Active vs. Passive Speakers: What’s the Difference?

If you’re buying speakers, you’ve probably come across the terms “passive” and “active”. There is a big difference between these types of speakers, and which type you need depends on what you want to do with them.

Various amplification methods

The difference between active and passive speakers comes down to how they are amplified. All speakers require amplification, but passive and active speakers do this differently.

Passive speakers are most likely the type that comes to your mind when you think of a regular speaker. They rely on an external amplifier or stereo receiver to provide power. If you think of a classic stereo system, it almost exclusively uses passive speakers.

Active speakers have built-in amplification, so they don’t need an external amplifier or receiver. Active speakers may simply have a power amp that you connect to an external preamp, or they may include their own preamps and even other features like digital inputs. While this is the main difference, there are other differences in how the speakers work that can mean differences in how they sound.

When choosing between the two, more often than not, what you already have will determine which speakers you need. For example, do you already have a receiver but need new speakers? You are looking for passive speakers. However, there are advantages and disadvantages to consider for both types.

Passive speakers: pros and cons

One of the biggest advantages of passive speakers is that you have very few restrictions on where you can place them. While active speakers require a power source, you only need to connect passive speakers to the speaker wires coming from your amplifier.

Passive speakers allow you to choose every component of your signal chain. Starting with a source such as a turntable or telephone, you can select an amplifier or an AV receiver and then individual speaker models. You can even opt for a more modular setup if you prefer, such as a preamp, power amp and EQ.

The modular nature of a passive speaker setup also means that if a single element fails, it is easier to repair or replace it. If the amplifier in the active speaker stops working, the entire speaker needs to be replaced. If your amplifier in a system with passive speakers stops working, you can simply replace the amplifier.

Passive speakers have also been around for a lot longer than active speakers, at least when it comes to home use. This means you can find plenty of classic speakers that will still sound great with a brand new amp or receiver. This leaves you with more options.

Of course, to get the most out of the flexibility of passive speakers, you need to know how they work. If you don’t want to bother learning what speaker impedance is or what gauge of speaker wire you need, you may find that choosing passive speakers is a waste of time.

Mobility is another factor that you may not think about at first. Since you need a separate amplifier and speaker wires, passive speakers are also far from portable. Yes, you can pack up your entire stereo or home theater system and bring it to a friend’s house, but do you really want to? Before making a decision, consider how mobile you want to be.

Active speakers: pros and cons

Active speakers are much easier to use than passive speakers. You don’t have to worry about matching the amp to the speakers because the internal amp is already perfectly matched. All you have to worry about is connecting the speaker to a power source and connecting the source devices.

For the same reason, active speakers can sound better than similar passive speakers, especially if the passive speakers and amplifier are poorly matched. Manufacturers can choose or design components that fit and complement each other, meaning the hard work has already been done for you.

One of the biggest advantages of active speakers is that they can receive wireless signals. With passive speakers, you’ll either need an amplifier with built-in wireless connectivity or something like a Bluetooth receiver. All you need to do with wireless speakers is connect them to your phone or other device.

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Looking at the downsides, since they contain an amplifier and other electronics, active speakers are heavier than passive ones. However, many modern active speakers use Class D amplifiers, which are smaller and lighter, making this problem less of a problem.

For the same reason, active speakers are more expensive than passive ones. However, at the same time, you save money because you don’t need an amplifier or receiver to use with passive speakers.

Finally, with active speakers, you get what you buy. If you want to choose components, active speakers don’t offer the same level of flexibility as passive speakers.

What is right for you?

If you have some knowledge of how audio signals work, or if you want to learn, passive speakers may be right for you. It takes work, but it’s the most direct route to building your dream music system if you know what you’re looking for.

On the other hand, if you’re looking for an easier setup, active speakers will do most of the work for you, right down to matching their internals. Once you buy a speaker, you’ll be stuck with what you bought, but there are plenty of fantastic active speakers out there. If you can’t try listening to them in person, read the detailed reviews to see which speaker sounds best to your ear.

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