Passive vs Active Speakers

If you are quite an audiophile, you certainly want to get the best speakers and sound system in your home for the ultimate enjoyment and entertainment. However, with many speaker brands and models available on the market, choosing the right one can be daunting, especially for a beginner. One of the most important factors that you need to consider when choosing a speaker is whether you want to get passive or active speakers. Passive and active speakers are quite considerably different from each other, and, depending on your intended application and preference, either passive or active speakers will be more suitable. So, what is the difference between passive and active speakers? We’ll find out below.

Understanding a Passive Speaker

All speaker systems receive a low-level audio signal as the input. This low-level audio signal is first amplified before it is split to into different frequency ranges. The split signals are then sent to the corresponding drivers – high frequency signals a.k.a. treble to the tweeter, mid-range frequency signals to the woofer, and low frequency signals a.k.a. bass to the woofer or subwoofer. Passive and active speakers differ in the ways they amplify the low-level audio signals.

In a passive speaker, the low-level audio signal needs to be amplified first by an external power amplifier before it is sent into the speaker. In other words, a passive speaker does not have any built-in power amplifier. That is why a passive speaker is often called as an unpowered speaker, too. The terms ‘passive’ and ‘unpowered’ are generally used interchangeably when referring to speakers. So, if you want to use a passive speaker, you need to make sure that you have an external power amplifier that can amplify the input signal before it is received by the speaker. The speaker will then split the signal using a passive crossover into the appropriate frequency ranges and drivers. Such design is common in home audio as well as professional audio speakers.

Understanding an Active Speaker

On the other hand, an active speaker works pretty much the same way as a passive speaker, except that the power amplifier is built into the speaker enclosure. The built-in power amplifier means that an active speaker does not need any additional external power amplifier to be used. An active speaker is sometimes also called as a powered speaker. The terms ‘active’ and ‘powered’ are often used interchangeably. This is not entirely wrong, but not entirely correct either. So, we must understand first the differences between a powered speaker and a true active speaker.

A powered speaker has just a single power amplifier unit that amplifies the input signal before it is split. On the other hand, a true active speaker owns a dedicated power amplifier for each of the drivers. In a true active speaker, the input signal is first split by an active crossover into the appropriate frequency ranges. The split signals are then sent to the corresponding power amplifiers and then to the drivers. Whereas a powered design is common in personal and portable speakers, a true active design is usually found only in professional studio and concert audio speakers.

Advantages and Disadvantages of a Passive Speaker

Now that we understand the designs of passive and active speakers, let’s see how these differences translate into the practical effects. We’ll start with the passive speakers. The very first and most significant advantage of passive speakers is the control and versatility offered. Since the speaker does not have any built-in power amplifier, you can use an advanced modern external amplifier to shape the output sound as desired. There are now external amplifiers with integrated speaker controllers allowing the user to use, modify, and create presets for different conditions and applications. The other advantage is that you only need to use audio cables on the speakers – these speakers don’t need to connect to power outlets. Usually, with passive speakers, you only need to run a power cable to the external amplifier.

The obvious disadvantage of a passive speaker is that you need to carry an external amplifier. A small sound system may require two subwoofers, four monitors, and two main speakers. Such set-up would require multiple power amplifiers. That would be heavy and would require a considerable space. The second disadvantage comes when you want to daisy chain your passive speakers. As you add more speakers and cables, the resistance builds up, thus reducing the output power from each speaker. The first speaker in the line may receive 1800 Watts from the amplifier, but the fourth is not going to get its full share of power.

Advantages and Disadvantages of an Active Speaker

There are several advantages that an active speaker offers. The most obvious benefit from any person or company using active speakers is that they don’t need to carry any additional power amplifiers. You can use active speakers for mains, monitors, and subwoofers without having to put amplifier racks. When space and portability are crucial, active speakers make a convenient solution.

The next advantage is the ability to daisy chain multiple active speakers without much of a problem. You can run a signal cable to each of the speakers or even send the signal wirelessly if you are using wireless speakers. Thanks to the low current draw, you can run several active speakers without having to worry about the resistance build-up.

And, of course, a true active speaker will give you outstanding sound quality. A high-end active speaker with dedicated power amplifiers for its drivers will deliver optimized sound quality and performance. You will get more consistent sound quality from gig to gig. This is a huge advantage.

But active speakers also have disadvantages. The first disadvantage is that an active speaker requires a source of power to function. Besides the audio cable, it also needs a power cable. The second disadvantage is that, even though active speakers are relatively easier to daisy chain, they are prone to increased capacitance when daisy chained. The increased capacitance would turn the linked cables into a low pass filter, thus cutting down the high frequencies from the audio signal. In order to avoid this problem, you should use microphone cables that are not of the quad-twist variety. And, finally, the third disadvantage of an active speaker is it is not as versatile – it cannot work with external amplifiers, and, if for some reason you have the internal amplifier module broken, you essentially lose the entire speaker.

Passive SpeakersActive Speakers
- Require an external power amplifier unit- Built-in power amplifier module
- Don’t need power cables- Need power cables
- Relatively trickier to daisy chain due to resistance build-up- Relatively easier to daisy chain, though the increased capacitance would require a solution of its own
- Not very portable due to the external power amps- More portable due to not requiring external power amps
- Versatile, can work with a variety of external power amps- Not versatile; if the internal amp module is broken, the entire speaker is essentially unusable

Conclusion

Passive and active speakers are different things for different tasks. Passive speakers require external amplifiers, don’t need power cables, and are versatile due to being able to work with a variety of external power amplifiers. Passive speakers are suitable if for a static installation, in which case you won’t have to move the speakers and amp racks often. On the other hand, active speakers can be your choice if you need a portable solution. If you want to get the best sound quality possible, get a true active speaker instead of a regular powered one.

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