Review: AT Professional Blackbird TLA1.4
These Australian-made portable line array systems are a top seller, and it’s easy to hear why.
The AT Professional Blackbird TLA1.4 portable line array speaker system is proudly made in Queensland by Australian company AT Professional. They make a wide range of both point source and line array speaker systems that directly compete with the high end offerings of the big international manufacturers. That’s no easy task but they succeed by aiming high with in-house R&D driven by an audiophile disposition. Using high quality components sourced from the same manufacturers as other big brand names, AT’s speakers have a reputation for producing accurate, linear sound, from cabinets designed to be physically practical and flexible in application.
The appetite for point source speakers hasn’t waned at AT but the company has developed a lot of expertise with the increasingly popular modern line array designs. A big part of AT’s business is custom architectural installations using steerable arrays in difficult environments; court houses, churches, town halls, railway stations, airports, etc. Places where the controlled projection of a line array design can literally cut through the space to the listeners with improved clarity and intelligibility compared to a point source system throwing sound all over the place. Another benefit of the slender arrays in these applications is the discrete looks that help preserve the character of the venue.
SCALING DOWN THE ARRAY
AT’s line array technology gets scaled up for bigger music-based systems. For the largest venues or big music events it offers three sizes of modular line array speakers that can be ground-stacked or flown and configured into the familiar J-shaped arrays. Smallest is the TLA306 with two 6.5-inch drivers plus a horn, next is the TLA508 with two 8-inch drivers plus horn and then the big one, the TLA312 with one 12-inch and two 6.5-inches plus horn, with a power handling of 3860W. They match with the TLA306B single 12-inch or TLA506B double 12-inch subs. Mid-sized venues or events with loud bands or higher volumes get the popular and usually ground stacked CLA700A composite line array speakers.
Then there’s the Blackbird TLA1.4A system. It covers the wide ground between small and mid-sized events. There’s a lot of shows in that space and they’re all different. The Blackbird has been a hit for AT and has proven particularly popular with production companies who do a wide variety of events. It’s not cheap gear but it is extremely versatile and combined with the easy set-up, modern looks and focused projection of the line array design, AT has found the Blackbird system can provide significant practical and commercial advantages over regular point source, powered box systems.
The latest update to the TLA1.4 is more of a tweak than a re-build but when you’re on a good thing… as they say. Speaking of sticks, the distinctive feature of the Blackbird system is still the impressive TLA1164 mid-high line array. 16 3.5cm neodymium drivers stacked in a cabinet nearly 1.5m high but only 10cm deep, 10cm wide and just over 8kg on the scales. The 16 small speakers can be seen through the front grille and the recessed rear panel kinda works as a handle so you can carry them with one hand. Custom made from extruded aluminium and finished with black powdercoat, there’s not much to them and they hide in the dark.
The stick slots into the top of the TLA210A active sub to complete the system. Made from 18mm Finnish ply and finished with AT’s tough AcoustiCoate surface, it feels solid. Inside there are two new low-distortion 10-inch Neodymium drivers, made for AT by Italian manufacturer Lavoce. A lot of development went into matching the sub with the array and anything bigger than 10-inch drivers were found to be too slow to keep up with the fast transient response of the array. Changing over to a new amp platform was the other main update. Now supplied by Powersoft Audio the two-channel 1.2kW RMS Class D amp drives the mid-high array and the sub with noticeably better performance in use and an expected improvement in long-term reliability.
The TLA210A’s dimensions of 370 x 650 x 520mm are modest for a sub housing two speakers plus amp/electronics but at 26kg it’s a chunky object for one person to carry. It can be done if you’re on your own but it’s easier for two. The handles on either side of the cabinets are OK but the weight is a bit unbalanced so the cabinet tilts forward when being carried. These are professional speakers and production companies will likely transport them in a truck in their supplied hard cases, available for both sticks and subs. Less corporate users, bands or private owners for instance, will find that a pair of TLA210A subs and a pair of TLA1164 sticks (in bags) will fit in a medium-large wagon or SUV, with room to spare for other gear. These users should get the excellent optional canvas padded bags. Custom made for AT by Ozki Canvas, these will last. I’ve got canvas speaker covers that were made in 1980 with no problems other than the fading McLean Audio stencil, whereas I’ve thrown out newer ripped polyester carry bags within 18 months.
Also available is the 2.2m 24-driver TLA1244 mid-high array for another couple of dB in volume and the extra height. Production suppliers with both 16- and 24-driver sticks and a few subs can easily scale systems for different shows with consistent results. AT offers a number of ready-to-go turnkey systems for customers who just need one system. As a lot of these speakers go into custom installations where aesthetics and placement are particularly important, rigging points on the back of the sticks take a T-piece that attaches to a variety of brackets for mounting or hanging. Arrays can be powder coated in custom colours and the exposed pole mount on the bottom of the array can be replaced with a flat panel for a cleaner look.
The controls and connections live on the rear panel of the TLA210A sub cabinet and the only options, apart from volume, are the four preset buttons mysteriously labelled one to four. Preset 2 is flat, Preset 1 is slightly scooped in the 100-200Hz range… I could hear that. Presets 3 and 4 had me fooled. Turns out they’re copies of Preset 2 and reserved for user settings. Frequency response, internal delays and protection circuits are all controlled by the internal networkable DSP and the factory settings give you a tuned ready-to-go PA. The USB-B connector on the rear panel provide access to the DSP and presets via Powersoft Audio’s Armonia software, which can simultaneously address two units.
NEED TO KNOW
TIME TO DANCE
I’ve been checking out the smallest complete stereo Blackbird system, two TLA1164A ‘sticks’ and two TLA210A subs. An underage disco at the local footy club seemed a good test in a typical application. One of my boys plays junior footy and they’re popular events; a few hundred kids in the big and boomy clubrooms. There was room in the wagon for the Blackbird system and a couple of team mates. When we got there, the boys had the speakers set up in no time. The TLA1164A array simply slots into a pole mount on either the top or the side of the TLA210A sub cabinet, depending on the desired height of the stack. It makes putting speakers on stands seem awkward and old-fashioned. Connect the source via the XLR/jack combi input socket and start listening.
Fired up, the Blackbird system is instantly likeable for its open but still direct sound quality, if that makes any sense at all. The published specifications for the Blackbird system are similar to what you’d expect from an equivalent point source, powered speaker system with a sub: Frequency response of 50Hz – 15kHz at -3dB, a sensitivity of 97dB, and max volume of 130dB, but these do little to describe the different types of sound output. The only spec that points to the difference is the high frequency dispersion of 120 by 15 degrees. It takes a little while to get used to the arrays; if you stand close to the sticks they sound weird, not bad but you can hear parts of individual drivers with the main sound developing behind you. It smooths out quickly when you move away from the array with the sound seeming to be on-axis and even over a wide plane. It’s not necessarily intuitive as there’s a lot of separate drivers in each array but they’re matched, lightweight and moving fast so transients are well produced and the narrow vertical focus throws them deep down the room.
I regularly lend the footy club a system for these dances; usually a couple of well-powered 15-inch speakers on stands and they fill the dance floor. Granted the Blackbird is a bigger more powerful system but it’s a beast by comparison in this situation. One side pointed across the dance floor, the other angled more into the room. It filled the whole clubroom and turned the underage disco into a bigger event. To get the same width and depth with point source speakers you’d need more speakers, more cables, on potentially dangerous speaker stands, possibly delays and a messier setup. The audience didn’t think about any of this, they were young and impressionable and they thought the stick system was ‘sick as’… high praise, indeed.
SIDE BY SIDE, TO THE POINT
The Bridge Hotel in Castlemaine was happy to let me try the Blackbird system in a pub-gig setting. On a wintry Sunday afternoon I set it up beside the venue’s good-quality, point source dual 15-inch plus horn system, with sub. That way I could A/B the two systems without upsetting the acts. It was a fairly good comparison on paper, but there were significant differences in use. Both systems worked but immediately noticeable was the way the Blackbird system made the point source boxes sound really boxy, especially in the couple of octaves below 1kHz. Also different was how the Blackbird system ran happily without any external EQ at all whereas the powered boxes needed lots. Preset 1 is intended to reduce low-mid boom and feedback, a common problem on small stages, and that was the only EQ I needed on this small stage. A noticeable amount of sound comes from the sides and rear of the sticks but it doesn’t cause the problems you may expect. It’s nearly full-range and quite stable with open mics, I’ve had performers telling me they don’t need separate monitors with stick systems and I believe them. In this setting the spill from the sticks seemed to blend in nicely with the separate monitors.
Out front of house the mids and highs cut through the Bridge Hotel’s band room easily and evenly, as I was expecting by now, and the vocals were noticeably clearer at the back of the room. Up the front there were people sitting at table’s right in front of the bottom of the sticks and they said no worries, not too loud or harsh. Job well done and an uneven comparison in the end. The customers noticed too and I packed up answering questions about how it worked and how much it cost.
I took the system to the Theatre Royal Castlemaine for a loud listen, as I did in 2014 with the earlier version, and although memory is risky it seemed more powerful than I recall. It’s a big old cinema with a high roof, quite reverberant and it takes a lot of sound to fill it. It’s too big for a single TLA1.4 system to fill but I like the way it throws diction to the back of the room better than the much bigger horn-loaded house PA. The Blackbird system is quite loud and stable when pushed but it doesn’t want to yell or bite like horn-loaded boxes and full volume screamy stuff is the only thing I wouldn’t recommend it for. It hits a limit at a certain intensity and if that’s not enough you may need to move up to the AT CLA700A composite line array system.
It would be perfect for a program of soul or jazz bands in a park on a sunny afternoon. The Blackbird is great outdoors, where you usually need wide coverage and long throw. The old problem of the level being too loud and too harsh near the speakers and too soft and muffled away from them is also greatly reduced. It’s the middle of winter here, there’s no outdoors shows, but I’ve listened to them from over 50m away at my place and they stay remarkably clear. You can’t see them at that distance but you can sure hear them. The technology is catching on with solo acts, duos and small bands using the smaller portable arrays. Even my friends in the Bluegrass/Ol’ Timey worlds are starting to use them and they don’t really like any speakers, and don’t use foldback. They enjoy the spacious sound and the way they can hear them when they play.
MIX ’N’ MATCH
I spoke to a couple of production company owners who use AT gear and both SSL Productions Steve Pannan and Fat Sound’s Ray Eberle had nothing but praise for their Blackbird systems. They confirmed the improved power and particularly the transparency of the new PowerSoft amp platform and both agreed there’s nothing directly comparable to the Blackbird system in the way it can handle such a wide range of gigs, from music to corporate, indoors or outdoors. They choose how many subs they think they’ll need for the type of event and both used the taller 24-driver TLA1244 array for bigger shows or outdoors. The longer stick has a theoretical advantage because the longer the array the lower the frequencies included in the controlled projection characteristics. For the directional characteristics of line arrays to work all the way down to the lower frequencies the array has to be impractically long, so there’s always some compromise involved, but taller is better.
All the systems in the AT range share hi-fidelity audio, high quality components, solid construction and they’re built tough for Aussie conditions. They come with a five-year warranty and excellent service. AT reports the Blackbird has become its top-selling speaker system and I can see why. From musical performances to outdoor sports events to car launches, versatility is the Blackbird system’s main strength, convenient transport and set up are great features, while taming difficult acoustic environments is the party trick. Keep up the good work AT.
WHY LINE ARRAYS?
Evolved from the once common rectangular boxes full of speakers hung vertically on either side of the proscenium arch in town halls, the idea behind them is that mounting drivers in an array allows their outputs to overlap. In some places they add together, in others they cancel and subtract. By controlling the number and size of the drivers in the array and the spacing between their centres, the speakers’ directional characteristics can be controlled. Typically used to project sound in a wide horizontal plane (120 degrees) and a narrow vertical plane (15 degrees) line array systems lose less energy over distance and throw further than point-source designs.