Fender Passport Deluxe PD-500 Portable PA

The PD-500 is a great option for vocal-only groups, solo acousticbased instrumentalists — and good old public address applications.
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For years, pro audio gear manufacturers have tried to make small PA systems increasingly compact and portable and simpler to use. Fender (the music instrument company, legacy maker of celebrated guitars and amplifiers) introduced a "briefcase-style" system that included speakers, a small powered mixer, and room to store mics and cables. It contained everything you need except speaker stands.

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This system was the Passport Deluxe PD-250 featuring two small 125W speakers and a powered 6-channel mixer. With the new PD-500, Fender is helping to raise the portable PA bar; it offers more power and more inputs at a lighter weight.

Features

The 53-lbs PD-500 features an 8-channel mixer, six microphone level inputs on XLR or 1/4-inch TRS connectors and two mic or line inputs on 1/4-inch TRS or RCA connectors.

Each channel features very basic controls. Master controls include an independent left/right master knob and a three-knob master EQ tone control for low, mid, and high frequencies. Also in this master section is a patented Feedback Killer switch that claims to "automatically detect and eliminate feedback." The unit also offers built-in digital reverb and delay settings. The master outputs are two Neutrik NL2 panel mount connectors outputting 250W at 4 ohms per side. The PD-500's front panel offers two power amp inserts on TRS connectors so you can add your own amp to this mixer.

The PD-500 package contains all you need to set up a PA system except for speaker stands. Two mics, two 20-foot mic cables, two 20-foot NL2 speaker cables and an IEC power connector are all stored neatly inside a rear compartment. Two speakers conveniently clip on to each side of the mixer; they not only help comprise a nice briefcase-style PA but also protect the faces of all enclosed gear during transport. The speakers feature a Neutrik NL2 connector on the grille of the unit and a replaceable pole mount on the bottom. In each cabinet are two 8-inch drivers and a 1-inch compression driver all using Celestion Neodymium magnets.

In Use

Upon setting up the system, I noticed that the whole thing is hard to carry. I found myself constantly switching hands or using my other hand to support the other when carrying the system, and it was always smacking my shins. I also noticed that there are no handles on the speakers themselves. It was a bit awkward putting them up on the speaker stands, and if the drivers were not of a lighter weight material (neodymium), they would be very hard to pole mount. I don't think a lot of R & D went into this aspect of this system. I also didn't like the speakers' frontmounted NL2 connectors; I can understand why this was done — to protect them during transit — but when set up, it is a bit unsightly and much harder to make the cable "disappear."

At first, I was weary about the outcome of this system. "It's Fender," I thought. "They're known for guitars and amps. What do they know about PA?" Admittedly, the review was already going in a negative direction.

Yet, upon hearing it, the PD-500 quickly changed my mood. I began using it by playing some of my favorite soundcheck music via a CD player. I was impressed by the PD-500's bass response; I must say the system has a nearly natural sound to them, smooth and pleasing in the vocal and acoustic instrument ranges. In turning up the system, the sound didn't become harsh and "bite-y" like many other small speakers tend to do.

The two included Fender P-51 microphones sounded OK, but not great. I switched one with a Shure SM58 and ended up with a richer, broader bottom end response on vocal. While trying the Fender mics, I noticed that the input would clip when its gain was set at "4" or higher. Naturally, its signal wasn't very loud, and I found myself turning the system's master level above the manufacturer recommended "5" to get workable volume. In turn, the master volume introduced a lot of hiss to the system; with the master volume all the way up, this system probably would not fill more than a small barroom without clipping inputs.

The PD-500's Feedback Elimination button appeared to be one of the key features on this system. The Fender speakers alone seemed to have very good feedback rejection in general. When engaged, it is always scanning the frequency spectrum. When a microphone was pointed into the speaker, it fed back for a second until the unit latched onto it, then I tried it a few seconds later. It released that frequency and again fed back and had to latch onto it. If this was set up in a situation where feedback elimination was truly needed, there would be feedback issues with the occasional squeal until the system re-latches onto it. After it latched onto a frequency, the system did not suffer sonically. It didn't sound muffled or hacked like other feedback eliminators do after latching on. It took out just what was needed, and no more than that.

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I decided to try the PD-500 in the field with an acoustic act featuring two acoustic guitars and two vocals. The two Fender microphones were used on vocals. For the initial test, I went into the powered mixer directly from the guitars using 1/4-inch TS instrument cables. The guitars sounded very clean and warm; I was very surprised by the tones that I was hearing. The vocals were clean, but again, I didn't like the microphones' lack of body. For the act's second set, I switched out the microphones with two Beta 58s and was much happier. I used the monitor out to go to an EQ/amp rack for their two floor wedges; the controls of the Fender were easy to find and use. If I had brought powered monitors, this would have been a very sleek, compact system.

I must note that there are no tone controls on the monitor outputs — only tone adjustment for the main outs — which was a slight negative, in my opinion. However, feedback elimination seemed to work through all outputs.

Summary

I found the Passport Deluxe PD-500 to be a great setup for small and basic shows. It would be ideal for small press conferences where you need compact and sleek size with alt sends for press mults, various recordings, etc. Its compactness and ease of use make it ideal for a one-person act or when size in transport is a major concern.

Karl Bader is a lead audio engineer for Entertainment Sound Production and can be reached atkarlbader@espsound.com.