Portable, Powered, PERFECT! – the need for ANYWHERE AUDIO
Allow me to paint a picture for you: the weather outside is in the high 80’s, bright sun, not a cloud in the sky and you decide to take full advantage and head to the beach for the day. You pack all the essentials- sunscreen, drinks/food, maybe a book or tablet, and possibly the most important essential- your small Bluetooth speaker! Portable Bluetooth speakers are certainly nothing new. Nowadays they are everywhere and are even used as free swag while attending various conventions or trade shows! However, what is “new” is the current wave of portable and powered loudspeakers that have taken the Pro A/V world by storm and is allowing end-users to have what I call “anywhere audio”. The ability to bring your audio with you regardless of application, space dimensions, or overall needs.
The “portable PA” category continues to grow, and as it does, you are now faced with more options than you have ever had in the past. There is a portable option for just about everyone! The speaker you choose is normally dictated on what you are using it for, as well as the size of the listening area. Over the past 2+ years, there has certainly been a drastic increase in outdoor activities, whether that be fitness classes, educational or corporate presentations, outdoor dining, or outdoor performances. When you have so many unique applications, it becomes imperative to match up the right speaker. We also cannot ignore the current supply/chip shortages affecting the world, as the ability to choose a powered speaker (rather than sourcing a separate amplifier) can also be viewed as a benefit of this category. Let us examine some of these features that determine the difference between a good experience and a poor one.
When discussing loudspeakers as a category, there are a few questions that I will always ask during the conversation. First, I want to know if portability is a desired need. In other words, will this loudspeaker be permanently installed, or will there be times when it needs to be carried from one place to the next, and with ease? Portable loudspeakers can range in size and weight, from approximately 17lbs up to 85lbs (and more) in most cases. While 85lbs is pretty heavy, it is still considered portable and will normally have fixed handles on the speaker cabinet or an optional carrying case to assist in moving. The second question is whether the speaker needs to be passive (it requires an external amplifier and mixer to power and control) or powered (amp and mixer/dsp are built into the speaker).
As we can probably all attest, not everyone is an experienced audio engineer. Having an all-in-one solution, such as a powered/portable loudspeaker, might be extremely attractive for those who are beginners and simply want to turn the speaker on and go. For the sake of this discussion, we will discuss powered options due to their ease of set-up, control, and functionality. Some of the vendors who are players in this category also have Android/Apple apps that can turn your phone or tablet into a control panel. I have seen times where a musician is performing while someone is controlling the mixer of the speaker from an iPad. The simplicity makes this category quite popular, whether you’re a beginner or an experienced sound engineer. Another question we certainly want to ask is HOW the speaker will be used.
As mentioned above, there are numerous applications we have seen over the years, and the ones I mentioned are only a small fraction of the overall segment. For example, if someone intends on simply connecting a phone via Bluetooth to listen to music outdoors, then that indicates there might not be the need to look at the higher end of the price spectrum or the Peak SPL (maximum loudness). However, If the end-user is planning on connecting a wired or wireless microphone for presentations, that opens up several different products to choose from. Most products in the portable PA category offer some type of built-in mixer (some analog, some digital) and they come in all different sizes (2 channel, 5 channel, and so on). Along with this, they will offer additional features, such as feedback suppression, ducking, and vocal special effects. Feedback suppression is a signal processing device which is used to prevent or “suppress” audio feedback, like when a microphone is too close to a speaker and creates a distinct noise. Ducking is a feature you may routinely experience if you are in a club and the DJ begins to talk on the microphone. As the DJ speaks into the microphone, the music gets turned down so everyone can hear them. You are “ducking down” the volume of the audio on one signal so you can hear another audio signal.
While there are several other qualifying questions we can ask, I think the last of the integral questions is finding out the size of the listening area. The Peak SPL ranges from 110db up to 131db, which allows these to be used in a variety of spaces, like small classrooms or large houses of worship. As an example, a coffee shop would likely avoid a large 15” loudspeaker blaring music, but a conference or trade show would need 2-4 of that same speaker for proper audio for presentations. Due to this variation in listening, we can also look at additional factors, like whether a tripod mount can be used or if the speaker can be wall-mounted. A recent project I worked on for a church used 2 portable PA’s, which came with a column array. They loved the idea of mounting the array on the wide and hiding the base in the corner out of sight. The options are certainly plentiful in this category!
Harman Professional Solutions is one of the bigger players in the portable PA space with their JBL line. JBL offers a portable/powered loudspeaker for all of the applications I’ve mentioned here, and they continue to expand on this category each year. In fact, while supply shortages have remained and parts allocations have been tough to come by, JBL has cranked out not 1, not 2, not even 3, but 6 different powered/portable speakers: Eon710, Eon712, Eon715, Eon718s, Eon One Mk2, and the Prx One. Best of all, each of these products is in stock! These are just a sample of the 6 different series that JBL offers in the portable PA market. They have continued to listen to customers and turn out some of the best sounding speakers year after year.
You can now probably consider yourself knowledgeable enough to be dangerous when it comes to this category and the features to look out for. The term “portable” no longer only applies to those tiny speakers we take to the beach, and in the Pro AV realm, our customers can now experience the “Anywhere Audio” that I admire.