A little introduction
For quite awhile now, we’d been flirting with the idea of covering additional areas of the DJ equipment arsenal with the same level of scrutiny and quality you, dear reader, have come to expect from the fine institution that is DJWORX. As for me, I have years of experience designing, assembling and running DMX-controlled stage lighting and live sound systems, including a 22,000 watt “wall of sound” one time. We ran it at like 2% because we’re not into obliterating people’s ears or the local electrical grid, but still, seeing that many speaker cabinets in one big pile is something to behold.
I’ve also been a DJ since I had my first Fisher-Price turntable. Seriously, I DJed my own first communion party at 7 years old with that thing, sans dust cover like a pro. So I feel I’m quite well qualified to discuss speakers from a DJ’s perspective, and what better way to begin our horizon broadening than with such a key component? Welcome to the first of what we expect (hope?) will be many reviews in this vein.
Due to my work with live sound reinforcement systems, I’ve been able to use a number of speaker cabinet brands. I found out about San Diego, California-based Carvin in the late 1990s as the rental company I was with used their cabinets for smaller shows and stage monitors. I was impressed with the build and sound quality (comparing well to the high-end brands we used for larger shows,) and was surprised at their very reasonable prices.
Carvin has always been a direct-sales company which allows them to cut out the many middlemen involved in typical pro audio equipment sales and distribution, a novel concept at the time of their founding. They’ve been going strong ever since and now have a whole range of well-priced pro audio products that sound, look, and work great and are made in the USA as well. Since they also have a large focus on guitar and bass amps, they understand that sound quality is of key importance as musicians can be very discerning. As a result, their speaker product lines are aimed at live sound reinforcement scenarios (i.e. high sound quality at high volume,) which benefits DJs as well (those of us that use high-quality/lossless source files anyway.)
Although they have many more traditional speakers in their product lines (some that cost less to boot), I wanted to review their new S600 series, because they pack a lot of power and features into their small size, which is of immediate interest to the mobile DJ, a designation which I suspect applies to most of you reading this. With that, off we go.
The S600 series is made up of a couple of models:
S600B – The centerpiece: battery-powered column-array speaker with integrated 6-channel mixer (and 2-channel amplifier)
S648 – Column-array extension cabinet (for more coverage or stereo,) powered by the amplifier in the S600B (or any other suitable amp.)
S610B – Battery-powered sub-woofer (with integrated amplifier.)
You can mix and match them as desired so the system can grow with you as your needs change, as each S600B is able to power up to three additional S648s. I’ll be reviewing them in various configurations (starting with the S600B by itself,) so you can decide which would work best for you.
Their batteries can power them for about two hours at high volume, and they can also be run from AC power like typical powered speakers. What’s really cool is that you can also power them directly from a car’s 12V accessory power (cigarette lighter) outlet, extending their run time and allowing you to actually do those long gigs in the middle of a field, DJ Corn Maze.
For the uninitiated, a speaker line or column array uses many smaller drivers in a row (more accurately a column) to achieve different volume levels and frequency bands at different distances from the speaker stack. This is to offer more uniform coverage so the people in front aren’t blasted out while the people in back can still hear full-range clearly. Typical line arrays are custom-aligned and tuned for each venue and take much time and expertise to set up, not to mention quite a bit of equipment. But with this S600 series, all you have to do is set them up on poles like typical speakers and you get most of the benefits with none of the additional hassle, solving a major problem at mobile DJ gigs, especially those held outdoors. Obviously a custom-tuned line array will have better coverage, but this massively increases the benefit-to-effort ratio.
Since Carvin Audio sells direct, they ship direct and have seen a thing or two get damaged over the years. So they don’t play around when it comes to packing materials — my demo units arrived engulfed in 2+ inches of that custom-fit hard-foam-in-a-plastic-bag packing material, so much so that I had to open both sides of the S648’s box to liberate it (so as not to destroy the packing material.) They’re all about getting right down to business so in each no-frills box is the speaker wrapped in plastic, a locking IEC power cord, the user manual sheet and a warranty card. Kudos on the locking power cords! One less accidental unplug to worry about.
We’ll start with the brains of the operation, probably the first piece of the system you’d buy. It’s a nice compact cabinet featuring four 3.5-inch line array drivers and one 8-inch one, cleverly placed behind the others for a coaxial effect and smaller cabinet size. It also has a built-in powered 6-channel mixer (with no less than 10 separate inputs!) which makes it ready for just about any type of input you’re likely to need. It can accept microphones (XLR, phantom power available,) instruments (1/4” Hi-Z and Low-Z switchable,) two stereo line-level sources (including a 1/8”/3.5mm jack,) and even a Bluetooth source. Yes, you can pair your phone with this and play anything on it. Loud. You can also slot Carvin Audio’s wireless receiver module right into the box to gain wireless mic capability too with no external hardware. To top all that off, they also provide some basic effects (echo, reverb and chorus) for the instrument/mic channels and even a USB charging port to keep your phone/media player going as well as a spot to put it (in the carry handle.)
Obviously our main concern as DJs will be the 1/4” line level inputs on channel 5, where our audio interface or DJ mixer’s master outputs would connect. And it’s comforting to have the 1/8” and Bluetooth inputs to save your bacon should your computer decide to flake out. But the rest of this stuff would still come in handy if you’re doing a gig where you and other musicians will be alternating or if you’re providing backing music for a group of vocalists. Or when you show up and find out that the person that booked you needs to play something from an external device they never told you about. The S600B is like having the pro audio equivalent of a Swiss-army knife always along with you.
The only thing missing for the DJ use case is a way to connect stereo XLR cables from mixers/sound cards as you would if you’re running the cables more than 25 feet. On most pro audio mixers you can just pan one channel hard left and the other hard right and you’re good. But the mixer on the S600B has no pan controls, so you’d be stuck with mono if you use an XLR connection which stinks for those of us that prefer to position ourselves at front-of-house (i.e. in front of the speakers, across the room) to hear what the audience hears. The only other solution would be to use a separate S600B on each side, which actually makes sense given the distances where this would matter because running speaker cable that far is sub-optimal anyway.
The S600B is also quite flexible in the output department. There are the two speaker outputs: one runs in parallel with the built-in speakers to drive one additional (8-ohm) cabinet, and the other is on its own dedicated amp channel so can drive two additional cabinets. Then there is an XLR line-out which can have its own level control or be linked to the main one on the mixer (a button lets you choose.) This output could be connected to a recording device, powered sub-woofer like the S610B (what most DJs would do,) or an input of another amplifier or system like ceiling speakers in some venues. Finally there’s a 1/4” stereo headphone output which, as well as headphones, could feed powered monitors or a stereo recorder. If it’s not clear, there is no dedicated headphone/monitor bus: this output is essentially just a copy of the main mix with its own level control.
The S600B by itself has a full, crisp, and really bright sound (like for acoustic/lead guitar, sax/trumpet and vocals) even being somewhat harsh in small rooms with hard surfaces, but nowhere near enough bass for dance music. That’s not to say it can’t generate those low frequencies (in fact I was surprised to hear how low it can go at low volume), just that it can’t make them loud enough for our needs as DJs. Its purpose in life is mids and highs, and boy does it deliver! This sucker can get crazy loud (118dB according to the spec sheets, keeping in mind the threshold of pain is 120dB) yet is clean and crisp at any volume beneath that, assuming of course that you’re not clipping (over-driving) any of the mixer inputs. Let me tell you right now though that as a DJ, you will want at least one sub-woofer, unless you’re only ever going to play background music.
In a carpeted, roughly 100x75ft (31x23m) very echoic ballroom with the S600B near a short wall, one alone has more power than needed to reach the other side of the room with full clarity. The mids carry the whole distance well, though are more present the closer you are to the cabinet. The problem with an echoic room is that you can’t go above a certain volume otherwise the echo becomes too loud making the sound muddy in the middle of the room (missing highs, slushy mids,) and that’s the case here. I found that I had to limit the S600B to about half its maximum volume for the echoes to be quiet enough to not be objectionable. The best solution to echo problems is sound-deadening material on at least the opposite wall or more speakers at lower volume placed all around the room. Barring that, it would be better to place your speakers as far apart on the long wall as possible and reduce the volume. Indeed, I later moved the system to the long wall and the echoes were significantly less of a problem.
A single S600B is quite frankly amazing outdoors. Stood above grass, at max volume, the distance covered is incredible (over 400ft/140m,) and the clarity and even mid-lows last to the edge of the coverage area, though the lower frequencies start to drop-off more noticeably at about 90ft/30m yet you can still hear them all the way out which surprised me. In short, the sound is still pretty full (though of course reduced in volume to background level) at about 400ft in front of the speaker. But playing modern dynamically-compressed music at max volume stresses the woofer as it tries to reproduce the heavy bass, so vocals and other mids start to sound rattly, so you’ll want to turn down the Low EQ knob on the built-in mixer to about the 9 o’clock position (-6dB.)
A word on volume
Modern speaker systems are astonishingly efficient. Even inexpensive systems are able to sustain literally deafening volume from a typical household electrical circuit. (I recently experienced this at an aerobics class where my tinnitus worsened after less than one hour of exposure to what must have been levels over 110dB. I never expected to need earplugs just to work out!) Please remember, fellow DJs, that although a speaker system can get that loud doesn’t mean you should ever take it there. It just means that the system can accurately and cleanly reproduce very brief loud transients, such as an orchestra hit after a quiet passage of classical music. Since most of us play heavily dynamic-range compressed dance and/or pop music anyway, our average levels are far above classical music so we must, for the sake of our audiences’ auditory health, keep our volumes below 100db. (For some very shocking reading, take a look at the OSHA limits and other information here.
Since practically everyone now has smart phones with built-in microphones, none of us has any excuse not to keep a sound level meter app at the ready and use it multiple times at every gig while walking the room. And all installed systems (in gyms now too apparently) should be provisioned with the ability to hard-limit the output level so inexperienced equipment operators can’t cause mass permanent hearing damage. I fear for the regulars in that aerobics class.
Bringing this back to the review, the better dispersion offered by a line/column array like the S600B eliminates the urge to crank up the volume for the people in the back, saving the hearing of everyone in between. Indeed, it’s remarkable how when standing about 6 feet directly in front of the cabinet, the harshness disappears as you move to just below it, where your audience would normally be. Not putting the S600B above your audience whether on poles or on a suitably high surface would lose much of the coverage benefits of the array, so make sure you raise ‘em up whenever possible. That said, be aware that the SS15 stands that currently come with the S600B + S648 combo set don’t safely go high enough for the bottom of the speaker cabinet to clear the heads of anyone standing, giving anyone over 5’5” walking close to them an unwelcome blast of mid-highs.
The wireless mic option
Carvin Audio was also kind enough to send the UX600R wireless receiver module and a UX600M wireless mic to go with it. Installation of the module is super-easy: just pull off the plastic cover stuck to the bottom of the S600B’s back panel, pull out the little bag of screws taped inside, slip the module in, screw it down, and you’re done. It is a bit challenging to remove though due to the tight space between the right side of the module face and the recess wall.
The UX600M is a good-sounding uni-directional microphone ideal for vocals. Uni-directional means it picks up only what’s directly in front of it, helping to eliminate feedback and spurious sounds. It’s powered by two standard AA batteries (alkaline or rechargeable) so you’ll always be able to find some at any corner store. With a fresh pair installed and settings at their defaults, I was able to go about 100 feet (30.5m) line-of-sight (no obstacles) in front of the S600B before the signal started cutting out. What’s nice is that when this happens, you don’t hear static, it just cuts in and out cleanly. It also has an option to transmit at 50mW for greater coverage/drop-out elimination but I didn’t test this. The batteries reportedly last up to 2.5 hours, recharge-ables somewhat less, due to their lower voltage and capacity.
The receiver can also scan the area for the clearest RF channel and you simply set the mic to match. It can also be used with Carvin Audio’s belt pack which attaches to lapel and headset mics and even to instruments, so this one receiver module gives you flexibility. It only connects to one transmitter at a time though, so you’ll need a separate additional receiver if you plan to have additional wireless mics.
It’s a well-performing system and it’s great that it integrates right into the S600B, shortening your setup time that much more.
This is a passive extension cabinet that is effectively a S600B without the brains. So it’s still a column array but must be driven by an external amplifier, ideally the one inside the S600B. It features 1/4” and speakON connectors on both input and output for maximum versatility allowing daisy-chaining to/from additional cabinets if your power amp can support the additional load. You could actually buy just these cabinets and use them with a suitable power amplifier you already own. (“Suitable” being at least 400W per channel into an 8ohm load.) But if you’re getting a new system, it’s actually less expensive, easier and way more flexible to just get an S600B instead of trying to cobble together your own. Then you don’t even have to worry about power vs. impedance matching and you get battery power as well.
Because they’re the same speaker cabinet and drivers, the S648 is sonically identical to the S600B. See below for how they sound together.
Public service announcement: always use speakON instead of 1/4” whenever you can. The former has more contact area (for a better connection) and can’t accidentally be pulled out. On that note, it’s too bad Carvin Audio didn’t include speakON connectors for the external speakers on the S600B’s back panel, but it’s clear they ran out of room with all the other goodies they put there, so I give them a pass. There is that space next to the wireless module slot though. If the 12V input was placed there, there might just be enough room for a speakON connector above it.
S600B + S648
I wasn’t sure if this combination would somehow split the mids and highs between the two cabinets or just be a louder version of the single one. Pink noise testing revealed the latter: the frequency response of the primary S600B cabinet doesn’t change when you add the second speaker in parallel. What was really interesting was how much more mid-lows there appeared to be at low volume when adding the second cabinet. It made me double-check that the sub wasn’t accidentally on.
Then I remembered how sound is produced: air molecules are compressed and expanded in waves. The more air is moved, the louder the sound. More speaker drivers mean you can move more air (and in the case of line/column arrays, you also control which air) resulting in louder volume potential. So doubling the number of drivers by stacking an S648 onto an S600B not only increases the coverage distance due to the line array effect, but quadruples the available acoustic output. But you’ll still want a sub-woofer, to be clear.
In a ballroom, adding the second cabinet on top noticeably increases the low-mids, which is good from a full-sound perspective, but because of the room’s acoustics, it actually reduced the clarity (because of the increased echo from the additional output,) so I found that I had to reduce the volume to ¼ and boost the highs to restore clarity, really making me beg for a sub.
Stacking these is just more of the same goodness the S600B delivers on its own outside: more mids and mid-lows for a noticeably fuller sound farther out, even with the Low EQ dialed back (also needed here for the same rattly sounding vocals when running dynamically compressed music through the system at max volume).
A pair of these in stereo has more horizontal coverage potential and better achieves the even-level-everywhere ideal at all volumes, especially in larger (and echoic) spaces.
In an echoic ballroom, adding the second speaker in stereo, I found myself needing to limit the volume to half and boost the highs a bit to restore clarity, just as with a single S600B, again really making me want the sub.
The significantly increased horizontal coverage gives clarity and crispness over a wider space and the pair used this way has the same apparent mid-low response as a single S600B. So stacking equals more coverage in front of the speakers and more mid-lows in general while stereo equals more coverage to the sides (due to the speakers being placed some distance apart) and of course the typical sound stage reproduction.
The S610B – bring on the bass
The sub-woofer in the series is an unassuming box, roughly double the size of an S600B/S648. Though it has a 10” driver, it’s mounted in a tuned ported wooden enclosure, allowing it to produce bigger bass than its small size suggests. It not only rounds out the sound but gives it some thump when turned up, especially if it’s placed in the corner of a room against hard surfaces.
The I/O situation is actually pretty versatile as well, offering two each XLR and 1/4” inputs (summing them all to mono) as well as an XLR line output (also a sum of all inputs) to chain to additional systems. Of note, this output is full-range (not just the sub frequencies) so can be plugged into anything.
S600B + S610B
The S600B is so bright by itself (playing commercial dance music anyway) that I felt palpable relief when I powered on the sub and heard the low end fill in and the characteristic thump of the beat appear in a smaller room. You definitely want, dare I say need, at least one sub. Though the level control on the S610B suggests setting it around the mid-point (+0dB) when using it with an S600B/S648 main, for modern dance music I preferred to have it toward 3 o’clock (+6dB) making the all-important beat more prominent. Of course this will vary depending on the room you’re in and the music you’re playing.
An echoic room can do as much damage to bass as to highs, and I experienced that in the ballroom in which I tested the system. When I set it to deliver good strong bass, it was terribly boomy and muddy in the middle of the room, so I had to dial it back to maintain a good full and balanced sound. This is another case where more speakers across the room would help tremendously. It was much better on more dynamic music (like 80s pop ballads,) because such music is more punctuated and gives the echoes more time to dissipate before the next punch.
Tip: If you haven’t gathered it by now, speaker placement is very important for indoor spaces, and especially so for sub-woofers. You can get much more impact from your sub if you place it in a corner of the room against hard surfaces without even touching the volume control. Try it!
The S610B very nicely rounds out the sound, perfectly tuned to compliment the S600B, even over 100ft away. It’s not intended to swallow you up in bass, but to provide a nice, clean, crisp sound across the lower range and it does that very well, as on 80s pop songs like Chaka Kahn’s “I Feel For You” and “Ain’t Nobody.” Ever heard bass described as “crisp” before? This sub delivers that. Switching to modern dance music, I felt the need to boost the sub’s gain to +6dB to get a bit of thump and to compensate for reducing the Low EQ knob on the main cabinet, to avoid the rattly sound on vocals as mentioned above. To this point, I often found myself wishing the S600B had a low-cut toggle button (or tunable knob for extra points) so I could off-load more low frequencies to the sub, thereby eliminating the rattle-like sound at higher volumes without also reducing the output to the sub.
S600B + S648 + S610B
This combination is the recommended starting point for DJs as it gives very good flexibility. I find it exciting that this three-cabinet system with plenty of power for all but the largest venues can easily fit into a sub-compact car (like the Chevrolet Spark/Matiz) complete with cables and supplies and a gig bag/backpack, and still leave room for three people! Being able to run it from said car’s 12V system for hours is even more exciting.
Though stacking an S648 on top of an S600B greatly increases the sonic output, a single S610B can still keep up well. As you raise the volume though, it becomes all too tempting to work the sub a bit too hard, which can sacrifice much of its crispness, so you’d be best off adding a second S610B to share the load if you plan to crank such a stack with any regularity.
That said, in an echoic ballroom, this stack (including one S610B) run at one-quarter of the system’s maximum volume (channel at ½, low EQ knob at -6dB, master at ½, sub at +6dB) sounded the best of the various configurations tested while being loud enough to envelop you and with enough bass to make you want to dance without echoes messing things up too much. Obviously the limit will vary for each room but be very aware that such a powerful system can quickly get you into trouble amid poor acoustics. Listen closely as you test your setup and be conservative with the volume.
Less is very often more, grasshopper.
The stack with sub sounds really surprisingly good where listening even 100 feet away is enjoyable and pleasant! You’ll likely see your crowd tapping their feet and even dancing that far back! (Just don’t expect an overpowering bass-in-your-face experience unless you’re two feet behind the stack.) To leave room for more thump though, dance music would be better served by one S610B per top cabinet (S600B or S648) but you can work up to that.
In an echoic ballroom, this configuration sounds the best balanced of those tested when run at half of maximum volume (channel at full, low EQ knob at -6dB, master at half, sub at +6dB) despite the poor room acoustics. Also, despite being somewhat muddy closer in, the bass is clearly present to the other side of the room so you’ll even see the chair anchors tapping their feet and grooving.
This setup is where most DJs should start, since the system can handle most venues including outdoor ones very well. Just make a habit of rolling off the mid-highs outdoors somewhat since they tend to overpower the other frequencies in this configuration. And limit yourself to halfway on the master level knob in an echoic room or you (and your audience) will be sorry!
Adding the sub to the pair completely rounds out the frequency response within about 90ft but because bass doesn’t travel very well outdoors, the mid-highs and highs are very bright beyond that. As mentioned above, having one sub per top cabinet would be much better, especially in a stereo setup, since you don’t get the mid-low reinforcement in this configuration as you do when stacking the tops.
So if you often play large or outdoor events, you’ll want to strongly consider adding a second S610B, a 15” or 18” sub-woofer (properly crossed-over) or moving up to Carvin Audio’s TRC systems.
The S600 PA speaker series is a well-thought-out and well-executed line that brings easy, super-portable, flexible, and affordable line-array performance to the masses. It will set you apart from other mobile DJs not only in sound quality, but clarity across the venue, if you keep your volume level in check. Since the series is modular, you can start small now and expand the system as your needs and budget dictate, protecting your initial investment.
Since it’s fully battery powered, you can perform in previously impractical places and situations. I’ve always wanted to DJ on a mountaintop vista. And the built-in mixer on the S600B means you’re always ready for the unexpected. And it’s very power-efficient: you only need a single 120V/12A circuit, as the stack plus sub draws just under 150W at max output (~60W in regular use) as measured by a wall power meter.
But if you often play large outdoor events and/or venues larger than ballrooms, or need to feel the bass pound your chest in middle of the room, I recommend instead looking at Carvin Audio’s flagship TRx speaker series (and the TRC systems comprised of them) which is also easy-to-use powered column-array technology but with significantly more power, coverage range and large-scale efficiency. But alas, no battery-powered options there yet.
- Hassle-free column-array (even sound coverage, zero effort)
- Multiple useful power options: built-in 2+ hour battery, vehicle 12V DC, world-wide AC
- Versatile musician-friendly built-in mixer
- Bluetooth input source
- USB device charge port
- Compact and lightweight, even the sub-woofer. Fit your whole setup and people in a sub-compact car!
- Built-in wireless mic option
- All birch wood cabinets for better sound with weather-resistant coating
- Good value for money where ease of transport and/or play-anywhere capability are/is important
- Very power-efficient: fill a ballroom using only 60W!
- No stereo XLR inputs (no channel pan controls)
- Price may be out of reach of starting DJs, especially since the sub-woofer is pretty much required for DJ use.
- No high-frequency specific tweeters so upper frequency response falls off above 18kHz (splitting hairs though since many people can’t even hear to 16kHz.)
- No low-cut facilities (on mixer channels or internal amp)