To Amp or Not to Amp?

November 6, 2015 by Scott Jarema

ActivePassive-grille-sqTHAT IS THE QUESTION

 

One of the best things about being a mobile DJ today is the almost endless variety of equipment we have available to us to do our job. Today’s DJ can choose from traditional turntables running vinyl or DVS software to DJ controllers, and even tablets. No matter your budget or personal needs, there is something that will fit the bill. Of course this always stirs up debate as to which is best option with regards to choosing the best speakers for our set up.

For the mobile DJ, he or she has basically two options when it comes to PA speaker selection; active, (powered) speakers, or passive (un-powered) speakers. Let’s take a look at the differences between them.

 

To Amp…

 

Active or “powered” speakers incorporate a built-in amplifier in addition to the actual speaker transducers. All of the active speaker cabinets today have one or more line/microphone inputs, while some higher-end models even feature multiple inputs along with a basic mixer to control the volume of each input. In addition to this, most also feature a 1/4” TS or XLR line output so you can daisy chain additional active PA cabinets for more coverage at the venue. Another advantage to the active PA speaker is that the built-in amplifier is matched to work with the speakers so you don’t have to worry about over- or under-powering your speakers. I personally run active PA speakers with my rig because of the convenience of not having to lug around and additional piece of gear, namely the amplifier.

 

Some of the drawbacks of running active PA speakers include having to find power for them. Each active speaker requires power to run it. In a perfect world, you could position them right near a serviceable AC outlet and simply plug in. But we all know this rarely happens, so it’s necessary to have AC power cables at least as long as your speaker signal cables to run them from the power strip you inevitably have by your set up to the cabinet itself. Another drawback is weight. Let’s face it; amplifiers, regardless of being built in or separate, are heavy. Even modern amps still have some heft to them. This really isn’t too much of a problem for the younger DJs out there, but manhandling an active speaker on top of a stand can be a challenge for some of the older ones. One final thing to consider is redundancy. If you have an amp failure in an active speaker, you lose the speaker. If you have purchased a high quality speaker, you should not have to deal with this but it can and sometimes does happen. My best advice against this is to buy the best speakers you can afford. I learned this the hard way once when I bought a set of “bargain” speakers manufactured by a well known brand and they were nothing but trouble.  Trust me; the extra money is well spent on a quality set!

 

…Or not to amp?

 

Passive speakers do not have amplifiers incorporated into their design. They require a separate amplifier (or amplifiers) to drive them. On a passive speaker, like the active types, you will also find different types of inputs mentioned above. Most models also feature Speakon™ receptacles too. Speakon cables are designed to handle the high power output from your amplifier to the speaker. This PA speaker configuration is probably familiar to a lot of “old school” DJs from years past. I ran this type of setup when I first started out and I still remember fondly my Peavey CS800 that was built like a tank…and it weighed almost as much! Throw anything at it, and it just worked. As with the active speakers, there are advantages and disadvantages to running your rig this way.

 

First of all, passive speakers are lighter than comparable active speakers, so they’re easier to mount on stands. With a centrally located amplifier, (usually under the table you have your gear on), your power requirements are centralized as well. You don’t need to run power to each speaker’s amp, thus saving set-up and tear-down time. This also allows you to carry less cabling in your kit, but as I always recommend, it’s always a good idea to have extra cables.

 

Having a separate amp also allows you flexibility when selecting your gear. As with a home stereo composed of separate components, you can pick and choose the best gear for your particular needs or tastes. You can also upgrade your speakers while still keeping your perfectly good amplifier instead of shelling out for active speakers with new amps every time you upgrade. One of the biggest advantages I have found of this type set up is redundancy. As I mentioned above, if you have an amp failure in an active speaker, you have lost that speaker. With a separate amp, if you lose a channel on the amp, you can usually double up speakers on the working channel, and still finish the gig. Your sound won’t be in stereo, but you also won’t have people repeatedly coming up to you to say, “Hey, you know your speaker is out?!”

 

The only real disadvantages with this setup are: having to carry around an additional piece of heavy gear that you have to look after; and the need to add additional amplifiers if you are planning on providing coverage over a large area, or you need additional sound reinforcement. With the powered speakers, one only needs to daisy chain them for more sound. You can also daisy chain additional passive speakers too, but you always have to keep in mind that the more speakers you add, the more you tax your amplifier.

 

In the end, there really is no “right” or “wrong” answer as to which is better. It is ultimately dependent on your operating situations and personal preference. Whether you go with an active or passive solution, the bottom line is to always make sure to purchase the best possible technology you can afford.

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Scott Jarema Scott Jarema (4 Posts)

Scott Jarema got started as a mobile DJ in the late 1980s after high school and into college. Between gigs, he works as sales manager for a marine electronics firm in Marina del Rey, California where he currently resides. An avid sailor, he has written articles for boating related publications, and has also held a DJ residency at the California Yacht Club. He has had the pleasure of spinning gigs on Catalina Island as well.


Filed Under: Issue #166, Sound