Passive vs Powered vs Active Speakers – What’s The Difference? Which Is Best?

Speakers, speakers, speakers!..Why so many different kinds of speakers?

Passive. Powered. Active.

What exactly is the difference between active and passive speakers?

And what’s the difference between passive and powered speakers?

Powered and active?

And once we’ve unscrambled all of this…which of them is best?

Let’s take a good look!..

passive vs powered vs active speakers in black text on green and yellow diagonally splits background

Passive vs Powered vs Active Speakers – What’s the Difference?..& Which is Best?

If you’ve only ever used one type of speaker, it’s quite likely that’s how you always think of speakers.

If you get what I mean?

It’s simply a case of whatever you’re familiar with.

And it doesn’t really matter what you’re using your speakers for…

…they could be studio speakers, speakers for DJing, home listening…you could use either passive, powered, or active for any of these.

Here’s a quick explanation of each of these three different types of speaker:  

What are Passive Speakers?

The easiest to understand of all the speaker types…

…the passive speaker.

And I’ve got to say, my personal favourite, for sure!

They’re called “passive” because they simply play the signal that they receive.

Passive speakers don’t amplify the signal that they receive in any way!

All of their components are passive; the crossovers, the drivers etc. none of them need an external electrical power source.

Because passive simply speakers play the signal received, they must receive their signal from either a power amplifier or receiver.

If they don’t, you won’t hear anything!

Here’s a shot of the back of a pair of passive speakers:

the back of a pair of passive speakers showing cable connections

You’ll notice that there’s not a lot going on around there.

And that’s simply because there doesn’t need to be…

…they are just passively delivering the already amplified sound signal which they have received.

So how do passive speakers actually work?

  • Receives amplified speaker level signal from a power amplifier or receiver;
  • Signal is then divided by the speaker’s “crossover” according to sound frequencies;
  • Crossover sends each of the speaker’s “drivers” the correct frequency signals;
    • for 2-way speakers: 
    • crossover sends high frequencies to the speaker’s tweeter
    • crossover sends all lower frequencies to the woofer
    • for 3-way speakers:
    • crossover sends high frequencies to the speaker’s tweeter
    • crossover sends mids to midrange woofer, and lows to the large woofer

The other important thing to keep in mid with passive speakers, is that you need to match the capability of your speakers to the power of your amplifier.

If your amplifier is too weak, your speakers will sound distorted because they are not being driven fully.

If your amplifier is too powerful, you’ll overload the speakers, resulting in distortion and possible damage. 

What are Powered Speakers?

Powered speakers are only one small step away from passive speakers.

They share the exact same signal path.

The only difference being that with powered speakers, the power amplifier is built into one of the speakers, rather than sitting externally.

So, in a typical pair of powered speakers, there is both a “master” speaker, and a “slave” speaker.

This image shows that there is a very obvious visual clue as to which is which:

the back of a pair of powered speakers showing cable connections

The one that looks the same as a passive speaker (because that’s essentially what it is) is the slave speaker.

The master speaker has the amplifier inside, and is connected to the slave speaker via speaker cable.   

Unlike passive speakers, powered speakers do need to be plugged in to a power supply.

What are Active Speakers?

Active speakers are different again.

There’s a fair bit going on inside a pair of active speakers.

Basically, if you buy a pair of active speakers, both speakers will have their own power amplifier inside.

That’s why there is an awful lot going on around the back of a pair of passive speakers:

the back of a pair of active speakers showing cable connections

The easiest way to explain what happens with active speakers is to take a quick look at the signal path:

  • Speaker receives line-level signal from the audio source and preamp;
  • Speaker’s “active crossover network” divides the line-level signal according to frequencies and sends to the dedicated power amp of each appropriate driver;
  • Each dedicated power amp fully boosts the signal and feeds its respective driver to deliver those frequencies.

The fact that active speakers have an active crossover network does make quite a difference.

It’s carrying out the same job as the crossover network inside passive and powered speakers, but it gets to do its job with a much lower line-level signal.

This means it doesn’t have to do any power handling and therefore it can be fully optimised solely for precision.

At this stage, you’ve probably figured out for yourself that active speakers need a power supply.

Pros and Cons of Passive Speakers


  • Huge range of buying options
  • Flexibility to match with your preferred amplifier or receiver
  • Controllable from mixing console
  • Easy maintenance
  • Lightweight


  • Essential to match with an appropriate amplifier
  • System set-up is more complex

Pros and Cons of Active Speakers


  • Consolidated “all-in-one” unit
  • Amplifier matched by default
  • Adjustable sound
  • Simple system set-up


  • Complicated to repair
  • Relatively heavy
  • Cannot mix and match with amplifier

Pros and Cons of Powered Speakers


  • Consolidated “all-in-one” unit
  • Amplifier matched by default
  • Adjustable sound
  • Simple system set-up


  • Complicated to repair
  • Cannot mix and match with amplifier

Which is Best?

There isn’t really a “best”!

Which is best for you, is down to your personal preferences and how you want to put your set-up together.

Personally I like the flexibility afforded by passive speakers.

But I like the whole set-up thing.

I like having everything separate, knowing I can change any individual part of the whole stack whenever I like.

But some people just see having to choose a separate, and suitable, power amp as just another big hassle.

Wrapping it Up!

I hope this short article has helped clarify for you, exactly what the key differences between passive, powered and active speakers are.

Could you now explain to a totally uninterested stranger; the difference between active and passive speakers?

I hope so!

Clearly there’s a whole ton more detail that we could have gone into on the inner workings of speakers…

…but we’ll leave that for another day and another article!

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