When it comes to buying speakers, the number of options available can be overwhelming. There are many different types, brands, and configurations that you'll have to choose from, including the option of active vs. passive speakers.
So what's the difference between active and passive speakers? An active speaker has a built-in amplifier and gets its power from a power outlet. A passive speaker gets power from an external amplifier. Active and passive speakers also vary in sound, flexibility, and signal path.
Whether you're buying your first pair of speakers or your fifth, there's a lot to know when it comes to the differences between passive and active speakers. Once you learn the basics of each, you'll know which is better for your various needs.
Active speakers are also known as powered speakers. Active speakers have most, if not all, of the electronics built-in to the enclosure, which makes them easy to set up and use. You simply plug in the main unit and connect it to the music source, and you're connected to a high-quality sound system.
Active speakers have a lot of behind-the-scenes technology, and they often include built-in Wi-Fi or Bluetooth technology, which makes them super convenient for playing music from many different sources. And since there is not a need for a receiver, you have a neater, simpler setup.
Active speakers are built to work as an integrated unit, so using active speakers means that your sound will come from components that are designed to work together. This means you'll get an optimized sound that is high-quality from the get-go, which is a valuable asset.
Manufacturers make sure that the integrated amplifier accommodates a wide range of speakers, and the amplifier and drivers will work perfectly together. The active speaker options available on the market today include some very impressive technology.
With active speakers, the user has less control over the sound and add-on options. You can't add in components easily, so if you're wanting to upgrade a certain aspect of the sound with a raved-about amplifier, it may not be possible.
For this reason, it's important that you choose active speakers that embody the sound you are looking for without the need for any additional components or technology.
With active speakers, the signal path starts with the music source – i.e. the computer, turntable, CD player, etc., then the path goes to the preamplifier, which controls the source and volume level. After the preamp, the path goes through the active speaker crossover network.
In the active speaker crossover network, the signal works at line level power – around 2 volts, which is an advantage and helps create a more precise sound. After the crossover network, the signal goes through dedicated power amplifiers for each drive unit.
Passive speakers are typically found as a part of a traditional stereo system, and the overall setup is completely different than active speakers. Passive speakers don't have a built-in amplifier like active speakers, and therefore, they need an external power amplifier to power the speakers, such as a receiver or a separate component.
Passive speakers are most often found for home use. Since there are more components in this type of system, it can be more difficult to set up, and once you set it up, you usually don't move it after that. The overall setup is also less neat, due to having more wires to connect each component to one another.
Passive speaker components are set up and chosen individually, so the quality of the sound is up to the person who chooses the components. This can mean that you can choose the best components of every class for every purpose, but will they sound clean and optimized together?
That depends on how much you know about pairing up various components with one another. Pairing up the different components can be difficult sometimes, if you need help choosing speakers, then check out our speaker buying guide!
With passive speakers, you can easily switch out or upgrade your components as you desire. You have much more control over your sound system, allowing you to create a fully customized system, which is highly desirable for many audiophiles. You can build your system piece by piece, as you go, or all at once.
The passive signal path is slightly different than the active signal path. With passive speakers, the signal path starts with the music source, then just like the active signal path, it goes to the preamplifier for the source and volume level.
The signal moves to the power amplifier which then drives the speakers through the speaker crossover network. This allows the sound to be split up into multiple parts, depending on the type of speakers that it's driving.
The speaker crossover network, in a passive system, works at speaker level — typically between 15 and 35 volts.
Keep in mind that the preamplifier and amplifier are both built into an audio/video receiver. Therefore the signal path is audio source > receiver > speaker(s).
Active speakers are also known as powered speakers, and all active speakers are powered. But when it comes to powered speakers, they aren't all considered active.
Powered speakers have the same configuration as passive speakers, but unlike passive speaker setups, one of the active speakers has both the preamp and power amp built-in to its enclosure.
Therefore, you'll see an extra wire between the two speakers, which allows the main, amplified speaker to connect its passive speaker counterpart to the built-in amplification component.
There are many benefits to passive speakers. There is more flexibility in the placement of your components. It is an easier system to make upgrades to and replace components, and you have much more control over the sound.
There are also many benefits to active speakers. The amp and speakers are designed to work together, which results in a cleaner, clearer, and more reliable sound. The setup is simple, neat, and lightweight, and many are configured for wireless applications.
Between active and passive speakers, the overall winner really depends on the person, but active speakers tend to be a better value. If you want more control over the sound and components, passive speakers are probably the better choice for you. For a turnkey system with reliable, high-quality sound that you don't want to mess with, active speakers are the best option.
Active speakers are the clear winner for on-the-go music, such as portable, Bluetooth speakers. Active speakers are also a great choice for bands and public entities like restaurants, bars, clubs, churches, or schools, since they are ready-made with high-quality, professional sound.
Passive speakers are a great choice for large-scale setups, such as for DJs and live events, in cases where you want to add a subwoofer or additional components to create a fully immersive sound for a large area or crowd.
Since the components are heavy, they are best set up once or moved on an occasional basis, making them also a great choice for home theaters.
Now that you know the pros and cons and ins and outs of active and passive speakers, your next step is finding the right ones for you. Here are some top choices for active and passive speakers to look at for various uses.
Hopefully, you now feel more informed about which type of speakers is right for your current and future use. Have a question? Leave a comment, and as always, happy browsing!