So you've got yourself a pair (or any number) of active speakers and are wondering if it's okay to leave them turned on when they're not in use.
Is it bad/damaging to keep speakers on when not in use? Keeping a powered speaker powered/on when it's not in use will decrease its overall longevity. The electronics (amplifier and crossover) will wear out more quickly when kept running/hot. A speaker left on is also at increased risk of suffering damage by random/accidental power surges.
In this article, we'll discuss the multiple reasons why leaving powered or active speakers on isn't optimal. Though the focus will be on the overall lifespan of the speaker, I'll briefly touch on the slight but notable economic and environmental impacts. With that, let's get into this article to help you take better care of your audio equipment.
A Primer On Powered Speakers
Before we begin our discussion on keeping speakers powered when they're not in use, let's briefly go over why speakers would need power in the first place.
There are plenty of speakers on the market that do not require power. These are known as passive speakers, which need an external amplifier to drive them properly.
To learn more about matching power amplifiers and passive speakers, check out my article Why Do Speakers Need Amplifiers? (And How To Match Them).
Speakers that do require power come in two distinct types:
- Active speakers: each speaker unit has its own enclosure, one or more speaker drivers, an active crossover network, and a separate amplifier for each of the frequency bands split up by the crossover network.
- Powered speakers: essentially the same as passive speakers except that the power amplifier is built into the speaker enclosures. A preamplifier may also be built into the enclosure.
For a more detailed post on each of these speaker types, check out my article What Are The Differences Between Passive & Active Speakers?
So for speakers that would require power, the power is needed for the amplifier(s). That's important to know moving forward.
Why Leaving Active/Powered Speakers On Is A Bad Idea
Leaving speakers in the on position when not in use isn't ideal. However, it's not the end of the world if you forget to turn them off now and again. That being said, turning speakers off (along with most other electronic devices) is generally a good habit to develop.
There are three primary reasons why leaving active/powered speakers on can be damaging to them:
Heat is the first enemy you'll be avoiding when you turn off your powered speaker monitors.
Though it's unlikely that an amplifier will burn out or a speaker will blow while no audio signals are passing through them, it's still best practice to turn the speaker/amp off when they're not in use. This type of damage is typically caused by excessive audio signal levels overloading the amplifier and/or speaker.
Nevertheless, leaving speakers on while not in use brings more heat into the equation without any good reason. Furthermore, you even prevent them from cooling after each use which would, in turn, protect their circuits.
Potential Power Surges
Electrical surges, outages, and brown-outs will cause sharp disengagement of power and large transient spikes as the power is restored.
Though many amplifiers will have safety features to mitigate electrical surges, these occurrences are still risky and could cause significant damage to the circuitry of the active/powered speakers.
If the power is turned off, power surges will not have this damaging effect. Rather than relying on the protective features of the speaker (if there are any), why not avoid the problem altogether by turning the speakers off when they're not in use.
Of course, power surges can happen when the speakers are in use as well. This is a risk we take regularly. Power conditioners and uninterruptible power supplies help add an additional layer of safety for expensive audio equipment in studios and home entertainment systems alike.
Mean Time Between Failures (MTBF)
The third reason to keep speakers off when not in use is the MTBF (Mean Time Between Failures) factor of each electronic appliance. Since there is no mechanical movement, we tend to think that electronic equipment doesn't “wear out”.
This is a mistake; electronic appliances do wear out. This wearing out is what the MTBF aims to address. If you check on the owner's manual of your speaker, you'll find this acronym next to a number expressed in hours. For example, it could be something like MTBF: 2,500 hours.
The company is specifying that that pair of active speakers will grant you at least 2,500 hours of optimal circuit performance. After this allotted time, the manufacturer cannot guarantee the components of the circuits will continue to operate as intended.
Of course, devices often run well past the MTFB. However, the bottom line is that by leaving speakers on, we effectively waste some of their finite lifespans.
Related article: How Long Should Loudspeakers Last (Typical Lifespan)?
Are There Any Positive Outcomes Of Leaving Your Gear On?
In the world of audio, there's a pervasive idea that keeping gear on could improve performance.
With speakers, “burn-in” is a common term that refers to the act of moving and stretching out new speaker driver material until the stiffness is reduced. Burned-in speakers perform better than non-burned-in speakers, similar to how our bodies function better when warmed up.
Once the “burn-in” period is completed, further playing of the speaker will not significantly improve performance. It's also important to note that we're focused on leaving speakers on when not in use, meaning the speaker drivers aren't moving. Therefore, there's no correlation to be found here.
The other popular notion that audio gear performs better when “heated up” or “warmed up” has to do with vacuum tubes.
Vacuum tubes (aka valves) were once the go-to option for all things audio and still are in some cases. In case you are not familiar with them, everything was powered by valves before the transistor came along. This is from radios to the first computers, which employed rooms full of valves.
Valves physically resemble an old incandescent bulb. They can produce natural harmonic overtones and are still found in the best-sounding, highest-quality audio equipment.
The confusion comes from tubes because the longer you push them, the better they sound. In other words, whenever valves are involved, if you've “heated up” your gear for some hours, it'll sound better.
Though there are still plenty of high-end tube amplifiers on the market, it's more common to have a solid-state amp in a powered or active speaker. Solid-state amps transcend the need for heating up and perform as intended in most situations.
There's something to be said about allowing tube combo instrument amplifiers to warm up before use. However, keeping them on at all times is actually counter-productive as doing so will cause the tubes to die out prematurely.
Legend says that Jimi Hendrix would tour the country with thermic-controlled trucks, so his Marshall heads were “hot” all the time and sounded their best. On the other hand, transistors don't work this way and don't benefit from heat. In fact, it's better to keep transistors relatively cool.
So other than the infinitesimal time saving of not having to press a power button or two, there's really no advantage to keeping speakers powered when they're not in use, especially if the speaker amplifiers are solid-state.
To learn about the differences between solid-state and tube amps, check out my article Solid-State Vs. Tube Amplifiers (Pre, Power & Guitar Amps).
It Is Bad For Your Pocket
Second in line, after being bad for your gear, we can say that leaving your speakers on is also bad for your pockets. There are two primary reasons for the economic negative:
- Reduced lifespan: As discussed, leaving the speakers on when not in use will slowly chip away at the MTBF of the speakers. Having to replace worn-out electronics or entire speaker units is obviously costly.
- Idle power consumption: electricity costs money, and leaving devices on will increase the power bill. Some gear consumes more electric power than others, but they all do when left on.
Idle Power Consumption Is An Issue Worth Addressing
According to a recent study by the Stanford Sustainable Systems Lab, the idle load of homes constitutes 32% of the entire household electricity consumption in the US. That's a lot of wasted energy.
Expanding further, we could save the planet some electricity-generating efforts with simple everyday changes like turning off our speakers when they're not in use. All the idle power being wasted must be generated by some other means, some of which are unsustainable.
Leaving speakers on when not in use might seem insignificant, but it does add to the bigger picture. For starters, it reduces the lifespan of your gear with heat and hours of use. Secondly, it hurts your pocket because you'll have to replace the equipment sooner and pay for extra electricity.
So, now you know, before you walk out of the studio, make sure you power your speakers off. Even better, consider powering down all the other audio equipment that doesn't absolutely need to be on.
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