PA stands for public address, so called because the PA system is traditionally used to ensure that voices are heard loudly and clearly. This is also the primary function of the sort of music PA that's going to grace a stage in the corner of a pub; drums can be loud and guitarists have amps, but the poor old singer still needs to be heard over it all.
As you might expect, PAs come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from the huge festival and concert hall rigs that amplify every instrument and voice on stage, through installed systems in smaller music venues, to compact setups that are easily transported in car or van right down to those that can be carried by hand or in a backpack. It's that smaller end of the scale that is our focus here.
What we are looking at is a range of easily-portable mobile PA systems that would suit solo buskers, duos or other small ensembles who perhaps make use of backing tracks, and bands playing in small venues. The primary focus of the PA in all these scenarios has to be to ensure that those vocals be heard, but it's also there for amplifying instruments such as electro-acoustic guitars and keyboards that don't have their own amp (not to mention backing tracks for those who can't live without them).
So, what do you need to think about when buying one of these PAs? Well, two major concerns have to be size and portability. A busker who has to carry their gear into a town centre will be looking for something lighter than a pub-playing band who have a van. Related to this is power supply - if you are playing in the street without access to mains electricity, battery power is essential.
Then there's the matter of how powerful your PA needs to be - how many people do you need to reach? Input count will be an important factor, too - how many vocals and instruments will you be wanting to amplify? Finally, you need to think about how important having control over the EQ is to you and whether you need your PA to supply some effects, such as reverb.
Here are what we consider to be the best mobile PA systems currently on the market. Check out the specs and features, and get ready to turn up the volume.
1. Roland Cube Street EX
Great for busking guitar players
Launch price: $699/£459/€629 | Power output: 50W | Speakers: 2 x 2-inch HF drivers, 2 x 8-inch LF drivers | Connectivity: XLR/jack combi inputs x 2, stereo i-CUBE LINK audio input (4-pole miniature phone type), 2 x 1/4-inch jack line inputs, 1/4-inch aux input/stereo link in, 2 x 1/4-inch line outputs, 1/4-inch stereo phone jack | Effects: COSM guitar effects, Chorus/Delay, Reverb | Power supply: Battery (8 x AA size) or mains (13V DC adapter included)
Portable and battery-powered, Roland's Cube Street EX 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 electro-acoustics. 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.
Find out more: Roland Cube Street EX
2. Mackie FreePlay Live
A simple option for instrument and voice with Bluetooth connectivity
Launch price: $560/£370/€398 | Power output: 150W | Speakers: 2 x 1-inch HF drivers, 1 x 6-inch LF driver | Connectivity: 2 x XLR/jack combi inputs, minijack aux input, Bluetooth, 1/4-inch TRS jack monitor output | Effects: Reverb | Power supply: Built-in Lithium-Ion battery and Mains (adapter included)
With an easily-portable ghetto blaster size and rechargeable battery, the FreePlay Live gives you the chance to plug in and play music anywhere (or not plug in if you choose to stream music to it via Bluetooth). Just sit it on a table or on a mic stand using its included adapter. Two channels deliver amplification for an instrument and a voice. A master EQ has push-button selected presets for 'Music' or 'Live', and there's also a switchable global reverb. It's basic, but Bluetooth pairing to the free FreePlay Connect Android or iOS app offers extended control over levels and reverb plus 3-band EQ for each channel.
Find out more: Mackie FreePlay Live
3. Bose L1 Compact system
A wire-free solution that can be set up in next to no time
Launch price: $999/£849/€1,099 | Power output: 130W | Speakers: 1 line array speaker with 6 x 2-inch HF drivers, 1 x 8-inch LF driver | Connectivity: XLR input, 1/4" instrument input, RCA (phono) stereo input, minijack stereo input, 1/4-inch output, RCA (phono) stereo output | Effects: None | Power supply: Mains (IEC connector)
The smallest and most easily portable of the company's L1 range, the Bose L1 Compact System combines a PA and monitors in one unit, with interlocking components that Bose says can be easily set up in just one minute. The main component is a slim line array speaker that's about 2m high and features six small drivers mounted at precise angles. This is placed vertically and slotted into a power stand with an integrated bass speaker. The advantage of a line array is that it disperses sound spatially, not only to fill the whole room for the audience, but also onstage for monitoring.
Find out more: Bose L1 Compact system
4. Mackie SRM 450
A workhorse speaker that can also be used as part of a larger system
Launch price: $630/£433/€593 | Power output: 1000W | Speakers: 1.4-inch HD driver, 12-inch LF driver | Connectivity: 2 x XLR inputs, 2 x 1/4-inch jack inputs, RCA (phono) stereo input, XLR Thru output | Effects: None | Power supply: Mains (IEC connection)
The SRM range is, according to Mackie, the most widely-used portable loudspeaker ever and, while the SRM450 by itself is a self-contained PA, it can also be used as part of a larger system and can have a subwoofer added, so may be a starting point for someone looking to eventually expand their facilities. There are two channels, so you can comfortably have two vocals or a vocal and instrument. Channel 2 also has connections for a music player. Onboard DSP provides voicings for PA, DJ, Monitor and Soloist with various bass rolloffs and mid-cuts, but there is no other EQ.
Find out more: Mackie SRM Portable series
5. Peavey P2 Powered Line Array System
A great-sounding PA system with excellent features for the price
Launch price: $699/£745/€XX | Power output: 130W | Speakers: 8 x 4-inch HF drivers, 1 x 12-inch LF driver | Connectivity: XLR/jack combi input, 1/4-inch jack inputs L&R, RCA (phono) stereo input, 2 x XLR output | Effects: None | Power supply: Mains (IEC connection)
The P2 is a line-array system in which several small loudspeakers are placed together vertically in a column to combine with a separate bass speaker. The vertical column here comes in two parts that are fixed in place with wing nuts. There's a three-channel mixer - one most suitable for vocals, one with a pair of jacks, the third with RCA connectors for a music player. While each channel has its own level knob, the only EQ is global, consisting of two voicing switches; one offers, besides flat operation, either a fixed bass boost or cut, while the other delivers a high frequency boost for vocals.
Read full review: Peavey P2 Vertical Array Powered Speaker System
6. Yamaha Stagepas 400BT
A traditional-looking PA with lots of connectivity
Launch price: $699/£594/€548 | Power output: 400W | Speakers: 1 x HF driver, 1 x 8-inch LF driver | Connectivity: 2 x XLR input, 2 x XLR/jack combi input, 4 x 1/4-inch jack inputs, RCA (phono) stereo input, Bluetooth, speaker outputs, 2 x 1/4-inch jack monitor outputs, 1/4-inch jack subwoofer output | Effects: Reverb | Power supply: Mains (IEC connection)
The very latest compact PA from Yamaha is the most traditional of all the compact PAs we are looking at, as it consists of a separate powered mixer and two passive speakers - the deatchable mixer slotting into the back of one speaker for transport. Capable of delivering 400 watts, it has eight channels, making it suitable for a band that features several vocals, with channels to spare for DI'd instruments and perhaps a drum mic or two (maybe to give the kick drum some punch). It's also equipped with a Bluetooth input for wireless audio streaming from smartphones or tablets. Monitor and subwoofer outputs allow expandability.
Find out more: Yamaha Stagepas 400BT
7. Behringer Europort MPA 40BT Pro
A PA on wheels that's great for mobile buskers
Launch price: $199/£186/€210 | Power output: 40W | Speakers: 1 x HF driver, 1 x 8-inch LF driver | Connectivity: 2 x XLR/jack combi inputs, RCA (phono) stereo input, Bluetooth | Effects: None | Power supply: Battery (onboard rechargeable pack) and mains (IEC connection)
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 a 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.
Find out more: Behringer Europort MPA 40BT Pro
8. HK Audio Lucas Nano 305 FX
Everything you need in a compact package
Launch price: £743/€891 | Power output: 750W | Speakers: 1 x 8-inch subwoofer, 2 x 3.5-inch satellite speakers | Connectivity: 3 x XLR/jack combi inputs, 2 x 1/4-inch jack line inputs, stereo minijack input, Bluetooth, 2 x 1/4-inch jack link inputs (for Twin Stereo Mode), Satellite speaker outputs, 2 x 1/4-inch jack link outputs (for Twin Stereo Mode) | Effects: Reverb | Power supply: Mains (IEC connection)
One of the smallest of HK Audio's PA systems, the Nano 305 FX features a 5-channel mixer built into the same enclosure as its active subwoofer, plus a pair of smaller satellite speakers that can stashed away in an internal bay for transport. Those speakers can be cabled and perhaps put on optional stands or connected with an optional height-adjustable, signal-carrying pole ( S-CONNECT POLE LN). The three main channels each feature two-band EQ, there are seven onboard reverb effects and an MP3 player can be streamed via Bluetooth. Expansion into a larger system is possible with other products in the range.
Find out more: HK Audio Lucas Nano 305 FX