Passive vs. Active Speakers, Which is Right for You?
Hold Up, What are Active and Passive Speakers?
Good question! Let's back up a bit and explain the differences between each type of speaker. In the simplest terms, an active speaker is one that has its own amplifier built into the cabinet. A passive speaker draws its power from an external amp and is connected to that amp via speaker wire. Passive speakers tend to be for home use. Active speakers are commonly seen in pro audio for pa systems and monitors but also are used in consumer audio for subwoofers, bluetooth speakers as well as some other home audio speakers. There are also differences between the crossover configurations of these speakers, more on that later.
OK Got It. Which is Better?As usual, which speaker will be best for you depends on what you'll be using it for as well as your specific needs. So to answer the question of which is better, we'll have to cop out with a noncommittal, "it depends". Instead of over-simplifying things, let's take an in depth look at the advantages of both passive and active speakers.
Passive Speaker Benefits
Less Wires/ Easier to PlaceWith passive speakers you just need to run a speaker wire connection. With an active speaker it needs to be plugged into AC power, so you'll need to make sure that it's close enough to a wall outlet, unless you want extension cords running all over your living room. Since speaker wire typically comes in 100 foot spools, it makes passive speakers a bit easier to place. But another thing to keep in mind is that if you are using a powered speaker for home theater use, you'll need another cable coming from the preamp/processor. So that means you'll have two cables going to the speaker, one from the wall outlet and another from the pre/pro. Now if you are just wiring directly from a phone or some other device that is close by that's not a big deal, but if the source of the audio will be a distance away you're looking at twice as many wires going to an active speaker in comparison with a passive one.
Easier to upgrade/replace ampWith a passive speaker if you want to get more power or maybe go from solid state to tube or Class A/B to Class D, it's easy, you go out and buy a new amp and then hook it up to your new speakers. Boom, upgraded! With an active speaker it's not so easy and in some cases may actually be impossible. Now in terms of upgrading an amp, that doesn't usually come up because the amp that is included should be the best match for the speaker's specifications. Perhaps you could improve on it, but there's a good chance that the manufacturer included the particular amp because that's what the speaker needed to perform optimally. However, when an amplifier in an active speaker ceases to function, you'll need to replace that amp in order to avoid having a very expensive doorstop. Hopefully the manufacturer has replacement amps on hand and it's not too difficult to replace without damaging the cabinet. Sometimes both are the case, but often times one or the other is not, especially when dealing with a speaker that has a few years on it. If it's a model that has been discontinued for a while, there's a decent chance that parts are no longer available. In that scenario the speaker is probably out of warranty and you're looking at replacing the entire unit. In other cases the manufacturer may have replacement amps but they aren't really easily swapped out and you'll have to send the speaker back for a technician to install the new amp. When that happens, you may be on the hook for shipping costs as well as parts and labor if you are out of warranty and you'll also be without your speaker for however long it takes for shipping and the repair. In short, since a passive speaker doesn't have its own amplifier, there's no complicated electronics that can fail, and you get to choose the amplifier you use to power the speaker.
They're Usually Lighter WeightSince passive speakers don't have built in amplifiers they tend to be lighter than active speakers. This is a more pronounced difference with traditional Class A/B amps than with Class D amps like the ones we use in our active speakers here at Aperion, which are actually quite light. So if an active speaker does use a Class A/B amp which will typically have a heavy heat sink, it may not be so easy to wall mount in your home.
Active Speaker Benefits
The Amp and Speaker are Designed to Go TogetherAs we mentioned, with an active speaker you are usually going to be locked into the amp that was included in the enclosure. But that's not necessarily a bad thing, in fact in a well designed speaker it is a very good thing. Because the drivers, crossover and amp have all been specifically selected to work together, you shouldn't have to worry about over or under powering the speaker. While it's always possible to blow out a speaker, it should be much more difficult when using an active speaker that has an amp that was engineered or chosen just for that speaker. Furthermore, since they are all part of one coherent design, you can get increased performance from an active speaker, especially in terms of bass extension and overall output. In general you can drive an active speaker relatively hard without worrying about damaging the amp or speaker.
Active Speakers Allow for Wireless ApplicationsFinally, and this is becoming more and more of a crucial advantage, you can send a wireless signal directly to an active speaker. The reason is that we do not yet have the ability to send power wirelessly, we still need to rely on those pesky cables to send any type of amplified signal. Now wireless power is something that always seems to be on the horizon, yet never quite materializes. Check out this article from 2014 saying that wireless power is here. And yet, neither you nor I have wireless power in our house. While I'm sure it will happen at some point, until it does any wireless signal, be it Bluetooth or WiFi, needs to be amplified before it can be heard by our ears. So if you want to have a simple set up of just your Bluetooth enabled device and the speaker with nothing in between, that speaker needs to be active. Now these days many A/V Receivers feature Bluetooth capability, but a lot of people don't want to invest into an expensive AVR and just want to stream audio right to a speaker. Which is where the myriad of Bluetooth speakers out there come in to play, including our own Allaire Bookshelves. Since they are active, you simply plug them in, connect to your phone and stream away.
The Signal Goes Through the Crossover Before the AmplifierBecause the amp for an active speaker is inside the speaker, the crossover circuit filters the signal before it's amplified. This is an advantage for a couple reasons, first when the crossover is in front of the amplifier it means that the signal for each driver will be amplified separately, also known as active bi-amping. In a speaker that's actively bi-amped, there usually is more power going to each driver than in a passive speaker. In a passive speaker when the signal goes through the crossover after being amplified, some of that power dissipates in the crossover and never makes it to the drivers. Not the case in an active speaker as the signal is amplified after it goes through the crossover. Bi-amping also means that the signal hits the tweeter and woofer at the same time and thus reduces phase shift between the drivers.
So that concludes our examination of passive and active speakers. If you are looking for an easy to place speaker and want to be able to choose your own amp or upgrade it, then a passive speaker is probably the way to go. If you want a speaker that can play loud with lots of bass or you want to be able to stream wirelessly to it, then an active speaker will fit the bill. Many people, including almost all home theaters, have both types of speakers integrated into one or several set ups.