When shopping for loudspeakers or laying the plans for a speaker system, the terms “active” and “passive” show up quite a bit.
What are the differences between passive and active speakers? The simple difference between active and passive speakers is that active speakers require power and passive speakers don’t. This is because active models have built-in amplifiers while passive models require external amplifiers.
In this article, we’ll get into the differences between passive and active speakers in greater detail and help you to determine which type is appropriate for you and your particular setup.
Passive Vs. Active Speakers
We’ve already mentioned the main difference between passive and active speakers. It is that passive speakers do not have built-in amplifiers and require external amps while active speakers do have built-in amplifiers.
This difference also means that active speakers require power to function (to power their amplifiers) whereas passive speakers do not require power to function (though the amplifiers they are connected to do).
For more information on speaker power, check out my article Why Do Loudspeakers Need Power & How Are They Powered?
These built-in amplifiers increase the weight and price of active speakers but the consolidation of speaker and amplifier makes them, arguably, easier to use.
The AudioEngine P4 (link to compare prices of a pair on Amazon and B&H Photo/Video) is an example of a passive speaker.
The Edifier S3000Pro (link to compare prices of a pair on Amazon and other online retailers) is an example of an active speaker. In addition to having an active design, this speaker also has Bluetooth and USB connectivity.
There’s more to passive and active speakers than that, which we’ll get to shortly. Let’s first have a look at a simplified table to sum up the core differences between passive and active speakers:
|Passive Speakers||Active Speakers|
|Passive (do not require power to function)||Active (do require power to function)|
|Rely on external amplifiers||Have built-in amplifiers|
|Have passive cross-over networks that deal with amplified speaker level audio signals||Have active cross-over networks that deal with line level audio signals|
|Typically utilize an external stereo amplifier||Have separate amplifiers for each cross-over band (x2 for stereo)|
|Lighter weight per unit volume||Heavier weight per unit volume|
|Typically lower in price||Typically higher in price|
|More versatile in terms of amplifier matching||Only work on their internal amplifiers|
|Requires more gear and cabling||Consolidated (fewer external components)|
Now let’s discuss each speaker type in more detail.
Passive speakers, generally speaking, are made of an enclosure, one or more speaker drivers, and a passive crossover network (if there are multiple drivers).
Let’s have a look at what a passive speaker’s signal path looks like in a simplified diagram.
- Audio source
- Power amplifier
- Passive crossover unit
So, then, passive speakers do not require any power. Their crossovers and drivers are passive in nature, working with passive electrical components and electromagnetism.
These speakers receive an amplified speaker level signal from a connected power amplifier. This power amplifier boosts the line level signal from the audio source and/or preamplifier to a speaker level signal.
The speaker level signal is then split into different frequency bands by the crossover unit before being sent to the appropriate drivers.
In a 2-driver speaker, the high frequencies are sent from the crossover to the speaker’s tweeter. All other frequencies are split and sent to the woofer.
In a 3-way speaker, the crossover splits the audio signal in 3 ways. It sends highs to the tweeter; mids to the midrange woofer, and lows to the larger woofer.
The power amplifier and passive speaker(s) must be matched appropriately for optimal performance.
Too weak of an amplifier will be incapable of driving the speakers to their full potential and will distort the signal before the speakers even get close to their loudest.
Conversely, too strong of an amplifier can overload the passive speaker crossover and driver components, leading to distortion and speaker blow-out.
For more information on speaker distortion and blow-out, check out the following My New Microphone articles, respectively:
• Why Do Speakers Distort At High Sound/Audio Levels?
• Loudspeaker Blow-Out: Why It Happens & How To Avoid/Fix It
Active speakers, generally speaking, are made of an 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.
Let’s have a look at what a active speaker’s signal path looks like in a simplified diagram.
- Audio source
- Active crossover unit
- Individual power amplifiers
Active speakers are designed to take line level signals from an audio source and/or preamplifier and amplify the signals internally.
In order to amplify the line level signals at their input, the active speaker requires power.
What happens in an active speaker is that the line level input signal is first separated into different frequency bands by the active crossover network.
Each band is then amplified to speaker level before driving its appropriate driver (tweeter, woofer, etc.).
Active crossover networks can be better optimized to split the audio signal with clarity and precision since they are less concerned with power handling. This is due to the fact that they split up line levels signals which are much lower in amplitude than speaker level signals.
Also, because the crossover bands each have their own amplifier, active speakers have the added benefit of being tuneable. Some active speakers will have EQ sections to adjust their sonic character.
What About Powered Speakers?
Powered speakers and active speakers are often confused. Let’s clear up the differences between the two.
Powered speakers are essentially the same as passive speakers. The difference being that the power amplifier is built into one of the speaker enclosures. Oftentimes a preamplifier is also built into the enclosure.
The “master speaker” that contains the amp(s) will typically have a speaker cable extending to its passive counterpart (in stereo setups) or multiple cables extending to multiple other passive speakers (in large setups).
The big differences here, then, are that the powered speaker does not have an active crossover network with individual amps for each driver. Rather, powered speaker setups have a single (typically stereo) amplifier that is built into a master speaker rather than having to rely on an external amplifier like regular passive speakers.
Many affordable computer speakers and low-end home stereos utilize a powered configuration.
The Mackie Thump 12A (link to compare prices on Amazon and other online retailers) is a popular example of a powered loudspeaker.
Pros & Cons Of Passive Speakers
Let’s list out the pros and cons of passive speakers.
|Relatively easy to upgrade||User is responsible for amplifier matching|
|Lightweight||Often uses unbalanced audio|
Pros Of Passive Speakers
Easy To Upgrade
Upgrading your system is simple with passive speakers and separate amplifiers. We can upgrade the speakers, amplifiers, cables, etc. without having to replace the entire system.
For example, you could upgrade your stereo amplifier and keep the same pair of passive speakers.
As another example, you could upgrade the speakers to better match a specific amplifier.
Active speakers, with their built-in amplifiers, do not afford us this luxury.
Passive speakers are lightweight since they do not have internal amplifiers. This makes them relatively easy to move and install.
The low weight of passive speakers should be a major consideration when purchasing speakers that will be on the road a lot.
Maintenance is a bit easier since the components are separated in the audio system.
For example, a blown speaker means we’ll only have to replace a speaker rather than a speaker and an amplifier.
Simpler To Control
Passive speakers are easier to control from the mixing console in larger venues. There’s no need to run over to each speaker to turn them on individually or to adjust their levels at the speaker.
Cons Of Passive Speakers
Care must be taken to properly match passive speakers to their amplifiers.
There must be an appropriate match in terms of power rating and impedance. This is not only for optimal performance but also to protect the speakers from getting overloaded and potentially damaged/blown-out.
Unbalanced speaker cable is often used to connect amplifiers to passive speakers so this “con” has more to do with unbalanced signal transfer than with passive speakers, themselves but I digress.
If long unbalanced cable runs are necessary between the amplifier and its passive speaker(s), there is a risk of signal loss. Typically this loss begins at about 18.5 ft of unbalanced cable run.
Active speakers, generally speaking, are connected via balanced connections (like TRS and XLR) and do not have this issue.
Pros & Cons Of Active Speakers
Let’s now list out the pros and cons of active speakers.
|Consolidated design||Heavier weight|
|Default amplifier matching||More difficult to repair|
Pros Of Active Speakers
The vast majority of active speakers are designed as single “all-in-one” units.
As a user, all we need to do is plug in our line level signal and we’re good to go.
Amplifier Matching By Default
Active speakers are designed with drivers, crossovers and amplifiers.
So even if the active speaker manufacturer doesn’t produce the amplifier(s) itself, the speaker is at least designed with the amplifier(s) in mind. This usually means the amps are already matched to the speaker drivers by default.
Active speakers often come with EQ settings, making their sonic character adjustable.
This is made possible largely due to the active crossover networks found in active speakers.
Cons Of Active Speakers
Active speakers have built-in amplifiers and are, therefore, relatively heavy.
This weight makes them less than ideal in situations that require regular movement and repositioning (on the road).
More Difficult To Repair
Repairing any part of an active speaker means taking the entire unit apart. Unless you’re capable of performing the repair quickly and affordably, this can mean sending your speaker away for a significant amount of time.
Can you connect a passive subwoofer to an active speaker? Passive subwoofers should be connected to external amplifiers. Active speakers do have built-in amps but these amps are used to drive the speaker’s own drivers. Connecting a passive subwoofer to an active speaker, then, is not advised.
Can you connect active speakers to an amplifier? It is not advised to connect an active speaker to a power amplifier. The amplifier within the active speaker is designed to take line level signals and boost them to drive the speaker effectively. Sending speaker level signals from a power amp to an active speaker will likely overload and damage the speaker’s amp and drivers.