portable pa system

How to Choose a Portable PA System for Live Music

The PA system, short for Public Address system – is the backbone of any live performance or event.

Whether you’re a musician, sound engineer, or venue owner, choosing the right PA system is critical.

Tell us if you’ve probably experienced this before. You attend a music event. You’re excited that your favorite band is playing. But as soon as they start, something feels off. The music doesn’t sound powerful. You left feeling slightly disappointed.

Blame that on a bad PA system.

Contrast this with attending a 30,000-person big concert with huge sound systems. Every time the drummer does a bass kick, you feel that bass (the wave) passing through your body. This feels good. Your mood is elated.

That’s what a good PA system does.

But wait. What if you’re someone who performs or sets up events outdoors? Maybe you’re a solo singer-songwriter who goes around busking.

We got you.

In this article, we’ll show you what to consider when buying a portable PA system and how to match it with the right wireless microphone system.

Let’s go!

So, what’s a PA system, really?

Put simply, the main job of a PA system is to convert acoustic sound into electronic signals. A complete PA system usually includes microphones, mixers, amplifiers, and speakers.


Microphones convert sound waves (that’s your voice or an instrument) into electric signals. These electrical signals are usually too weak to be used, so we drive them through a microphone pre-amp – amplifying the signal before it’s sent into speakers.


An audio mixer does what its name says. Multiple audio sources (instruments, microphones, line-in, etc.) are brought into a mixer. Using faders, you adjust the volume of each sound, adding equalization (EQ) and effects where needed, and route the mix into the main outputs that are heard on the speakers.

Mixers have become fairly advanced these days. From analog, and hybrid to fully digital mixers – they all have different features but fundamentally, work similarly.


Whether a microphone or speaker amplifier, fundamentally they work the same.

An amplifier takes weak electric signals and “amplifies” it so it’s strong enough to drive speakers. Many mixers these days, including the ones found on portable PA systems have built-in microphone amplifiers. This means you don’t have to buy a separate microphone pre-amp.


Speakers work by taking electric signals from the mixer, turning them into a magnetic force that pushes the speaker cones back and forth. The speaker cones create vibrations (or sound waves) that travel to your ears as the music you hear.

How to choose a PA system?

Whether a portable PA system or not, it comes down to a few factors. Mainly, venue size, genre of music, number of instruments, and vocalists, including whether the venue is indoors or outdoors.

Let’s go through them in more detail.

Venue Size and Acoustics

First, consider the size of the venue you’ll be using the PA system.

Smaller venues like coffee shops or intimate bars may only require a compact PA system, while larger spaces like concert halls or outdoor festivals demand more powerful speakers and robust amplification, which portable PA systems won’t be able to support.

The acoustics of the venue also play a significant role.

Hard surfaces reflect sound, potentially causing echoes or feedback – which makes speeches hard to distinguish. (Imagine being in a cathedral). Soft fabrics and dampeners like carpets, sofas, and curtains can be added to the venue to reduce reverberation. But then, keep in mind that while softer surfaces absorb sound, the sound level will be softer, therefore you’ll need more power to achieve a desired volume.

Portability and Power

If you are a musician who performs on the go and usually find yourself playing in various locations, portability should be a key consideration.

Thanks to technological advancements, battery-operated portable PA systems these days can be very powerful. Plus, they aren’t as expensive as they used to be many years ago.

These systems offer the flexibility to perform in locations without access to electrical power, such as outdoor weddings, street performances, or beach parties.

Music Genre

If you play bass and treble heavy music like EDM, hip-hop, or heavy metal, you’ll need a PA system with subwoofers or speakers that can handle low frequencies.

On the other hand, if you’re more into classical or jazz, you’d want a flatter-sounding PA system that can reproduce the entire sound spectrum accurately.

Again, there is no one rule to choosing a PA system based on the music genre. These are just considerations to take when choosing a PA system.

Why battery-operated portable PA systems can make a good choice.

While battery-operated portable PA systems used to be frowned upon, these days they are pretty powerful and make a good choice.

Firstly, it provides freedom of placement, allowing you to set up your performance space without being tethered to power outlets. Imagine being able to perform anywhere.

Secondly, as mentioned, modern battery-powered PA systems are not only powerful, but it has come a long way in development to now being able to offer impressive sound quality with a battery life that extends for several hours. Plus, when needed, they can be plugged into a power outlet for additional power.

And finally, most PA systems are designed to be lightweight and easy to transport. Depending on the model, many of them have handles and wheels built in too.

Integrating a wireless microphone system

While some portable PA system comes with a set of microphones, you can choose to up your sound quality by getting a better-sounding wireless microphone system.

The sound quality of the microphone and application (whether micing for vocals or instruments), should be the first thing to consider. But after that, you’d want to consider:

Range: How far away would the microphone be from the PA system? Would it be able to support the range? A good rule of thumb is to choose a wireless mic system with an operating range that is twice the distance that you usually need.

Battery life: How easy is it to change the batteries on the wireless microphone? Having a rechargeable built-in battery in your microphone seems like a great idea until you learn that sometimes a quick change of fresh batteries will take you only a few seconds.

Frequency: UHF (400 MHz and up) provides the best performance in wireless microphones. In recent years, there have been many wireless microphones that operate in the 2.4GHz band. The weakness is that many other equipment like Wi-Fi and computers operate the same frequency band which can cause interference.

Microphones like the Rode wireless go run on a 2.4GHz frequency band

A primer to setting up your sound stage

Getting your PA system to sound great is a bit like setting up a room to look nice. You have to place the speakers in the right spots so everyone can hear well, not just the folks in the front row.

Mixing is like adjusting the lights, making sure everything’s bright enough but not too glaring. And just like you’d clean up before guests arrive, doing a soundcheck before the show makes sure everything sounds perfect.

Additional audio equipment to consider

We’ve mentioned that a PA system usually is a set up of microphones, mixers, amplifiers, and speakers. But there is other equipment you can add to enhance the overall sound stage experience for the audience and the performers too.

Most portable PA systems have a compact mixer built-in. However, adding a mixing board can mean being able to mix more inputs. For example, if you’re miking up a band, you’ll need at least 8 inputs for microphones and line-ins.

Adding monitors to your setup will allow performers to hear themselves clearly, improving synchronization. Other important audio gears include effect processors for depth and ambiance to your sound and direct boxes that ensure electric instruments like guitars sound clean and crisp by tidying up their signals.

Together, these additions transform simple amplification into a finely tuned, professional-sounding event – even if you’re set up on a portable PA system.

When to use a portable PA system

So, through this article, we’ve been discussing the benefits of a portable PA system, but when is it ideal to use such a system and when is it not?

Here are some use cases:

Solo Acoustic Performers

Solo performers, particularly those playing acoustic music in small to medium venues, will benefit from a compact, battery-operated PA system with a built-in mixer.

This setup allows for the connection of a guitar and microphone, with enough volume to fill the room without overpowering the natural sound of the acoustic instrument.

Bands and Large Venues

You can try to manage with an external mixer and portable PA system for bands, but usually, it’ll be tough to get the desired sound.

For bands in large venues, you’ll want multiple speakers and subwoofers to deliver a full-range sound. A portable PA system would not be able to provide that level of amplification.

sound system band

Outdoor Events

Outdoor events (think garden weddings, etc.) can pose a unique challenge to setting up a PA system because of the open space, lack of acoustical reflections, and availability of a power supply.

This is where a battery-operated PA system shines. A high-quality set can provide the necessary volume and clarity without needing a power source. Depending on your usage, getting a PA system with weather-resistant components is a bonus, ensuring you won’t end up with damaged equipment if it suddenly decides to rain where you set up.

Final thoughts

Choosing the right PA system for live music involves balancing factors like venue size, portability, and the specific needs of the performance.

Battery-operated portable PA systems can be a convenient option. And when you add additional audio gear like wireless microphone systems, you’ll have a pretty versatile PA system for all sorts of use cases.

Where portable PA systems fall short is usually when you have many audio sources or when you perform in bigger venues.

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