Passive, Powered, and Active Speakers Explained
In this guide, we’ll look at the difference between passive, powered and active speakers.
I will first explain the differences as simply as I can with text and figures. After that, we’ll dig deeper into the details.
What is the difference between passive, powered and active speakers?
You need a separate amplifier to power passive speakers, while powered and active speakers have the amplifier built into the speaker cabinet. In a powered speaker, there is one amplifier that powers all the drivers (low and high frequencies) while an active speaker has one dedicated amplifier for each driver.
Passive speakers don’t have a built-in amplifier and need to be powered by an external amplifier or receiver. In passive speakers, the crossover is passive and placed between the speaker terminals that connect the external amplifier and the drivers.
Powered speakers have a built-in amplifier and don’t need an external amplifier or receiver. In powered speakers, the crossover is passive and placed after the built-in amplifier.
Active speakers have multiple amplifiers built-in (usually one for each driver) and don’t need an external amplifier or receiver. In active speakers, the crossover is active and placed before the amplifiers.
Passive speakers cost from less than $50 to more than $50,000. They cover the whole range from very cheap beginner speakers to very expensive high-end speakers.
When it comes to powered and active speakers, they basically split the market in two based on price.
Powered speakers are mainly found at the affordable end of the price spectrum. Up to $1000 or so.
Active speakers are usually more expensive than powered speakers and are mainly found in the high-end and professional speaker market segments. And usually cost more than $1000.
One example of passive speakers are the Klipsch R-41M that don’t have an amplifier built in and need to be powered by an external amplifier or receiver that outputs up to 200 Watt.
One example of powered speakers are the Audioengine A5 Plus Bluetooth that has a 2 x 70 Watt amplifier built into the left speaker that powers both the mid/bass driver and the tweeter in both speakers through passive crossovers.
One example of active speakers are the KEF LS50 Wireless that has an active crossover and a 200 Watt amplifier that powers the mid/bass driver and a 30 Watt amplifier that drives the tweeter in each speaker.
Since the crossover play such a big role when describing the difference between the three kinds of speakers, let me use a moment to explain the purpose of the crossover and the different kinds of crossovers.
The crossover is a filter that splits the music signal so that the higher frequencies go to the tweeter and the lower frequencies to the mid/bass driver in a 2-way speaker.
In a 3-way speaker, the crossover splits the music signal into three frequency bands. Treble, midrange and bass.
A passive crossover is found in passive and powered speakers and splits the audio signal after it is power amplified. A passive crossover comprises resistors, capacitors, and inductors that are rated for high power levels. There are no active components like transistors or operational amplifiers that need a power source in a passive crossover.
Active crossovers are found in active speakers and splits the audio signal before it is power amplified. An active crossover processes the audio signal at LINE level (before amplification) so the components don’t need to be rated for high power. Active crossovers use active components like op-amps and transistors and need a power source to operate.
Pros and Cons of Passive and Active Crossovers
The main benefits of passive crossovers are that they offer low system cost and that they don’t need to be connected to power. On the negative side, passive crossovers provide the engineers with reduced flexibility, as they are frequency and impedance specific. So there are often significant compromising involved when designing speakers with passive crossovers.
The biggest benefit with active crossovers is that they allow for a speaker design with one dedicated amplifier for each driver. A design where the amplifiers is connected directly to the drivers without a passive crossover in between.
This way, each amplifier can be designed to perfectly match the characteristic of the driver it powers. It enables the designers to precisely control the behavior of each driver with much less compromising. Which results in better sound quality.
Another big benefit is that the amplifier can be designed with significantly less output power because there will be no power lost in the crossover.
The biggest negative of active crossovers is the added system cost because there will be one amplifier for each driver.
For a more in-depth read on crossovers, there is a great article for you on Wikipedia.
What is Best? Passive, Powered or Active Speakers?
Passive, powered and active speakers all have their advantages and disadvantages. It is hard to give a one-fits-all answer to which is best. That will come down to budget, available space, use and needs.
There are, however, pros and cons to each type that I think we all can agree on. Let’s take a look at what those are.
Pros and Cons of Passive Speakers
The two biggest advantages of passive speakers are probably that there are so many to choose from for all kinds of budgets and that you will have total flexibility to match the speakers with the amplifier or receiver that you prefer. Passive speakers allow you to mix and match speakers and amplifiers as much and as often as you want. So they allow for a highly flexible system.
If you are an audiophile and passionate about high-fidelity sound, then there will be a much bigger selection of high-end passive speakers to choose from than it will be if you take the route of powered or active speakers.
On the downside, passive speakers doesn’t provide for the clean and simple setup as powered and active speakers. You will need a separate amplifier and usually also a traditional “stereo rack” that holds the amplifier. So more space will be needed and there will be more cables lying around compared to powered and active speakers.
Also, because you will need to buy the speakers and the amplifier separately, there will usually be a higher start-up cost with passive speakers compared to powered speakers. If you are on a budget, powered speakers can provide higher value for money than a setup with passive speakers and a separate amplifier/receiver.
Pros and Cons of Powered Speakers
The main advantages with powered speakers are that they need less room as there will be fewer boxes to place. Also, because the amplifier and the speaker share the same cabinet, powered speakers are a cost-effective solution that offer high-value for money.
Since powered speakers usually are bookshelf sized speakers and have the amplifier built-in, the physical place needed is small. Powered speakers can usually be placed on a desktop or in a bookshelf if space is limited. And there are no need for a separate amplifier that would take up extra space.
When it comes to disadvantages, one of the obvious one is that you can’t mix and match speakers and amplifiers. If you want something new, you will have to replace the whole system, you can’t upgrade only the amplifier or only the speakers.
Another disadvantage is that there will usually be fewer inputs on powered speakers compared to an integrated amplifier or stereo receiver. This means fewer options to connect different music sources (analog and digital).
The last disadvantage that is worth mentioning is that powered speakers usually focus on the consumer market (people with normal budgets), so if you have a big budget and are looking for a very high-end audiophile rated stereo, then powered speakers will not be the optimal choice.
Pros and Cons of Active Speakers
Active speakers have many of the same advantages as powered speakers. They are compact, easy to place and they don’t need a separate amplifier.
The main differences between powered and active speakers are that active speakers usually are higher-quality products that use more advanced technology, are better built, better sounding and more expensive. And active speakers often come with more connectivity options (wired and wireless) than powered speakers.
The fact that active speakers use one dedicated amplifier for each driver makes it possible for the engineers to design extremely good sounding speakers. But it requires that the engineers have expertise in both speaker and amplifier design, and a budget to design both the amplifiers and the speakers with very high quality.
Active speakers offer a compact all-in-one solution for audiophiles and studio professionals that want something higher-end than consumer rated powered speakers.
The High-End Speaker Market
While speakers with built-in amplifiers seem to grow in popularity in the consumer rated marked, and is a very valid option for people with normal budgets, this has not been a strong trend in the high-end speaker marked.
Hi-Fi enthusiasts and audiophiles with high budgets and high passion for sonic performance have traditionally dismissed powered and active speakers. And focused solely on passive speakers.
Passive speakers basically own the high-end speaker market.
For extraordinary sound, high-quality passive speakers paired with a high-quality standalone amplifier have been and still is the norm.
Also, most audiophiles are traditionally not too keen on the idea of having the amplifier and speakers integrated into one cabinet. Audiophiles like the option to mix and match gear.
But we might start to see a change to that trend in the 2020s.
Reports from the major electronics show CES 2018 say that major high-end speaker manufacturers, that traditionally have had 100% focus on passive speakers, are starting to direct their focus from passive speakers to active speakers.
At CES 2018, the major speaker manufacturers used almost all their expensive floor area to exhibit their newest high-end active speakers. Something that has not been the case before.
So it will be interesting to see if the 2020s becomes the decade where audiophiles follow the manufacturers and switch their focus from passive to active high-end speakers.
How to Connect Passive, Powered, and Active Speakers
Connect Passive Speakers
In a stereo with passive speakers, the speakers connect to the amplifier or receiver via speaker cables. The amplifier or receiver then connects to music sources (CD player, PC, smartphone, turntable, etc.) via a RCA signal cable or via a digital interconnect cable.
In the example below, we see how passive speakers connect to an amplifier that is connected to a turntable.
Connect Powered Speakers
In a stereo with powered speakers, one of the two speakers will have all the audio inputs on the back panel. So the music sources (CD player, PC, smartphone, turntable, etc.) connect to the speaker with the inputs via a RCA signal cable or via a digital interconnect cable.
Then the two speakers are connected with speaker cables. In powered speakers, the amplifier for both speakers are usually placed in the same speaker that holds the input connectors. Therefor, the two speakers are connected with speaker cable.
In the example below, we see how powered speakers connect to a turntable.
Connect Active Speakers
In a stereo with active speakers, one of the speakers will have all the audio inputs on the back panel. So the music sources (CD player, PC, smartphone, turntable, etc.) connect to the speaker with the inputs via a RCA signal cable or via a digital interconnect cable.
The two speakers are then connected with a dedicated interconnect (analog or digital). Since there are amplifiers in both speakers, the speakers don’t connect with a speaker cable, but with a “low signal-level” interconnect.
In the example below, we see how active speakers connect to a turntable.
Powered and active speakers allow for wireless functionality. Passive speakers don’t, because they don’t have a built-in amplifier.
In recent years, almost all powered and active speakers come with wireless capability. Either as standard or as an optional extra.
Wireless speakers connect to a compatible wireless music source without the need for signal cables. If you, for example, have a smartphone with Bluetooth, you can play music wirelessly to wireless Bluetooth speakers.
There are, however, two different wireless protocols that are commonly used in wireless speakers. And they are not compatible with each other.
The two protocols are Bluetooth and WiFi. Let’s explore the differences between the two.
Bluetooth Wireless Speakers
Bluetooth can be considered the “lower-end” technology of the two. Bluetooth has lower bandwidth and lower range than Wi-Fi.
Bluetooth compress the music signal more than WiFi so the sound quality can be noticeably compromised with Bluetooth. Also, the max range for Bluetooth is about 30 feet.
WiFi Wireless Speakers
Wi-Fi has higher bandwidth than Bluetooth and doesn’t compress the music as much as Bluetooth. Therefore, the sound quality will be better with WiFi. Also, the range is much higher, normally up to 300 feet.
Higher quality streaming applications like Apple Airplay, Sonos and Tidal use WiFi technology.
Do passive speakers need power?
Passive speakers need to be powered by an external amplifier. Therefore, passive speakers are not connected to power.
Do powered speakers need an amplifier?
Powered (and active) speakers have the amplifier built-in and do not need an external amplifier. Only passive speakers need an external amplifier.
Does an active subwoofer need an amplifier?
An active subwoofer has an amplifier built-in and does not need to be connected to an external amplifier.
What is a passive subwoofer?
A passive subwoofer is a subwoofer without a built-in amplifier that needs to be powered by an external amplifier.
What is a 2-way speaker?
A 2-way speaker has a crossover that splits the music signal into two frequency ranges. The higher frequency ranges is routed to a tweeter and the lower frequencies are rooted to a mid/bass driver.
A 2 way speaker has one driver for the high frequencies and one driver for the mids and bass. Usually.
What is a 3-way speaker?
A 3-way speaker has a crossover that splits the music signal into three frequency ranges. High, mid and low. The higher frequencies is routed to the tweeter. The mids are routed to the mid driver. And the lows are routed to the bass driver.
A 3way speaker has one driver for the high frequencies, one driver for the mids and one or several drivers for the bass. Usually.
Does a crossover improve sound quality?
The crossover plays a significant role in the design of a speaker. The quality of the crossover and how well the crossover is matched to the drivers can have a big impact on the sonic performance of the speaker.