Understanding the different types of speakers is pretty simple: active speakers are different from passive speakers in that they have a built-in amplifier in the speaker cabinet, whereas passive speakers rely on power from an external amplifier.
While it does answer the question, the definition explained here is quite basic, however, and in this article we’ll dive a bit deeper into understanding how different powered speakers work.
We’ll also examine the pros and cons of the different speakers. Keep reading to find out more!
Active vs. passive: a matter of power
The concept of active versus passive speakers is a lot more simple than you might think.
Let’s break down each type of speaker and how they work in order to get a better understanding of them.
Active speakers are called active because they are “actively” powered. Active powered speakers use an amplifier to do this; they already have an amplifier built in.
This amplifier will have enough power to get a suitable volume level out of the speaker.
The only other thing they need in order to operate is a power source. This power source can range from being AC power or even a battery.
The path of the flow of electricity through an active speaker system will typically follow this order:
- Audio comes out of the initial source. This source can be anything from a smartphone to a computer or even a CD player.
- The audio goes into a preamplifier, which allows you to switch between different audio sources and change the volume of the audio.
- The audio goes into a crossover filter network. Here the audio is split by frequencies. High frequencies in the audio will eventually be sent to the tweeter drive unit (smaller speaker that handles high frequencies) and low frequencies will be sent to the woofer (large speaker that handles bass and midrange frequencies). If a speaker system has three drive units, the crossover will have the same number and filter the audio into bass, midrange, and high frequency outputs that go to the corresponding drive units.
- The audio gets sent from the crossover filter into respective power amplifiers. These amplifiers give a big boost to the audio so that it is at an audible level and can reach high volumes without creating much distortion.
- The audio goes to the respective drive units (tweeter, woofer, etc).
- The audio exits the speaker.
Passive speakers, unlike active speakers, don’t have active power, which means they need an external amplifier.
Once connected to the speakers, an external amplifier will provide the proper amount of power for the speakers to operate at a level where they are achieving their full potential and the audio is at a volume level that is plenty audible for the listeners.
Passive speakers also need to be plugged into an AC power source, an external battery, or another source of power in order to operate.
The external amplifier will also need to be plugged into an outlet or other power source in order to operate. With passive speakers, you can’t have one without the other.
The flow of electricity through a passive speaker will follow this path:
- Audio comes out of the source. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a computer, MP3 player, smartphone, or even a record player.
- The audio goes into a preamplifier which allows the volume to be changed, as well as allows you to change the source that is connected to the preamp.
- Next, the audio feeds into an external power amplifier. This amplifier will provide enough power to drive the speaker units.
- The audio exits the power amplifier and goes through a crossover filter network. This filter network filters the different frequency bands and sends them to the corresponding speakers. Usually this crossover works at a speaker level voltage, which makes it good for handling lots of power.
- The audio reaches the speakers and exits, resulting in audio being audible to the listeners.
Active vs. powered speakers: are they the same thing?
All active speakers are considered to be powered speakers. However, not all powered speakers are active speakers. Active speakers and powered speakers are not the same thing, but they are similar.
Active speakers have a separate power amplifier for each speaker driver unit in the speaker enclosure. Both amplifiers boost the audio signal of the corresponding frequency bands after being fed through the crossover filter where the audio’s frequencies were separated.
A powered speaker has a similar or even the same path of electricity flow as a passive speaker setup, but with powered speakers, the amplification section is built into the speaker’s chassis.
Often both the preamplifier and power amplifier are built into the speaker enclosure, but if not, it’s at least the power amp that’s built in.
This single power amplifier feeds both driver units through a normal crossover filter network like the one you would see in a passive speaker system.
With powered speakers, you’re often getting a better, higher quality sound than you would with active speakers, because you’re getting a better amplifier because there’s only one in the speaker’s enclosure, and it has to be powerful enough that it can provide power to both driver units.
Active speaker amplifiers don’t have to work as hard because there are multiple amplifiers. This usually results in lower quality audio and you’re usually paying for lower quality amps, although it’s not usually such low quality that it is audibly distinguishable.
You would have to compare speaker systems side by side to distinguish whether or not an active speaker had better audio quality than a powered speaker, and even then it may be difficult.
Active vs. passive: which is better to use?
Active speakers and passive speakers have their own set of advantages and disadvantages. In some cases, one is better to use than the other.
Let’s check out some of the pros and cons of each type of speaker.
- Active speakers are a one stop, all in one package. You don’t have to buy additional components to use with them, making them easy to use and set up, simply by powering them on and connecting them to your audio source.
- Many active speakers have an EQ panel on the back side for calibrating them to your sound preferences and sometimes even your environment.
- Many are battery powered, making them portable.
- The built in amplifier is usually tuned to match the driver units so there’s no guesswork when setting up the speakers.
- Many active speakers have Bluetooth capabilities or they can connect to Wi-Fi.
- A bit heavier in weight due to the built in amplifiers in the speaker’s enclosure, which can become a hassle to transport if you have bigger sized speakers.
- Individual components inside the speaker are not replaceable or upgradeable, so if one of your speakers breaks, you’ll either need to replace the speaker completely or send it to the manufacturer or an audio engineer for repairs.
- Passive speakers have easily upgradable parts, as the amplifier is not built into the speaker enclosure, making it easy for you to swap amplifiers in and out or add more speakers to your setup.
- You don’t need to replace your entire speaker system in order to add speakers or change components.
- Much lighter than active speakers thanks to the lack of heavy amplifiers inside the speaker enclosure, which makes them ideal for use when on tour or even in the music studio.
- Usually doesn’t have an EQ panel on the back side, so you can configure the settings for your passive speakers’ sound with a soundboard instead of doing it individually by speaker.
- If the amplifier breaks, you can easily replace it without having to replace the whole speaker. If the speaker or another component breaks, it is usually a pretty easy fix to just swap out the broken components for new parts.
- Uses more electricity than active speakers because the passive circuit runs at a higher voltage than the circuit in active speakers does.
- Signal loss can happen if you are using many speakers in your setup and have them a far distance away from your source and aren’t using high quality cables.
- It can be difficult to figure out what amplifier(s) will match your passive speaker system, especially if you are new to using speakers.
Best scenarios to use each speaker
In the music studio, most commonly you’ll find active speaker systems because they don’t take up much space and they are very easy to set up without having to fiddle around much.
In churches, schools, and other large venues, it may be easier to use a passive speaker system, although it is not unheard of to use an active speaker system.
Passive speaker systems are great for churches and other live settings as you can set up the amplifiers just how you need them in order to get the best result for your situation.
Passive speaker systems are also ideal for use with phonographs/record players, but you will need to make sure to also include a photo component before your preamp in a passive speaker system.
Understanding and distinguishing active, passive, and powered speakers from one another is all about the internal hardware.
If you understand how the speaker systems work, you’ll be well on your way to being able to use and set up speaker systems that will give you the perfect sound and ample volume for your live performances.
For more information on music and technology related gear, be sure to check back with us soon!