Music is arguably one of the most important things in life. It is a mood setter, a connector and an entertainer all round. Bringing exceptional sounding music into your home becomes a key focus for any host or homemaker. Whether you’re looking for a completely new sound system or simply upgrading your current situation, choosing the right speakers for your particular set up can be overwhelming with so many brands, categories and price points on the market.
But we have some information here to help you – given to us by hi-fi expert, Stephen Dawson, from Addicted to Audio. In this story he’s going to let you know whether your speakers should be active or passive (who knew?) and all the pros and cons about the different types of speakers. So here we go…
There are many ways that speakers can be categorised – two-way or three-way, floor standing or stand-mount, and so on. But one way that’s relatively uncommon in the hi-fi area is passive versus active speakers. That’s because almost all speakers used in hi-fi have traditionally been passive. In professional audio, by contrast, studio monitors are very frequently active.
So what’s the difference?
The main difference is that active speakers have an amplifier/s built in, whereas passive speakers don’t. Although, things are never quite that simple. There are some models which are a bit of both – only adding to the confusion. (It’s worth noting I’m referring to traditional two-channel stereo speakers here, mentioning Bluetooth or other network enabled speakers could keep us here all day.)
The Pros and Cons
Wiring: Passive speakers need to be driven by amplifiers, requiring thick speaker cables. In the home, this has long been the norm for hi-fi and home theatre sound systems. While with active speakers, all you need is the signal cable running from a pre-amplifier to each speaker.
You can expect active speakers to be more expensive because you’re also paying for the amplifier/s. But on the other hand, you save by not having to pay for separate amps. One major advantage of passive speakers is you get to choose which amplifier to use with which set of speakers. With active speakers, the amplifier and speaker are bundled together. Choose one and you get the other.
Because they are quite long and the levels are low, the signal cables to active speakers are more likely to pick up electrical interference than normal speaker cables used with passive speakers. There are ‘balanced’ connections which can minimise interference in active models, however these come at an additional cost, which might be better spent on a great pair of passive speakers.
Control: A key performance difference has to do with amplifier control over the speakers, especially the bass drivers – making the biggest impact on sound quality. It’s the very short lengths of the wiring between drivers and amplifiers in active loudspeakers which provides this control.
It has certainly been my experience that quality active speakers typically have a level of control that goes beyond all but the very best passive systems, due to the built-in nature of the active amps.
While the above covers performance-based differences, there are two practicalities which should be taken into account. The first is quite mundane, but it’s important to note you will need power points for active speakers. Passive speakers require only the audio feed.
Second, there are many more passive models available, which means there’s much more choice. Active speakers occupy only a small segment of the market, so choice is limited and you’re entirely in the hands of the brand as to the quality of the built-in amplifiers.
Just remember, while it’s useful to have all this background knowledge, in the end you should judge on results. If you’re choosing between passive and active speakers, take your favourite music with you to the stores featuring them and have a thorough listen. Then, let your ears do the choosing.
We’d like to thank Stephen Dawson for this information. If you’re keen on good quality sound, take a look at the Addicted to Audio website and check out what they can do for you.