What’s the difference between passive and active PA speakers?


There are many active and passive speakers available from numerous manufacturers in many configurations. We can sort them into two main types. Making choices when shopping will definitely be a challenge if you do not understand the concept and difference between passive and active speakers. We can help you with making the right choice for yourself.

The simplest explanation of these two types of speakers would be that an active speaker is one that has its own amplifier built into its cabinet while a passive speaker drags its power from an external amplifier. The basic difference is in the audio signal amplification and frequency band split of it using crossover filters. Let’s move on a little more detailed explanation.

How speakers work

All speakers work by transferring electrical energy into mechanical motion. It will play loud or soft when the cone vibrates a big or a small amount. Bigger speakers with larger cones, called woofers move more slowly than smaller speakers with tinier cones known as tweeters. Because of that bigger speakers are better for producing lower frequencies. Essentially, any speaker can deliver a wide spectrum of different sound frequencies by moving back and forth quickly for high frequencies or slowly for low frequencies.

loudspeaker diagram with labels
Loudspeaker diagram

The parts and functions of a loudspeaker:

• The diaphragm moves back and forth permitting the air to move. This process creates sound.

• Dust Cap is made to protect the voice coil from dirt and dust.

• Surround is a lining which joins the basket with the diaphragm.

• The basket is a metal frame that holds the speaker together.

• Spider is a kind of suspension which keeps the pressure on the voice coil but also allowing it to move.

• The magnet is usually a rare earth neodymium or ferrite.

• Bottom Plate holds the pole piece and the magnet together.

• Pole Piece focuses the magnetic field produced by the voice coil.

• Voice Coil moves the diaphragm via the magnetic field created by the current in the wire.

picture of active speaker controls
Active speaker

 

Check out my list of 15 great products for church sound systems here

 

Passive Speaker Systems

In passive speaker systems, the signal is amplified by an external power amplifier or powered mixer.

After the signal is amplified, it’s being divided into several frequency bands suitable for reproduction through speaker drivers. A crossover network is in charge of splitting that amplified signal into multiple frequency bands and it is mostly located inside the speaker cabinet.

Passive speaker systems rule the hi-fi world so there is a big chance that you already own at least a pair of these speakers. You need to make sure that your passive speakers and amplifier are compatible with each other because of their impedance and power ratings. If you don’t, you risk either blowing your passive speakers up or not achieving the best sound out of them.

crossover circuit
Crossover Circuit

Active Speaker Systems

Active speaker configurations are usually used as professional concert audio equipment and studio monitors. In active speaker configurations, the audio splits frequency bands before being amplified. There are assigned amplifiers for each driver rather of one amp doing all the work. The active crossover and the amp is placed into the speaker cabinet. This is because of the tinier design of the active crossover. With some of the active speaker configuration, the audio designer is provided with the ability to be free to make an amplifier work best in selective frequencies, increasing the volume efficiency and precision.

Advantages and disadvantages – Active vs Passive Speakers

So what would be the downsides to either of these two speaker types?? The greatest issue with both passive and active speakers, besides the initial cost, is that you are degrading the flexibility you have in the future to make any changes in your system. You have the option of changing both the amplifier or the speakers to make improvements if you don’t like the sound of your current amp and speakers. With an active system, this really isn’t an option.

All speaker crossovers include some volume of loss. In some circumstances, it can 50% loss of power, which is really, you should admit, undesirable.

In passive speaker systems, the signal is already amplified so the crossover elements need to be quite extensive to be able to resist the amperage. Such massive crossover elements can cause distortions an phase shifts.

Various frequency bands need different amounts of power for their reproduction. In regard to passive speakers systems, since the single amplifier provides with power the full set of frequencies in the audio signal, it has to do a lot of work. Only larger and more expensive amplifiers are able to reproduce the entire frequency spectrum with enough power, which means more money out of your wallet.

Also, getting the proper amplifier for your passive speakers in terms of power ratings and impedance can be a little difficult so you need to know what you are doing.

While both types of speakers can sound equally good, you can often hear people talking how active speakers usually sound a lot crisper. This is not really true. The most sensitive and most expensive hi-fi speakers are actually passive as well as active too. But audio quality mostly depends on the configuration you choose.

The significant advantage of powered speakers is that its power loss is reduced to a minimum so efficiency is on a much higher level. Active crossovers, do much better work with splitting frequencies before amplification. It provides much better and controlled bass frequencies so it is not surprising why most of today’s subwoofers are active. Another plus, is that you don’t need speaker cables as the inputs to powered speakers can be direct from a microphone, guitar, keyboard or mixing desk. XLR cables instead of speaker cables from your mixing console are all you will need.

 

You may be interested in my other post – 101 Ideas for Church Sound Systems

 

Active speakers vs passive speakers – FAQs

Can I connect powered speakers to an amplifier?

I suggest you DO NOT connect active speakers/powered speakers to an amplifier! Why? Speaker out jacks on your mixer or amp suggest you connect outputs from a powered mixer or amp to your passive speakers. Speaker Out signals do not carry just the audio. They also carry significant electrical energy (which forces the speakers) that the line inputs on active speakers can’t manage. You can seriously damage your amplifiers, crossovers and/or speakers which will lead to expensive repairs.

Balanced or unbalanced line out is the most common connection between the mixer and the powered speaker. The noise rejection of a balanced line provides extended runs of cable between the mixer and the active speakers without interruption or noise. Most active speakers and powered mixers have balanced XLR or TRS jacks, or both. With these jacks, you’ll be able to easily connect your active speakers with a mixer.

Bose L1 pa system

Can a mixer power passive speakers?

The answer to this question is yes and no. A regular mixer can’t operate passive speakers, while a powered mixer can. A passive speaker requires a powered mixer (or amplifier). That is the entire purpose of having a powered mixer, to provide your two passive speakers with power. Usually, powered mixers are much bigger and heavier, so you can easily recognize it. Also, they cost much more.

Can you daisy chain powered speakers?

There are a couple of answers to this question. Not every active speaker configuration is the same. So you should pay attention to what exactly and how you want to connect your active speakers with each other.

You can easily connect with another powered speaker. There is no need to worry about impedance because powered speaker’s amplifier feeds only the internal speakers so there are no issues when connecting out to another powered speaker.

On the other hand, if you want to daisy chain active speakers with passive ones that depend on your powered speaker system. Usually, the active speakers send out a non-amplified signal only and the passive speakers need an amplified one. So that can’t work. The drivers will become less responsive and sound weak and, more importantly, you risk overheating your active crossover. So we don’t recommend this. So we suggest to consult with the professional audio engineer about your speaker configuration and follow the instructions given by the manufacturer.

But if we are talking about active studio monitors, they actually work exactly this way. Not all, but most of them have an amp in just one speaker which provides power to another one. Also, there are a different computer powered speaker which work the same. From one speaker (usually woofer if 2.1; 5,1 configuration) power is sent to all the other speakers from one with the amplifier inside of it.

Do you need an amplifier with active speakers?

Simply, no. The main advantage of a active speakers is that you can take them anywhere with you, place them near a wall outlet, connect them to your sound source (CD player, instrument, mp3 player, mixer, lap-top … etc). It’s definitely much easier than carrying passive speakers and a separate amplifier, as they all have built in amplifiers within them.

Can active speakers be used as passive?

No. Why? The only reason for this is if you do not have a wall outlet near your active speaker. In that case, we recommend that you do not use the speaker as a passive one. Move the speaker where you can turn it into an adjacent current. Do not mess around, you can cause expensive damage to your speakers.

But wait… On the other hand the answer can be yes. If your crossover or inbuilt amp are broken, you can easily turn the active speaker into a passive one with the simple physical removal of these parts.

Other things you need to know about passive vs active speakers are cables, weight, price, ease of use.

For active speakers, you need two cables one for the audio signal, the other for power. Passive speakers require only one cable. Although, some manufacturers now use Wi-Fi to receive audio signals to their active speakers, so you only need one cable – for powering.

The active speaker often has a greater weight than an equivalent passive because the internal amp electronics often have a greater weight than crossover in passive speakers.

Passive vs active – the difference in price is debatable. The price of the active speaker will always be greater than the equivalent passive one, because they have built in amplifiers. But for the passive speaker, you will need to by a separate amplifer.

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