If you’re shopping for speakers, you’ve probably run into the terms passive and active. There is a major difference between these types of speakers, and which type you need depends on what you want to do with them. Active and passive speakers also vary in sound, flexibility, and signal path. So, what’s the difference between active and passive speakers?
When you are buying your first pair of speakers, 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 (if not) Powered Speakers
An active speaker has a built-in amplifier and gets its power from a power outlet. 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 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 pre-amplifier, which controls the source and volume level. After the pre-amp, 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.
A passive speaker gets power from an external amplifier. 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.
They are Very Flexible
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.
More Difficult and Complicated Signal Path
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 pre-amplifier 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 pre-amplifier and amplifier are both built into an audio/video receiver. Therefore, the signal path is audio source > receiver > speaker(s).
Difference Between Active and Powered Speakers?
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 pre-amp 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.
Which is Better: Active or Passive Speakers?
There are 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.
There are also 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.
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.
Which Is Right for You?
If you know a fair bit about how audio signals work, or you’re looking to learn, passive speakers may be right for you. It takes work, but this is the most direct path toward building the music system of your dreams, assuming you know what you’re looking for.
On the other hand, if you’re looking for an easier setup, active speakers handle much of the work for you, right down to matching their internal components. Once you buy a speaker, you’re stuck with what you bought, but there are plenty of fantastic active speakers out there. If you can’t try listening to them in person, read detailed reviews to get an idea of which speaker will sound best to your ear.