The main selling point of Fender’s passport series of PA systems has for decades been their excellent portability. With the three latest models – known as the PRO series – Fender has made a few improvements while added some new features. Not only that, this new series is lighter and more powerful, all while keeping costs relatively low. So, are these new portable PA’s a step in the right direction?
The new Passport PRO series comes in three models: 150 PRO ($399), 300 PRO ($699), and 500 PRO ($999). Each has been upgraded from their corresponding model of the previous series and best of all, they are lighter, more powerful and less expensive than their predecessors.
The main difference between the three essentially comes down to the number of channels and their wattage, or output power. Sure, there are other differences, mainly more features as you move up the line, but the most important factor in determining which would fit your needs best still mainly depends on how many channels you’re looking for and the amount of power.
As mentioned above, each of the PRO series are lighter than their previous incarnations meaning more portability without sacrificing fidelity and power. And yes, the weight difference is pretty significant. While the 150 is about 3 pounds lighter than its predecessor, the 300 and 500 models saw the most significant change; 12 pounds and 9 pounds, respectively. To get a better sense of how that translates in a real world setting, a gallon of water is about 8 pounds.
Each of the three models also sport cabinet redesigns and speaker voicing improvements which can be seen in their improved audio quality and clarity. The 300 and 500 in particular also include 8” and 10” woofers, respectively, with a 1.2” horn loaded tweeter. The 150 on the other hand packs a 5.25” woofer and two 2.75” tweeters in each cabinet. The 300 and 500 also have an output for a subwoofer and if you happen to decide to take advantage of this option with an active sub, the power saved can be transferred over to help amplify the mids and highs, essentially broadening the system’s available power – a great feature to say the least!
When I first took a look at the top model of the series, the 500, I was very surprised to see just how compact the entire system actually was. In fact, it’s so compact and lightweight that you can easily manage to move the entire thing single-handedly without much effort. In its closed up position, the 500 is about the size of a suitcase and as easy to carry across a room as a small 1x12 combo. The speakers release with a quick flip of their spring-loaded clasp, revealing the system’s three component setup: a center console flanked by too speakers on either side.
The control panel itself is features a pretty straight forward, easy to read layout with the channel strips situated vertically and all of the main controls starting off at the top, such as the master section with Volume, Tone and Reverb. This is followed by the individual channel strips and their controls (Level, EQ, Reverb and Pad Switch). Personally, I think having the master controls highly visible at the top is a great design choice that most manufacturers should adopt. Unlike your usual mixer – where the master controls usually look like just another channel strip oriented to the far right – the 500 has the important stuff front and center, meaning important changes can be made on the fly during live performances.
The included speaker and power cables can be tucked away into a built-in compartment in the back. In fact, the compartment is actually roomy enough to easily fit several mics and clips, making the 500 Pro a completely self-contained PA system.
In order to test out the 500’s potential, I decided to run it through a typical real-world scenario; a guitar and bass setup with each of the two performers singing. With the help of a couple of fellow Pro Pals, we made our way to local bar here in So Cal to see how well the 500 would do over the sounds of a crowd of noisy drinkers. Using the systems three-color LED (green for signal presence, yellow for close to clipping and red for clipping) made it a breeze to set levels.
After our gig was all said and done, my first impression was that the 500 PRO had tons more power than I actually needed, even during a particularly noisy night. This is hands down a great thing because you can never have enough power! This enabled us to run the master volume lower to ensure a very clean sound. There was plenty of clarity in the highs along with a clean midrange, not tom mention a good amount of low end rumble thanks to the 10” woofers. In fact, the bottom end was nice and full enough that we didn’t find a need to use the optional subwoofer output feature, although its still a great feature to have just in case. From this experience, I can imagine employing an active subwoofer on the 500 would enable it to easily play mid sized venues. All in all, with the instruments and vocals properly setup, we easily got a nice, full sound that was loud, clean and distortion-free.
Adjusting the sound through the controls was also as easy as expected. Every tone knob in this series has a center detent (including the ones in the Reverb and Master sections) meaning that you can easily and instantly go to flat response in any situation. The Reverb itself has two modes and you can also adjust both Tone and Time for a variety of settings. It should also be mentioned that the 500 Pro includes Pre Out/Power Amp In jacks, letting you easily patch in an outboard effects unit.
And finally, the 500 also comes with two features specifically dedicated for recording. The included Stereo Out lets you connect a recording device which allows you to capture the mix of the channels but is unaffected by the master volume changes you make for the live sound. There is also a USB recorder in there as well. Using any USB memory stick/flash drive, you can easily record CD-quality WAV files of your performances. You can also play back from the USB stick as well, using the controls from Channel 8 to EQ the sound, meaning you can easily listen to your favorite songs along with your own stuff as well – provided they’re in WAV format. Controls for playback include fast forward, rewind and track skip, making recording gigs along with rehearsals a look more streamlined than using other systems.
The PRO series is easily a huge step above its predecessors in pretty much every way including power, features and price. Each of the three PRO models offers a system that should work for any small to medium sized venue. Throw in the recording options, optional subwoofer output (for the 300 and 500 models, anyway) and excellent portability, and you have a trio of PA’s that are clearly leading the next generation of compact, high fidelity systems. A guaranteed winner for any musician on the go!