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PreSonus AIR12 & AIR15S

Active PA Speakers
Published March 2018
By Mike Crofts

With their easy portability and clear, transparent sound, PreSonus’ latest range of PA speakers couldn’t have been better named.

When it comes to portable powered loudspeakers you might be forgiven for thinking that surely there’s nothing new left under the sun. The phenomenally successful format has been produced and sold in such huge numbers over the last couple of decades that I sometimes wonder where they all go... before long someone will no doubt come up with ‘latest research’ telling us that all the 12-inch powered speakers in the world would, if stood in a line, reach from Madagascar to the South Pole, or would all fit on Ragged Island.

And here’s yet another set of portable powered PA speakers, but this time from a manufacturer whose perceived core business hasn’t always been in this type of product — PreSonus are known and regarded for signal processing, and until relatively recently not so much as a mainstream producer of PA speakers. So I unboxed these latest AIR speakers with a bit more than the usual interest, and I quickly made a set of new best friends...

The AIR Range

The AIR12's HF amp offers 150W Class-A/B output and the LF unit is a 500W Class-D design.The AIR12's HF amp offers 150W Class-A/B output and the LF unit is a 500W Class-D design.When the AIR range was announced last year the first two words on the PreSonus press release I saw were ‘compact’ and ‘lightweight’ — and in this case, they were absolutely bang on the money. There are five models in the series: three full-range versions with a two-way independently amplified driver format, badged as AIR10, AIR12 and AIR15 according to the LF driver size; and two single-driver subwoofers offering the choice of 15- or 18-inch woofers. All three full-range models employ the same amplifier modules: the HF amp is a 150W Class-A/B output and the LF unit is a 500W Class-D design. The two subwoofer variants also share a common amp section and have Class-D output stages rated at 600W continuous. The user manual on the PreSonus web site lists the full specification for each model in the AIR range if you want to pore over the technical details.

So what exactly does ‘AIR’ mean? You could say they’re named because they are so light, or that they have an ‘airy’ sound... But the PreSonus manual describes these speakers as ‘Advanced Impulse-Response Loudspeakers’, which suggests that the name (and you have to admit it’s a really good one) is derived from the engineering design — but it’s a good description of the way the AIR speakers do their job too. More on this later.

Get A Grip

When I unpacked the AIR12 speakers I was immediately impressed with how small, light and easy to handle they are. The polypropylene moulded enclosures have a very good-quality finish and the strong steel grilles — recently updated on the latest models — feel solid and secure. The AIR12 is equipped with a good-size top handle (this is exceptionally useful and should be made a legal requirement in all countries) and a single side handle; on some portable speakers I’ve used and owned, having a handle on one side only makes for tricky pole-mounting, but the AIR12 really is so light that it’s easy to put in place even if you’re working alone and the pole or stand is already set up (but do take precautions, don’t try this at home, etc.). I should point out that the AIR10 also only has a top handle, whereas the largest AIR15 has one on each side plus one on top.

The AIR12 weighs just 17kg and in my opinion it looks heavier when written down than it feels when you pick the thing up; perhaps the compact cabinet dimensions and decent handles have something to do with it but to me this speaker is one of the lightest and easiest of its type that I’ve ever handled, and this is an important consideration if you need to lug them around and set up in different venues night after night.

The AIR15S is built around a 15-inch woofer powered by a 600W Class-D amplifier.The AIR15S is built around a 15-inch woofer powered by a 600W Class-D amplifier.The AIR15S subwoofer is made from plywood with a full-face steel grille to match its full-range partners, and at 32kg (just over 70lb) isn’t officially a one-person lift, although I loaded them in and out on my own without any trouble — certainly much easier than my regular 15-inch powered subs, and again the overall cabinet size and narrow-ish shape makes these relatively easy to lift and shift.

Mixed Signals

In terms of the audio signal path and control facilities, the AIR12 incorporates two Class-A microphone preamps that are accessed via combination XLR/jack input connectors, and there’s also a separate 3.5mm auxiliary jack input so, in effect, you have a three-channel mixer on the front end with individual level controls for the two mic/line inputs and a master level control that affects only the mixed level being sent to the power amp section (the auxiliary input level must be controlled on whatever external device is playing into it).

All three inputs are summed into the amplifier board and can all be used at the same time, so even a single AIR12 could be used as a complete sound reinforcement system for anything requiring up to three input sources. I like this functionality, which is ideal for smaller functions and should present no difficulty for an inexperienced operator (for example I have two or three regular customers who only want a mic and a single speaker with playback input for quiz nights and audio visual presentations).

The mixer section has a balanced XLR output taken before the master volume control, so if this output is used to feed another speaker then it’s easy to balance the level between them; note that although the auxiliary input is stereo, the left and right will be summed to mono in the mix output so you can’t achieve stereo playback on a pair of AIR12s using a stereo jack into this input.

On the AIR15S control panel there’s a pair of line-level inputs, again usefully equipped with ‘combi’ connectors capable of accepting both XLR and TRS plugs. Independent outputs are provided for each channel, so that the left and right channel material can be sent on to the full-range ‘tops’ in stereo when only using a single subwoofer, while the low-frequency material below the crossover point is summed to mono before it reaches the sub amp section.

The Clever Stuff

The full-range speakers in the AIR series all offer a choice of different voicings for different applications.The full-range speakers in the AIR series all offer a choice of different voicings for different applications.The AIR12 and AIR15S speakers feature digital tuning options to optimise system performance depending on the application. Pushing the master volume control puts it into DSP selector mode; you simply turn it until the appropriate section or parameter appears on the adjacent bright LED screen and then use the same control as a data wheel to recall presets or adjust the relevant parameters. On the full-range AIR12 (and also on the AIR10 and AIR15) there are three EQ sections, called ‘Mode’ ‘Locate’ and ‘Treble/Bass’. The Mode section offers five presets called DJ, FOH, Enhance, Monitor and Speech; these are pretty self-explanatory except perhaps for Enhance, which warms up the mid-range rather than hyping the top end.

Bringing up the Locate menu presents three options, again obvious, with choices of Stand, Suspend and Bracket — the default being Stand for when the AIR12 is on a pole or tripod, or simply stood on top of the subwoofer. Suspend and Bracket are intended for flown or wall-mounted positioning. Finally, the direct HF and LF EQ controls can be used for a bit of additional fine-tuning if required, although for most setups you’d probably do this from your main mixer — however, these could be very useful if using one or two speakers as a stand-alone mini-rig without a separate console. Other utility menu items are available, including a full factory reset and LCD brightness, and when exiting the menu you have the option of saving the settings ready for next time if you wish.

The subwoofer’s DSP options include flat-response (‘Normal’) and LF boost modes, polarity inversion, delay, and cardioid array configurations (when used in pairs).The subwoofer’s DSP options include flat-response (‘Normal’) and LF boost modes, polarity inversion, delay, and cardioid array configurations (when used in pairs).The AIR15S subwoofer (like the larger AIR18S) has a different set of adjustments, still accessed in the same way but this time offering a Normal or LF boost mode (called Mo’Bass), plus a direct dial-in delay and polarity reverse option. A ‘Sub’ setting adjusts the low-pass frequency limit of the content sent to the sub amplifier, and should be set according to the LF performance of the AIR full-range speakers (AIR10, 12 or 15, or any other full-range speaker being used). This means that the AIR sub extends the low-frequency capability of the system beyond that of the full-range speakers, rather than acting as a two-way crossover; in practice this is a setting that is worth spending some time on in any new venue as the overall results are influenced by a number of factors in any given space.

The sub’s Locate menu is an interesting one, as it offers directional configuration options — not something you’d find on most compact portable subwoofers. There are three settings available, for normal mode and for two array modes, depending on how you want to physically arrange two subs together to produce a directional coverage pattern; both modes have the objective of steering the low output forward to the target audience and reducing the amount of bass on stage, and both require two subs to be arrayed together. In Cardioid mode two AIR subs are stacked vertically, and in End Fire mode one is placed directly in front of the other, with the two hooked up together and leaving the DSP to take care of everything else. Apart from the usual good stuff in the user manual there’s an application guide that can be freely read or downloaded from the PreSonus web site giving a good explanation of these operating modes, and if you are interested in the potential of this application then it’s definitely worth a read. As far as I’m concerned it adds another element to the AIR system’s overall flexibility and go-anywhere approach, and although you can of course configure any pair of subs in a directional configuration, the PreSonus guys have just made it that much easier...

Powering Up

I now have two live-gear test spaces, one inside the studio live room and a larger space outside in the store area. I rigged up a single AIR15S sub with a single AIR12 on a short pole above it and listened to various test tracks for about an hour in both places. Having been initially happy with the physical handling of the AIR boxes I was straightaway impressed with how the system sounded, especially with the noticeably clean, hi-fi-like upper end. I try to steer clear of descriptions like ‘transparent’ and ‘airy’, but these were very much the words putting themselves forward when I was listening to the AIR rig. The top-end clarity was excellent and I was much taken by the smooth, open delivery, which was maintained from all listening levels from ‘background’ to ‘pretty damn loud’ — and at this stage I hadn’t even started to play around with the DSP tuning options!

Having conferred with a couple of colleagues who were in the building, and who agreed that the AIR rig did sound very pleasant right out of the box, we moved the system into the live room and listened again, this time experimenting with the onboard DSP prior to taking the AIR out for a live test...

On Stage

We were able to get the AIR rig out on a couple of functions and also use the AIR12 as a floor monitor on another gig. As the nice people at Source Distribution had sent along a set of covers/tote bags we used these before loading out to give the speakers a bit of extra protection. All the covers are easy to use and do a good job — the AIR12 tote bags make carrying the speakers an easy one-handed job.

The first event was a small theatre production in a local church, where coverage and clarity were more important than high volume; the audience stretched quite a way back from the performance area so we used the full-range speakers in their vertical pole-mount position, ie. firing parallel to the floor, and kept the level down to just what was needed and no more. The natural clarity and sweet top end of the AIR12 speakers was just what the application demanded, and I was taken with their ability to fill the space without getting in the way of the production itself.

The second event was a traditional ‘band in a hall’ kind of thing, with a four-piece function band playing for a private party of around 150. The AIR15S subs were very much part of this picture, and during the (fairly brief) setup and soundcheck we played around with the low-pass frequency settings to tune into the venue. It was an easy job to achieve a nice thumpy sound in the empty hall, even when keeping the levels down to what sounded comfortable — these subs have a tight, compact yet well-rounded sound with plenty of definition and although there wasn’t enough space available to try out the directional configurations everyone was happy with the low-end performance.

The top end remained clear and crisp with or without the room full of invited guests, and in this case we did have the AIR12 speakers angled to fire downwards as the designated dance floor was closer to the stage. As the evening went on, we nudged the top-end EQ down a bit on the desk a couple of times to round the HF off a little — these AIR12 boxes project very well up there, and the difference between two vocalists can sound quite pronounced because you can hear the detail. There was certainly no shortage of power in any range from the system and I would have been able to crank it up quite a bit if needed. The really nice part was loading out afterwards, when I once again appreciated the size, shape and weight of these neat little units.

Monitor Duty

The cabinet shape of the AIR12 is designed so that it can perform as a wedge monitor if required, and I tried it out in the live room, at a function band gig and at a couple of rehearsals. In the live room it performed well as expected, producing plenty of output in the vocal range with the ability to cut through the rest of the room without needing to be unpleasantly loud. Used as a floor wedge for the lead vocalist/guitarist in conjunction with my usual rig at a local live gig the AIR12 again performed very nicely. We needed to put quite a bit of (heavily processed, at times) guitar through it in addition to vocals, so I experimented a bit with the EQ presets and obtained good results by running it in front-of-house mode with EQ applied on my mixer’s auxiliary out bus.

The starting position would always be to use it in monitor mode, to avoid having to deal with too much low-frequency content, but luckily on this occasion we had time to play around — I suppose the point I’m making is that there are various options available to you and it’s sometimes worth trying them out! At my resident band rehearsal the AIR12 did great duty as a vocal monitor — perhaps over bright in the practice hall (shiny floor, no audience, that sort of thing) but again very easy to obtain the required balance and much better to be taming the high end than having to add it!

AIR Apparent

First impressions are, they say, very important — but with live sound kit it’s not the whole story by any means. Reviewing a set of PA speakers isn’t the same as buying them and trying to decide if you’ve made the right decision, but the telling time for me is often when I have to pack them up and send them back to the company concerned: would I really like to hang on to them a bit longer, or would I seriously consider spending the necessary and keeping them as part of my own inventory? In the case of the AIR12 and AIR15S setup, I really did start to feel attached to this rig; it was just so, well, useful in so many ways. I (and everyone else whose opinion I sought) really liked the ‘hi-fi’ sound, the compact lightweight handling, and the flexible configuration options. I felt that the AIR system would be something I’d tend to use for just about any application within its power capability, as it’s just so convenient and easy to tune into the venue. I can lift and load the AIR tops and subs on my own (and I forgot to mention that the AIR15S units are shipped with a set of good-quality casters that quickly bolt on), and this would be the setup I’d be using for all my smaller gigs. So yes, I really liked the AIR speakers, and they will remain on my ‘hmm’ shopping list for the foreseeable future.

I think the AIR-series speakers make up a great little go-anywhere rig; with a lovely clean sound, flexible tuning options and easy handling, they have been a joy to use. They won’t take the roof off your local stadium, but they are sensibly and conservatively rated, and their sound quality and response with a wide range of audio material really is worth a proper listen.  

Alternatives

Just about everything on the planet — there are zillions of portable powered speakers in this market sector, but around the AIR12’s price you’re looking at things like the RCF ART712A, Dynacord A112A, FBT EVO 2 Maxx, Yamaha DXR12 and so on — there are many makes and models to consider when shopping around.

Published March 2018