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Long before miniaturization made self-powered monitors with built-in amplifiers, crossovers and DSP chips a reality, passive speakers reigned supreme. In fact, active monitors have only become common in professional-level studios in the last few decades—and many, such as Blackbird, Power Station and Gold-Diggers Sound, still rely on passive monitors anyway. Certain passive speakers such as the Yamaha NS-10 have even gained a cult following among mixing engineers.
But why should you consider passive speakers today, when there are so many great active models? There are plenty of reasons, from affordability and convenience to consistency and flexibility; but in the end, you’ll have to decide what makes sense for your own situation. In this blog, we’ll compare the pros and cons of both types of speakers and explain the best use cases for passive monitors.
The key difference between active and passive speakers is the nature of the power supply. Active speakers feature onboard amplifiers built into the cabinet while passive models require an external amplifier. This also affects the type of crossover used to split the input signal into different frequency bands for the woofer, tweeter and midrange driver (if present). Powered loudspeakers use active crossovers, which can be analog or digitally controlled, placed before the power amp section. Passive speakers use passive analog crossovers that are placed after the external amplifier.
This distinction impacts a range of factors, giving active and passive speakers each a variety of pros and cons. Active monitors have the benefit of being quick and easy to set up, as all of the components are included inside the cabinet. However, this also means that you’re stuck with the internal amp and crossover system. The extra components also increase the weight of powered speakers, making them difficult or even impossible to mount from walls or ceilings. Finally, because active monitors require a power cable in addition to an audio cable, you’ll need as many outlets as you have speakers.
By contrast, passive monitors are lighter, easier to mount and only require a standard speaker cable, providing obvious advantages in the studio. Using passive speakers also gives you the freedom to create your ideal signal chain by choosing your own amplifier, crossover system and other processing. The tradeoff is one of convenience—it takes a bit more research, planning and installation time to set up passive monitors. Whether or not it’s worth the benefits is up to you.
In addition to the main distinctions above, there are a few engineering differences between active and passive speakers that may be worth considering if you are especially picky about your monitors. When designing passive speakers, engineers can focus solely on the electro-acoustic performance, including driver design, cabinet construction, bracing, bass porting, waveguides and more. Likewise, it’s easier to design a standalone amplifier with great specs and uncompromised performance than to modify it to fit inside a speaker cabinet.
When you stick an amplifier and all of its related circuitry inside a speaker cabinet, it influences the acoustical characteristics, requiring additional engineering to achieve good performance. There’s also the issue of heat buildup, which requires heat sinks or ventilation to manage. Finally, the amplifier itself has to be miniaturized and designed to withstand higher vibration and heat levels. Good engineering can overcome these hurdles, but you get what you pay for—well-designed active monitors command a premium price while cheaper models will cut corners and suffer in performance.
So, when are passive monitors the right choice? Some of the most common use cases today are multichannel surround and immersive monitoring setups. While 5.1 and 7.1 are the longtime standards for film and TV mixing, immersive setups such as 5.1.4 and 7.1.4 are becoming more common as spatial audio formats like Dolby Atmos increase in popularity. Because passive speakers are lightweight and only require one cable, it’s easy to mount surround speakers from your walls and hang overhead speakers from your ceiling. Additionally, you can turn them all on or off at once via the amplifier, rather than flipping a switch on each speaker.
Passive speakers are also a great choice if you want to be able to customize your signal chain. When you find speakers you love, you can easily try out different amplifiers, crossovers, speaker cables and processors to find the combination that yields the best performance for your setup. Consistency is another advantage—because factors like temperature, humidity and power fluctuations can make amplifiers perform slightly differently every day, it’s better to have one or two amplifiers than one in each speaker. This may sound very nitpicky, but it becomes important in certain critical listening disciplines like mastering.
Choosing passive monitors also makes it easier to expand your setup as your studio grows. For example, you can start with a stereo pair of monitors and a four-channel amp, then add a second pair of reference monitors later on. Upgrade to a six-channel amp and you can have a 5.1 system, then add more speakers and amp channels as needed for larger setups. If you plan it out right, a modular system like this can be more affordable than active monitors, and it allows you to upgrade components one at a time.
In the end, the decision to use active or passive speakers is a personal one, as there are benefits to both approaches. You can absolutely achieve professional sound with either option, but passive systems have a major advantage when it comes to flexibility. If you decide to go with passive speakers, be sure to get a high-quality amplifier with the correct power and impedance levels for your speakers—and don’t skimp on the cables.
Want to learn more? Dive deeper with our studio monitor buyer’s guide and check out these popular passive speaker brands:
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