When researching loudspeakers, the simple desire for quality audio can quickly get bogged down in the vast selection you’ll encounter. One distinction worth discussing: most speaker systems will be described as either “powered” or “passive.” Knowing the difference may be key in helping you narrow down these choices and find the right speakers for your application.
DIFFERENCES BETWEEN POWERED AND PASSIVE SPEAKERS
How Speakers Work
Loudspeakers use one or more electromagnetic motors (usually called drivers) attached to a cone to broadcast sound waves. Speakers must be attached to another electronic source, which sends a signal that is programmed to replicate specific sound waves. Based on this signal, the driver pushes the cone back and forth, which causes the air molecules in front of the cone to bump into each other and eventually domino through space. When the molecules eventually reach your ear, they vibrate against your eardrum and send a signal to your brain that is interpreted as sound.
All loudspeakers require some sort of power source (or amplifier) to send power to the driver. That’s where the “powered” and “passive” terminology comes in. Powered loudspeakers (sometimes also called active) include built-in amplifiers, so all you have to do is connect it to your sound source, whereas passive loudspeakers require an additional connection to add that power separately.
Keeping Subwoofers in Mind
Subwoofers (“subs”) are a common subcategory of speakers that are specifically built to handle extremely low-pitched audio frequencies (bass and sub-bass, generally 20-200 Hz). This gives your audio more accurate stereo imaging, enhances dynamics, and enables more immersive listening. A must for miking low-frequency instruments such as kick drums or bass guitar, subs are also great for background music (particularly bass-heavy genres), stadiums, concert halls, theaters, studios, and more.
Subwoofers never work alone—they’re designed to work in partnership with loudspeakers that handle higher-pitched frequencies. Like their loudspeaker counterparts, subs come in powered (built-in amplifier) and passive (requires an external amplifier connection) versions.
One important thing to remember is that you cannot mix and match types of subs and speakers (i.e., connect a powered speaker to a passive subwoofer, or vis-versa); always connect a powered speaker to a powered subwoofer or a passive speaker to a passive subwoofer.
Powered Speaker Considerations
Because powered speakers already have an amplifier system included in their construction, these types of speakers are extremely easy to set up right out of the box. Many models include other built-in features such as effects, compressors, and more to make one powered speaker virtually a standalone PA system! The amplifier component of powered speakers is designed to coordinate perfectly with the driver, and they also are simple to pair with powered subwoofers. Since you don’t need to connect any additional gear, they’re generally compact and portable—which makes them great for environments where space is limited, such as smaller live performance venues, outdoor presentations, or mobile DJ shows.
However, powered speakers come in a more limited selection of sizes and styles. “What you see is what you get”—which can be great, but also means less flexibility if your sound system needs to evolve as your audio needs change. Also, the amplifier component takes up room inside the speaker’s build, sometimes at the cost of driver size. With a smaller driver, the clarity and precision of the sound might be affected.
Passive Speaker Considerations
The benefit to using passive loudspeakers is their customization options. You can mix and match components to fit the specific needs of any given project, which not only makes passive speakers ideal for people who like customizing their sound setup, it also makes it easier to adjust your setup over time, such as scaling to fit a larger space or adding surround sound. Additionally, because there’s more space inside the speaker’s housing, passive speakers can accommodate larger drivers for a more pristine, accurate sound reproduction.
Because they don’t provide built-in amplification, passive speakers need external gear to be connected, including external amplifiers or stereo receivers, speaker cables, and possibly an outboard crossover or other signal processing gear. As opposed to powered speakers (where the amplifier and driver have been specifically optimized), there is no guarantee that the components you choose will work well together to produce the best possible sound. For assistance in tackling the complexities of passive speaker setups, contact the experts at SoundPro by e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 800.203.5611.
BEST USES FOR POWERED SPEAKERS
Powered speakers are excellent for mobile users because they’re affordable, easy to set up, and simple to use as standalone sound systems. With fewer components to pack, they’re a great choice for professionals who need portable gear, such as mobile DJs, independent performers, outdoor events organizers, and so much more.
Powered Speaker Recommendations
- DAS Audio ACTION-508A 8-Inch Powered Speaker
- DAS Audio ACTION-512A 12-Inch Powered Speaker
- Electro-Voice EKX-12P 12-Inch Powered Speaker
- Electro-Voice ZLX-12BT 12-Inch Powered Speaker with Bluetooth
- JBL EON710 10-Inch Powered PA Speaker
- Mackie SRT215 1600W 15-Inch Powered Speaker
- QSC CP12 12-Inch Powered Speaker
- QSC KW122 12-Inch Powered Speaker
- RCF ART 710A-MK4 10-Inch Powered Speaker
- Yamaha DBR10 10-Inch Powered Speaker
Powered Subwoofer Recommendations
- DAS Audio ACTION-S118A Powered Subwoofer
- Electro-Voice EKX-18SP 18-Inch Powered Subwoofer
- Electro-Voice ELX200-18SP 18-Inch Powered Subwoofer
- JBL EON718S 18-Inch Powered Subwoofer
- QSC KS118 18-Inch Compact Powered Subwoofer
BEST USES FOR PASSIVE SPEAKERS
Passive speakers are generally the best bet for situations where you need flexibility and customization options. Often this means professional applications, such as venues where the sound system needs to be scalable and versatile, or for audio projects that require the most accurate and reliable sound reproduction. Boasting the capacity to grow to meet the needs of small to large venues, passive speakers are ideal for clubs and entertainment venues, houses of worship, auditoriums and theaters, arenas and stadiums, and business PA systems.
Passive Speaker Recommendations
- Bose AMM112 12-Inch Multipurpose Passive Speaker
- EAW MK8126i 8-Inch Passive Speaker
- Electro-Voice EKX-12 12-Inch Passive Speaker
- Electro-Voice ZLX-12 12-Inch Passive Speaker
- JBL PRX425 Dual 15-Inch Passive Speaker
- JBL SRX812 12-Inch Passive Speaker
- Mackie C300Z 12-Inch Passive Speaker
- QSC E115 15-Inch Passive Speaker
- Yamaha C115VA Flyable 15-Inch Passive Speaker
- Yamaha CHR10 10-Inch Passive Speaker
Passive Subwoofer Recommendations
- Electro-Voice EKX-18S 18" Passive Subwoofer
- JBL SRX828S Dual Passive Subwoofer
- KGEAR GS18 18" Passive Subwoofer
- QSC E118sw E-Series Passive Subwoofer
- RCF SUB-S12 Passive 12'' Bass Reflex Subwoofer
MAKING AN INFORMED SPEAKER PURCHASE
Understanding the basics of loudspeakers may help you avoid getting caught up in the terminology and make a better-informed purchase. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a professional audio engineer or a novice listener or anywhere in-between—nobody wants to spend their valuable time digging through thousands of options before finding the speaker that’s right for them! Just by knowing whether to filter by “passive” or “powered” options, you’ve already narrowed down your search significantly.
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Laura Strommen – Web Content Specialist, SoundPro
Joining the SoundPro team in July 2021, Laura brings her English degree and over five years’ experience as a content writer and copy editor.