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Active vs passive speakers: Which is better for your use case?

While the distinction in itself is rather obvious, choosing between active and passive speakers can easily become an insurmountable task, especially if this is your first pair of speakers or you don’t know exactly which option will work best for you.

In this article, I won’t just highlight the differences between active and passive speakers, but also clarify which option I think is the right one for every situation, giving you a few examples of scenarios when one works better than the other.

I’ll also highlight the subtle (but rather important) distinction between powered and active models, so that you can make a conscious decision when buying your next pair of speakers.

Bear in mind there are no golden rules in audio production or reproduction, so take my suggestions for what they are: suggestions!

Let’s get down to it.

Behind the insights

Marco Sebastiano Alessi, writer at Higher Hz

I’m a music producer, audio engineer, and record label owner. The gear in both my recording studio and listening room has evolved dramatically over the years, during which time I’ve learnt a thing or two on how to make the most of both active and passive speakers.

When used in their ideal environment, both types of speakers work magnificently, so to me, it’s all a matter of fully understanding a) in which context a certain type of speaker performs best and b) your requirements.

My aim with this article is to ensure you have all the knowledge you need to make a conscious decision.


Use these links below to navigate to the desired section of the article.

What are passive speakers?

Passive speakers are loudspeakers that need an external amplifier to receive power and process the audio signal and use passive crossovers to split the signal into different frequency bands, which then drive the correct speaker drivers.

Let’s walk through the process of what happens when we play a record.

Analog sources, like record players, produce a weak signal that needs to be boosted before reaching the speaker. This is where a preamplifier comes into play, boosting the signal to a level that the power amplifier can work with.

The power amp’s job is to take the line-level audio signal from the preamp and amplify it to a level powerful enough to drive the speakers. The signal needs to be strong enough to produce sound at high volumes without distortion.

Once the signal is amplified, it’s sent to the passive speakers, but before the amplified signal reaches the drivers, it passes through the speaker’s internal crossover network.

This passive crossover divides the signal into different frequency bands: low frequencies to the woofers for bass, mid-range frequencies to the mid-range drivers, and high frequencies to the tweeters.

And that’s the end of a signal path: after that, the carefully balanced sound leaves the cones of your speakers, travels across the room, and reaches your ears.

What’s to like about passive speakers

  • More customizable setup.
  • Easier to upgrade and replace components.

What’s not to like about passive speakers

  • More complex setup.
  • Less portable.

What are powered speakers?

Powered and active speakers are loudspeakers that have built-in amplifiers, meaning you won’t need an external amplifier to drive them.

All you have to do is connect the speakers to a power source and to the audio source, whether a turntable, hi-res player, or smartphone, and you’re all set.

This is a great option for various reasons, mainly simplicity and portability. Active speakers are super easy to set up, come with built-in features you can use to customize your sound, and have an active crossover network involved in signal processing that potentially outperforms its passive counterpart when it comes to precision.

Let me clarify this last point. The crossover filter network in an active speaker works at a low signal level, meaning the components speaker won’t have to worry about handling high power levels and simply focus on accurately splitting the sound between the two or three-way system.

Are active and powered speakers the same thing?

They are similar, but they are not the same thing.

All active speakers are considered to be “powered.” However, technically, not all powered speakers are “active.”

The difference is in the signal processing: active speakers have separate power amplifiers for each driver unit, whereas powered speakers have the amplification built into the speaker’s chassis, which is then connected to the second (essentially passive) speaker via a cable.

What’s to like about powered speakers

  • Simplified setup.
  • Smaller footprint.
  • Integrated features for sound shaping.

What’s not to like about powered speakers

  • Limited sound customization.
  • Fewer upgrade options.

So, what’s the difference?

Powered speakers have built-in amplifiers, which make them easier to set up and more affordable, but they’re also heavier and less customizable. Passive speakers need external amplifiers, giving you more sound customization options, but require more gear and knowledge to build a sound system.

Choosing one over the other depends on two factors: how you intend to use your speakers and whether you value more sound customization or simplicity.

Below, we’ll look into different scenarios where you could find yourself choosing between active and passive speakers, and I’ll highlight what I think is the best option for each use.

Hi-fi setup

Audiophiles tend to opt for passive speakers because of the “modularity” the system offers, meaning they can transform, adapt, and endlessly customize their sound until they obtain a unique signature.

For many music enthusiasts, the possibility to create a unique sound system is a crucial factor: it’s a process that requires patience and relentless research, but the process in itself can be enriching, and the result incredibly rewarding.

I know most audiophiles will probably disagree, but I think active speakers can sound great and offer an opportunity for entry-level and non-DIY enthusiasts to enjoy high-quality music.

KEF LSX II with turntable
LSX II bi-amped (active) speaker in hi-fi setup | Image: KEF

Aside from reducing footprint and research time, active speakers can come with high-end DSP (digital signal processing), as well as Bluetooth, wireless connectivity options, and integration with music streaming services.

Another aspect of active speakers is that the amplification system is specifically designed for the speaker’s signal path, meaning they’ll likely sound at their best as soon as you plug them in.

Active speakers: Easier to set up, versatile, and have multiple connectivity options.

Passive speakers: Endless customization options, easier to upgrade system.


With studio monitors, you should be looking for a flat frequency response, which is usually associated with active speakers.

This is because the amplification happens at the line level, which results in a cleaner and more reliable frequency response.

Adam Audio A4V studio monitor
Adam Audio A4V active (bi-amped) studio monitor | Image: Higher Hz

That doesn’t mean you can’t use passive speakers, but to me, there are just too many variables involved: every component of your sound system (amp, preamp, speakers) can add coloration that’ll ultimately affect your decision-making process.

Active speakers: Their flat frequency response, portability, and precision make them ideal for the task.

Passive speakers: Possible, but risky as you might add too much color to the mix.

Live sound

When it comes to live performances, both passive and active speakers can work, but it all comes down to the type of venues and performances that you’re going to amplify.

Active speakers are more portable and can easily fill up a small room with sound, so they’re a great option for small venues or artists moving around who need a plug-and-play PA system.

That said, if you own a medium/large club, opting for a system with passive speakers makes a lot of sense. You can create a unique sound system based on your environment and customize it over time.

If you have many speakers, you can easily control them all through the mixer and move them around easily in your space to get the perfect soundstage.

Active speakers: Perfect for small venues, touring bands, and DJs.

Passive speakers: Great for medium or large venues where custom amplification and speaker placement are important.

Home theater

Normally, you’d find passive speakers used in home theater systems. They’re connected to an AV receiver or amplifier, which redirects the signal to the appropriate speaker, whether you have a 2.1 or a Dolby Atmos system.

Sony SS-CS3 speakers in home theater setup
Passive floor-standing speakers in home theater setup | Image: Sony

However, like in other circumstances, active speakers offer a simplified setup at a more reasonable price, so if you’re looking for a straightforward system that’ll work well with both your music and movie collections, active speakers are a valid option.

Active speakers: Simple installation and integration with home theater systems.

Passive speakers: More versatile and customizable through the AV receiver.

Final thoughts

I hope this guide helped you clarify whether passive or active speakers are the right option for you.

Both active and passive speakers offer tons of benefits, but you should choose the type of speaker that’s in line with your needs and ambitions.

Do your research, test as much as you can, and enjoy the process!