Love them or hate them, PA systems are a necessary part of live music - and if you're a gigging musician, it pays to have your own. Now, we fully understand why many performers are - dare we say - a little scared of PAs. Sound reinforcement was once purely generated by carpet clad, oblong boxes that were not only difficult to set up, but they threatened to give you a hernia if you simply looked at them. Nowadays, things have thankfully moved on, with the best portable PA systems able to deliver room-filling sound despite their small size and lightweight nature.
In this guide, we've chosen to focus on speaker systems that are specially designed for smaller venues - in particular, portable PA systems to suit solo singers, duos and trios on the move. While it's true that a band could use these portable PAs - albeit as just a way to amplify the vocals - really, you'd want to go for a larger solution.
We've made sure to include options from the most prominent names in pro audio, with portable systems from the likes of Bose, Roland, JBL, and Yamaha, among many others.
Best portable PA systems: our top picks
For years now, Bose has been the leading provider of personal and portable audio systems for live performance and the Bose S1 Pro (opens in new tab) proves why. This sleek and unobtrusive speaker delivers a crisp and clear sound that's perfect for everything from public speaking to acoustic performances - and better yet, it's battery-powered! For a slightly cheaper alternative - with very similar features - we highly recommend the Mackie Thump GO (opens in new tab). This powerful and simple to use system is up there with the more premium offerings.
If you're looking for a system with a little more kick, then the Yamaha Stagepas 1K (opens in new tab) is the system for you. While you lose the ability to power the system via batteries, you gain a whopping 1000W of power - which is more than enough for a small venue. The Stagepas also comes with a 1-knob EQ control for each channel, as well as four high-resolution SPX digital reverbs.
Best portable PA systems: Product guide
When it comes to game-changing PA speakers, Bose is the leading force. Known for their crisp, hi-fi style sound, clever ToneMatch technology, and world-class build quality, Bose PA systems are among the best available - and that's why the S1 Pro takes our top spot.
Explicitly designed for singer-songwriters, duos or event speakers, this lightweight and compact speaker system employs devilishly clever tactics to get the most out of its miniature size. For starters, the S1 can be tilted up when on the floor to project sound where it's most needed, it can sit comfortably flat on a table or be stand-mounted to get wider coverage.
The first two channels feature combo XLR and 1/4" inputs, with independent EQ and reverb controls - perfect for acoustic guitar and vocals - and the third channel is dedicated to music playback, with options for 3.5 mm input or Bluetooth streaming. For us, this is a profoundly versatile portable PA system that's built like a tank and incredibly simple to use and set up - what more do you need?
There aren't a lot of PAs on the market that we could say are fully idiot-proof, but the Stagepas 1K is undoubtedly one of them. From speaker columns that simply slot into the sub-unit with minimal effort, Yamaha's one-knob EQ, and simplified global mode control, this PA is impossible to get a bad sound out of - trust us, we've tried!
For us, the Stagepas 1K really shines in a small to medium-sized venue. We've personally used this system for an open mic night in a busy city centre pub and the 1000W of power was more than enough to ensure the vocals and acoustic guitars were heard over the clanking of glasses and sound of punters in high spirits. The one-knob EQ control was also very effective in balancing the sound when switching between different performers.
It's no secret that we are big fans of Yamaha here at MusicRadar, and the Stagepas 1K features everything we love about this legendary brand - great built quality, simple control layout and superb sound.
This sleek and modern mini line array is the latest offering from LD Systems and is designed with portability in mind.
The newly designed lithium-ion battery can deliver up to 12 hours of continuous operation - when used at 98 dB - and allows you to play music absolutely anywhere. We found that the quad of 3" neodymium speakers housed at the top of the column delivered fantastic clarity while the 8" ferrite subwoofer - which acts as the base of the unit - kicked out plenty of low-end thump.
With a maximum output of 120dB, the Maui 5 Go 100 will certainly serve a number of small venues, with LD saying the Maui is perfect for audiences of up to 100 people - hence the name. So whether you are looking for a powerful, lightweight system for busking or an understated PA for small pub gigs, it’s worth considering the LD Systems Maui 5 Go 100.
Read our full LD Systems Maui 5 Go 100 review
Mackie has long been a trusted name in the world of sound reinforcement, with the running man logo being a staple of venues around the world. So whether you are looking for a cost-effective mixing desk, a complete speaker rig or even in-ear monitors, Mackie is guaranteed to have a product for you. However, as this guide mainly focuses on the more portable end of the loudspeaker spectrum, we've decided to showcase the Mackie Thump Go.
Now, it has to be said that Mackie does offer other options in this category, namely the FreePlay Live and SRM-Flex. Still, we feel the Thump GO is a formidable rival to the ever-popular Bose S1, offering stellar quality at a more attractive price, and thus we've decided to feature it.
Similar to the S1, the Thump GO features two independent channels, can be run off mains power or batteries and comes with the ability to stream music via Bluetooth. Setting up the Thump GO for any environment couldn't be easier. Simply choose from four different application-specific voicing modes - music, speech, monitor or sub - and the EQ profile of the speaker will change to better suit your current situation, taking out all the guesswork in setting up your new speaker.
Portable and battery-powered, Roland's Cube Street EX PA system features four independent channels for connecting a variety of mics and instruments, including iPhone or iPad to play backing music, but seems particularly aimed at busking guitar players with its modelled COSM amp sounds - Clean, Crunch, Lead and acoustic simulator options for electric guitar and a preamp for acoustic guitars.
There's also a tuner, 3-band EQ, reverb and a choice of chorus or delay. A 50W setting offers maximum output but there are also quieter 25W and 10W output power modes, saving on battery power. There's also iPhone/iPad recording via i-CUBE LINK and the free CUBE JAM app.
Read the full Roland Cube Street EX review
JBL has covered many options with this compact all-in-one box which is ergonomically designed to be easy to carry and can be set up monitor-style or vertically. The battery offers 12 hours of operation and is rechargeable via an IEC mains socket while the unit is being used.
Four channels allow a variety of uses although it seems ideally suited to solo vocal and guitar performers who may wish to take advantage of the onboard FX – all controlled from an iOS or Android app. There's a Bluetooth connection and a pair of USB sockets to charge attached mobile devices.
Busking in the town centre and don't relish carrying your PA? How about rolling it? Behringer's MPA 40BT Pro has a retractable handle and wheels just like a piece of rolling luggage.
It's a very compact 40-watt system with two mic/instrument inputs and an aux input for a music player if you don't want to stream music to it via the in-built Bluetooth.
There are no effects, but you get an overall basic 2-band EQ. It's mobile busking made easy - guitar gigbag on your back, mic stand in one hand while you pull this with the other - making it one of the best truly mobile PA systems.
In recent years, we've seen a massive boom in personal line array style systems, with almost all the leading brands in pro audio offering their own take on the format. So it's easy to see why so many musicians gravitate toward this style of system. They are typically simple to set up, easy to transport and are able to fill a room with a well-balanced sound.
Now, the Electro-Voice Evolve 30M arguably offers the most features out of everything on this list and is by far the best option for those looking to amplify more than two or three instruments. With a whopping eight inputs, the Evolve would easily handle a small band - vocals, electric guitar, bass, keyboard and drums. And better yet, the QuickSmart mobile app means you can mix the sound wirelessly from anywhere in the room.
The EV is also fully loaded with studio-quality effects, including chorus, delay, flanger and reverb, which can be turned on and off via a footswitch - you can introduce the next track without sounding like you're speaking from the bottom of a well.
Best portable PA systems: Buying advice
How to choose the best portable PA system for you
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Getting the correct PA system for the job is incredibly important. Get it right, and you’ll never have sounded better, however, get it wrong and you may not be heard at all. Of course, as you’d imagine, which portable PA you go for really depends on the size of the venues you’re playing, how many sound sources you plan on plugging in and your budget.
Is it better to hire or buy a PA system? We weigh up the pros and cons of purchasing vs renting.
For a starting place, let’s first look at the number of inputs you require. Luckily, every portable PA system on this list allows you to plug instruments and microphones directly into the speaker via the onboard mixer, meaning you don’t need to invest in any extra gear - not to mention it’s one less thing to carry! However, it does mean that you need to think carefully about the number of inputs you need before you make a purchase.
While units such as the Bose S1 or Mackie Thump GO will happily allow a singer-songwriter to plug in an acoustic guitar, vocal microphone and backing track, it’s worth considering if you’ll need any more inputs for additional instruments further down the road.
The next consideration is, of course, the power of the system. Now, how powerful - or loud - your system needs to be, depends on several factors. Everything from the size of the venue, the number of audience members in attendance or whether or not you are indoors or outdoors will dictate what wattage you go for. Most manufacturers will give you a rough indication of the size of the gig their speakers are capable of, so it’s worth checking their website for guidance.
What features does my portable PA system need?
Modern-day PAs often come loaded with extra features, but how many of these hi-tech add-ons do you really need? Well, most systems come with built-in effects such as reverb, chorus, delay and compressors. These are a must for music performances but not needed at all for spoken word applications. A robust EQ section is handy for both situations and allows you to finely shape the sound.
It’s also worth noting that many systems these days come with an accompanying mobile app, which allows you to mix the music wirelessly from anywhere in the venue - a convenient feature indeed.
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