluetooth to listen to music outdoors, then that indicates there isn’t any need to look at the higher end of the price spectrum. It also means we probably don’t need to look at the higher end of the peak SPL (maximum loudness) range.
Several Different Products
If the end user is planning on connecting a wired or wireless microphone for presentations, for example, that entails a range of different product possibilities. Most speakers in the portable PA category offer some type of built-in mixer (some analog, some digital), and they come in all different sizes (two channels, five channels and so on). Along with this, they offer additional features, such as feedback suppression, ducking and vocal special effects. Feedback suppression means preventing audio feedback, which can occur if a microphone is too close to a speaker. This creates a distinct (and unpleasant) noise. Ducking, meanwhile, is a feature you may routinely experience if you’re in a club and the DJ begins to talk on the microphone. As the DJ is speaking, the music is turned down so everyone can hear them. You are “ducking down” the volume of the audio on one signal so you can hear another audio signal.
Although there are several other qualifying questions one could ask, I think the last of the integral questions is how large or small the listening area is. I mentioned previously the peak SPL, which is another way of answering the question “How loud can this get?” I have seen the decibel level on these products range from 110dB up to 131dB, which allows these to be used in small classrooms, conference halls, houses of worship and more. A coffee shop more than likely does not need a large, 15-inch loudspeaker blaring music; however, you’re going to need two to four of that same speaker for proper audio at your conference/trade show for public presentations.
Given this variability, we can also look at additional factors, such as whether a tripod mount can be used. Alternatively, we can look at others that come with detachable column arrays, which can actually be wall mounted. A recent project I worked on for a church wound up using two portable PAs that came with a column array. They loved the idea of mounting the array on the wide and hiding the base in the corner out of sight. The options are certainly plentiful in this category!
I hope that this article served to answer some of your questions and help you get started on the path to selecting the right powered loudspeakers for your projects! No longer does the word “portable” only apply to that tiny Bluetooth speaker we take to the beach. We in the commercial AV realm, in fact, can now experience the “Anywhere Audio” that I am such a fan of.
Rob Voorhees is business development manager at Exertis Almo.