As a music enthusiast, you will likely come across the terms “active” and “passive” often when looking for loudspeakers. Passive and active speakers can serve the same functions but they contain different electronic components and so require different setups. Let’s talk more about passive vs active subwoofer and see which of them is right for you.
As a quick introduction:
In the simplest terms, active speakers have their own built-in amplifiers and only require an external power source. On the other hand, passive speakers do not have built-in amplifiers and so require an external amplifier but don’t need a dedicated external power supply.
In general, active speakers are mostly used for pro audio for pa systems and monitors while passive speakers are mostly consumer-grade devices.
Let’s get into some more details if you’re still confused. By the way, we also have a separate guide on active subwoofers vs passive subwoofers.
Active vs Passive Speakers
The main difference is that an active speaker has a built-in amp. On the other hand, a passive speaker doesn’t have this feature, so it needs an external amplifier to function.
The difference also means active speakers need a dedicated external power supply to operate.
The underlying principle is that amps only function when they are adequately powered. Since the speaker features a built-in amp, you should supply adequate electric power for it to work.
- From the above explanation, you should see that passive speakers are unique and don’t require a dedicated external power supply to function.
- Another thing to note is that active speakers are more expensive and costly than passive speakers.
We can again see that the built-in amps are responsible for this. However, for some people, the consolidation of amplifier and speaker can make them easier to use.
Of course, there’s more to active and passive speakers than that. Before getting into that, let’s have a look at a simple summary of the main differences between active and passive speakers:
Core Features of Active Speakers
- Require power to function
- Rely on internal amps
- Have built-in amps and active crossover networks
- Have separate amps for every crossover band
- Heavier than passive speakers
- Typically more costly
- Consolidated components
Core Features of Passive Speakers
- Don’t require power to function
- Versatile in terms of amp matching
- Rely on external amps and have passive crossover networks
- Use an external stereo amplifier
- Lighter than other speaker types
- Typically lower in cost
- Not consolidated ( Have more external components)
How Active and Passive Speakers Work
How Passive Speakers Work
As we have seen, these speakers need an external power source.
For the speaker to work, it gets signals from the sound source. The progression continues from the Preamp to the amp. From there, it proceeds to the crossover and then to the speaker.
Here is a simple illustration of this progression;
Sound Source => Preamp (Pre-amplifier) => amp (Power amplifier) => Crossover => Speaker
Each of the components of this progression plays an important role. We should look at each of them next to see how they determine whether a passive speaker is suitable for your needs.
Sound Source: You must have a suitable sound source. Some of the sources are:
- CD player
- Music streamer
- Blue-Ray player
Preamp: With this, you can choose the source you want to use and the volume of the sound. It will convert a weak electrical signal into an output signal strong enough to be noise-tolerant and strong enough for further processing by the power amplifier.
Amplifier: Takes the signal from the Preamp and amplifies it, as the name suggests and produces an amplified signal for the loudspeakers.
Crossover: It splits the signal into the various frequency ranges (lows, mids and highs) and transmits it to all the speaker drivers. In a typical loudspeaker, you have a woofer, midrange, and tweeter.
Speaker: Whether it is a single driver or more in a unit, the speaker ultimately produces the sound you receive.
How Active Speakers Work
As we said in the beginning, active speakers require an external power source, which sets them apart from passive speakers. They are also called powered speakers and are often used for pro audio e.g by DJs. Remember, these powered speakers should not be connected to amplifiers. Instead, we normally connect powered speakers to an AV receiver in a home theater system.
The progression starts in the power source and heads to the Preamp and then to the Crossover. It continues to the amp and then to the speaker.
We can illustrate it this way;
Power Source => Preamp (Pre-amplifier) => Crossover => Amp (power amplifier) => Speaker
One important thing to note here is that every driver must have its amp in an active speaker.
What is the impact of the slight differences in the signal path? In an active speaker’s Crossover, signals work at line level power, helping to create more precise sound.
However, that doesn’t necessarily mean passive speakers can’t deliver precise sound. Since their components are typically set up and chosen individually, you can get excellent sound if you pair high-quality components designed for your needs.
Which Speaker is Right for You?
The loudspeaker that is right for you depends on your needs and what you’ll use it for.
Well, to avoid over-implying things, let’s carefully assess some of the essential benefits of active and passive speakers.
Active Speaker Benefits
Components designed to complement each other: As we have seen, if you buy an active speaker, you have to rely on the amplifier that the designer locked into the enclosure. This is a good thing if you choose a well-designed active speaker from a credible brand.
Reputable designers do the due diligence and select compatible drivers, crossovers, and amplifiers.
So, you need not worry about the possibility of under or over-powering your sound system.
Moreover, since the components are part of a single coherent design, you are highly likely to increase performance.
Signals pass through Crossover before the amp: The built-in amp receives filtered signals. Imagine what happens when the crossover is in front of the amp.
It amplifies that signal for each driver separately. This is known as active bi-amping, which allows more power to go to each driver.
The signal also hits the woofer and tweeter at the same time, reducing phase-shift between the drivers.
Passive Speaker Benefits
Easier to use: Once you have run a speaker wire connection in a passive speaker, you’re done. With active speakers, you have to plug in AC power.
So, before you start the connection, you must ensure the speaker is close enough to the wall outlet.
Otherwise, you may have a bad experience seeing as extension cords running all over your living room.
Moreover, with powered speakers, you need an extra cable coming from the pre-amplifier.
Easier to upgrade: To upgrade your passive speaker, all you need to do is buy a new amplifier and hook it up to your new speakers.
With active speakers, you may not need to replace them. If you do, you’re likely to disqualify yourself from the warranty.
Lighter: Since they don’t come with built-in amps, passive speakers are lighter than passive speakers.
If you have passive speakers or intend to buy one, here are some of the things to have in mind even before writing the budget.
- Passive speakers require speaker cables to be able to transfer audio signals from source components to the speaker.
- As opposed to powered speakers, passive speaker systems are not all-in-one devices. This means they can not stand alone and produce any musical output as they depend on external sources of signal.
- For larger performances requiring louder music such as concerts, you need larger passive loudspeakers. The speakers are perfect for bigger live performances.
- They can also be wired to subwoofers. However, if more than two are connected, a separate crossover component may be needed to split the audio signals.
- Since they require powering by external signal sources, proper matching in terms of impedance and other properties must be taken into consideration. However, they can be blown or damages if not properly matched with source components.
- They require external amplifiers to improve sound quality. This is because they are not built with internal sound amplifiers and as such cannot produce much sound on their own.
Active vs Passive speakers: Pros and Cons
Passive speaker pros
- Fewer connections since you only need to plug the speaker into an amp.
- Normally cheaper and easier to upgrade
- There is no need for an external power supply.
- Because they have fewer internal components, they are normally lighter and so are easier to move or wall mount.
Passive speaker cons
- Requires more space as you’ll need a separate amp.
- More susceptible to interference.
- Requires more wiring since the passive speaker will need to be connected to an amp.
Active speaker pros
- Requires less external wiring.
- Less susceptible to interference.
- No need to worry about matching components.=
- You can drive them harder without damage.
- They usually have better bass compared to similar-sized passive speakers.
- They can be used wirelessly and with Bluetooth devices.
- They keep the signal digital for longer, which helps stop signal degradation.
- The crossover doesn’t handle amplified signals which means less distortion.
Active speaker cons
- They are normally heavier.
- They are usually more expensive. However, you need to consider the fact that with passive speakers, you’ll need to purchase an amp.
- You may still need a preamp.
- Hard to upgrade
Conclusion on Active and Passive Speakers
Which is the overall winner between passive and active speakers? For precise sound, active speakers can offer you great value. If you are more concerned about getting more control over your speaker components and sound, passive speakers likely suit you best.
Overall, the winner boils down to what you want to do with the speaker and your preferences. Good luck!