Active or Passive Speakers

May 17, 2017 by Ben Stowe, CTS

Fundamentally the question really is, where do you want your amp? A passive loudspeaker must be connected to an amplifier, whereas an active loudspeaker has an amplifier built into the enclosure of the speaker.

Each has it’s pros and cons. You are still carrying an amplifier with an active speaker (it’s just now inside the speaker). Also with an active speaker, you run 2 cables instead of one (audio signal, and another for AC power).

So, which is right for you? Well, the convenience of having an amplifier built into the loudspeaker can be really nice. It allows each loudspeaker to be used and placed independently, whereas most Pro Audio power amplifiers used by DJs have 2 channels in them so splitting up a pair of passive loudspeakers might be more difficult. Plus, if you’re using table-top racks and coffins you may not have vertical Rackspace available for the amp, and why carry another rack when you can just carry the amp conveniently inside your loudspeakers.

Plus, active loudspeakers often have some form of signal processing built into them, and this simplifies the connection of the signal when multiple enclosures are in use. A full range signal can be run out of the mixer and into a subwoofer and then on to a full range box, for example. Many times the full range boxes will have a switch that indicates if it is being used with a subwoofer or not, and when activated automatically sets the crossover point appropriately.

It also stands to reason that the manufacturer would perfectly match the amplifier to the loudspeaker and save you all the trouble of that pesky math, right? Well, in a perfect world… that would be the case, and by and large they do a pretty good job. However, there is an unseen battle going on everywhere product development occurs. It’s an ancient struggle between engineering and marketing. This battle means that a balance must be sought with regard to weight, performance and cost.

A quick comparison of a top-tier pro audio manufacturer’s loudspeaker offerings that are identical except for one side of the line being active and the other being passive shows how effectively they have reduced the weight of the amplifier for that enclosure.

12” 2-way Passive = 35 lbs. 12” 2- way Active = 37 lbs.
15” 2-way Passive = 48 lbs. 15” 2- way Active = 50 lbs.
18” Subwoofer Passive = 67 lbs. 18” Subwoofer Active = 69 lbs.

However, in order to put a lightweight, inexpensive amplifier in the box some performance must be sacrificed. These amplifiers are trimmed down versions of their more robust rack mounted cousins. A properly configured and adequately powered passive system is preferential with regards to overall performance, however, the convenience of an active speaker may outweigh that. Ultimately, there is no right or wrong, and it is for you to decide.

Ben Stowe, CTS Ben Stowe, CTS (10 Posts)

Ben’s love of electronics and technology led to years of schooling in Electricity, Electronics, Robotics and Lasers. Ben supported himself through school by building and selling strobe lights and other electronic devices. He built his first DJ show largely from scratch and scrap, often repairing broken items others had thrown away because he could not afford to buy new equipment. He holds a Minnesota electrical license, and his AV installs have been featured in almost every major industry trade magazine. His relentless passion for education has led to a number of other certifications and accreditations, including the most widely recognized one in the AV industry, the InfoComm CTS. His love for education inspired him to begin the ProAcademy educational sessions, focused on increasing understanding of AV technologies within the industry. Ben has been involved in a number of technical writings, lectures, presentations, as well as research and development assistance with a number of manufacturers for products, industry wide. He is also a regular contributing author to industry magazines in the United States and Europe. Ben’s presentations have been featured across the world both as a part of industry leading trade shows, and as a presenter for various groups and functions. Some of these events include BPM in the United Kingdom, Mobile Beat, the ADJA National Convention, Wedding MBA, and a national tour as a headlining presenter for an industry magazine. The United States Armed Forces branches have also called upon Ben to provide engineering and training assistance. His highly informational, slightly nerdy and always funny presentation style have made him a favorite at events, while his sincere desire to help people with their application of technology have made him a favorite with them after the event. Ben serves the industry as the President of NLFX Professional, an industry leading supplier of sound, lighting and video systems, a role he has maintained since founding the company in 1993.

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