Since stereo came out—roughly around the same time as Kind of Blue—audio systems have typically included a couple of speakers and some sort of separate amplifier. While this arrangement still works well, audio product designers started a couple of decades ago to toy with the idea of building an amplifier into a speaker. For reasons we’ll discuss below, the concept quickly became the norm in professional recording monitors. But even though every speaker and amplifier designer I know believes that “powered” or “active” speakers can deliver superior performance, audiophiles have largely rejected the idea, preferring to pick their speakers and amps separately.
The home audio industry never quite gave up on powered speakers, though. A few companies, most notably Meridian and Dynaudio, kept pushing the concept, and slowly persuaded more and more audiophiles of the advantages of internal amplification. But the trend really took off about two years ago, as audio companies started building streaming services such as Spotify, Apple Music, and Tidal into their products—and as audiophiles got hip to the convenience of mainstream active speakers such as the Sonos Play:5.
The active advantage
On one level, the lure of powered speakers is obvious: You have just one pair of speakers, usually connected with a single cable, instead of speakers, an amp or receiver, maybe a preamp, and cables connecting them. If the speaker has streaming built in, that’s at least one more component you don’t need—and maybe a remote control you can get rid of too.
However, internally amplified speakers can also offer technical advantages. Here we have to distinguish between powered and active speakers. Although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, a powered speaker is generally considered to be just a conventional speaker with an amplifier built in, an arrangement that eliminates a component but offers little improvement in sound quality.
An active speaker, on the other hand, incorporates separate amplifiers for each speaker driver, as well as electronic signal processing to divide the signal into bass and treble for the woofer and tweeter, respectively. (In powered and passive speakers, this task is performed with relatively crude and imprecise networks of capacitors, resistors, and inductors.) The signal can then be fine-tuned to suit the performance characteristics of each driver, thus delivering performance that would be difficult and expensive to match with traditional speakers. The electronic processing also makes it easy to include tone controls, as well as a limiter that prevents damage to the speakers when they’re cranked all the way up.
What’s in the box?
The capabilities and features of powered and active speakers vary considerably. Some basically just eliminate the need for a separate amplifier, while others are designed to operate as complete audio entertainment systems.
At the simplest level are powered systems such as the Kanto YU6 ($399.99). Each of its speakers has a 5.25-inch woofer and a 1-inch tweeter. The left speaker incorporates two amps (one for each speaker), with line and phono inputs as well as Bluetooth wireless. Hook up a turntable for your old Lee Morgan sides; stream Spotify, Apple Music, or Internet radio from your phone through Bluetooth; and connect your TV using the Toslink digital input, and you probably have all the entertainment options you need.
While there are some active speakers without built-in streaming of some sort, they’re uncommon; the best-known example I can think of is Dynaudio’s $1,499 Xeo 10 system, a two-way speaker with analog and digital inputs as well as a Bluetooth receiver. Four 65-watt amplifiers provide fully separate power for the Xeo 10’s tweeters and woofers.
More common these days are speakers with streaming built in, usually through a third-party technology such as Apple AirPlay or DTS Play-Fi. SVS’s $599 Prime Wireless speaker system includes Play-Fi, which lets you play music from streaming services such as Spotify, Pandora, and Tidal, all selected through your smartphone or through the system’s front-panel preset buttons. The Prime Wireless system has 50 watts of power for each speaker driver.
The $2,499 KEF LS50 Wireless system is sort of the Coltrane of wireless speakers—i.e., a standard by which most others tend to be judged. Its coincident driver system centers the tweeter inside the woofer, a design that made the original, passive LS50 one of today’s top audiophile speakers, and it streams Tidal and Spotify directly.
Devialet’s Phantom series might be the most extreme active speakers in terms of radical engineering; they look more like large pill capsules than speakers, but extensive digital signal processing and acoustical engineering give them an amazing sound for their size. The line starts with the $1,090-each Reactor 600, with two drivers and 600 watts of total power per speaker, and goes up to the $2,990-each Phantom Gold, with three drivers and 4,500 watts per speaker. All include Apple AirPlay streaming technology plus Bluetooth.
With these active speakers providing all the convenience of mass-market wireless speakers and sound quality exceeding that of traditional systems, it’s hard to imagine they won’t soon become the standard—especially when kids who got started with Sonos and Bluetooth speakers start to look for something better.