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Sound System Advice: Do I Choose Passive or Active Speakers?

Recently I was cleaning out some of equipment and thought it would be good to sell a used pair of passive stage speakers I had laying around collecting dust. I posted a few online ads, and in the span of a few days, I had several people interested in taking them off my hands, but I noticed a common theme: there seemed to be a lot of confusion around the difference between active and passive speakers.

So, what's the difference and why does it matter?

When investing in a sound system, it's important to know the main differences between active and passive speaker setups. This is especially true when it comes to passive setups and power amps, as making wrong connections or overloading your speakers can lead to some serious and often irreversible equipment damage.

The main differences between speakers are as follows:

- Passive speakers (also known as unpowered speakers) do not have a built-in power amp section and therefore they require power from an appropriate external power amp to drive the speaker. This power amp needs to be properly matched to the speaker in order to make sure the speaker is getting the right amount of power.

- Active speakers (also referred to as powered speakers) are speakers that have a power amp built into the speaker enclosure, meaning they only need to be plugged into the wall to function and will not require an external power amp. As the power section is built directly into the speaker enclosure, the power amp section will be perfectly matched to the speakers.

So what do I need to know about Passive speakers?

Passive (unpowered) speakers will require an external power amp to drive them.

Most power amps are rack-mounted, such as the Behringer NX3000 pictured below.

Behringer NX3000 Power Amplifier

These power amps function by taking the line-out signal from your mixer, and sending this audio signal (along with the electrical current required to drive the speaker cabinet) down the speaker cable. These setups are excellent for permanent installations of speakers, or in some mobile sound situations where it's best to rack the power amp and mixer in one case, such as in the photo pictured below.

The Creative Musician - Passive Vs. Active Sound Systems
A desk mixer & QSC power amp setup, in an SKB tour case

A passive speaker setup is great if you don't want to run power cables to each of your speakers individually, as well as in situations where power points on-stage are limited. A desk mixer and power amp setup such as in the photo above can make your load-ins and equipment setups much quicker. It's also the better option if you have a dedicated sound engineer running your sound board for your shows, as they can monitor the power amps during your performance and make any changes as required.

Passive systems are great as they give you the most control over your speakers, but they do require a bit of extra equipment and operational knowledge. Passive setups only require a speaker cable to be run between the speaker and the power amp outputs, making your setup simple. it also allows you more flexibility when positioning your speakers, as you don't need to worry as much about how close you are to a power point, or running extension cords across the stage.

There are several mixers on the market today that have a built-in power amp section, such as the Yamaha EMX5 which combines both a mixer and a power amp into one compact unit. These units are great for solo acts, duo's as well as for small band applications. The EMX5 pictured below has 2 powered output channels, delivering up to 630W per side at either 8 or 16Ω, which is plenty of power for small to mid-sized venues.

The Creative Musician - Passive Vs. Active Speaker Setups
Yamaha EMX5 has a built-in power amp section

When matching passive speakers to power amps, it's important to understand the concepts of Watts, Ohms(Ω)/Impedance, Peak Power and Continuous Power Ratings.

Wattage is a measurement of the amount of electricity required to power the speaker.

Ohms (Ω)/Impedance refers to the properties of the speaker that restricts the current flow. Speakers are usually rated at 16, 8, or 4 ohms. It is important to ensure that the power amp you're using matches the impedance of the speakers. The power amp and speakers will both indicate the Ω's, as well as wattage.

Peak Power Rating refers to a the maximum wattage a speaker can handle in short bursts.

Continuous Power Rating refers to the maximum operational wattage recommended to drive the speaker. For example, a speaker may be rated at 250W continuous (which means it can handle 250W continuously), but it may have a peak power rating of 1000W, which means it can handle up to 1000W in very short bursts without causing any damage to the speaker. It's important to reference the continuous power rating of a speaker when matching it to an appropriate power amp.

If, for example, you had a passive speaker cabinet that operated at 650W continuous & 1200W Peak at 8Ω, the Yamaha EMX5 discussed above would be a good pairing. Why's that? Firstly, as mentioned above, the EMX5 can operate at both 8 and 16Ω, so our impedance matches and we won't have any issues there. Secondly, we know the power amp section on the EMX5 will deliver a maximum of 630W (that's assuming we were running it at 100% volume). In the audio world, we should always be leaving headroom and we shouldn't ever be running anything fully cranked. but even if we did run our mixer at 100% volume, these speakers are rated to operate at a continuous wattage level that is higher than what our power amp is putting out. This means we won't have to worry about damaging the speakers even if things did get rowdy and the volume was maxed out.

What about Active Speakers?

Active speakers function a little differently, and they have the power amp section built into the speaker enclosure. This means they are self-powered and only need to be plugged into the wall, instead of being powered by a separate power amp. A great example of a powered speaker is QSC K Series Powered Speakers. The main advantage of having powered speakers is the convenience and simplicity of not having to match speakers with an external power amp. These speakers only require an audio signal as an input, and they are usually connected to the line level outputs of a mixer via either XLR or 1/4" cable.

QSC K Series Powered Speakers

So what system type should I get? Passive or Active?

Unfortunately there's no right answer when it comes to which is better. It all comes down to your intended use of your sound system, and whether or not you'd prefer to have

Active speakers offer a bit more flexibility and are a bit more user friendly, but come with a higher price tag. You also don't have to rely on bringing a power amp, which means you can bring just one powered speaker for those smaller shows, or bring 2 or more for the bigger venues.

The same is true of passive speakers, but they do require a bit more technical knowledge and know-how. Overall, both setups can provide excellent sound if used correctly. Have a think about what types of venues you'll be performing in and what the intended uses are for your sound systems before making a decision.

Pro's & Cons:

Passive Speakers - Pro's:

  • Do not need to be plugged into the wall directly; both audio and electricity travel down the speaker cable from an external power amp unit.

  • Passive speakers are usually much lighter and more portable than active speakers as they do not house a built-in power amp.

  • They allow greater flexibility and allow for bi-amping configurations (advanced) in larger stage setups.

  • More flexibility in speaker placement, as power cables and access to power points is a non-issue.

  • Some mixers have built in power amps, such as the Yamaha EMX5 which makes using passive speakers easier than ever.

  • Cheaper than active speakers.

Passive Speakers - Con's:

  • Passive speakers require an external power amp to function.

  • Speakers and other components can be easily damaged if incorrectly wired or overloaded. It is important to consider wattage, impedance and power ratings before pairing passive speakers to a power amp.

  • The speakers themselves are cheaper than active speakers, but you'll need to factor in the cost of a power amp/mixer with a power amp section.

Active Speakers - Pro's:

  • More convenient, plug-and-play operation. Simply plug them into the wall, and plug in your input source.

  • The power amps built-in are perfectly tuned to the speakers. Often times active speakers will also include built-in limiters, which prevent the speaker from being overloaded.

Active Speakers - Con's:

  • Active speakers tend to be heavier as they house a built in power amp

  • Must be plugged into the wall. If running several active speakers, it means you may need extension cords and power strips, as well as several XLR or 1/4" cables to send line-level audio from your mixer to the speaker.

  • Usually more expensive than passive speakers.


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