The Difference Between Active and Passive PA Speakers

Speakers are widely popular audio devices and they are produced in many versions, shapes, and colors. They can be big or small, wired or wireless, you can buy a single speaker or a speaker system. They can be found anywhere and everyone wants them.

We may think we know everything about them but there is actually one less known type that we don’t write about so often. These are PA speakers and in this article, we will try to present them to you in the best possible way, list their positive and negative characteristics and give you a short buying guide that should help you decide which PA speaker set is best for you.

What Are PA Speakers and Why Do We Need Them?

Before we even start, let’s find out what PA stands for. It actually means “public address” and these systems are made in order to make any kind of audio content loud enough so that the large groups of people at public gatherings can hear it clearly.

PA Speakers

All the PA systems have the same purpose but they have been improved a lot since the very first hand-held megaphone cones were invented. They were used in the past to make the speaking to the large audience simpler and faster while the modern and complex systems include one or several microphones, loudspeakers, mixing consoles and amplifiers used to make music and human voice louder and perfectly audible at concerts and other public events.

You will probably need a PA system in case you’re organizing a concert, DJ or band gig, throwing a big party, etc. The problem appears when you have to decide which one to buy. PA speakers can be simpler or more complex and they can cost a few hundred or a few thousands of dollars but they come in two versions, as active and passive speakers, and this is what makes the most important difference between them. In the text below, we will give you the detailed explanation of these terms and show you how exactly these speakers are different.

Passive vs Active PA Speakers – the Main Differences

We have worked with different kinds of speakers and speaker systems, and we have to be honest with you. Whoever claims that active speakers generally sound better than passive is wrong. The sound quality doesn’t depend only on the type of the speaker but also on the environment where the speakers are used. If you want the best speaker for you, you should seriously consider the place where you will be using the speaker as well as the occasion. We usually recommend active PA speakers for smaller events while the passive PA speaker systems have better performance when used for delivering audio content at larger events. However, in the text below, you will find the most important characteristics of both types so you will be able to decide which model is better for you.

What Makes Active and Passive PA Speakers so Different?

Active and passive PA speakers, just like all the other active and passive speakers, differ by the amplifier type that causes all the differences in terms of their use. The type of the crossover and the amplifier that the speaker uses make all the difference.

Active PA speakers have active crossovers and built-in active amplifiers. That means the crossover is placed before the amplifier and the sound comes to it first. It splits the frequency band into smaller units (usually lows and highs) and sends them to the woofer and tweeter depending on the frequencies supported by these individual speakers. After that, the sound comes to the amplifier built in the back of the PA speaker, which means that the only thing you have to do is to provide a power source (a wall socket or a battery) and a line-level signal (microphone, an instrument or a player) and you are ready to go. These speakers sometimes come with built-in mixers, equalizers and mic pre-amps, which means you can mix the music directly on the speaker.

Passive PA speakers come without all these things and their most important characteristic is the lack of a built-in amplifier. Instead, they come with the passive crossover (resistors, capacitors, and inductors) that split the signal driven by the external amplifier and sends the smaller frequency units to the individual speakers.

The Main Active Speaker Advantages

  • Active speakers are simpler than passive ones and their set up and use don’t require any special sound engineering and you don’t have to worry about matching the speaker with the right amp
  • Active speakers come with the previously set up amplifier but if you want to make some changes, you can do it by setting the equalizer on the back side
  • Many active speakers are powered by batteries, which makes them portable
  • These speakers are all-in-one devices and great solutions for solo performers who want to sound great without too much effort

The Main Active Speaker Disadvantages

  • As they come with their amp, they are heavier than passive speakers
  • It can be quite difficult to upgrade them
  • If an active speaker component breaks down, you will need professional assistance to fix the problem. If it can’t be fixed, you will have to buy the new speaker as you can’t replace only the faulty component
  • Having all the components in one device may cause amplifier overheating and malfunction.

The Main Passive Speaker Advantages

  • Passive PA systems can be upgraded and combined whenever you want. All the components are separate and it is up to you how you will match them.
  • Passive speakers come without amps, which makes them lighter and easily moved from place to place.
  • In case one of the components breaks down, you shall simply replace the faulty component without buying the new speaker.
  • You can mix the sound from one device without changing the settings on each speaker in the system.

The Main Passive Speaker Disadvantages

  • If you are not an expert, it can be quite difficult to set this system up and match all the components in terms of impedance and voltage so you will most certainly need professional assistance.
  • Passive PA speakers tend to lose signal if connected with cables of poor quality.

PA Speaker Buying Guide

As we have previously said, deciding which PA speaker to buy is not only affected by the type of the speaker and its characteristics. When buying a PA system, you have to understand the type of event you need the speaker for, what additional equipment you need, how much money you can spend on these products, etc. Here are some of the most important things you have to take into account.

Place, size and power

If you need a PA speaker/system, you should consider these things first. Depending on the characteristics of the indoor/outdoor space where the speakers will be placed or the number of people who will be listening to a speech or music, you should decide which type would perform and fit better. Subsequently, you will choose a bigger or smaller speaker with bigger or smaller drivers and more or less wattage. The rule that can be applied in most of the cases is – active PA speakers perform better in smaller rooms while passive speakers are better for bigger events with more participants.

Adding subwoofers

Many people who want to get PA speakers can’t decide if they should buy subwoofers. The truth is that in most situations, you will get better experience with added subwoofers. They add some richness and fullness to the sound. If you’re playing music in small rooms or you need the speakers for somebody’s speech, you don’t really need a subwoofer. If you’re using a PA speaker for bigger events, you will definitely need a subwoofer. We all know that regular speakers can produce low-frequency sounds but they can’t get really low as subwoofers can. If you want to experience the true full-range sound, the subwoofer is a must.

Additional features

If you have some extra money and you want to spend it on PA speakers, try to get those that have some interesting and useful additional features. Modern speakers can be surprisingly “smart” as their use doesn’t require us to be sound engineers. For example, some of them can “understand” if they are placed vertically or horizontally. Usually, when they stand vertically on stands, they are used as regular speakers but when they are placed horizontally, they are used as monitors and they can optimize the performance accordingly.

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Also, some speakers can recognize the power source and adjust the performance to the situation. They can also be connected to a network, they come with a remote, etc.

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Hello, my name is James Longman.

I’m a writer and editor at AudioReputation. I disassembled my first portable AM/FM radio when I was only 8. At the age of 11, I burned the circuit board on my old boombox cassette player. I’m not going to explain how but it was reckless and stupid.

Since then, I have become much more careful around radios, boomboxes, and other audio devices (at least, I like to think so) but I have never lost the passion for audio equipment. Throughout 20 years of my professional career, I’ve been working for various audio equipment manufacturers and even started building speakers on my own in my little workshop.

I love the work we do here at AudioReputation. Testing, comparing, and evaluating all kinds of audio devices (speakers, soundbars, headphones, home theater systems, etc.) is something I truly enjoy. I try to be unbiased and give you my honest opinion on every piece of equipment I test. Still, you should take my reviews with a pinch of salt and always be just a little bit skeptical. The fact that I liked some speaker or soundbar doesn’t mean that you are going to love it. If you have the opportunity, you should test it/hear it before buying it.

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