The Difference Between Active and Passive PA Speakers

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We discuss the differences between active and passive PA speakers to help you find out what PA set up is right for your live sound needs

The Difference Between Active and Passive PA Speakers

We specialise in PA systems here at PMT. In fact, each of our stores has a dedicated PA specialist ready to help you find the right solution for your needs. Part of our job is also offering advice on different PA set ups, from the best portable battery powered PA systems, to full installations for schools and places of worship. A great part of our job in stores and online is being able to answer questions like “what’s the difference between active and passive PA speakers?”. So today, as part of our Ask the PMT PA Specialist series, we’re discussing the differences between active and passive PA speakers.

Chances are if you’re in a band, you’re a gigging DJ, you have a small venue or you want to start your own festival (do it, we believe in you!) you’ll need your own PA system. But what kind of PA system do you need? Do you need active PA speakers or passive PA speakers?

Before we help you answer this question you need to understand the fundamental differences between active and passive PA speakers.

The difference between active and passive speakers:

Active speakers have an in-built power amplifier and just need a power source (or battery) to operate, where passive speakers require an external power amplifier to operate.

In short, you need an amplifier for passive speakers, you don’t with active speakers.

An active speaker is essentially an all-in-one system that powers your speakers, just like a combo amplifier that guitarists or bass players use. The amplifier is built in to the speaker cabinet, so all you have to do is connect the PA speakers to power (or use a battery) and feed a line-level signal into it. This could be a vocal microphone, a guitar or even an MP3 player.

A selection of active PA speakers also include mixers already built in, with EQ settings and even microphone pre amps, so you can mix the sound directly on the speaker to professional standards easily. These are ideal for bands, DJ’s, professional public orators and the likes of café owners or schools who want to be able to play both live and pre-recorded music, without too much fuss. There’s also a huge range of battery powered and portable PA’s that are ideal for buskers, public speakers and even functions. An active speaker system is by far the best PA system for orators, or even small places of worship.

Passive speakers are a little different, as they require separate amplifiers or mixers to power them and they also need speaker cables to be able to transfer the sound from amplifier to speakers. As passive speakers are NOT an all-in-one system, you will have to make sure that your speakers and amplifier are compatible with their respective impedance and power ratings. If you get this wrong, you risk either blowing your speakers up, or not getting the best sound out of them.

If you’re a DJ or want to use your speaker system for live events, you may want to use a sub-woofer too. To do this, you’ll need separate crossover components installed within the speakers or the amplifier. This crossover path splits your signal so the high frequencies can go to the tweeter (main speaker) and the low frequencies are directed to the sub-woofer or bass bins. This is part of the reason why passive PA speaker systems are sometimes better for bigger live sound set ups.

Pros and Cons of Active PA Speakers:

Before you make a decision, let’s look at a few of the pros and cons of active PA speakers to help you decide what might be the right set up for your needs.

Pros of active PA speakers:

  • Active speakers are usually set up as an all-in-one solution, which means all you have to do is plug your line-level sound in and you’re good to go.
  • In most cases, the amplifier is completely tuned to the speakers already. Which means you get the best sound straight out of the box.
  • If you want to make changes, active speakers have the ability to sculpt the sound to how you want it on the back of the speaker, so there’s no need for a sound engineer.
  • You don’t need any technical experience to use one, they are easy to set up.
  • Most are designed to be battery powered, making them a great portable solution.
  • If you want to upgrade your system and you’ve got active PA speakers left over, you can re-use them for monitors on stage as the cabinets are often designed with an angled back so the sound projects upwards towards the artist or speaker. All you have to do is connect your extra speakers to the pre-fader aux send which will be found on the back of your PA system and you can get a direct monitor mix fed to you.

Cons of active PA speakers

  • Due to the fact that active PA speakers have an amplifier built-in, they can be a little (or in some cases, a lot) heavier to carry. For the likes of touring bands, this can get tedious pretty quickly!
  • If you install your active PA speakers in a setting permanently and the amplifier breaks down, you might have to get an engineer to come to you to fix them. As the amplifier is inside the speakers, you have to take the entire unit to get fixed rather than just replacing the broken element.
  • If your active PA system goes down, you can’t just swap out the broken element. The whole speaker will need to be sent for repair and will be out of action.

Active PA speakers

Pros of passive PA speakers

  • As passive PA speakers and amplifiers are separate entities, you can upscale your operation easily. You might have an amplifier with 4 channels on, but only 2 speakers. But when the time comes, you can add more speakers to it easily. Just match the power ratings and impedance and you’re good to go.
  • You can upgrade your amplifier or speakers separately without having to replace an entire PA system.
  • Passive speakers are lightweight thanks to the fact they don’t have amplifiers inside them. This means they’re easier to lift and install. Especially handy if you’re taking your PA on the road or to different venues.
  • Servicing your PA system is a lot easier! If the amplifier breaks down, you just replace that. If the speaker blows, you can swap it out for another one while you’re getting the broken one fixed. Maintenance is a lot easier with a powered system.
  • After you’ve installed your speakers around the room, church or school, you can go back to the mixing area and change settings from your control centre rather than run around the room to make changes to each speaker separately. This is a great benefit if you’ve hardwired your speaker system into your venue.

Cons of passive PA speakers

  • Getting the right amplifier for your speakers in terms of power ratings and impedance can be a little difficult if you don’t know what you’re doing. Fear not though, our instore PA experts can help you!
  • If you’re running a lot of speakers around the room, there’s more of a chance of signal loss. Signal loss starts to occur once the distance of cable from amplifier to speaker exceeds 18.5ft, so if you’re running a large setup with standard loudspeaker wire, this can sometimes have a negative impact on your sound. Just make sure you buy good quality loudspeaker cables.

passive PA speakers

Best active PA speakers

There are millions of different active PA speakers out there, so choosing one can system can be a little daunting at first. However, here’s a few options to get you started with some examples of who these systems are best for.

QSC K10 Active PA Loudspeaker

QSC K10 Active PA Loudspeaker

The QSC K10 Active PA Loudspeaker is one of the industry standard options out there thanks to their almost indestructible design, ease of use and the fact you have 1000 watts of pure power ready to pump through a 10” speaker. It’s extremely efficient, reliable, and has class-D bi-amplified power which makes it an ideal option for touring house bands, or those in need of a portable PA system.

The QSC K10 active PA loudspeakers also have combo XLR 1/4" TRS inputs that accept both Mic and Line Level inputs, so you can plug a mic directly into it a guitar or keyboard.

In addition, you have a set of RCA phono inputs to use with MP3 players, CD players and line-level mixers. The easy to use rear panel allows you to dial in your EQ settings too! The QSC Touchmix 30 Pro allows you to mix your sound remotely as well…

The QSC range also comes with a 6 year warranty making each unit an extremely smart purchase!

Best for:

  • Solo performers
  • House bands
  • DJ’s
  • Public speakers/public orators

RCF ART 712-A MKII Active PA Speaker (Single)

RCF ART 712-A MKII Active PA Speaker (Single)

The ultra-reliable RCF ART 712-A MKII Active PA Speaker is one of the best options on the market today thanks to its lightweight construction, power and no fuss connectivity options. You have 700 watts of power to play with and a maximum SPL of 129dB, so it’s an ideal option for houses of worship, pubs and clubs as well as function rooms.

The easy to use control panel of the RCF ART 712-A MKII Active PA Speaker includes a balanced XLR input, XLR link output as well as 3 LED indicators that let you see the power status, signal indication and whether or not the built-in limiter is active. Simply plug your line input from your audio source or signal from a mixing desk, or your mic via the XLR input and you’re all set!

This makes a great choice for bands, houses of worship and pubs thanks to the 12” speaker with 1” RCF driver that allow a full frequency range. You get crisp definition as well as solid bass response whist the wide dispersion angles fill the room with sound.

A professional active PA speaker at budget friendly prices.

Best for:

  • Pubs and clubs
  • DJ’s
  • Houses of worship

Bose L1 Compact Active PA System

Bose L1 Compact Active PA System

Ok we’re kind of cheating here as the Bose L1 Compact Active PA System is more than just an active speaker, but a complete all-in-one solution for performers. This portable, lightweight PA system has been designed for smaller audiences up to around 100 people, making it an ideal option for house bands or acoustic performers and public speakers. Weighing in at just 13.15 kg, it’s super lightweight so travelling with it is a breeze and there’s no need to use any speaker cables, stands or bass modules as you just plug your guitar, keyboard or microphone straight in.

You can set the Bose L1 Compact Active PA System up in two unique positions to suit your environment. Leave it collapsed (41.91 cm) for smaller audiences, or if you want greater sound coverage, extend the unit (199.39 cm) and take advantage of the six 2” line-array tweeters with integrated 8” subwoofer that provides that exceptional Bose clarity and wide frequency range.

You have one microphone XLR input on channel 1; one instrument input on channel 2 as well as one RCA stereo input and one 0.31 cm stereo input – a complete hive of connectivity options.

Best for:

  • Solo performers
  • Acoustic acts
  • Duets
  • Café’s that want to offer live music

Best Passive PA speakers

If you already have your amplifier, you’re looking to upscale your rig or you want to permanently install your passive PA speakers into your venue, here’s a few of the best passive PA speakers available today!

QSC E10 10 inch Passive Loudspeaker

QSC E10 10 inch Passive Loudspeaker

The QSC E10 10 inch Passive Loudspeaker is yet another industry standard passive PA speaker capable of acting as a stage monitor or as part of your PA rig. Perfectly designed to work with the QSC GXD and PLD amplifiers, or any other compatible amplifier you may have, the QSC E10 is a speaker that provides exceptional value for money as well as an impressive 85° coverage.

This wide coverage ensures your audience can hear everything perfectly, filling the room with sound via a compact, two-way loudspeaker with a 10-inch, die cast frame woofer with a 2.5-inch voice-coil. If used an on-stage monitor, the speaker is angled at 55° ensuring the performer can hear everything perfectly, even on a crowded stage or when they move around.

A dual angle 35mm socket will let you mount the speaker vertically on a pole or angled down by 10° to improve audience coverage and reduce rear wall reflections. You can also mount the QSC E10 using E Series Yoke or M8 eyebolts for permanent installation.

The rugged construction with heavy duty grilles lined with foam make them an ideal for small venues where bands will be using them frequently, or for professionals who will be packing and unpacking regularly.

These things are meant to be used and abused!

Best for:

  • Small music venues
  • Function rooms
  • Churches
  • Cafes

Yamaha Stagepas 400i Mixer and Speaker System

Yamaha Stagepas 400i Mixer and Speaker System

The Yamaha Stagepas 400i Mixer and Speaker System is a great option for those in need of a budget friendly PA system with the ability to control their speakers from somewhere else in the room. Easy to set up, pack down or install permanently, the Stagepas 400i passive speakers can be mounted on your speaker stands or used as fold back speakers.

The two 8'' full-range speakers with 1" compression drivers provide a professional sound at all levels even when you hit the 400w peak output. The detachable 8-channel mixer gives you a wide range of inputs and the SPX digital reverb, feedback suppressor and easy to use 1 knob master EQ ensure a quick set up and total control over your sound.

The cool thing about the Yamaha Stagepas 400i Mixer and Speaker System is the USB input connection which allows you to connect your iPod or iPhone – making it an ideal system for bars, corporate events and functions.

Best for:

  • Bars
  • Coporate events
  • Schools
  • Touring musical duets

Alto Mixpack 10 Portable PA System

Alto Mixpack 10 Portable PA System
The Alto Mixpack 10 Portable PA System is again, another impressive all in one system that features a separate mixer as well as 2 professional grade passive PA speakers.

This package includes a removable 8-channel powered mixer that can conveniently stow away on the PA speaker, making it a great portable option for bands, corporate presentations and vocal performances.

You have 400 watts of power to play with, pumping out through two 10” speakers which makes the Alto Mixpack 10 ideal for smaller to medium sized rooms.

Again, the key benefit of the Alto Mixpack 10 Portable PA System is the fact you actually get a portable powered-mixer as part of the package. This means you can control your sound via the 8-channel mixer from anywhere in the room, change up the EQ and even add reverb all from your mixing station -wherever that may be! The fact the Alto Mixpack 10 has 8 channels means you can more instruments and the pair of 1/4" Jack monitor outputs allow you to expand the system with additional speakers whenever you need to!

You get all the cables and accessories you need to get started too. A great deal.

Best for:

  • Band rehearsals
  • Corporate presentations
  • Vocal performances
  • Schools

PA Professionals At PMT

If you want to discuss PA speakers, you’re not sure what the right set up might be for you, or if you’re having trouble with anything PA related and would like some help troubleshooting, feel free to call in to any of our PMT stores across the country. Our instore PA experts will be able to help you with your PA queries. You can also get a completely free, no obligation demo of any of our PA products too! Just call in to a store today – we’re here to help.

PA & Live sound

2 Comments on “The Difference Between Active and Passive PA Speakers”

  • Marcos Melo
    25th June 2018

    Your article was really helpful, thanks a lot! I'm a dj and I've been thinking in upgrade my PA System that today features with a Mackie FR-800 and one passive speaker Yamaha BR 12M! What you guys suggest I should do ?? Thanks in advance!

    • Lee Glynn
      28th June 2018

      Hi Marcos, check out our blog on the best PA systems for DJ's - there's some great options there! - https://www.pmtonline.co.uk/blog/2017/06/16/best-portable-pa-systems-for-djs/ - Lee

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