So, who needs a PA? Well, if you're a singer and want to get heard over a noisy drum kit, a raucous horn section, or any amplified instruments in your band, it's not going to happen unless you're singing into a microphone and that microphone is plugged into on of the best PA speakers in this guide.
In case you were wondering, PA stands for 'public address' and, unless you're a totally acoustic folky type playing to real ale drinkers in the corner of a pub, you won't be able to address your public without one.
Now, we're all familiar with the PAs with huge arrays of speakers you see at festivals and in arenas, as well as the smaller installed systems common in more compact music venues, but we're not concerned with those here – if you’re playing those sort of gigs, it's unlikely you'll be taking your own PA with you.
This guide to the best PA speakers is all about compact mobile PA systems that would suit anyone playing in small venues; and that includes full bands with drums, solo artists, duos, trios or other ensembles that feature vocals, instruments like acoustic electric guitars and keyboards that don't have their own amp, and perhaps even backing tracks... and let's not forget playing outdoors – buskers need to be heard, too.
Our focus is small self-contained systems rather than a PA you would put together by buying separate mixer, amp and speakers – the sort of gear that can be easily loaded into the back of a car and, for musicians who really need to get their music heard on the streets, options that can be carried by hand or in a backpack.
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What are the best PA speakers right now?
Singer songwriters playing indoor gigs won't go far wrong with the Bose L1 Compact System. The fact that it's easily transportable, easy and quick to set up and enables offers a decent degree of monitoring as well as dispersed sound for the audience makes it a real winner.
For anyone busking in the street with a guitar, the small size yet big sound and ace portability of the Roland Cube Street EX is hard to beat. OK, it may cost money in batteries, but if you carry fresh ones in your bag you won't run out of juice.
If you're in a band and need an array of channels and power, the Yamaha Stagepas 400BT (or more powerful 600BT) should fit the bill – and that built-in reverb could prove invaluable for vocals.
Best PA speakers: buying advice
There are a few things you need to consider before dropping cash on a new PA speaker system. First of all, think about just what it is that needs to be heard – unlike big concert PAs you won't be amplifying every instrument and voice that's on the stage, but you will need enough inputs for the vocals and any other instruments that don't have an amp and need plugging straight in or via a DI box.
Check out the total number of XLR mic inputs and any instrument and line inputs and see if it's going to be provide everything you need in the immediate future, but also for any projects you might get involved in down the line. Bluetooth connectivity may also be a useful asset if you plan on streaming music before, during or after your set.
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The next think to consider is how powerful does your PA need to be? How many people do you need to reach? Think about the size of venues you'll be playing regularly (and don't forget your rehearsal space) and consider the rated power output – 50 watts may be adequate for busking, but it be capable of raising your vocals over the level of a drum kit.
If you're a solo artist, a busker or you just prefer the easy life, portability may be a major factor to consider, too; maybe not so much if you have a van or a decent-sized car, but if you're a town centre busker you'll need something compact and light enough to be carried. If you have mains power where you are playing there shouldn't be any issues, but if you plan on hitting the streets or maybe just want to have some fun playing music outdoors, it's worth checking out how long the batteries will last in those portable units that support battery power.
Take a look at the other features on offer too. Is there a useful amount of control over EQ. What about onboard effects like reverb? Take all these into consideration and you should have no problem zeroing in on one of the best PA speakers in this guide.
The best PA speakers you can buy today
Portable and battery-powered, Roland's Cube Street EX PA speaker 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 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.
Read the full Roland Cube Street EX review
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.
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With an easily-portable ghetto blaster size and rechargeable battery, the FreePlay Live PA speaker system 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.
This compact PA from Yamaha features the traditional PA format of a separate powered mixer and two passive speakers but with a twist – the detachable mixer slots into the back of one speaker for transport.
Capable of 400 watts, it has 8 channels making it suitable for handling several vocals, with channels to spare for some instruments, perhaps even 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. There's also the more powerful 600BT to consider if you want a little more punch.
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 speaker system? 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 speaker systems.
This latest series 2 version of the most powerful in Fender's Passport series (see also the Event Series 2 at £599) is more of a traditional style PA as it features a separate mixer/amp and two speakers. However, they all slot together as one package for easy transport.
10 channels (six mono, two stereo) all with easily-accessed treble, bass and reverb knobs offer plenty of scope for multiple vocals and instruments and there's 600 watts of power to fill the room. Should you want to expand your system there's a Sub output with automatic high-pass filter for powered subwoofer use.
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.
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.
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 be 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 PA speaker system is possible with other products in the range.
Find out more: HK Audio Lucas Nano 305 FX