Visit a pro audio retailer and almost every studio monitor speaker you see will have amplification built in. But visit a high-end audio store and you’ll see mostly old-school passive speakers, which have to be connected to an amplifier. Audio production professionals might wonder why the consumer audio industry hasn’t embraced a technology that’s been the norm in studios for at least 20 years—but audiophiles have their reasons.s..
Pros switched to powered (also known as “active”) monitor speakers primarily because of the precision they offer. With the electronics built into the speakers, manufacturers can tune them to near perfection—and even add a switch to simulate the sound of classic studio monitors like the Auratone and Yamaha NS-10. But audiophiles have been skeptical that a speaker with amps built in could match the sound quality of separate speakers and amps.
For years, consumer audio manufacturers who understood the advantages of powered speakers were continually frustrated by the commercial failure of the active models they offered. But in the last five years or so, the rise of streaming services—which many powered speakers can access without any additional components other than a smartphone—have prompted audiophiles to give powered designs a fresh listen.
The Advantages of Active Speakers
Powered speakers offer many technical advantages over passive models. Engineers have to tune passive speakers through the use of large, imprecise resistors, capacitors, and inductors. But most powered speakers are tuned using equalization circuits that take their place in the signal chain before the amplifier. Because the signal levels at this stage are much lower, engineers can use smaller, more precise components. Many of them use digital signal processing, which gives engineers even more flexibility and allows extremely precise tuning of the speaker, as well as the addition of modes that can compensate for the acoustical effects of placing a speaker near a wall or in a corner. Even relatively simple models, like the $199 Audioengine A1, have internal limiter circuits that prevent the speakers and amps from being damaged when you crank them full-blast—something you can’t safely do with separate amps and speakers.
All speakers with more than one driver (i.e., a woofer, a tweeter, and maybe a midrange driver) use a crossover to route the desired sonic frequencies to each driver. In passive speakers, this involves a crossover made with the same imprecise components noted above. But the better powered speakers use separate amplifiers for each driver, and a more precise active crossover circuit that can achieve a near-perfect blend between the different drivers.
Manufacturers have recently started to augment their active speakers with streaming technologies, such as Apple AirPlay 2 and Google Chromecast. These features not only let you access your favorite streaming services, such as Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora, and TuneIn Radio, but they also let you use the powered speakers as part of a multiroom audio system, playing the same music in multiple rooms of the house. Most of these models also include Bluetooth for easy, direct streaming from phones and tablets. Some of the most acclaimed examples include the $2,799 KEF LS50 Wireless II and the $599 SVS Prime Wireless.
Perhaps the feature that will appeal most to city-dwelling jazz fans, though, is that these feature-packed active speakers require no other components—the speakers themselves are the system, with content streamed wirelessly from the internet or mobile devices rather than played from traditional devices like CD players and turntables. However, all of these speakers have inputs that allow connection of traditional source devices. Some even have HDMI inputs that let them connect to a TV, so they’ll work like a soundbar—although with much better sound.
The Pros of Passive Speakers
But there must be a good reason why most audiophiles still use traditional passive speakers, right? Actually, there are several.
The first and most obvious is that audiophiles enjoy mixing and matching components in pursuit of the most pleasing sound—something that’s impossible to do with active speakers. They also like the much broader selection of high-quality passive speakers now available; exotic touches like horn and ribbon tweeters, full-range drivers, and open-back designs are rarely found in powered speakers.
Another advantage is that passive speakers don’t go out of date. Even 50-year-old classics can adapt quite well to new technologies and sources, while a state-of-the-art 2022 powered model may not be compatible with whatever new audio technologies have emerged by 2032.
The third, and perhaps most important, reason for the continued popularity of passive speakers is that as products, powered speakers can be about as exciting as a refrigerator—they’re practical appliances designed to do their job well, not to be sexy. I doubt even the most technically minded audio engineer would deny that owning a pair of elite high-end speakers paired with a tube amp and preamp delivers a sense of satisfaction no powered speaker could ever match.