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Active vs Passive Monitors: What Are the Differences?

Active vs. Passive Monitors

Active vs. passive monitors? Which one is better?

Do you prefer the ‘all in one system’ choice? Or are you the type to want the FREEDOM of choosing your own power amplifier?

In this guide, you will learn more about active vs. passive speakers, active vs. passive studio monitors, and what sets them apart from each other.

We have also included some helpful tips on internal amplifiers, line-level sound, and much more!

Without further delay, let’s get into it.

Table of Contents

Active vs Passive Monitors

A quick Google search will tell you that the core difference between an active monitor and a passive monitor is that the former will have a built-in amplifier upon purchase.

On the other hand, the latter will require you to obtain amplifiers separately in order to achieve the best sound possible.

While our team can confirm that the previously mentioned difference between active speakers vs. passive speakers is true, we’re here to dive DEEPER into what exactly sets them apart.

And more importantly, which one fits your needs BETTER!

Active Monitors: Pros and Cons

Active Monitors- Pros and Cons

ACTIVE MONITORS (otherwise known as active speakers or active studio monitors) have their OWN power amplifiers built into their cabinets.

PRO ✅ Having amplifiers built into the speaker cabinet of your active studio monitors means that the amplifier of your active speakers is designed to produce the BEST SOUND OUTPUT!

Additionally, you won’t be required to purchase external parts!

With active speakers, there is NO NEED for amplifier matching and having to look for the power amplifier that works best with your sound system!

PRO ✅ Because everything’s built-in, an active speaker would be the PERFECT sound system for anyone who is looking for a less hassle and research-intensive experience.

No wonder active speakers are commonly utilized by music professionals in professional audio recording settings!

CONActive speakers tend to be a bit pricier compared to their passive counterparts.

When you buy active speakers, you are also purchasing all the built-in components that you’ll be needing to purchase when you opt for the passive counterpart of active studio monitors.

CON ❌ There is LESS FLEXIBILITY with active speakers.

  • Because all the needed components are already built-in, it’s not typical for you to have to assemble and disassemble their active studio monitors’ system.
  • You will need to plug your active speakers into a power source, unlike a powered speaker that does not require you to do so.
  • If your active studio monitor’s built-in amplifier breaks down, you may have to hire a professional audio engineer to fix your studio monitor.

Passive Monitors: Pros and Cons

Passive Monitors- Pros and Cons

Most passive speakers, otherwise known as powered speakers or passive studio monitors, need separate amplifiers in order for their speaker drivers to generate sound.

Pro ✅  One of the passive studio monitors’ pros is that you will be able to assemble, disassemble, and even alter how your audio output will sound like.

In short, most passive studio monitors are more FLEXIBLE!

Pro ✅ Passive monitors are designed to be connected to an external or separate amp and do not need to be plugged into a power source.

This is because the aforementioned external power amp will serve as your passive monitors’ sound and power source.

Con ❌ You are going to need to put more time and effort into figuring out which brand and components (such as which separate amp) will help your passive speaker generate the best audio.

  • For instance, you might want to consider amplifiers that provide the right impedance and power ratings, which refer to the electrical flow and the highest electrical input of the audio system.
  • It’s important to consider the impedance and power ratings as they can affect your recorded sounds’ sound quality.
  • Unlike active speakers, the passive ones are the more labor-intensive option, research-wise, compared to the less intensive research process of getting an active speaker.

CON ❌ Lastly, if there is a need to use an unbalanced speaker cable between your external amplifier and your passive speakers, then you may run the risk of a signal loss.

Additionally, unbalanced speaker cables are not very good at canceling noise either.

Do You Need Both?

Do You Need Both

No, you do not need both.

An active speaker system does not require a passive system, similar to how passive speakers do not require you to also have an active studio monitor on hand.

If you want both studio monitors, then that’s a whole other story.

It’ll be PRICEY to acquire both an active studio monitor and a passive speaker, but if it’s what you think you want, then we’re definitely backing you up!

How Different Watts Affect Sound

How Different Watts Affect Sound

Now that we’ve talked about the difference between active and passive monitors, let’s take you through a few factors that can affect the overall sound of your speakers!

Impedance

Impedance is the overall opposition or resistance that a cable has against an alternating and is measured in ohms.

When the impedance of your amplifier MATCHES the impedance of your passive studio monitors, then your amplifier will more likely be able to deliver your system’s full power!

So if you’re looking to buy external amps for your passive speakers, then impedance and amplifier matching are two things that you may want to look into.

On the other hand, impedance and external amp mismatch has been notorious for causing signal reflection and inefficient power transfer.

Line Level Signal

The line-level signal is the particular strength or amplitude of an audio signal from speaker components.

The quality of the transmission of line-level signals is dependent on how high or low the impedance is.

Decibels

Decibels (or dB) is the unit of measurement for the intensity of a sound.

Formula-wise, its logarithmic nature makes it a bit more complex to compute how much decibel change is affected by an increase in power (or watts).

Keep in mind that doubling the number of watts will give you an increase of 3 dB. And giving the power output a 10x boost will give you a twice as loud sound.

Watts

A watt is a unit used to measure electricity.

Some electric devices, specifically those that require more electrical power, use up the bigger multiples of Watts, such as kilowatts, megawatts (MW), and even gigawatts (GW).

The OUTPUT of your amplifier, whenever it processes sound, is measured in WATTS.

If you are the type who prefers your sound to bounce off of the walls of your house, then a speaker that can handle higher watts from your amp (or power supply) is more suitable for you.

This would mean that your system can handle higher decibels WITHOUT sudden sound bursts!

Single-Amp

From the name itself, going single-amp for your passive studio monitors means that your passive speakers’ system will only be perusing ONE external power amplifier.

On the one hand, going single-amp is good because of easier research and installment. It also has fewer wires and ideal overall weight.

On the other hand, one downside of going single-amp is possible underpowering.

But wait, when exactly are you underpowering your speakers?

For instance, let’s say you are a sound engineer and your powered speaker system requires 100 watts. If you provide it with an amplifier with 30 watts, you are UNDERPOWERING your speaker system.

If your passive speakers are not achieving the loudness that they would normally have, then it may be time to look into how much power your amplifier can and cannot provide.

Bi-Amp

Bi-amping would entail connecting TWO sets of wires and overall FOUR conductors from TWO amplifiers to TWO separate binding posts of each of your passive speakers.

Wait, what’s a binding post?

A speaker’s binding posts are the most widely known and utilized way of connecting amplifiers to your powered speakers.

Bi-amping your passive speakers is good for:

  • Doubling the total power of your speakers
  • Less chance of underpowering
  • Increased efficiency because of a split crossover network

A crossover network is responsible for separating the range of frequencies in a signal into several parts to properly transfer them to the audio system’s speakers.

The wiser you invest in your crossover network, the less you’ll have to worry about power handling!

On the other hand, one possible con is that bi-amping may also be a bit more pricey and more complex.

Tri-Amp

Lastly, tri-amping entails the separation of an audio signal into three frequency ranges before being properly transported to the speakers of your sound system. 

When tri-amping your passive speakers, you use a separate amplifier for the bass, midrange, and treble drivers.

Tri-amping your sound system would be that the separation of frequencies ensures the overall clarity of your audio in high speaker-level situations.

On the other hand, the con of tri-amping would have to be the complexity and the costliness of doing so.

What Are the Different Driver Types and Why Do They Matter?

What Are the Different Driver Types and Why Do They Matter

Speaker drivers are the components responsible for the conversion of an input signal into physical vibrations and thus the actual sound that we hear.

Typically speaking, a generic speaker would have at least two (2) drivers all in one system.

Woofers

Woofers are the ones responsible for handling the lower frequencies for your sound system. Here are the several types of woofers that you may have already heard of:

  • Standard Woofer (20Hz to 2,000 Hz)
  • Active/Passive Subwoofer (frequencies lower than 200 Hz)
  • Midwoofer (200 Hz – 5 kHz)
  • Rotary Woofer

Tweeters

Tweeters are the opposite of woofers. These bad boys are the ones responsible for handling the higher frequencies, from 2 kHz to 20 kHz (with some even going so far as 100 kHz).

Mid-Range Drivers

Mid-range speakers, apparent from their name itself, are responsible for handling the middle frequencies in the spectrum, from 500 Hz to 4 kHz.

Summary

When you opt for an active speaker, you can play your studio recording or any audio without having to use an additional amplifier (whether active or passive amplifier).

So active speakers (such as active PA speakers) are less complex but also less flexible.

Unlike active speakers, the passive ones (or passive studio monitors) entail more research and require you to purchase the other necessary required components.

Passive studio monitors are more complex but less pricey and more flexible.

Final Verdict: Active Speakers vs. Passive Speakers

Final Verdict- Active Speakers vs. Passive Speakers

Generally speaking, the all-in-one solution when it comes to active vs. passive speakers ultimately comes down to one question:

What do YOU need?

Seeing as how active speakers and passive speakers are both very capable, “What’s better between active speakers and passive speakers” isn’t really the big question here.

Do you need an active speaker that:

  • Does not require additional purchases
  • Is less flexible but overall less complex?

Or are you more into passive speakers that:

  • Require separate crossover components
  • Are more flexible
  • Allow you to adjust your EQ settings and speaker level

Whether you want an active speaker with built-in mixers or a passive speaker with passive crossover components, we trust that we have equipped you with the right knowledge about active and passive speakers!

Conclusion

We hope this breakdown of active vs. passive speakers was helpful!

The music production world is full of terms that we tend to ignore or forget about, and active and passive are just a few of them.

A little extra knowledge on differentiating two types of equipment can go a long way, especially for beginners! These tidbits can greatly affect the sound quality of your production.

Before ultimately deciding which one to invest in, always make sure to do prior research before making a decision.

Rock on!

RELATED:

Best Studio Monitors Under 200: Our Top Picks!

Home Studio Ideas For The Best Home Music Studio Setup


Changelog:

April 24, 2022 – updated internal links, minor content edits

About the author

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After becoming obsessed with the beats that were the soundtrack to his youth, Nick became a student of hip hop, digging for vinyl records, looking for the perfect break. Before he got his hands on an MPC sampler, he would mash these records, beats, and breaks into mixtapes and live DJ sets.