I know what you are thinking. Center channel speakers and passive soundbars both take an amplified signal. They are both positioned front and center in your home theater. They seem pretty similar. Can they be substituted for each other? The answer is no!
Passive soundbars and center channel speakers are not the same thing. A passive soundbar uses the three front channels (left, right, and center) while a center speaker only uses the center channel.
Understanding the difference between a passive soundbar and a center channel speaker requires that you understand what each is and the differences between them. This will help you when shopping for the one you need.
What Is a Passive Soundbar?
Understanding what a passive soundbar is, is as simple as understanding what each word means. A passive soundbar is a soundbar that is passive, therefore, the soundbar does not use an external power source to amplify the sound signal.
A soundbar is typically meant to be an all-in-one solution for multi-channel sound. Some soundbars receive the right, left, and center channels (3.x), while others only receive the right and left (2.x). All models are designed to be placed directly below or directly above your screen. While some models are also designed to accept auxiliary surround sound speakers, most do not.
Most soundbars are active soundbars. This means that they require an external power source in order to amplify the sound signal from your TV from line level to speaker level. An active soundbar has its own built-in amplifier.
A passive soundbar is the opposite of an active soundbar. A passive soundbar has no external power source to amplify a line level signal. Instead, a passive soundbar needs to receive a speaker level signal that has already been amplified. Because of this, a passive soundbar cannot be directly hooked up to your TV.
A passive soundbar is a multi-channel speaker system that requires an amplified signal to play sound. Soundbars are meant to emulate the immersive sound experience of a multi-speaker sound system in smaller rooms. For more details on passive soundbars, check out this explainer.
What is a Center Channel Speaker?
A center channel speaker is meant to be part of a speaker set. A center speaker can act as a standalone speaker only with monophonic sound–sound where all of the speaker channels are blended together. This is the kind of sound TVs were originally made with. Most would say it is antiquated.
As part of a speaker set, the center channel is still placed in the same spot as a soundbar. Center speakers are employed in most, but not all surround sound set-ups. For more information on surround sound systems, check out this article.
Like a passive soundbar, a center speaker requires an amplified signal. Typically, a center speaker is one of three or five (or seven or nine) speakers connected to a receiver or amplifier which is connected to your TV.
Major Differences Between a Passive Soundbar and Center Channel Speaker
Passive soundbars and center speakers have a lot in common. They are both positioned above or below your screen and they both receive an amplified speaker level signal. Still, they have substantial differences that make them not suitable as substitutes.
First of all, a soundbar is designed to take the left, right, and center channels of your receiver’s output. This means that it will broadcast the left, right, and center channels with separate speakers.
Second, a soundbar is an all-in-one sound solution. Soundbars are ready right out of the box to be plugged in to your receiver and play. They don’t require you to find room for speakers around your home theater space.
A center channel speaker requires you to have other speakers as part of a sound system. This will require you to survey your home theater room for places to position your speakers. This can require you to have to do some rearranging, which may be a bit of a burden for some speakers.
Recommended Passive Soundbars
Although active soundbars are more common than passive soundbars, there are still plenty of good passive soundbars on the market. Like everything else, they each have their advantages and disadvantages.
Here are the reviews of some of the best passive soundbars on the market: the MartinLogan Motion SLM X3, the KEF HTF7003, and the Dayton Audio BS36.
Passive Soundbar Pick #1
The MartinLogan Motion SLM-XL (on Amazon) is durable and well crafted. It weights 9 pounds, which is not heavy, but the downside is that this soundbar is quite expensive.
Passive Soundbar Pick #2
KEF’s HTF7003 (on Amazon) is lightweight and compact making it ideal for smaller TVs. This makes it a good candidate for mounting above the TV. One downside is that the subwoofer can make the bass sound like it is only coming from one area of the room.
Passive Soundbar Pick #3
The Dayton Audio BS36 (on Amazon) is also fairly compact, making it a good candidate for mounting. Unfortunately, mounting equipment is sold separately. The soundbar handles complex sound decently, filling medium-sized rooms. There is a glitch in this one that makes the sound become muffled, but this is fixed upon reset.
Recommended Center Channel Speakers
Although center speakers most commonly come as part of a speaker set, you can buy lone center speakers to make your custom home theater sound system. Getting a high-quality center speaker can enhance the dialogue of the media you watch.
Some center channel speakers are even made to look like a soundbar. These are typically more expensive, but often deliver higher quality as a result.
A boutique center speaker is especially useful for a 5.1 system or higher. The more left and right channel speakers there are, the more washed out the dialogue may get, so getting a higher quality center speaker may be a good option in this scenario. However, make sure that the center channel speaker you use, matches well with the other speakers in your setup. Check our speaker buying guide for some great recommendations and tips for buying speakers.
Choosing the Right Set-Up for You
Now that you know the difference between center channel speakers and passive soundbars, you should know which is appropriate for your system. If you are looking to limit the number of speakers in your set-up, a soundbar is an all-in-one solution that gives you the rich, multi-channel sound you might get from a 2.x or 3.x system. Some passive soundbars such as the Mythos SSA-50 promise 5.x sound.
If, however, you are looking for the true surround sound experience, you would likely be using a center speaker as part of your set-up. A surround sound system not only requires more equipment, but also more space to be able to put speakers in the appropriate position in the room.
Which you choose will largely depend on what is important to you. If you want convenience and quick set-up, go with a soundbar. If you want an immersive sound experience, get a center speaker for a multi-speaker sound system. There is no wrong answer, and it all just depends on what you are looking for in your sound solution.