Active vs Passive PA Speakers: Which one is right for you?
Make an informed choice with our Active vs Passive PA Speaker Guide
From bands to venues, DJ to stadiums, at some point there is going to be a need for sound reinforcement. A sound reinforcement system is the combination of amplifiers, microphones, signal processors, and loudspeakers controlled via a mixing desk to ensure that your performances shine in all their glory. However, the terms ‘active’ and ‘passive’ get bandied about freely, but what do they mean?
We’ll guide you through the world of PA Speakers, highlight some common terminology and hopefully by the end of it you’ll be able to make an informed decision with regard to setting up the ideal PA rig for you.
Active vs Passive: what’s the difference
First things first, when referring to ‘active’ and ‘passive’ terms folks are talking about powered and non-powered speakers.
Powered speakers feature built-in power amps and – in some cases – a plethora of features that we’ll touch upon later. Essentially a powered speaker allows you to have everything in a single plug in and play unit, ready to go whenever and wherever – a bonus for buskers, soloists, and public speakers.
Non-powered speakers require a separate amplifier or a powered mixing console. Though they don’t offer an all-in-one solution, non-powered systems offer exceptional scalability options and, in some cases, a cost-effective method for those building large rigs. If you’re the in-house engineer for a medium- or large-sized venue or large-scale touring band, then you’re probably already wise to knowing that a passive system is for you.
Active / Powered Speakers
As noted above, active or powered speakers have built-in power amps that keep everything ticking over. As well as powering the drivers comfortably, active PA speakers are host to a wide range of additional controls such as handling levels, EQ, crossover frequency control, digital signal processing, signal filtering and limiting, peak signal control, etc. Not only that but they are quite generous when it comes to accommodating instruments, microphones and other PA gear.
Features and functions
Let’s take a look at the widely popular Yamaha DBR15 Active Loudspeaker rear panel control layout as an example.
As we can see there are two channels available across XLR/Jack combi and RCA/Phono inputs with level controls for each channel, which essentially acts as a mini mixer within the speaker itself. There’s switchable output channel control with Channel 1 thru to output channel 1 only or a Channel 1/2 mix, which is handy if you’re using a combination of mic and line inputs (excellent for busking).
With regard to Digital Signal Processing Yamaha’s proprietary D-Contour (Dynamic Contour) technology constantly monitors multiple frequency bands, feeds them back into an intelligent sensing system and then optimises EQ in real-time. This effectively does the job of an outboard multi-band compressor and saves you from having to constantly monitor frequency levels. It even has switchable Front of House/Monitor/Off options.
In short, an active loudspeaker boasts the capability to carry out a wide range of functions so that you don’t have to. Whether you elect to use a single speaker or a pair with a mixing desk to control levels, active speakers do the hard work so that you can get on with your performance.
A modern feature integrated into some active setups (namely the Mackie FreePlay PA series) is wireless connectivity via Bluetooth. Not only can you connect smart devices and instruments using Bluetooth technology, but many systems enable extensive parameters controls via your smartphone or tablet. Therefore, when setting up for a show you can playback audio and walk around the venue to ensure that you’re achieving optimal sound levels. You can effectively become your own Front of House sound engineer.
Applications and uses
For those who want an easy to setup and easy to operate loudspeaker or PA system, then the active/powered route is definitely the way forward. Bands, Buskers, DJs, Duos, Mobile Entertainers, and Public Speakers will appreciate the lightweight and simple setup process, whilst Cafes, Gyms, Pubs and smaller-sized venues can benefit from having their own in-house system.
Passive / Non-Powered Speakers
As we know already, passive or non-powered speakers require power from an external power amplifier or powered mixing console. Therefore, you’re going to need a larger setup than that of an active system. Though you may need more gear to get up and running there are many advantages in having a passive system.
Advantages of a passive system
As passive speakers don’t feature a built-in amplifier, they are lighter than your average active speaker. As the system if made up of its component parts (amplifier, mixer, speakers, etc.), if one piece of equipment goes wrong then all you need to do is replace it.
The scalability of a passive system means that as long as you align your speaker’s impedance and number with the output power capabilities and impedance of your amplifier then it can be as big and as bold as you wish. A general rule of thumb is that whatever your speaker power output wattage max is, double your amplifier output capabilities. Two things that you don’t want to happen if your amp is working harder than it should: signal distortion and overheating.
Applications and uses
Passive systems are generally seen in medium- to large-sized venues with established layouts. The beauty with these is that once setup, everything is controllable from a central point so the speakers can stay where they are. Should anything go wrong, simply do a signal test, isolate the piece of equipment with the problem, and replace. If you need to integrate more speakers, simply add another power amplifier, hook up some more passive speakers and you’re good to go.
The next time you go to a gig in a medium-sized venue, check out where the house speakers are set out, and notice that heavy layer of dust on them – chances are they haven’t moved in a while!
Our Top Choices
Buskers, Duos, Soloists
Thankfully, there are many options available when it comes to active PA speakers/systems for those who are looking to take their music to the masses. If it is just you and your instrument with some vocals thrown in, then you can’t go wrong with the awesome Mackie FreePlay Live. Featuring Bluetooth technology for wireless control, the FreePlay Live kicks out an impressive 150-Watts of power for you to wow the crowds. With dual XLR/Jack combi inputs for guitars, keys, mic, etc., the ability to play backing tracks via smart device or the Aux input, and an impressive battery life up to 15 hours playing time, you have everything needed to perform in style.
Not only that, but you can mount the FreePlay Live onto a mic stand for improved projection, and it even boasts a balanced monitor out if you want to power another speaker or send a signal feed to a monitor.
Other excellent choices include:
When it comes to PA gear for bands, some will argue that practise rooms and venues will already have in-house gear so why bother? Well, if rehearsal space in your local town is at a premium or non-existent (I grew up in the countryside and we used an old barn (great reverb!)), then having your own PA system gives you much more choice as to where you can practise, rehearse and perform.
Assuming that when we refer to bands, we mean three or more individuals all vying for attention, then you’re going to need more than a couple of channels. Rather than settling on a single-unit setup, a pair of active speakers and a mixer with adequate inputs to accommodate drums, instruments, vocals, etc., and monitor outputs should do the trick.
Fortunately, we’ve put together a selection of PA packages to suit virtually every budget and setup imaginable. However, the Alto TX212 PA Package offers the most affordable option for bands to get their hands on a versatile PA package. A pair of Alto TX212 12-inch speakers are paired with an 8-channel Alto ZMX122FX mixer, and speaker stands/cables are thrown in for good measure.
Other excellent choices include:
Handy Tip for Drummers
When it comes to miking up drum kits, everybody has an opinion as to what to close mike and what to make do with overheads. If you have a drummer who wants to mike up everything and won’t take no for an answer, then get them to mike up their kit as they wish, send everything to a mixer, then output that mix to a channel on the band mixer. The drummer gets their way, and you don’t have to sacrifice any channels. Everybody’s happy.
When it comes to public speaking, the setup need only be simple.
With that in mind, check out the QTX QRPA 2-Way PA Speaker, which comes with Bluetooth connectivity and even includes a Wireless Microphone. The QTX QRPA boasts 100-Watts of power run via a highly efficient amplifier that is projected by a custom-designed speaker. Rest assured that you will be heard loud and clear.
Thanks to Bluetooth connectivity you can play backing tracks directly from your smart device, whilst the VFF wireless microphone syncs seamlessly with the speaker for easy setup and use. As if that wasn’t enough, QTX include mic/line combo inputs for connecting additional microphones or instruments should you wish. To top things off, the speaker features a built-in extendable handle and a pair of wheels, so you don’t even need to pick it up.
Other excellent choices include:
Hopefully, we’ve given you some idea as to whether an active or passive PA system best suits your requirements. However, if you require any help or advice, then our Customer Service Team are more than happy to help over the phone on 01925 582420. Our in-store specialists will guide you through the wonderful world of PA Gear, just pop into your nearest Dawsons store.