Active vs Passive Speakers – Differences Explained

When deciding on a loudspeaker to buy or laying the plans for a speaker system, a large number of terms come up with the most common ones ‘active speakers’ and ‘passive speakers’. Passive and active speakers are one way to evaluate your choices in choosing the best speaker for your home.

Generally, the main difference between the two speakers is that passive speakers require external amplifiers while active speakers have in-built amplifiers. 

However, there are a lot of differences that you will learn as you go further in this article. This article explains what distinguishes active and passive speakers, which is best for you and your setup. 

Passive Speakers Vs Active Speakers |
From Chris Sound Lab

What Is An Active Speaker?

An active speaker simply requires power to function. It is made of an enclosure, a separate amplifier, two or more speaker drivers, and a crossover network. The separate amplifier works for each frequency band. The frequency bands are split by the crossover network. There are some parts that are involved in sending signals to make an active speaker work. They include:

  • Drivers
  • Preamplifier
  • Audio Source
  • Individual power amplifiers
  • Active crossover units

Active speakers are also called powered speakers. They are very easy to set up and use. They come with an in-built enclosure that allows setup easy and straightforward. All you have to do is plug the main unit into a socket and connect it to an audio source. Automatically, high-quality sound is produced in just a few steps.

They are made with high-level behind-the-scenes technology, they feature a Bluetooth connector or Wi-Fi that makes it easy to connect and play music from any source at any time. 

Active speakers do not need a receiver, making the setup less clunky and easy.

The Best Active Speakers of 2022 (And Which Pair You Should Buy)
From Gear Patrol

How Does An Active Speaker Work?

The active speaker works almost the same as the passive speaker until after the preamp stage. Here, all the signal gathered in the preamp enters the active crossover network. It works at the line lower signal level of 2V and it performs almost the same job as the passive set-up when the crossover works.

Active speakers work at low signal levels, which means each part works for accuracy rather than the amount of power it takes. This design uses sophisticated products, active components, and a high level of signal processing to get the best out of its whole setup.

Active speakers are more accurate in their operation, plus they deliver high-quality, optimized, and integrated sounds. The line-level signal produced from the speakers has a separated frequency band that is sent to a power amp that feeds many drive units. 

From Alpha Audio Net

What Are Passive Speakers?

Passive speakers are mostly used at homes. They draw power from an external amplifier and they are in most cases connected to the amplifier by a wire. Since they have more wires needed for setup, they are more complex to connect and the overall setup becomes a little hard. It contains more components than active speakers.

From Audio Engine USA

How Do Passive Speakers Work?

Using the passive speakers, a part called the source component is used to play music. It can be a record player, CD player, music streamer, or even a phone. As long as you can connect to the speaker to deliver sound. The amplifier of the speaker controls the volume of the speaker and switches the sources.

For the connection of the speaker to a record player, a phono stage would be needed to equalize the signal and increase the output to line level from the cartridge before feeding the output to the preamplifier. To take the line-level signal from the preamplifier and increase the drive force unit, the power amplifier comes in.

You don’t need to connect the preamp to your speaker drive units. The output should pass through the crossover filter network. Therefore, if the speaker splits the signals in two ways, all the frequencies released would be high-quality leaving the audio quality at bass, mid-unit. If the speaker is three-way, the sounds released would be in three parts – bass, midrange, and treble. 

Reserve R200 Bookshelf Speaker - Large | Polk Audio™
Polk Audio R200 (From Polk Audio)

Advantages Of Active Speakers

Active speakers come with an amplifier inbuilt within an enclosure. It’s one of the best things users have loved about the speaker. The drivers, amplifier, and crossover are designed to work together, without under or overpowering the speaker. The only downside to this feature is it’s possible to blow out a speaker.

This might be difficult as the amp is designed and engineered for that speaker. However, you get a good audio quality, bass extension, and great output from the speaker. You can use the active speaker as long as possible without having to worry about overworking or damaging the amp and speaker.

Sound Output

Active speakers are designed to work together as an integrated unit, therefore the sound quality produced comes from all the components and it is high. You get a highly optimized sound from a valuable asset.

Manufacturers of active speakers put into consideration the ability of the amplifier to accommodate a wide amount of speakers so the drivers and other amplifiers can work together. The active speakers present in the market are very impressive and they go for an affordable price.

Wireless Connection is Allowed

Wireless connection is becoming more of an advantage, making more users move towards buying active speakers. Active speakers allow users to send wireless connections. With the performance, conciseness, listening to music on it gets more attractive than ever.

Manufacturers aim to pack more functionality into each box, we’re not talking about amplification alone but physical connections and streaming modules. Thereby producing an overall system that allows users to attach extra cables and wires if needed.

Buying other functional parts to a speaker in the case of passive doesn’t give the same performance quality as having to buy an all-in-one speaker. Some cool examples of active speakers that support streaming services include: KEF LS50, KEF LSX, B&W Formation Duo and some active speakers that have connection hubs that allow users to connect seamlessly are the Beolab 28 and Dali Rubicon 2C. 

Audio Signals Pass through the Crossover First

The amplifier of an active speaker is inside the speaker, making the crossover filter the signal before it becomes amplified. This is very useful for a number of reasons: One is the signal for each driver gets amplified separately due to the fact that the cross-over is at the front of the amplifier, this allows each signal to be amplified separately. This phenomenon is known as bi-amping.

When a speaker is effectively bi-amped, it contains more all-around power than that contained in a passive speaker. As the signal also goes through the crossover after amplification, the lifespan of the power is cut because the power is reduced to the smallest at the crossover making it too small to reach the rivers.

The active speaker’s signal is amplified as it passes through the crossover. Bi-amping is one of the greatest features possessed by active speakers. It also allows signals to reach the subwoofer and tweeter at the same time, thereby reducing the phase distance between both drivers.

Signal Path

The signal path of an active speaker starts with a music source which might be a CD player, turntable, or computer, then to the preamplifier that controls the music level and the volume. The path also goes through the speakers’ crossover network.

To create more precise and high-level sound, the active speaker crossover network works at a line level power of 2 volts. The signal then passes through each power amplifier for each driver after the crossover network. 

Flexibility

Using active speakers, there is less control over the add-on options and even the sound. Because you can’t add more components as you like, upgrading one part of the sound output with another amplifier of your choice might not be possible.

To get the most out of active speakers, make sure you choose ones that manifest the sound quality that you want without having to add more technology or new components.

Advantages of Passive Speakers

Easy to Set-up/Fewer Wires

As said earlier, setting up a passive connection requires dealing with wires. Unlike an Active speaker, it needs to be connected to AC power. During this connection, make sure your speakers are close enough to the wall socket or have extension cords around you, so you can easily connect them.

Speaker wires are 100-foot spools making it easy to place passive speakers in place. You might also need a preamplifier or processor cable to connect with the speaker.

This means that there will be two cables connected to the speaker, one from the preamplifier/processor and the other from the wall outlet. If the music source is close to the speaker like from another device e.g. a mobile device. Just make sure the music source is not far away from the speaker so that you have to double the wires to secure a connection.

Sound Quality

The quality coming from every passive speaker depends on the owner’s sound preference. This is because the components are set and connected differently. This means that you can choose what components to add to your speakers to enable the sound quality to be clean and optimized. Pairing different components of the speaker can be difficult but figuring the best ones that can work for you would help you have a speaker that delivers an audio quality that you love.

Easy Upgrade of the Amplifier

If you want to upgrade or change the power that passes through your passive speakers, you can easily change the amplifier from a Class A/B to Class D or from a Solid State to a tube. Or you can buy an amplifier to connect to your speakers. An amplifier upgrade is not specifically easy and sometimes impossible to change for an active speaker.

Even though upgrading an active speaker amp might not be needed because the manufacturer created the best match for the speaker. An upgrade might sometimes be possible, just put in mind that the manufacturer added such an amplifier to the active speaker so it can perform optimally.

In a scenario, you’re using a model of a passive speaker that is discontinued for a while, there is a chance that if one part of the speaker is not working, you might not get a replacement easily. This is because some models have discontinued production for a while. The speaker might also be out of warranty, so to repair or replace any of the parts, you have to send it to a technician to replace the amplifier. 

Passive Speakers are very Flexible

Passive speakers allow users to customize, upgrade, switch and control any part. You have the power to create an audio system based on your needs. This is one of the reasons audiophiles love passive speakers. You can create a system that produces the audio quality that you want piece by piece.

They are Lightweight

Unlike active speakers, passive speakers do not come with built-in amplifiers, they are lighter. Passive speakers are easy to wall mount in your home. Active speakers contain amplifiers like Class A/B amps, Class D amps that produce a heavy heat sink making it heavier than usual.

Complicated Signal Paths

The signal path of a passive speaker is far different from the active signal path. Just like the active speakers, their signal paths start from an audio source to the amplifier that controls the volume and source. The signal then moves to the power amplifier then to the speakers through the crossover network.

Depending on the speaker that is driving, The crossover network allows audio to be shared in different forms. The speaker level of the crossover system in a passive speaker works between 15 and 35 volts. The amplifier and preamplifier are designed into an audio/video receiver.

Active speakers

KEF LS50 Wireless II

The LS50 Wireless II produces a resolving, airy, and quality sound. It promises transparency and resolution. 

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Klipsch R-51 PM Powered Bluetooth Speaker

The 5-51 Bluetooth Speaker works perfectly for a setup in an apartment. It produced an excellent, dynamic and rich sound quality. Playing pop and rock music with this device was fun and amazing. This speaker offers a more fun, musical experience for audiophiles.

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Passive speakers

KEF LS50 Meta

The KEF LS50 Meta is a traditional passive version of the LS50 Wireless II. It also produces a highly resolving and engaging sound based on incredible revolutionary acoustic technology.

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Polk R200

The Polk Reserve R200 Series are loudspeakers which boast a full-bodied sound with punchy bass and clear, crisp Hi-Res Audio.

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Conclusion

There are a lot of advantages to using a passive speaker. You get more flexibility to customize the components. You can easily upgrade components, leaving you with 100% control over the sound quality. There are also advantages to using active speakers, one is that you don’t have to add and remove components to produce good sound quality.

They are designed to work together to produce a clear, clean, and optimized sound. Setup is easy, neat with fewer wires. The winner depends on individual preferences, but overall active speakers deliver great value.

However, if you want to control the sound and all the components of your speakers, passive speakers are a great choice. Active speakers are the best option if you want high-quality sound you don’t want to edit or change.

Active speakers are used for go-to music speakers, Bluetooth speakers, they are also used in bars, restaurants, schools since they are made with high-quality components all enclosed in a box. For live events and DJs, passive speakers are preferred for large setups where you want to add more components to create an immersive sound for the audience. They are also a great choice for home theaters because they are heavy but once set up produce good audio quality.

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