While many use the terms powered/active and unpowered/passive interchangeably, they are not actually the same thing, although they definitely go hand in hand most of the time. When someone mentions a speaker as being powered or unpowered, they are referring to whether or not it has a built-in power amplifier. As for active and passive, that refers to the type of crossover system used. You can read more about crossover systems in our 2-Way Versus 3-Way Speaker Systems article. While active speakers are always powered (since they require a power amp for each frequency band), powered speakers don’t always feature an active crossover system, although they almost always do. As for unpowered speakers, they are always passive since they lack a built-in power amp. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, we can take a look at the major differences between powered and unpowered speakers that will affect how you will use them in the real world.
Powered Versus Unpowered Speakers
As mentioned above, the key difference between these two types of speakers is that a powered speaker features a built-in power amplifier while an unpowered speaker doesn’t. The power amplifier requires juice to get going, so you’ll have to connect powered speakers directly to an electrical outlet. Unpowered speakers instead get their power source from an external, independent power amplifier, like the one on the image to the right. In this sense, you can loosely think of a powered speaker similar to a combo amplifier and an unpowered speaker like a cabinet, which needs an amp head in order to run.
Because powered speakers already feature their own power amplifier, they can be directly connected to the sound source, such as a mixer, mp3 player, or even an instrument (although that’s not too common). Not only does this make powered speakers more streamlined, cutting out the need to an external power amp and the extra cables, it also means that you know what sound you’ll be getting as soon as you hear them. With unpowered loudspeakers, the sound will be a combination of the speakers themselves and the external power amp, meaning you won’t know what kind of sound you will get until you use that exact combination.
JBL JRX212 12" Unpowered Two-Way Stage Loudspeaker System @ $249.00. JRX200 delivers the performance and prestige JBL is known for at an affordable price point. To meet these conflicting design goals, JBL looked at every element of the speaker system design. JBL kept everything that makes a speaker perform and sound its best and JBL eliminated things that don't. With performance, value and popular price points, JBL is going to be building a lot of JRX200 speakers. This means JBL can apply efficient, high-volume production methods and purchase materials at the lowest cost. That's how JRX200 delivers unprecedented value.
E.V. ZLX-12P 12" Two-way Powered Loudspeaker @ $399.00. The compact, lightweight ZLX-12P was designed to give you power and performance beyond the scope of other small-format loudspeakers, making it a standout choice for smaller-venue sound reinforcement or stage-monitoring. Pound for pound, no other similarly sized composite box comes close.
You also have to make sure you have the proper combination of power amplifier and speakers so that the setup runs correctly. As a general rule of thumb, your power amplifier should have twice the amount of necessary wattage to power your unpowered speakers in order to give you a good amount of room to deliver a clean, undistorted sound. For example, if you have speakers rated at 300 watts with a nominal impedance of 8 ohms, it is recommended that your power amp is rated at 600 watts per channel into 8 ohms. This is only a general example and you should definitely check out the specifics of the equipment when trying to match a set of unpowered speakers and a power amp.
Which Is Right For You
It seems as though powered speakers would be the best choice for typical players and, personally, I feel they are. Not only do they minimize the amount of gear you will need, they remove the task of having to match a power amp to a set of speakers, something that many players just don’t want to deal with. But that’s not to say that powered speakers are for everyone. Just like with anything else, there are those out there who like choice. With a setup that features unpowered speakers and an external power amp, you have the ability to choose exactly what you want and are not stuck with the speaker-power amp combination of powered loudspeakers. Unpowered speakers are also generally less expensive and weigh less than similarly powered loudspeakers since they don’t include a built-in power amplifier.
Of course, it should be said that any place that requires a large sound installation, such as for large as for a club, concert hall, church or any other place that requires numerous speakers, unpowered speakers are nearly always used. When it comes to the huge amount of power required for large systems, keeping the amplifiers separate from the speakers prevents them from overheating, and maintaining this type of setup is much easier in the long run as you only have to replace a single component instead of the entire speaker.
In the end, it comes down to what your needs are and what you're looking for. If you feel like convenience and ease of use is important, go with powered speakers. If the ability to choose every piece of your chain is paramount and you don't mind doing dealing with matching speakers and a power amp, unpowered loudspeakers might be a better fit. Make sure you check out our selection of powered and unpowered speakers. We'll make sure you get a great deal on whatever type of system you decide on!
If you have any questions regarding the purchase of a speaker or any other piece of gear we carry, don't hesitate to chat with one of our friendly PAL pros by using the live chat feature below or by calling us toll-free at 1 877-671-2200!
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