The Fender Passport series has been providing portable PA systems for decades, and the three newest models, dubbed the PRO series, make improvements where “the rubber meets the road” as far as musicians are concerned: lighter weight, increased power, and reduced wallet impact. For good measure, Fender has refined existing features and added some new ones.
A trio of travelers
The Passport PRO series comes in three versions: the 150 PRO ($399), 300 PRO ($699), and 500 PRO ($999). All are upgrades that correspond to models in the previous line, and each is lighter, more powerful, and less expensive than its predecessor. The basic divisions among them come down to number of channels and output power (in watts). There are other differences, with the feature sets expanding as you go up the chain, but mostly, you’ll consider your choices based on your channel and wattage needs.
All PRO models feature smaller dimensions and lighter weight than earlier Passports, which mean better portability without sacrificing any sound quality in the redesigned speaker cabinetry. And the weight difference is significant: The 300 is 12 pounds lighter than its predecessor, the 500 is 9 pounds lighter; and the 150 is 3 pounds lighter. For perspective, a gallon jug of water weighs about 8 pounds. So these weight reductions are quite noticeable, especially on systems designed to be carried with one hand!
All three models also include redesigns or speaker-voicing improvements, which result in improved clarity. The 500 and 300 have 10” and 8” woofers respectively, with a 1.2” horn-loaded tweeter; the 150 has 5.25” woofers and two 2.75” tweeters in each speaker cabinet. The 500 and 300 have a subwoofer output, so if you elect to use an active sub, the power you save can be redirected to amplifying your mids and highs–thus extending your available power. A great feature!
The Passport 500 PRO is the flagship of the line, and when it arrived, I first thought it was a guitar amp, because it came in a single, manageable box. Thanks to its convenient handle and lightweight, the 500 PRO was easy to remove with one hand. Once free from its packing materials, this suitcase-sized 500-watter was as easy to carry across the room as moving my 1×12 combo. The speakers released with two quick flips of the spring-loaded clasps, and the unit now faced me revealing its three-component setup: a center console book ended by two smart-looking speakers.
The layout on the control panel is crystal-clear, with the channel strips oriented vertically and the important stuff starting at the top–namely, a master section with Volume, Tone and Reverb, followed by the individual channel strips and their controls (Level, EQ, Reverb, Pad switch). Having the master section on top is superior to a conventional mixer where the master controls look just like another channel strip, shunted to the far right. Here, they’re right at the top of the panel, front and center, and are easily accessible for making instantaneous changes to the overall sound.
The supplied cables (speaker and power) tuck into a spacious compartment in the back, meaning you can keep the cables–with enough room for several mics and clips–right inside the unit, yet securely stored. The 500 PRO is completely self-contained. Time to plug in!
Hooking up and digging in
One of my typical setups is for a duo of guitar and bass, in which both of us sing. That’s four mono channels right there, plus another stereo channel for the MP3 player that plays break music. Upon plugging in, my partner and I set channel levels first, with the master dialed down. We were pleased to see you can use the three-color LED to set levels (green for signal presence, yellow for close to clipping, red for clipping). Once we got all four levels set, we went through our set list. It was immediately obvious that the 500 PRO had way more power than we needed for our gig, even during a noisy and busy Sunday brunch! This is good, though, because you can never have enough power; it just means that you run the master volume lower, ensuring super clean sound.
We liked the clear highs and clean midrange power as well as the low-end punch generated by the 10” woofers. Because the bottom was nice and full when outputting my partner’s Fender Jazz Bass, we opted to forgo a subwoofer in favor of convenience. We calculated, though, that if we employed an active sub, we could have easily used the 500 PRO to play the mid-sized clubs in our area that feature live acoustic music. When all the instruments and vocals were set up, we let loose and were amazed by the big, full, sound–loud, clean, and distortion-free, even at high volumes.
Making adjustments to the sound was quick and easy. Every tone knob on the PRO series has a center detent–including the ones in the Master and the Reverb sections–so you can go instantly to flat response in any situation. The Reverb has two modes, and you can adjust both the Time and the Tone for a variety of settings. The 500 PRO includes Pre Out/Power Amp In jacks, allowing you to easily patch in an outboard effects unit.
A PA that records!
Beyond projecting your music to an audience, the 500 has two features dedicated to recording. The Stereo Out allows you to hookup a recording device that will capture the mix of the channels, but is not affected by the master volume changes you make for the live sound. The second feature is the USB recorder. This allows you to insert any ordinary USB. This allows you to insert any ordinary USB memory stick/flash drive and record CD-quality Wav files of your performance. You can play back from the drive as well, using the controls from Channel 8 to shape the sound. Playback controls include fast forward/rewind and track skip. This made recording gigs as well as rehearsals through the PA (which we like to do anyway) more productive.
The PRO series is clearly the next generation of portable P.A. systems for musicians on the go. The trio of PRO models offers a unit that will fit any small-to medium venue, from a meeting room to a classroom to a club or hall. Add to that the versatile routing, optional subwoofer output, and recording options, and you have solutions that accommodate any needs you have now or that you may grow into. But it’s the powerfully clear and punchy sound–delivered in a lightweight and compact format–that will win the day for musicians on the go.
By Jon Chappell