Active Speakers Vs Passive Speakers – Comparative Study

The market today is flooded with speakers of every make. New products are launched every quarter and new features are added to existing ones. New technologies are introduced every few months with brands spending millions in advertisement.

In such a scenario with such a wide range of options, it is easy to get confused. For instance, speakers are primarily of 2 types – active and passive. They may also be either powered or non-powered. Most vendors do not understand the fine difference between these categories and often use them interchangeably. So, how does a consumer know which sound system to go for ? How do they decide which speaker would best suit their needs ?

This article is all about helping the buyer make the right choice. We will help you understand the difference between active and passive soundbar and speakers. We will also enlighten you on the difference between powered and non-powered ones. So let’s start.

As mentioned already, a speaker might be active, passive, powered or non-powered. The difference lies in the relationship the speaker has with its amplifier and the crossover components. Take note of what is being referred to, the amplification or the crossover, because those are two different things. The placement of the amplifier, the crossover system and other signal processors will decide whether the speaker is an active one or a passive one. Allow us to explain.

Active Speaker – How It Works ?

When we say that a speaker is an active speaker, we are usually referring to the crossover components or crossover systems. What the crossover components do is that they split the audio signal’s frequency band into smaller parts. We normally call these low, mid-range and high frequencies. These smaller bands are then directed to individual speaker drivers designed especially to process such frequencies. Now, if an active speaker also has electrical crossover components combined with powered amplifiers for each individual driver, it is called a powered speaker. But, electrical crossover components of an active speaker require both power and amplification for each individual frequency band. Hence, you will often find people using the terms ‘active’ and ‘powered’ interchangeably.

Generally speaking, most home theatre systems are active in nature. They come with the crossover components and the amplifier installed in the same speaker enclosure. But this may not always be the case. Large speaker systems often have the amplifier and crossover settings outside the speaker cabinet. Sellers may refer to this arrangement as an active speaker with a ‘bi-amp’ or ‘tri-amp’. It denotes the crossover setting involved and the number of separate amplifiers for each speaker driver.

An active speaker offers a simple and comprehensive solution to your music needs by integrating the amplifier into the same cabinet that houses the speaker. You can connect an active speaker directly to the mixing board. It serves as an all-in-one PA system which is compact and easy to transport.

According to experts, active speakers provide better protection for each channel as there is a dedicated amp for each driver. They also feature room response control for every driver. Active speakers are believed to be better than passive speakers as all the speaker parts like drivers, amplifiers and crossover components are manufactured/assembled by the same brand and are therefore bound to be compatible with each other.

PS: A powered speaker may also be a passive speaker if it has a passive crossover system. A passive crossover system is powered by the incoming sound signal that streams through it. Such a crossover uses inductors and capacitors.

Passive Speaker – How It Works ?

A passive speaker does not have an integrated on-board amplifier. It has to be connected to an external amplifier using the normal speaker cable. The audio signal sent to the drivers is sufficiently amplified to drive the speakers. In other words, a passive speaker needs an amplified signal to work.

When pairing a passive speaker with an amplifier, make sure their power ratings and impendences are compatible. If they are not, they will not work well together and the audio output will be unsatisfactory.

Some passive speakers may require a separate crossover system for splitting the input signal into smaller bands and sending them to different drivers. The higher frequencies are directed to the tweeters and the lower frequencies to the woofers for the best sound experience.

Passive speakers offer a lot of scalability. They allow you to add as many amplifiers and sound management systems as you please. You can try any number of speaker-amp combinations. As your need changes, you can upgrade or downgrade your amplifier or modify individual parts of the speaker system. Such flexibility is only possible with a passive speaker system.

Passive speakers do not require AC power to function. Therefore, you can place them far away from your power source. You also don’t have to go to each individual speaker to make adjustments as these are taken care of centrally from the mixing table.

The program power rating on passive speaker indicates the amount of power it needs. However, most companies recommend supplying their speakers with twice that amount of power for the best sound quality.

Because they do not have built-in amplifiers, passive speakers are less expensive. If you want to try a different speaker-amp combination, you don’t have to purchase a brand new speaker system. Just find the right amplifier and crossover components that suit your speaker and make the alteration. In other words, making changes to your sound system is cheaper with a passive speaker than an active one. 

Passive speakers are however not without drawbacks. While they offer you a lot of freedom to tweak around with your system, they can be cumbersome and difficult to lug around. Passive speakers are notoriously heavy, space-consuming and not at all travel-friendly. They come with separate amplifiers and cables which take up a lot of space. They also make the place look cluttered and messy with all the wires and cables lying around.

Application of Active Speakers :

Active speakers are ideal for small functions. If you are throwing a party at home or in your dorm, an active speaker with a powered amp will serve the purpose just fine. It is loud enough for home use and easy to maintain. Since it does not involve too many wires and separate ancillary devices, it helps to keep the place neat and clutter-free.

Active speakers are perfect for travelling musicians. If you are a rock band performing in different locations, an active speaker can be an asset for you. It is compact and space-saving in nature. You can set it up in no time and after you are done, you can pack it up and carry it off easily.

A powered active speaker just needs to be plugged into an audio source and you are good to go. It can serve as a stand-alone PA system. Connect a powered speaker to your mixer’s main output and it will serve as your primary speaker.

An active speaker needs to be placed near a power source because it houses an on-board amp and is fed by a low-level audio signal (line-level) streamed through an interconnect wire originating at the preamplifier or controller. If your speaker is an active one with a powered amp, make sure you set up your system near a power socket.

The biggest plus point of active speakers is their readymade compatible arrangement. Since they come pre-assembled in a single enclosure, the consumer does not have to worry about mating the speaker with the right amplifier, cables and digital-to-analog converter. All this is taken care of by the manufacturer. 

Application of Passive Speakers :

If you are looking at fixed installations like churches and live band music in clubs, a passive speaker is what you need. Since the speakers and amplifiers are separate, you have the freedom to install them wherever you want. You can mount the speakers on walls, shelves and ceilings while keeping the amplifiers near you at the mixing table. This makes for hassle-free sound adjustments, prompt troubleshooting and easy maintenance.

Passive speakers are best suited for performing before large audiences like in concerts, music festivals, clubs and TV studios. Such gatherings require separate powered amplifiers for ultra loud high fidelity sound. For ground-shaking sound levels at open-air events, passive speakers are the best choice.

A non-powered speaker with a separate amplifier and mixing board is a great combination for a versatile sound system. It offers you ample bandwidth to grow and improvise. You can play around with the gadgets to get the best out of them as a collective sound unit.

Passive speakers however have the problem of component-matching. As a consumer, you will have to be well-informed in the specifications of different speakers, amplifiers, cables, DACs and other sound mixing systems. You will have to ensure they work seamlessly with one another. Oftentimes, this may be an issue. You may end up being saddled with an amplifier that does not match your speaker and hence, is redundant. This is the downside of passive speakers. They may allow you a lot of flexibility, but it is up to you to make the most out of it.

In conclusion, we can say that active and passive speakers both have their pros and cons. As a consumer, you need to first understand your sound requirements. You also have to have a working knowledge of your equipment.

We hope we’ve been able to answer some of your questions with this article. Thank you for reading.


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