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If you’re planning to enrich your home with a new audio system, you must’ve come across the term powered speakers. As this term always comes along with the term unpowered (or passive) speakers and as the understanding of powered speaker working principles significantly depends on the understanding of the working principles of the unpowered/passive speakers, we will try to explain both types, and then focus our attention to the powered ones.
Basically, it all starts with the necessity to connect the speakers to the audio source (player, streamer, computer, etc.) and make them work. Speakers produce the sound which is the consequence of driver movements (sound vibrations), you must power the speaker in order to make the driver move and deliver the sound you want to listen to. The speakers can be connected to an amplifier, receiver or they can be powered by the built-in amplifier installed inside the speaker. This is the point where we start to distinguish two types of speakers.
The speakers that come with pre-installed/built-in amplifiers are called powered or active speakers, while the others (which are externally connected to their amplifier) are called unpowered or passive speakers. The confusion starts right here, at the speaker names. As the terms active/powered and passive/unpowered are commonly used together, people started to think that they are actually equal. However, this is not the case and, if you stay with us, we will try to explain the difference in a very simple way.
Let’s first see what are unpowered speakers so that we could easily understand the powered speakers. Later on, we will discuss the main differences as well as the main advantages and disadvantages of powered speakers. Of course, we won’t forget to mention their connection options and help you understand if these are the right choice for you.
What Are Unpowered/Passive Speakers?
When people talk about unpowered/passive speakers, they usually refer to the speakers that don’t have built-in amplifiers. These speakers have to be externally connected to an amplifier which drives the speakers enabling them to make the sound. Unpowered speakers are bought independently from their amplifiers and, in this case, the user has the freedom to experiment and find the right amplifier for his speakers.
The low-level audio signal coming from an audio source first comes to the external amplifier and it is amplified by it before it is sent to the speaker. When the amplified signal comes to the speaker, it is received by a passive crossover that splits it into appropriate frequency ranges and sends the signals to the matching drivers. As the crossovers inside the unpowered speakers are always passive, we can also call these speakers “passive”.
With unpowered speakers, you have the opportunity to choose the amplifier and the final product (sound) according to your taste and preferences. However, finding the right amplifier can sometimes be quite tricky, especially for ordinary people without any previous knowledge and understanding of the audio gear. The main rule that you should obey is to use an amplifier that has twice the wattage needed to power your speakers. For example, if you have a 300W speaker, your power amplifier shall be rated at 600W per channel.
Generally speaking, unpowered speakers may finally deliver betters sound (to your taste) but these speakers are quite pricey (because you have to buy the amplifier separately) and they require greater user’s engagement.
After introducing you briefly to the unpowered speakers, let’s skip to our main topic and see how the powered speakers are different and what are their positive and negative sides.
What Are Powered Speakers?
The first powered speakers that were used as monitor speakers were made by JBL and the normal use of active monitor speakers started in the late ‘60s. Powered speakers became common during the late ‘70s where even some companies in the film industry started using them. As you can see the two words that are most commonly used are “powered” and “active”. These terms have been confused over years so let’s explain their meaning to you.
Powered speakers have this name because they are self-powered as they have their own built-in amplifier. Actually, powered speakers are those that have all the electric parts placed in one cabinet and the only thing left for you to do is to connect them to the power source and to some audio source. The manufacturer sends you the device with all the important parts (mixers, equalizers, pre-amps, and amps) pre-installed.
When it comes to active speakers, we must say that their classification depends on the type of crossover they have. As you probably know, crossovers can be passive (a component or a group of components installed between the speaker and the external amplifier) or active (a component that modifies the audio signal before the amplifier). Active crossovers combine pre-amps, resistors, and capacitors in one component and they receive the signal coming from the audio source, split it to frequency ranges and sends the split signals to the amplifier/amplifiers that forward it to the matching drivers. If the speaker is designed as the two-way system consisting of one tweeter and one woofer, the crossover will split the signal into high and low-frequency range. This system is called a bi-amplified system while the tri-amplified system would consist of three different drivers (tweeter, woofer, and mid-range driver).
Whenever a powered speaker has an active crossover, it can be called an active speaker. Basically, every active speaker is powered because it has a built-in amplifier. However, powered speakers can also have passive crossovers, although this is very rare, so we can’t really say that every powered speaker is active.
How Do Powered Speakers Work and Where Are They Commonly Used?
As we have said, powered speakers come with the built-in amplifiers and the only thing you should do is to plug them into a wall socket and connect them to the audio source. These speakers can be directly connected to any low-level source without an external amplifier. This low-level signal is sent from the source to the crossover that splits it into the smaller frequency bands and sends the signals to the amplifiers that will guide it to the drivers. All the active powered speakers have an amplifier for every driver.
This kind of speakers is widely used and they are actually considered better-sounding than the unpowered speakers, which could be discussed. However, powered speakers can be used with all kinds of devices, from your computer to the large systems used at live concerts. They can be used as both monitor speakers and the speakers pointed towards the audience, they can be parts of DJ equipment, etc. They can also be used in offices or apartments, or they can be parts of a home theater system. The smaller and more portable speakers are usually used with computers or smartphones, and they are less expensive (from $10 to $100) while the larger ones can cost up to several thousand (surround speaker systems made for gaming or watching movies).
Ways to Connect Powered Speakers to an Audio Source
If you think that you can connect your mixer and your powered speaker by using a speaker out jack, you are wrong. These jacks enable a flow of great amount of energy, which your powered speakers won’t be able to handle. There are certain ways to connect your devices to your powered speakers and we will discuss them now in detail.
Balanced and unbalanced line connections are the most common type of connection when it comes to powered speakers. Instead of traditional cables that are used to connect a passive speaker to an audio source, powered speakers use these line inputs (red and white or left and right cables) to connect to your device (players, TV, etc.). The balanced lines are the more common type and they manage to reduce the noise even when you are using a cable that is longer than it is supposed to be (you know that powered speakers use shorter cables than unpowered ones). Most powered speakers have balanced TRS or XLR jacks. It sometimes happens that your mixer has only unbalanced outputs, which complicates things a bit because these lines are more prone to picking up noise.
Also, in case you want to connect your PC to your powered speaker but the PC doesn’t have line-in jacks, we advise you to try using some adapter cables that will interconnect the red and white cables on the speaker and the jack that your PC has (usually headphone mini jack).
Newer powered speakers have digital inputs. This also means that they have a built-in DAC (digital to analog converter) that converts the digital signals coming from your CD player (for example) to analog because only after the conversion, the signal can be sent to the speaker’s crossover.
The most popular connection types nowadays are wireless and Bluetooth connections. More and more powered speakers feature these technologies which enable them to connect to different audio sources in an easy and clean way. This type of connection doesn’t only eliminate all the cables but also provides pretty good sound quality.
If you get wireless powered speakers, you will be using a transmitter/receiver combo instead of a cable. The receiver is built inside the speaker. It receives the signals from the audio source (which has a built-in transmitter) and sends it to the built-in DAC, then to the built-in amp, and then to the drivers that produce the sound. This is basically the technology that Bluetooth-enabled powered speakers use to connect to your portable electronic devices such as smartphones and tablets.
Powered Speaker Advantages
Simpler design and setup
As you have already understood, powered speakers have everything installed inside the cabinet: driver(s), amplifier(s), crossover, equalizers, etc. and this is what makes them simpler to set up than unpowered speakers. The great thing is that you won’t have to worry about finding the right amplifier because the right model is already built into the speaker. The only thing you have to do is to provide a power supply and connect the speaker to your audio source.
Having all electronic parts/components in one box increases the fidelity and reliability of these devices. Active crossovers and multiple amplifiers completely eliminate the necessity for every amplifier channel to work in the entire bandpass. This leads to a perfect impedance match to the amp’s capabilities and expands dynamic and output range of the speaker. In addition, these speakers usually use very short cables, which means that only a small amount of voltage and control can be lost.
Combining all the components in one enclosure means that you have to transport only one box in case you have to move the speaker.
Buying one instead of two devices is always cheaper and the same rule applies to this situation. If you buy an unpowered speaker, you will have additional costs, because you will also have to buy an amplifier separately and these are not cheap, trust us. However, be careful when buying powered speaker systems for home use. High-end equipment in this situation can be much more expensive than a set of unpowered speakers and their amplifier.
Powered Speaker Disadvantages
In spite of all their good sides, we have to be honest with you – powered speakers are heavy and difficult to transport. Of course, there are some lighter and more portable versions but they are generally heavier than the unpowered speakers due to the added amplifier’s weight.
What you hear is what you get
Once you buy a powered speaker, you are stuck (more or less) with the sound you hear. Of course, you can try to equalize the sound but there is less space to experiment than with unpowered speakers.
We advise you to be careful with powered speakers and use them wisely because their amplifiers can overheat due to the fact that all the components are placed in one box. Also, if one of the components breaks down and you can’t repair it, you will have to replace the whole speaker, which can never happen with unpowered speakers. In addition, you may need professional assistance not only to maintain but also to upgrade your powered system as this can be quite tricky.
Are Powered Speakers the Right Choice for You?
We have given you all the info but the final decision is yours. We can’t really tell you whether powered speakers are the right choice for you or not because it depends on so many things. The only advice we can give you is to think carefully about room acoustics, room size, type of player, etc. and then try to figure out whether you would be more satisfied with powered or unpowered speakers. Just remember one thing, finding the perfect sound requires a lot of experimenting, searching, moving, and patience. It is not an easy task but once you find the perfect speakers for your house or live performance, you will see that it was worth it.
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.