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Jo asks:

Hey Josh, it’s one of your favourite subjects – P.A. systems. I am saving up for my first one, not even sure where to start but think my budget might stretch to $2k. Is that too little? Can you provide some options and good suppliers? Would love to hear your thoughts.

Jo, you are so correct, this is one of my favourite subjects. Well before I was a celebrant with opinions on PA systems I was a guest at weddings and even regular events where I struggled to hear the person speaking. Nothing frustrates my brain more than being able to see the lips moving but the sound isn’t in my ears. In fact, good stage designers and performance creators base their decisions on the audience’s five senses being in line with what they are trying to deliver. Can the audience member at the front, middle, and rear, see, hear, feel, smell, and taste exactly what we want them to.

In a wedding we might not be appointed as the stage designer but I think that if we can take a small amount of responsibility on how the guests are hearing, seeing, smelling. touching, and feeling the ceremony. There is then a high possibility that the guests might interact with the ceremony more and the couple might have an awesome wedding.

My PA system journey up until now

My first PA system was a MiPro. I never purchased one, but my employer owned one and I would borrow it in my early days, until I grew tired of these two issues:

  • The audio going in simply didn’t sound like the audio coming out. The microphones of the MiPro systems did not complement the actual sound of the ceremony, I deemed them distracting to the crowd because of the poor amplification of my speech and the couples’ vows, making the ceremony harder to hear and enjoy. Simply put: low-quality microphones.
  • The MiPro’s battery system is quite low-tech and on two occasions I had a freshly charged PA system die because it turned out the battery quality had degraded to a point where it no longer held charge. It turns out the MiPro battery needs replacing every 9-15 months. The more you know …

My second PA system was a Chiayo, and it was a similar deal to the MiPro.

My third PA system was the first PA system I liked. It was a Roland BA-55, now discontinued, its successor does not come with a built-in microphone. The only downside to the BA-55 was that its battery power came from AA batteries, an costly replacement option although I appreciated knowing how old the batteries were, and the other downside was that its microphone operated on 2.4GHz, a frequency shared with wifi networks, bluetooth, and water. So imagine marriage ceremonies in the inner-city, hundreds of wifi networks nearby, mobile phones everywhere, then add in human bodies around the PA system (like bridal parties) and from time to time the microphone would cut out for a split-second. I wondered if there was a better way.

My fourth PA system was a Behringer on-loan from Behringer themselves and I wouldn’t give one to my worst enemy. The speaker was bad and lacked loudness, but the microphone sounded worse, and it was a Bluetooth microphone. If you were more than two meters from the PA system it would die.

My fifth PA system was my proudest purchase, and has been for about three years. It’s a Sennheiser LSP-500. The Sennheiser is a beast of a unit. It is loud, crystal clear, manufactured by one of the best audio companies on the planet, amazing technology inside with digital 100%-0% battery readings, dual hot-swappable batteries, built-in compressors, EQs on each channel, USB recording, and you could have three Sennheiser wireless microphones installed, so I could turn up to a wedding with a better PA system than the best DJ and the ceremony would be clearly heard and understood and videographers loved it.

The only downside of the Sennheiser is that when I travelled it weighed 32kg in its travel case, about 20kg to lift up onto a speaker stand, and my complete kit out with two microphones and a wireless bodypack transmitter, along with all the accessories was close to $8,000 AUD.

For the past three years I have only recommended the LSP-500, and would still recommend this PA system today, it’s the top of the food chain, there’s not a system on the market that meets its sound quality, loudness, and versatility. In-fact, if you’d like to buy mine, it’s listed on Gumtree now.

My current PA system recommendation

If you talk to wedding DJs many are bringing Bose L1/B1 PA systems to weddings. They are small, versatile, and loud for the price. But I’ve always been of the opinion that Bose’s marketing was better than it’s products. Today I still believe that – with the exception of their PA speaker systems, particularly their new portable PA system.

The PA system I am currently using and the PA system I recommend purchasing is a Bose S1 Pro with the optional battery.

Things I love about the Bose S1 Pro:

  • It weighs 7kg
  • It fits in the overhead compartment of airplanes so easily, it’s about the size of a medium can of paint
  • It sounds good!
  • It’s loud and crystal clear
  • Did I mention how small and light it is?
  • I’ve never trusted Bluetooth on the Sennheiser LSP-500, and I generally wouldn’t trust Bluetooth anywhere, but on the S1 it works perfectly every time, across a room over 100 people, it’s a miracle
  • About 145 degrees wide audio projection, which basically means it has a horizontally wide spread of spitting out audio to the crowd which simply means more people can hear the one speaker
  • About eight hours battery life, and you can check current battery life by double tapping the Bluetooth button

Things the Bose S1 Pro is missing:

  • Built-in microphones
  • Recording to a USB stick
  • If there’s a size of a crowd, maybe over 100/120 guests, I think I’d like to have two

So the USB recording can’t be fixed (videographers loved that) and purchasing two is achievable at the price, and the microphone “problem” is easily solved.

I already owned a Sennheiser wireless microphone and matching Sennheiser wireless camera receiver. You can purchase them together in a kit or individually, and you could even get other brands but I love the warm, clear and professional sound of a Sennheiser wireless microphone. In the Sennheiser range you’ll notice models like “G3” and “G4”, the G stands for generation and for the past few years the current model was G3, but a month ago the G4 range was released and like any new release it’s the same but better. If I was buying one today I’d buy a G4 but I have a G3 and it’s fine.

When buying the Sennheiser wireless receiver just make sure you ask for the XLR lead, so the receiver can plug into the Bose S1.

Cost and how to purchase

The RRP for the Bose S1 Pro is $999 AUD pus $165 for the battery.

That’s $1164 in total. However on eBay today with the code PLATYPUS at checkout you can get it for $718.20 without the battery or $852.30 with a battery from Infinity Music in Ballarat, or $900 with the battery included with free delivery from Wollongong Music. StoreDJ has it on sale today for $849, and I know Factory Sound is about to start stocking the Bose S1 as well. I bought mine from a Bose retail store for $850 because the box was already open and I pushed for a deal.

The Sennheiser mic and receiver kit RRP for $999. Amazon Global have it listed for $599, Sound Devices in Sydney have the G3 listed for $749, Videoguys have the G3 for $787 and the G4 for $799. Factory Sound have the G3 listed for $775 and if you talk to them directly they have the G4’s coming.

Regarding the microphone situation, I would recommend talking to a professional to make sure you purchase the right microphone combination of transmitter and frequency/ies that suits your geographic region and also your presenting style. I like a handheld microphone, but you might like a lav mic. If you’re a lav mic kind of person, maybe purchase the handheld microphone for the couple to use when exchanging vows.

Simply put, if you purchase from the right place at the right time, you are $1500 or so away from the best portable PA system on the planet, and if you need to double the spread of audio, that is, if you regularly have crowds over 120 or so, then double the price and every single guest gets a crystal clear presentation of the ceremony.

Setting it all up

As you can see in the image, there are two main input channels for XLR or 1/4″ Jack connectors (it’s a combo plug, you can plug either or) and the third plug is a 3.5mm plug for a phone or MP3 player, but it doubles as a Bluetooth connection. The output plug is a 1/4″ Jack connector.

Here’s a photo of my whole setup ready to party, the only thing missing is a speaker stand (the Bose sits on standard 35mm speaker stands)