Active vs Passive Speakers: The Differences Explained

active speakers vs passive speakers

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If you’re speaker shopping, you are sure to come across both active and passive speaker systems, and you may not have a clear idea about what this means or what the differences are.

Don’t worry, you’re not alone – lots of people have asked us the exact same question!

And so in this brief informational article I will simply but thoroughly explain the differences between active speakers and passive speakers.

Passive vs Active Speakers: The Short Story

Active speakers have an amplifier built into their speaker cabinet. This means that you don’t need to connect them to a separate amplifier, but instead can use the much lower power output of, for instance, the headphone jack of your phone or PC, or any audio equipment’s auxiliary outputs, and the active speakers will still play as loud as you want.

Active speakers are quite frequently Bluetooth wireless, though most also have a wired connectivity option (for, again, headphone jacks and other gear) and most often come as either a single speaker designed to fill your space with sound or a pair of stereo speakers.

Passive speakers do not have an amplifier built in, and so must be connected to a separate stereo amplifier, since the low output from, for example, a headphone jack does not have anywhere near enough power to drive them to listenable levels.

Since active speakers need to be physically wired to an amplifier, they are not made with Bluetooth wireless technology. They are most often used as stereo pairs, although sometimes they are sold individually.

What’s The Difference Between Active Speakers and Passive Speakers?

active speakers vs passive speakers

There are a lot of different kinds of speakers available today, but maybe the main difference – and the one you see most frequently – is between active and passive speakers.

Active speakers have built in amplifiers, while passive speakers do not, and need to be driven from a separate amplifier or receiver. One or the other type of speaker does not inherently sound better or worse, and the decision of which type is best for you depends primarily on how you will be using them.

So let’s look at each of these common types of speakers in detail, so that you can understand what they are and how they are different, and can make an informed choice and end up with the best kind of speaker for you and your needs.

What Is an Active Speaker?

Active speakers, also known as amplified speakers or powered speakers, are simply speakers that include their own power amplifier, which is built into the cabinet and drives the speakers to satisfying listening levels. 

Active speakers are extremely popular today, and outsell their passive counterparts by a very wide margin. This is largely because more and more people are using phones and PCs for music, and those devices have a very low power output (usually from their headphone jacks) and don’t don’t have nearly enough power to play a larger passive speaker – and so the separate speaker needs to have its own power amplifier.

The vast majority of active speakers have Bluetooth capability – again because of the popularity of smartphones, tablets, laptop and desktop PCs, and the fact that all these devices also have Bluetooth – but some active speakers do not have Bluetooth wireless (though this is pretty rare these days) and so they need to be physically connected using interconnect cables.

These cables will run from, most commonly, the headphone jack of a phone, tablet or PC, but this wired connection will also work perfectly with a wide range of other audio gear, like older cassette or CD players, game consoles, televisions, portable music players and even modern digital music players – really any device, as long as it has what we would call “auxiliary out” or “line out” connectors (or, again, a standard headphone jack) will work with an active speaker’s wired input.

But even if you are planning to use a wired connection it is still really nice to have an active speaker with Bluetooth wireless compatibility as well, and you may use this much more than you would imagine.

Because of its built-in amplifier, an active speaker will always need to be plugged into an AC wall outlet, or to have its own rechargeable battery, where passive speakers do not need an AC or battery power source at all – just power from an audio amplifier.

To be clear, though, even though we talk about power supplies, connections and connectivity and other technical issues, the specific thing that makes an active speaker active is the inclusion of a built-in power amplifier to drive the speaker to satisfying volume levels.

There are an overwhelming number of active amplified speakers on the market today, and selecting the right one can seem an impossible task, but here at Speakergy we are especially fond of JBL Portable Bluetooth Speakers, which are tough as nails, have a big, fun and highly accurate sound and always work perfectly.

For home speakers, we often recommend the wonderful line of Edifier Bookshelf Speakers, which offer fantastic sound and a premium fit and finish for a low price, or more on the higher end the superb Focal Floor-Standing Speakers, which are as beautiful to look at as they are to listen to, and easily among the finest speakers made today.

What Is a Passive Speaker?

passive speakers vs active speakers

Passive speakers have been around a lot longer than active speakers, and when we think of a traditional stereo system, with its turntable, CD player, amplifier or receiver, stereo speakers and masses of wires running in all directions, the speakers are most likely passive.

Unlike active speakers, passive ones do not have an amplifier built in, so they rely on a separate, relatively high-power amplifier to drive them loud enough that we can hear and enjoy the music or audio program.

If you run a wire from a headphone jack into an active speaker it will work perfectly, but if you run the wire into a passive speaker the sound will be so weak that you probably won’t even be able to hear it – a typical headphone jack will have maybe half a milliwatt of power at most, where separate stereo amplifiers regularly have 100 watts or more – something like 2000 times more power!

This means that if you are planning on purchasing passive, unamplified speakers, you will need to purchase, or already have, a separate amplifier – this can come in the form of a power amplifier or preamplifier, which do little more than supply a high-power audio signal to the passive speaker, or a receiver, which also has a radio built in, as well as other audio controls and functions.

While not as popular as they once were, or as active speakers are today, there are still tons of different companies making exceptionally high quality passive speaker systems.

We particularly like the highly innovative and beautiful sounding speakers from Q Acoustics, which range from fairly affordable to quite pricey, but are all just stunning. And for more budget choices you can’t do much better than the wonderful Micca Passive Speakers, also available in a wide range of prices but all quite affordable.

Conclusion: Difference Between Active and Passive Speakers

Active speakers, also known as amplified speakers or powered speakers, have a power amplifier built into their cabinet, and so you do not need to buy or use a separate power amplifier.

These active speakers, which are by far the most popular type on the market today, will work perfectly using wired connection from a low-powered headphone jack, like on a phone or PC, or from any audio gear’s aux output, which is also commonly called a line output.

Active speakers most often also have Bluetooth wireless connectivity, making them even more useful and convenient with phones and computers, as well as a wide range of other modern electronic gadgets.

Passive Speakers, on the other hand, do not have an amplifier built in, and so they need to be physically connected to and driven by a separate audio amplifier, which can be either a dedicated power amp or integrated amplifier or the amp built into a receiver.

Although passive speakers were once the standard, and pretty much the only type you could get, these days they are not nearly as popular, and are handily outsold by active speakers. This is largely due to the popularity of personal computers and smart telephones and people’s preference for using these devices for playing music, movies and other programming.

It cannot be said with any real reliability that one type of speaker sounds better than the other, and it really comes down to not whether they are active or passive, but how well they are engineered, designed and made – and in this regard there are lots of really excellent sounding active speakers and lots of really excellent sounding passive speakers.

So the real determining factor comes down to you and your needs – specifically what kind of gear you have already, how you are going to play music and how you are going to use your new speakers. If you are primarily planning on playing music from a phone or PC, active speakers are almost certainly the best choice, but if you already have a nice stereo system and/or separate amplifier, and want new speakers for it, you are probably best off going for passive.