So you're looking at DJ PA systems. Maybe you read part one of this two-part series, Small PA System Vs Monitor Speakers For DJing. Or maybe you've been asked to play some parties, or got a paid-for DJ booking.
Whatever the reason, if you've decided it's time to upgrade your gear with a DJ PA system but you're not sure where to start, in this article we're going to arm you with all you need to make an informed choice.
The type of small PA system we're looking at
Small PA systems come in all shapes and sizes. Karaoke type systems. Outdoor-style all-in-one system. Complex systems with equalisers and mixers built-in. For general DJing purposes, though, we're going to make some assumptions that'll help narrow down the field. We're going to assume that you want to play to 50 to 200 people, with maybe 100-150 as the average.
We're going to assume you'll be running your DJ controller right into your PA, and any microphone use will also go through your DJ controller (or a small external mixer along with the output of your DJ controller), so you won't need loads of inputs on the PA. And we're going to assume you want something reasonably portable, that you can maybe even use in your practice studio instead of monitor speakers.
In short, we're looking for versatile, reliable, good sounding and smallish. Oh, and of course cost is an issue - you're going to want to know what the top whack brands for DJ PA systems are, but also what mid-range systems may also do the job and save you some money (cheap is always a mistake, we're not going to go there).
But first, let's get to know the various options and parts of PA systems a little better.
Get informed: What's important when choosing...
Powered/active speakers vs separate amplifiers and speakers
In the past, it was usual to have amplifiers and speakers separate from each other, and it's still quite common. But increasingly, powered or active speakers (the terms often get used interchangeably, although there is a technical difference) are more common. These are speakers with amplifiers built right there into the cabinet. (In some systems, the amplifier may even be built into only one cabinet, and the other speaker or speakers just link up to the "master" cabinet. We'll look at some of these next week.)
Active systems have the advantage of the amps being matched perfectly to the speakers, of being less complex, and being easier to set up as well as carry. You don't need to worry about things like active vs passive crossovers, bi-amping and all that stuff either. The disadvantage, though, is reduced flexibility. Generally, we'd recommend you go for powered/active speakers.
(If you do choose to go for passive speaker and amplifiers, make sure the amps are rated at at least a third more power output than the speakers are designed for - half as much again or even more is also fine. Contrary to popular belief, it's speakers being driven by underpowered amps that tends to blow them, not overpowered.)
Subwoofer or not?
A subwoofer is a big, usually floor-standing speaker, that is designed to handle very low frequencies. While the "main" speakers are always sold as being up to this task, if you are playing to more than 150 people or if you are a bass lover (ie pretty much everyone reading this), you're going to want a subwoofer. That's why they're pretty much a given for most DJ PA systems.
Typically, one subwoofer on its own is enough - bass is not very directional, so whether or not you need two is more dependent on how many people come to your parties than filling more of the room. As a rule, if you feel your small PA system is struggling, add a subwoofer to it rather than getting a bigger PA - it could be all you need to fix things.
What size speakers?
For 100 people parties, you may get away with 10" drivers (that's the size of the biggest of the two speakers each cabinet will typically contain), but 12" or even 15" would be better for 150 to 200 people. These will simply be louder.
From 250 up to 500 watt power or higher is about right (per speaker), although some all-in-one systems that we like deliver less; these are best for home and family party use. As far as the subwoofer goes, 12" as a minimum for small events, but 15" or 18" is about right for size, and subwoofers should deliver at least as much power as your main speakers, and preferably more. Bass gets "soaked up" easily by roomfuls of people.
Plugging it all together
There are two types of connectors: Balanced and unbalanced. Unbalanced are always RCA-type: similar to the red/white leads and sockets you'll have on your DJ controller. They're fine for short distances. As soon as you want to use longer leads (say over 20ft), balanced are best, and that's what I'd recommend you use to connect your controller and PA system - they are less prone to interference.
They come in three types: Speakon, XLR, and TRS. Which you use doesn't really matter, and will be dictated by what type of output you have on the back of your DJ controller (it'll be TRS or XLR), and of course what type of inputs your powered speakers or amp have.
If your DJ controller doesn't have balanced outputs at all, you can get away with RCA assuming your PA has RCA ins: I use it on our cheapo party PA all the time. But just be aware that if you're using longer leads, interference is more likely. Balanced is always best for PA connections.
By the way, when it comes to wiring subwoofers or extra speakers in, most speakers some kind of "loop thru" system. That is how you can plug three (or more) speakers into the two outputs from your DJ controller.
It's important to budget for decent speaker stands too. You don't need them for the subwoofer, but you do for the two main speakers.
Stands have multiple advantages. As well as getting your speakers up out of harm's way (ie nobody can put their drinks on them), stands let you position them at head height, and point them exactly where you want (usually at the dancefloor). This increases the effectiveness of the speakers, meaning you get louder, better sound for the same speaker than if you tried to position them on chairs, tables or worse, on the floor.
Obviously the most important thing with stands is safety, as you don't want them toppling onto your crowd, but also bear in mind how small they fold up (and how easy they are to assemble), and how much they weigh.
All-in-one systems vs separates
Generally, your two main speakers and your subwoofer will be separate - their own power, their own built-in amplifiers, and so on.
While they will be designed so you can incorporate the subwoofer without needing a separate output for it (see above), and the manufacturer will suggest matches across their range for audio compatibility, that's about as far as integration goes. They will also be sold singly.
But there are DJ PA systems that are more integrated. In these, all of the amplification is done in one speaker, and the others are merely slave speakers that feed from the master unit.
These can be light, portable and good value for money, but bear in mind the lack of flexibility - for instance, for very small gigs where otherwise you may choose not to take your sub-woofer, you're stuck with it. These systems generally are aimed at filling smaller rooms, too, and bear in mind that if you're planning on using your PA at home as well, such a system may be a more practical choice.
Brands and models
A good example of the all-in-one style would be the Matrix B52 1000V2 (above), which is the kind of system that can handle 50-100 people OK and is easy to cart around.
Moving up to DJ PA systems that can handle around 150 people, you'd be looking at mid-range brands like Behringer (Eurolive series, try the B212D or B215D speakers with B1800D subwoofer), Wharfedale Pro (look at the Titan range), and brands like Alto and Peavey too. Pricer brands include Mackie (the near-legendary SRM450s, or the Thump series), QSC (K series, of which we've heard good things about the K12 speakers and Ksub subwoofer), JBL EONs (515XT /518S) and systems from HK Audio, Yamaha and Electro-voice.
It really isn't worth buying dirt-cheap unheard of brands, as you really do get what you pay for with speakers. If you can't afford a good mid or top brand, why not look at second-hand instead? This is nearly always the more sensible route.
We hope to carry a number of PA reviews over the coming months, but if you've got a PA you're happy with and you care to share in the comments, I am sure it'll be useful to readers looking to buy their first system.
So - do you own a PA system? Did you struggle to choose it? How does it perform, and are you happy with it or do you wish you'd chosen differently? Please feel free to tell us what you've got and how you rate it in the comments below.