When shopping for a new sound system you will often hear people talk about ‘passive’ and ‘active’ speakers, but…What’s the difference? Which one is best for you? What are the advantages of either? What are the disadvantages? Well, read on and, hopefully, all will become clear.
Passive PA speakers have been the mainstay of PA systems since the birth of loadspeakers all those many moons ago. A passive speaker is one that is driven by an external amplifier or power-amp and, in essence, is just a couple of drivers in a cabinet. In a simple DJ setup, for example, you would connect the output of your DJ mixer into the input on your amplifier, you would then connect the amplifiers outputs into your speakers. Passive speakers normally use Jack or Speakon connections (these are the black and blue connectors that push and twist) but some still use binding posts or ‘bare wire’ connections. Passive speakers are used in almost ALL installation applications, any big nightclub, theatre or other venue will, most likely, use a passive system (If you are used to DJ’ing in clubs you will have probably seen racks of amplifiers which can be adjusted easily by the sound engineer).
The main advantage of using passive speaker cabinets is that they are easier and cheaper to repair or replace and, as with any ‘modular’ system are much easier to upgrade than an active system (which I will come to in a minute). Passive speakers only require a single input and can be ‘daisy-chained’ meaning that, when it comes to installation, wiring for passive speakers is far simpler than active models (which also require a mains input). Passive speakers are, generally, much lighter than active ones making them more portable or easier to install but, for mobile use, carry the disadvantage that you need to transport and connect a separate amplifier to the system.
Active PA speakers are a fairly modern phenomenon and are, for the first time ever, beginning to outsell passive ones. Put simply, an Active (or ‘Powered’) speaker is a speaker that has its’ own amplifier built into the cabinet. Using the same DJ setup as in the example above, in an active setup you would connect the output from your DJ mixer DIRECTLY into the inputs on the speakers. Active speakers are normally connected via phono or 3-pin XLR cables with the one channel (i.e left or right) going to each speaker. Active speakers are mainly used in portable PA applications such as for mobile disco or band use.
There are several key advantages to using an active system for your PA setup. By cutting out the need for a separate power amp, setup is much simpler and quicker (imperative for mobile DJs who often have a very narrow window of time to setup their rig). By doing away with separate amplifiers you also have less to load, unload and carry (although it is worth mentioning at this point that active speakers are usually a fair-bit heavier than the passive versions). With active speakers it is also very easy to expand or shrink your PA system with each additional speaker just requiring an audio signal from the last. When adding additional active speakers to your rig you don’t have to worry about ‘loading’, ‘impedance’ or over-driving your amp and simply connect as many speakers as required in series. In fact, because every active speaker has its’ own, perfectly-matched, amplifier you need never worry about over/underpowering your system. There are further benefits to active speakers, if you are using a passive setup and your amplifier gives up half-way through a gig (it happens!) then at best you have to stop the music while you install a spare and, at worst, it’s game over and goodnight Vienna. With an active system, if an amplifier goes mid-set then you can carry on your gig with the remaining speakers.
There are, however, some disadvantages to active speakers. Aside from the increased weight (some active subwoofers weigh in excess of 40kg) active speakers are typically more expensive than the passive alternative (although you will always get the cheapest price at getinthemix.co.uk…obviously). Active speakers do also require a mains input for each cabinet which is fine unless you have a large rig with a number of speakers and need to somehow get mains power to them all. This is why you will rarely see an active PA system in a nightclub, if you have a dozen speakers above a dancefloor then you would need to get both mains power and an audio signal to each (there is obviously also the weight implications of ‘flying’ a dozen active speakers). Please note, this guide only relates to active PA speaker and not to studio monitors (you can find our huge range of active studio monitors HERE).
So there we have it, a brief summary of the differences, pros and cons and key features of active and passive sound systems. Need more information or want advice on the best system for you? No worries, give our friendly, knowledgeable sales team a call on 01206 845125 and they would be delighted to help you with your query. In the meantime, why not check out our full range of Speakers and PA Packages on our website.
Part 2 – What’s a Watt and how many do I need?