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Learn the differences between active and passive monitors.
Which one is right for you?
Find the best pair for your setup.
If you’re a professional sound engineer, DJ, musician, or a serious audiophile, you need speakers that can accurately reproduce all the tonal qualities of any source sound. Any distortion can affect the quality of your work and the overall listening experience.
That is why it’s important to choose the right studio monitor for your needs.
Unlike home speakers which are “sweetened” to sound more impressive, studio monitors are designed to create a linear or flat frequency response. This means they can accurately reproduce sound so it can be properly mixed and mastered to work on a variety of listening setups, such as earbuds and car speakers.
There are different kinds of studio monitors, but the first and most important decision you need to make is whether to get active speakers or passive speakers. There’s a lot of confusion and various misconceptions about these types, even among audiophiles and music professionals.
In this article, we’ll explain the difference between active vs passive speakers, the pros and cons, and how they really work.
What Are The Differences Between Active vs Passive Speakers?
In a nutshell, the biggest difference between the two is the amplifier. Active speakers come with a built-in amplifier, so all you need to do is to hook it up to a power source or a battery. Some of the best ones will even be equipped with dedicated amplifiers for each speaker driver like the woofer (often called bi-amp or tri-amp speakers).
With that out of the way, let’s dive deeper into the topic of active vs passive speakers.
Active speakers (sometimes called powered speakers) are generally seen as a convenient, all-in-one system. Aside from having a built-in amplifier, many of them also have built-in mixers, microphone pre-amplifiers, and EQ settings.
These studio monitors are often used in public address or PA systems, small entertainment venues like bars or clubs, or home studios.
But they can also be found in high-end consumer sound equipment like subwoofers, Bluetooth speakers, as well as home audio speakers.
One of the biggest benefits of active speakers is that the individual parts—speaker drivers, crossover components, and amplifier—are engineered to work together and optimize the sound quality.
That saves you the trouble of having to figure out the best combination of powered speaker, amplifier, source, speaker cable, digital to analog converters. While some people enjoy being able to customize their set-up, you can spend a lot of money on the wrong products and end up underpowering or overpowering your speakers.
So if you don’t have a lot of time, patience, or technical background, you’re better off getting an active or powered speaker and sidestep the risk of blowing out your speakers—or blowing away your money!
2. Less wires
Since the amplifier is built into the speaker design, you avoid the tumble of connecting cables. It’s a lot neater, and it may actually prevent interference and any other noise that can distort the sound.
The set-up also allows for the signal to remain in digital form as long as possible, which also improves sound clarity.
3. More convenient
There are some active speakers that have several built-in features like amplifiers, mixers, microphones, and more encased in one speaker cabinet. This is ideal for DJs or bands, or small clubs and bar owners who want good sound quality without a lot of bulky equipment.
While this speaker set-up will never be as precise as a professional studio or amphitheater, they can fit in a small stage and play both live and recorded music. Music experts also say that active speakers tend to also have better bass extensions—and in the words of Meghan Trainor, sometimes it’s all about the bass.
4. Better-integrated sound
In an active speaker system, the signal from the pre-amp is sent through the line-level (which is about 2v) rather than the speaker level (15to 35v). Each frequency band is sent to a dedicated power amp.
According to professionals, the line level signal can be very accurate, and deliver a clean and integrated sound. Active monitors are great if you don’t have good room acoustics.
5. Good crossover network
Since the amplifier is built into the active speaker, the crossover network is in front of the amplifier therefore is able to filter the line-level signal and amplify them separately (aka active bi-amping). And what does that mean for sound quality and your listening experience? There’s more power going into each driver.
The signal is sent to the tweeter, woofers, and subwoofers simultaneously, which lowers the risk of phase shift. This is when two similar signals either amplify or cancel each other out, and cause interference. That’s why many audiophiles will say that active speakers give them “more control over phasing.”
Compare that to passive speakers, where the audio signal is amplified before it reaches the crossover components. There’s a chance for some dissipation or loss before it reaches the drivers. The risk of phase shift and interference is also higher, not just because of the crossover network, but also the signal paths in outboard components or loss through the cable.
6. Convenient for large site set up
Many event organizers prefer active studio monitors for a wide area of coverage. This includes parade routes, marathon runs, car shows, school or trade fairs, etc. They can daisy-chain the speakers with speaker cables, or even connect them to a wireless network or in-ear devices. This allows for a steady speaker level signal throughout the entire speaker system, even if the area spans several kilometers.
Eris E4.5 active monitors boast 4.5" woofers and 1" silk-dome tweeters. Ideal for gaming and home video production, the Eris E4.5 delivers studio-quality sound yet is compact enough to fit almost anywhere.
Active speakers are more expensive and tend to “lock” you into a set-up. If you’re on a budget, you may have to settle for a less powerful active speaker—and remember, the whole promise of better performance and more accurate sound depends on the quality of the internal parts and crossover components.
If you don’t get a good brand or model, you may be stuck with a substandard speaker with a mediocre performance. And unfortunately, you can’t take it apart and upgrade your amplifier or any of its individual parts. You’re basically stuck with your active speaker, for better or for worse, unless you’re willing to invest in new powered speakers all over again.
You should get active monitors if…
Simplicity and convenience are important to you. You don’t want to worry about selecting and setting up different components
You want less wires – or even the option to go wireless
You don’t have a lot of space for equipment in your home studio or the stage
You are willing to pay a higher price for a good brand and model
You don’t plan to upgrade your sound equipment in the near future
You need to connect several speakers for large events
Unlike active speakers, passive speakers split the audio signal and send each band to the loudspeaker drivers. A typical passive speaker system will include a preamplifier, power amplifier, crossover, and speaker. It may have several speaker drivers, so the crossover splits the signal according to frequency. In one passive speaker, you may find a woofer, midrange, and tweeter.
What are the benefits of passive speakers?
1. Fewer power cables and extension cords
Unlike active speakers, which need power cables (and often a lot of extension cords, if you don’t have a nearby outlet or power source) passive speakers just need a speaker cable and they are powered via your amplifier.
In general, passive speakers use half the cables of active speakers.
2. Passive speakers are less expensive
If you’re on a tight budget but still want to build a first-class sound system, it makes more sense to buy high-quality passive speakers first. You can get a much more powerful model, and the flexibility to buy a good amplifier or other components when you have more money.
3. Passive speakers allow you to upgrade or replace your amplifier
Most amplifiers are designed to work with a wide range of speakers. So once you’re ready to upgrade, you have a plethora of choices for every need and budget. That can help you customize your sound system, and take advantage of new technology and features of top-of-the-line power amplifiers to achieve the best sound. As they say in the tech world, it’s future-proof.
This has obvious benefits for serious audiophiles or sound professionals with very specific needs, or who enjoy customizing their hi-fi system. However, bear in mind that you have to do a lot of research to find the right “match”. Some people enjoy the research, and others think it’s a hassle. So whether this is a bonus or a burden depends entirely on your preferences.
4. Passive speakers are lighter
This is definitely a consideration if you want to mount your speaker to a wall. Some active speakers are simply too heavy for even the sturdiest wall brackets, so be prepared to give up floor space.
What are the disadvantages of passive speakers?
Sound engineers claim that the components of passive speaker systems tend to heat up. When that happens, it affects power and performance. While it really depends on your set-up (and environment), you can lose as much as 30% of your amplifier’s power—enough to noticeably affect the sound quality after they’ve been running for a long time.
Though passive speakers are less expensive, a high-quality power amplifier is not. Insiders say that many of these external amps are overbuilt so they can be used with several types of speakers—which jacks up the price, and can lead to higher power consumption.
Furthermore, upgrading your amplifier system does bear some risk. If you buy the wrong product, you may end up either underpowering or overpowering your passive speakers, which can lead to blowing them out.
You should get passive speakers if…
You prefer to customize your sound system
You have the technical knowhow to select the right speaker-amplifier combination, or you’re willing to do research
You are on a tight budget and prefer to invest in a quality hi-fi speaker and upgrade your system later
You want smaller, lighter speakers that you can install on the walls
Active and Passive Speakers: Which Are Best For You?
We’ve weighed the pros and cons, and listed all the differences. So now it’s the moment of truth. What is the best speaker for you: active or passive?
Unfortunately, you can’t really pick one and say that it’s best for all scenarios. It really depends on your budget, preferences, and how the speaker is used.
If you want to customize your system to achieve the best sound quality, you may prefer to get passive speakers. You just have to make sure that the speakers and amplifiers are compatible, and be ready to do a lot of background research on the models.
If you want convenience, simplicity, and the guarantee that all the parts are designed to work well together, get active speakers. However, you can’t upgrade without shelling out a lot more for new speakers, and you have to look at product reviews before adding them to your shopping cart. While the best systems can give mind-blowingly good hi-fi audio quality, there are others that simply fail to deliver.
If you’re buying the speakers for your business, active speakers are generally used in bars, restaurants, and other small venues. They are also a good option for events where you need to broadcast sound over a large space.
However, passive speakers are best for professional and precise sound setups like a theater, music hall, or concert venue, where there is a sound engineer who can set it up and control the sound.