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Kris Wouk is a freelance tech writer and musician with over 10 years of experience as a writer and a lifetime of experience as a gadget fan. He has also written for Digital Trends, MakeUseOf, Android Authority, and Sound Guys. At MakeUseOf, he was Section Editor in charge of the site's Mac coverage. Read more...
If you’re shopping for speakers, you’ve probably run into the terms passive and active. There is a major difference between these types of speakers, and which type you need depends on what you want to do with them.
The difference between active and passive speakers all comes down to how they’re amplified. All speakers require amplification, but passive and active speakers go about it in very different ways.
Passive speakers are most likely the type that pops into your head when you think of a basic speaker. These rely on an external amplifier or stereo receiver to provide power. If you think of a classic stereo system, these use passive speakers almost exclusively.
Active speakers have built-in amplification, so they don’t require an external amplifier or receiver. Active speakers can simply have a power amp that you drive with an external preamp, or they can include their own preamps and even other features like digital inputs. While this is the main difference, there are other differences in how the speakers work that can mean differences in how they sound.
As you’re deciding between the two, more often than not, it’s what you already have that will dictate what kind of speakers you need. For example, do you already have a receiver but need new speakers? You’re looking for passive speakers. There are benefits and drawbacks to consider for both types, though.
One of the biggest positives of passive speakers is that you have very little in the way of restrictions on where you can place them. While active speakers need a power source, you only need to connect passive speakers to the speaker wires running from your amplifier.
Passive speakers let you choose every component of your signal chain. Starting from the source, like a turntable or your phone, you can pick the amplifier or A/V receiver, then the models of the individual speakers. You can even opt for a more modular setup if you would rather pick your preamp, power amp, and equalizer, for example.
The modular nature of a setup with passive speakers also means it’s easier to repair or replace a single element if it fails. If the amplifier in an active speaker stops working, you need to replace the entire speaker. If your amplifier in a system with passive speakers stops working, you can simply replace the amplifier.
Passive speakers have also been around far longer than active speakers, at least when it comes to home use. This means that you can find plenty of classic speakers that will still sound great with a brand-new amplifier or receiver. That leaves you with more options.
Of course, to make the most of how much flexibility passive speakers offer, you need some knowledge of how they work. If you don’t want to bother learning what ohms in speakers are or which gauge of speaker wire you need, you may feel like choosing passive speakers is a waste of time.
Mobility is another factor you may not think of at first. Since you need a separate amplifier and speaker wires, passive speakers are also far from portable. Yes, you could pack up your whole stereo or home theater system and bring it to a friend’s house, but would you really want to? Consider how mobile you want to be before you make your decision.
Active speakers are positively simple to use compared to passive speakers. You don’t need to worry about matching your amplifier to the speakers because the internal amplifier is already perfectly matched. All you need to worry about is plugging the speaker into power and connecting your source devices.
For the same reason, powered speakers can sound better than a similar passive speaker setup, especially if the passive speakers and amplifier are poorly matched. Manufacturers can choose or design components to match and complement each other, meaning that hard work is already taken care of for you.
One of the biggest advantages of active speakers is that they can accept wireless signals. With passive speakers, you either need an amplifier with wireless connectivity built-in, or something like a Bluetooth receiver. With wireless speakers, all you have to do is pair them with your phone or other device.
Looking at downsides, because they contain an amplifier and other electronics, active speakers are heavier than passive speakers. That said, many modern powered speakers use class D amplifiers, which are smaller and lighter, making this less of an issue.
For the same reason, active speakers are more expensive than passive speakers. At the same time, however, you’re saving money by not needing an amplifier or receiver to use with passive speakers.
Finally, with active speakers, what you buy is what you get. If you’re looking to pick and choose components, active speakers don’t offer anywhere near the level of flexibility that passive speakers do.
RELATED: What Is a Class-D Amplifier, and What Are They Useful For?
If you know a fair bit about how audio signals work, or you’re looking to learn, passive speakers may be right for you. It takes work, but this is the most direct path toward building the music system of your dreams, assuming you know what you’re looking for.
On the other hand, if you’re looking for an easier setup, active speakers handle much of the work for you, right down to matching their internal components. Once you buy a speaker, you’re stuck with what you bought, but there are plenty of fantastic active speakers out there. If you can’t try listening to them in person, read detailed reviews to get an idea of which speaker will sound best to your ear.
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