What are the important differences between active and passive PA speakers?

Are you looking to buy your first PA system or upgrade your current one?

Whether you’re a brand new band who wants to get out gigging,  a fitness instructor or professional speaker with many bookings, it’s important to consider exactly what you require from your PA’s setup before investing in a new one.

One of the fundamental things to consider when investing in your PA system is whether or not you require active or passive PA speakers. If this is terminology that you’re unfamiliar with, don’t worry because, at Prebeat, we’ve got you covered.

In this guide, we’ll discuss the main differences between active and passive PA speakers, from how they are set up to the pros and cons of each so that you can confidently invest in the right choice for your PA requirements.

Hi-Fi acoustic sound system closeup.

Table of contents: 

What is the difference between active and passive PA speakers?

What are active PA speakers?

What are passive PA speakers?

What is a power amp, and how does it work?

Do I need active or passive PA speakers?

What is the difference between active and passive PA speakers?

The main difference between active and passive PA speakers is how they are powered. Active speakers, or powered speakers, have a built-in amplifier and require a main power source or battery.

Passive speakers, or non-powered speakers, on the other hand, do not require a mains power supply. Passive speakers don’t have a built-in amplifier and must be connected to an external one or a powered mixer to function. In a passive PA speaker setup, speaker cables are required to transfer sound from the powered amplifiers into the speakers. 

To understand the differences between active and passive PA speakers, let’s take a closer look into what each is, how they function, and their pros and cons. 

What are active PA speakers? 

Active or powered speakers are all-in-one systems that don’t require an external amplifier but need a mains power supply or battery. They are powered internally, and their amplification element is built-in into their speaker cabinet. 

When active PA speakers are connected to a main power source, once a line-level signal is fed into the speakers, be that a voice, mp3 file or an instrument, they will produce sound. A common active PA setup usually involves two speakers and a mixer, allowing the user to use the speakers in stereo and control the output to suit the space. 

Some active PA speakers have a built in mixer, others just have a simple line input with gain control, so sound can be mixed to a professional standard in a user-friendly way. 

Active PA systems are the best choice for public speakers, churches, and small venues, offering enough sound depth and power for the venue’s size. They’re also ideal for venue owners that need to switch between pre-recorded and live music easily. Portable, battery-powered, active PA speakers are a good choice for buskers needing a mobile sound solution. 

Main pros of active speakers:

  • User-friendly kit; they’re an all-in-one solution that’s easy to set up and ready to use without much technical knowledge. 
  • It’s easy to alter the sound on most active PA speakers by using the dials on the back of the speaker, and as the amplifier is tuned to the speakers, you can achieve great sound without needing a sound engineer. 
  • An affordable entry-level solution for bands, singers and professional speakers who are just starting out. 
  • Active PA speakers can be used independently or as part of a bigger setup. Then, when you come to upgrade your speakers, their size and shape make them ideal for connecting and using as monitors. 

Main cons of active speakers: 

  • Because their amplifier is built in, they are a little heavier than passive speakers.
  • As the amp is inside the speaker, if it breaks, the broken element can’t be changed as easily as it can in a passive speaker setup. The whole speaker would need to be taken away for repair. This can be tricky when the speakers are a permanent fixture, as an engineer would need to remove the whole unit to fix it. 

What are passive PA speakers?

Speaker panels that are hung with the metal frame in the concert, sound system attached to the scaffolding, outdoor sound system.

Although they don’t require mains or battery power, passive PA speakers must be connected to an external powered mixer or power amplifier. Unlike active speakers, there is no amplifier in the speaker cabinet, so passive PA speakers need to be connected to an external amplifier with speaker cables to allow sound to transfer. 

Because passive PA speakers aren’t all-in-one, they must have a compatible power rating to the amplifier they are connected to, to prevent the speakers from blowing and the sound quality from being poor.

Generally, passive speakers are better for medium and large-sized venues that require more power and a greater depth of sound. 

It might be worth investing in a subwoofer if you plan to use a passive PA setup.  If you have a crossover in your amplifier or use an external crossover this would allow you to split the signal, sending the lower-frequency sounds to the subwoofer and the higher-frequency sounds to the main speaker.

This is particularly useful for DJs or large, live bands that require greater depth of sound; a subwoofer provides this richer depth for greater sound quality. 

Main pros of passive speakers:

  • As the components are separate, upgrading your setup later is much easier. For example, you may have an amplifier with multiple channels to which you currently only connect two speakers. This allows you to add more when you can, so long as the amp’s power is compatible. 
  • Again, as the amplifier and speakers are separate, you can upgrade separate components without replacing the whole PA system. Servicing is also easier because if a speaker blows, it can easily be replaced with another whilst it’s being repaired. 
  • Passive PA speakers are lighter than active PA speakers because they don’t have the extra weight of a built-in amplifier. This makes them easier to carry and install. 
  • If you need to hardwire speakers to your venue, passive is a great option as the sound can be adjusted at the main control centre instead of adjusting each speaker from the back. This is also useful should any elements need replacing, as passive PA speakers are generally easier to fix. 

Main cons of passive speakers: 

  • When you’re running a lot of speakers around a large venue, there is an increased risk of signal loss. This usually occurs when the distance from a speaker to an amplifier exceeds five and a half metres and can heavily impact your sound. Good quality loudspeaker cables should improve this. 
  • The biggest concern with a passive PA setup is that it can be difficult to find compatible amps and speakers in terms of power and impedance if you’re inexperienced with setting up PAs in this way. An amp should be able to provide double the handling power of your speakers. Contact us for professional advice when choosing your amps and speakers if you are in doubt. 

What is a power amp, and how does it work? 

It’s worth mentioning power amps, as these are used to power passive PA speakers. 

Power amps work by taking an electronic audio signal and driving the sound to the level needed to be heard through the speaker. Power amps are already built into active speakers, but passive speakers can’t function without an external one or external power from a powered mixer

The important takeaway is that your speakers and power amp must match in impedance and power to ensure high-quality sound and safe operation – the amp should be able to provide double the handling power of your speaker. This helps to prevent signal distortion because if the amp can produce double the power required, the signal can reach a higher volume before clipping, offering more headroom. 

Do I need active or passive speakers? 

A group of large speakers stacked on top of each other against a white background

So now you know the fundamental differences between active and passive speakers, there are some final considerations to make to know whether active or passive pa speakers will work for you. 

First, consider the venue size you’ll be performing or speaking at.

As a general rule of thumb, active PA speakers are a better choice for smaller venues, whereas passive speakers are ideal for bigger events with more participants and larger audiences. 

For example, if you’re an acoustic artist gigging at wedding receptions, active PA speakers will be a perfect choice as they’re easy to set up and control, and you won’t require the same bass depth as a DJ or heavy rock band. The same goes for public speakers, school assemblies, and religious worship. 

Generally, two or more active speakers will suffice for most small venues and require less technical proficiency than passive setups.

If you’re a small venue that wants to hardwire speakers for live music, you may be better off choosing passive speakers and amps to gain greater control over the sound. Remember that passive PA speakers are also easier to repair, making them an ideal choice for this scenario. 

Passive speakers and amplifiers are a better option for medium-sized venues upwards, offering better sound projection and longevity. Subwoofers may also be useful in this scenario to enhance lower-end frequencies effectively. 

Shop for both active and passive PA speakers at Prebeat

Whatever your speaker needs, you’ll find the perfect PA speakers at Prebeat. From active PA system bundles with options from leading brands, including Studiomaster and DB Technologies, to passive PA speakers from FBT and Wharfedale Pro, finding all your PA system essentials in one place has never been easier. Browse the collection today!

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