The product category of “portable PA” (PPA) has significantly broadened in recent years to include some all-in-one tools increasingly employed in smaller venues and multifunctional A/V environments such as houses-of-worship (HOW) and educational, corporate and institutional facilities. Innovative MI/Pro Audio manufacturer Fishman arguably helped define the portable PA category with its “stick” PPA, 2008’s SA Series, which followed 2003’s LoudBox. Both SA Series and LoudBox offerings were initially built to serve the unique needs of performing musicians. “The real foundation of the Loudbox was simple,” said Larry Fishman in a recent interview. “To create an amplifier specifically for acoustic instruments and vocals with no coloration.”
I reviewed Fishman’s SA220 in 2009, which established a product line that has gone on to serve a much broader user base than was originally envisioned. “We created a product that was portable and easy to set up and use,” Fishman noted, “but it also had to be powerful enough to fill the room evenly with an efficient linear speaker design for dispersion and wide coverage. Up until that point, the PA market was full of products that were cumbersome, required a lot of set-up time and had wires going all over. There were a few other products that were portable, but they lacked the control features, EQ and transparency that the SA220 had.”
Unveiled at NAMM 2017 and reviewed here, Fishman’s latest SA Series product is the SA330x Performance Audio System, which comprises all Fishman and Co. have learned about PPA since the early aughts. As Fishman explained, “We listened to dealers and customers, and developed a system that was a full-range PA system with an optional subwoofer and channel expander/mixer to satisfy players looking for a professional-quality system that could accommodate more input channels and also low end under 80 Hz.”
The SA Performance Audio System consists of the 20 lb., 330 W (RMS) SA330x wide dispersion modified line array speaker system, the optional 30 lb., 300 W (RMS) SA Sub subwoofer, and the optional SA Expand 4-channel expander/mixer. The SA330x-centric system uniquely features a one-cable audio and power port offering channel expandability; more on that later. The SA330x alone is $999.95; the SA Sub is $549.95 and the SA Expand is $169.95, all MAP prices.
Key system features include two mic/instrument channels with combo quarter-inch/XLR inputs, 3-band EQ per input channel, four digital reverb effects with channel reverb level control, 48 V phantom power, Phase and Notch filters for feedback suppression, auxiliary stereo input with level control, balanced XLRs for both input channels and Main mix output, and monitor channel I/O. Other features include a jack for remote channel mute and reverb mute, tripod stand and padded carry bag.
Directly compared to its predecessor, the SA330x is more powerful (providing an extra 110 W of power over the first generation SoloAmp), thus covering the Achilles’ heel of first SA Series product—anemic low-end response—via extra wattage and its optional and notably small, dedicated, powered subwoofer featuring an eight-inch proprietary woofer, three-setting Low-Pass Filter (LPF) crossover and comprehensive I/O. Thus, in total, a new SA330x with SA Sub is technically twice as powerful as the first SA Series product, allowing the optional sub to do more heavy lifting which, in turn, allows the small line array to openly, clearly and musically sing, having been freed from the task of delivering LF (from 125 Hz, 100 Hz, or 80 Hz). Notably, Fishman also offers a Sub Pole kit for pairing the SA330x with the SA Sub.
The bargain-priced SA Expand component is nearly essential to a SA330x-centric system. With its Cat 5 connectivity, the SA Expand broadens the usefulness of the SA Series in two ways. First, input count is more than doubled; like its predecessor, the SA330x line array only offers two XLR/TRS combo inputs, but coupled with the SA Expand, the user now has six combo inputs plus an aux input jack. Secondly, SA Expand is a streamlined mixer that can be placed next to its DIY user, an off-stage engineer or AV person, and so on.
In use—from event DJ, small club sound reinforcement and outdoor gigs featuring acoustic instruments and vocals, to multipurpose HOW applications—the SA330x Performance Audio System was every bit as useful as its predecessor, yet much more flexible and accommodating. For example, auxiliary audio was easily utilized via its eighth-inch and quarter-inch stereo inputs with level adjustment; six condenser microphones could be used; active, song-to-song mixing was easier via SA Expand; and even at pushed levels, the system was consistently open and clean with plenty of headroom. I didn’t always use every SA330x Performance Audio System component—sometimes just the SA330x itself was sufficient—but was very glad to have SA Sub and SA Expand when I needed them.
Too often, the second generation of particular portable PA products are simply more portable and lightweight—the latter meant both literally and figuratively—with little sonic improvement or flexibility added to the range. Fishman’s SA330x Performance Audio System is the exception as it is markedly improved over the original, which was rather great to begin with. As such, it is clear that Fishman understands the broadening base of PPA users as well as their needs. For those in need of a solid PPA for a range of purposes, I highly recommend the Fishman SA330x Performance Audio System, with all of its components.