Active vs Passive, Powered vs Non-Powered? Confused? Check out our handy guide on PA Speakers to help you choose what's best for you.

Make an informed choice with our 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. But what are the difference between oft referenced active vs passive speakers? What do those terms 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.

1. Features and functions

Let’s take a look at the widely popular Yamaha DBR15 Active Loudspeaker rear panel control layout as an example.

Image of a PA speaker

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.

2. Wireless connectivity

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.

3. 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.

1. 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.

2. 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

1. Buskers, Duos, Soloists

Image of a PA speaker

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:

  • Laney A-Duo Acoustic
  • Roland Cube Street
  • Laney AH-Freestyle

2. Bands

Image of a PA system

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 NEO Acoustics 12A PA Package offers the most affordable option for bands to get their hands on a versatile PA package. A pair of NEO Acoustics 12A 12-inch active PA speakers’ pair with a 12-channel Alto Live 1202 professional mixer, and speaker stands plus a pair of Stagg SAC10PXM XLR cables are thrown in for good measure.

Check out the latest from our outstanding range from NEO Acoustics on the Dawsons Website, including PA Packages to suit everyone from busker to stadium filler with Line Array PA, Active Speakers, and Woofers.

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.

3. Public Speakers

Image of a PA speaker

When it comes to public speaking, the setup need only be simple.

With that in mind, check out the Raive POW10 Battery Powered PA Speaker with Lights, which comes with Bluetooth connectivity and even includes a wired microphone and wireless remote. The Raive boasts 120-Watts of power run via a highly efficient amplifier that is projected by a custom-designed piezo driver and 10-inch woofer setup. Rest assured that you will be heard loud and clear.

Thanks to Bluetooth connectivity you can play backing tracks directly from your smart device. As if that wasn’t enough, QTX include a pair of jack inputs for connecting additional microphones or instruments should you wish. There are stereo RCA AUX inputs, SD memory card slot and USB connectivity for linking directly to your laptop. To top things off, the speaker features built-in switchable LED lights for setting the mood in style. Lightweight, easy to use, highly versatile connectivity and the ability to use battery or main power – what more could you ask for?

Other excellent choices include:

4. All bases covered

The NEO Acoustics LA10 Line Array PA with 10-inch sub offers an affordable option for any and every conceivable sound reinforcement need. From acoustic soloists to small gigging bands, this 900-Watt system is the all-in-one solution we’ve all been waiting for.

Boasting onboard DSP with 16 Delay and Reverb effects means that you can tailor your tone to suit your performance environment. On top of that there are 4 useful EQ presets for specific audio sources, allowing you to dial in settings with minimal effort.

Thanks to a delightfully simple 6-channel mixer you can monitor your sound and adjust your mix accordingly. Bluetooth connectivity allows you to sync and enabled devices seamlessly, whilst a pair of line/XLR inputs, two further line inputs and RCA In/Out means that you are not lacking in options.

Lightweight yet rugged as they come, NEO Acoustics Line Array offerings are a triumph of design. They even boast a 2 x 8-inch sub option too with the LA28

For more info check out the overview video from our man Tom Quayle below.

Get in touch

Hopefully, we’ve given you some idea as to whether an active or passive PA system best suits your requirements.

If you need 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.

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