Any thoughts on passive v. active speakers?


I'm thinking about ditching my amps and cables and just buying an active speaker with a balanced input. I have a Krell 2250 and a pair of 140 watt Atma-sphere MA-1MKII. I desperately need speakers and cables, but not sure if I want to go through the bother (and expense) of finding the perfect matching set.

Should I go with a speaker & amp that are already matched or keep building my system like a bespoke smorgasbord?
rogerstillman
For the most part, I think powered speakers are over rated and over priced. I know most people will argue me on that, but if you look at it from a common sense point of view, do you think that whoever builds the amp for your speaker will make one as good as the one you already have? Same thing with whatever speaker you pick. As far as cables go, if you do a good job matching your components, cable choice is easy. I would never let cables be the deciding factor when building a system. If it comes to that, you've made some mistakes that need to be fixed before you continue.
Do you really think there is a powered speaker with internal amps anywhere close to the Atma-sphere's? Who ever said you have to match amps to speakers anyway? If it really has become a "bother" consider something like a Geneva and be done with it. Your amps will sell in 5 minutes.
If you decide you need more power (or want more resolution, or whatever), an active speaker means you have to sell the speaker and start over.
Maybe if you gave some more info, we may be able to recommend some speakers to consider.
If your taste is refined enough for you to own the Atma-Sphere amps, are you sure there even IS a powered speaker you would be happy with?
On average, I would guess that an active speaker outperforms a typical amp + passive speaker combination. But seldom does an active speaker include amplification at the same level as what a specialty amp manufacturer can deliver.

Imo you're already WELL ahead of the game with that amp, which is the stuff many audiophiles dream of. Wilson, Magnepan, SoundLab, DeVore, and Coincident are among the many top manufacturers offering speakers that work very well with the MA-1.

What speakers did you have before, and what improvements are you looking for?

Duke
dealer/manufacturer
passive speaker = open system
active speaker = closed system

an open system can evolve and grow with your tastes....and is more flexible for the next owner and therefore has better future value.

a closed system allows advances to pass it by and so it's ability to evolve with you is zero and it's future value is diminished.

at certain price points the manufacturing efficiency of an active system does result in cost/performance advantages. so at modest price points it can be a smart buy. as long as you accept it's downsides.

at the top of the food chain the likelihood of one builder getting both the amp and speaker all the way right are slight.
Elvick, the Atma-spheres are really great and very musical.

The Krells are very good, but solid state just can beat a tube for sweetness and musicality - IMHO.

I agree with Mikelavigne on the benefits of staying with individual components, but I wanted to hear what people with more experience than me thought.

I was told the Atma-spheres run best at 16 Ohms.

I'm using a Cary SPL-05 to drive the Atama-spheres.

I'm using a Krell 280p & Krell 2250 on my second (incomplete) system.

The speakers & cables I have now aren't even worth discussing - that's why I didn't mention them.

I bought the Krells & the Cary on Audiogon at good prices.

Thanks for everyone's comments - keep them coming!
I bought the Atama-spheres on Audiogon too!
I have a small pair of swans (w/seas drivers) bookshelves hooked up to my Krell. I'm going to move those to a third system: CJ-PV12 driving an NAD C272.

Next I'm going to throw my Braun L200s onto of my ADS810s and run them in parallel to get to 16 Ohms.

Then I'm going to move my James S82 Loudspeakers to my Krell system.

That's the best I can do with what I have now - go ahead, have a good laugh!

Then, I'm gonna continue MY QUEST...
Actually, I only get to 12 Ohms with the ADS & the Braun, but its a step in the right direction...
We sold a LOT of 810's back in the day...how does it SOUND ?
Lovely amps...
Stayed up all night thinking about this.
Next I'm going to throw my Braun L200s onto of my ADS810s and run them in parallel to get to 16 Ohms.... Actually, I only get to 12 Ohms with the ADS & the Braun, but its a step in the right direction...
For the two impedances to add, the speakers have to be connected in series, not in parallel. Based on a quick Google search, it appears that the L200 and 810 have nominal impedances of 4 ohms and 6 ohms, respectively. In parallel that combination would have an overall nominal impedance of (4 x 6)/(4 + 6) = 2.4 ohms.

Also, using non-identical speakers in series is usually a recipe for poor sonics, as their differing impedance curves will cause the voltages supplied by the amp to divide up between them differently at different frequencies.

Regards,
-- Al
Some people find the smorgasbord method to be a fun activity. Invite friends over, spend a few hours swapping cables in and out the system, do some critical listening and share some alcoholic beverages. You could get into an engaging argument about midrange liquidity or holographic cohesion. Does that sound like fun to you?

Alternatively, you could get a system like the Linkwitz Orion where the loudspeaker designer actually specifies what amplifier and cables the loudspeaker should be used with. The designer makes the argument that his loudspeaker do not require exotic cables or amplifiers. If you are more knowledgeable about amplifier/loudspeaker interaction than Siegried Linkwitz you'll be able to achieve superior results by carefully mixing and matching random components in an open ended system.

You could even go further along the line of system integration with the Grimm LS or the Steinway Lyngdorf S series products. Both integrate digital converters, source selection, power amplifiers, loudspeakers and cables into easily setup sound systems. I am told that both of these are top of the food chain type products. Both Grimm and SL started out as digital processor makers and then hired top designers to assists in other areas of design and manufacture.

The primary advantages of active loudspeakers is that they move the crossover from amplifier output level to line level and the load the amplifier will drive is a known factor. Basically less of your amplifier's power is not thrown away and the amplifier works into an optimal load. The execution of these concepts can be cheaply done with many corners cut or they can be done in a state of the art fashion.
Active is a safer bet if like what you hear and you don't know what to do to do better otherwise.

You are starting with some good building blocks for sure, but there is more to getting good results than the parts that go into it. I'd consult with some vendors/experts on teh products you already own and see what might happen.
Rogerstillman, FWIW the MA-1s are perfectly comfortable driving 8 ohms and even 4 ohms in some cases- which is why they work nicely on Sound Labs and Quads.
You've got a really nice amp you seem to like, and although going active has some practical and potentially sonic benefits you'd really be limiting your choices. Lots of great speakers you could pair your amp with, and I'll throw Joseph Audio, Reference 3A, and Vandersteen on the pile. I wouldn't sweat cables too much. With your amp and good speakers you'd have to try hard to make it sound bad. If you dread going to dealers for that stuff, places like Triode Wire Labs, Morrow, and Grover Huffman among others make good cables and offer generous trial periods where your arse would never need to leave the house. Anyway, best of luck.
"Next I'm going to throw my Braun L200s onto of my ADS810s and run them in parallel to get to 16 Ohms."

As Almarg pointed out, series rather than parallel connection will give you a nominal 16-ohm load (assuming the Braun and ADS are both 8-ohm loads).

One thing you need to be aware of: Unless the impedance curves of two speakers connected in series are very similar if not identical, their impedance curves will modulate one another's frequency response. I have designed speakers with series connection in mind, and the specifics of both speakers' impedance curves matter, FAR moreso than when paralleling speakers.

You don't have to go with expensive speakers to get really excellent sound from a system with MA-1s. Toss out a ballpark price range and see what bounces back. Or maybe run the question past the OTL forum over on Audio Asylum.

Duke
Putting the 810s & L200s in series brought new life into both speakers, but it needs a sub w/o a doubt.

Thanks to Almarg for pointing out my error before I wired in parallel, instead of in series. I've never wired in series before..hehe.

The Cary and the Atama-sphere are phenomenal and it's great to have them hooked up and going, even with such old speakers.

I think the smorgasbord is fun too - its what its all about!
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I'm not sure if there IS an active speaker than can compete with high end tube gear, but some of the PMC studio monitors look like they could blow my house down when standing on their subs.

I haven't heard them, but wonder what these sound like:

http://pmc-speakers.com/products/professional/active/ib2s-xbd

Of course those Active Speakers are many times what my tube gear would cost when new.
Please check out their website, speakers and read the English translation of the review just published in the German Audio Mag. They say its the best sound they have ever heard in over 30 years of testing. $14,000 a pair here in the US...just starting to ship....19 cycle bass from a 35 lb. monitor.....6 servoed Ncore amps in each box....

There will be even better things like this is the future. Imagine larger with Raal Tweeter and custom ceramic/diamond mids and even better amps....Yowzer! Active speakers will slowly take over the world...he he.
Sorry, Kii speakers....look them up. I thought if you change the subject it becomes the first line.....not so here. Kiiaudio.com
Here come the Active Speaker fans...bring it on.

BTW the L200 have great tweeters, the 810s are ok in the mid range & the bass is only faintly suggested.
Roger, another point to keep in mind when connecting speakers in series is to be sure to connect the + (usually red) and - (usually black) terminals of the amp and speakers correctly. The proper way for a series connection of two speakers is as follows:

Amplifier (+) to Speaker 1 (+)

Speaker 1 (-) to Speaker 2 (+)

Speaker 2 (-) to Amplifier (-)

It doesn't matter which speaker is connected as speaker 1 and as speaker 2.

If you don't do that correctly it won't damage anything. But the sound will definitely suffer, assuming the two pairs of speakers are in the same room, or at least if both speakers can be heard at the same time.

Good luck. Regards,
-- Al
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I too am interested in following the Kii speaker and would like to hear them. They are a fully active speaker with six drivers; six nCore amps; full DSP control and controlled dispersion that improves on time-delayed reflections. They are also said to go quite deep for a monitor sized speaker.

Any of you who go to RMAF, be sure to check out the Kii being launched by GTT Audio & Video in Room 537, and please report back. In the meantime, here is some more information.
DAR blog with Srajan Ebaen
Bob, interesting point about the crossovers. Can you explain the difference between Active & Passive crossovers and the benefits & drawbacks of both?
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I've owned both active (linn) and passive systems and found that passive better suits my personality - in that it allows me to mix and match, buy and sell equipment.

A good active system does many things well, and probably the best option for someone who doesn't want to play the audiophile game.

I suspect that most of us do however enjoy the challenge of putting together our ideal system with the pieces that we want.

I think if you compare high quality active and passive systems, you will be pleased with both. If you like to tinker, then I think you will get bored with an active system.

Just my take on the subject.
Great answer, Bob. Thanks!
"But, more importantly is that having the crossover before the amp automatically reduces intermodulation distortion of the speaker system. Each driver in an active speaker will have its own matched amplifier. There is no reason to incur the cost of a general purpose amp that is designed to power all manner of speakers."

That's not true. There's always a cost for singling out 1 specific potential problem or spec, and highlighting it in a way that makes it look like its more important than the others. Following that logic, a cheap pair of active speakers should sound better just because the active nature of the xover, than a cost no object design. IM comes up in all areas of component design, and is not isolated to one specific part. Just using an active speaker will not eliminate IM distortion. It can't.

What makes a great component is the designer; not the design itself. There's a reason most people will buy a Pass or Ayre amp (Or whatever else is equivalent), than settle for a generic powered speaker, active or passive. Better sound quality. Same thing with speakers. I remember the last time you brought this topic up Bob, you mentioned Vandersteen speakers. I forget exactly what you said, but your idea would have made the Vandersteen speaker loose its time and phase characteristics. You didn't have a problem with that. I do, because that's the whole reason you buy them in the first place. Vansersteen goes to great lengths to eliminate FIM, by the way.

I'll ask you the same question that I asked you last time. You couldn't answer it then, and I don't think you can answer it now. Give us an actual example where a specific active speaker, that you recommend, can outperform a separate amp/speaker combo made by top designers in their respected fields? If you'll notice, I'm not putting too many restrictions on what you can come up with, including cost, so it should be an easy question to answer. I've made this comparison many times and have yet to find any evidence that would suggest an active speaker design is superior, or even equal, to a well matched amp/speaker combo.
Can anyone show me a finished system with an Active Crossover?

It would be nice to see solid state, tube & hybrid (solid state & tube) designs.

How easy are these systems to live with?

Do you have to constantly fiddle with the crossover frequencies & gains for each one or can you just sit back and spin the volume control up & down for the whole system?

I know some one is going to tell me, it depends on the room. :~)
I see how adding an active crossover might cause some time delay or other coloration, but if they are built by a good component builder with matched parts that would go a long way, no?

I like the theory of active crossovers and I'm would imagine some are made better than others. But, going this route sounds like it could be hazardous because of zd542's concerns.
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In addition to the Grimm, Steinway Lyndorf and Linkwitz active systems I mentioned in an earlier post, here are some other active loudspeaker systems that can compete with any passive/power amp combo for their intended application and within their price ranges:

Unity Audio Boulder (amps designed by Tim de Paravicini)
Genelec 1037
Augspurger 215 Classics w/ subs
ATC SCM110
Avant Garde Zero

Anyone can couple a power amp to a loudspeaker and there are some powered loudspeakers that are that simple, but the loudspeakers I've listed are systems. They are carefully matched to achieve maximum performance by design teams with more resources to accomplish that goal than the average audiophile has available. Apparently this is a difficult concept for audiophiles to accept.
"They are carefully matched to achieve maximum performance by design teams with more resources to accomplish that goal than the average audiophile has available. Apparently this is a difficult concept for audiophiles to accept."

That's because you're leaving something out. I have absolutely no doubt that the designers of the active speakers you list, do everything they can to make the best sounding product. Its not that audiophiles won't accept a solution like this just because the speakers are active. For the most part, a decision is made based on sound quality/personal preference. Its entirely possible that even though the speakers look good on paper, a potential buyer just doesn't like them. No different than with any other component. Also, when you say that design teams have more resources to achieve the goal than an average audiophile, I don't see that as being relevant. That statement assumes the buyer and the maker, want the same exact end result. That may not be the case. An audiophile's part in all this, is to evaluate products they are interested in, and then make a choice based on they think sounds the best, and can afford.

The last time this topic came up for debate, I used this same example to explain my position. My personal preference is Vandersteen speakers powered by Ayre electronics. If I wanted to get the equivalent sound from an active speaker, I can't. No active speaker that I know of, even comes close to duplicating that combo's sound. It has nothing to do with me not wanting active speakers. If Ayre and Vandersteen got together made such a speaker, chances are I would buy it.

All this comes down to one idea. And that is, what will make you happy with your system? Different products for different people. That's how its always been, and I don't think it will change anytime soon.
I have had a pair of dynaudio bm5 II about 10 years ago... They were alright even though they sounded a bit boxy, and limited in dynamics when played louder than normal conversation level. I would have preferred the equivalent hifi version with a beefy nad integrated.
Rogerstillman, try to audition an Active ATC SCM-100. You will know what a top flight active speaker can do that a passive combo cannot even at 4 times the price.
There should be no doubt that active systems allow lower levels of IM distortion. It is also fair to say "So what?"....if you believe that IM distortion isn't particularly important. The advantage is still real, tho it will - like most things audio - vary in importance to a given listener. BTW, small active desktop systems can be strikingly good values, for, I believe, just this reason. Obviously, the bandwidth and spl limitations limit their utility.

The biggest problem with active systems in my book is that the selection is limited. Further, the limited # of choices is further narrowed by the fact that most are designed for pro use and are designed to meet those specific needs. Other than the Linkwitz designs, it's hard to find an active system that is dipolar. I don't know of any that are omnidirectional.

I currently use omnis with subs (a hybrid set-up where the mid to bass x-over is active, but the mid to tweeter x-over is passive) in my main system. The passive x-over sits at a highish frequency, so there's no passive x-over directly in the mids. It's a formula that works for me.

In the past, I've gone with fully active systems and fully passive systemsin my listening room. Each has its advantages and - at the moment - I've settled on a compromise. However.....

I also use Sonos for distributed music throughout my home. Five of my Sonos zones use active monitors because I like their "bang for the buck". My own view is that active systems offer compelling value at lower price points. If you're price constrained and are happy with conventional dispersion, active systems definitely deserve a hard look, IMO.

As you spend more and your options expand, personal preference starts to muddy the decision process.

As always....Pick your poison.
Martykl, I like your hybrid crossover set up. Are you all solid state?

If you had a tube amp on the passive crossover and a solid state on the active crossover, do you think the mid/bass frequencies (or wherever the crossovers meet) would blend well?

I'm considering a speaker with passive crossovers & Digital Signal Processing. It's very popular on Audiogon right now and it has an open baffle design.

I'm very interested in these, but I'm concerned that I might loose some of the sonic qualities I like about tube sound.

Is that a valid concern or should I not worry about it?

I'm keeping my tube amp & pre-amp, but I would consider an active speaker for a second system or perhaps as a compliment to my tubes.
The speakers I'm considering have no box and the DSP is supposed to optimize your room.

They are bi-ampable so I could use my Krell there and keep my Cary & Atma-sphere up top.

Sounds good on paper, but how are they in the real world? Probably a lightyear ahead of where I am now.
Rogerstillman, does the no box loudspeaker w/ DSP that you are considering have a model name and manufacturer?

Zd, to say that engineering expertise and technical resources is irrelevant is an extreme statement. If high fidelity sound reproduction is the goal, then the manufacturer and the consumer just can't be that far apart.

From an engineering perspective how does R. Vandersteen justify the powered woofers in his upmarket loudspeakers? Wouldn't the same rationale apply to the midrange and treble drivers? From a marketing perspective it could be sales suicide since audiophiles basically reject fully powered loudspeaker systems. I'm just saying that the rejection is not based upon sound quality, but upon the perceived lack of upgradeability.
Onhwy61, I was looking at the Emerald Physics speakers.
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"Zd, to say that engineering expertise and technical resources is irrelevant is an extreme statement. If high fidelity sound reproduction is the goal, then the manufacturer and the consumer just can't be that far apart."

If that's what you think I meant, I didn't do a good job explaining my point. If I read your post correctly, you said its always beneficial and important for the customer to be as close to the level of the designers technical ability as possible. While it can't hurt, I just don't think its necessary to achieve the best possible results. All designers have a different idea as to what good sound is. That applies to the consumer as well. No one is more capable of building your system than you. Your own technical ability won't have an effect how much you like your system. Listening is the dominate factor. Its no different than saying a race car mechanic needs to be a race car driver himself, or an aircraft engineer has to be able to fly the F-16 he's helping build.

"From an engineering perspective how does R. Vandersteen justify the powered woofers in his upmarket loudspeakers?"

He doesn't have to. He would have to do more explaining if he didn't power his subs. The vast majority of sub's, both internal and stand alone, are powered. Its an industry standard practice. It gives the buyer more options, not less. Powering the bass speaker on something like a Model 5, allows for a much broader range of amp options. A lot of people use low powered tube amps on their 5's. Chances are, those amps wouldn't be a realistic option otherwise.

" Wouldn't the same rationale apply to the midrange and treble drivers?"

It depends on how you look at it, but I would say no. The application is different. Almost all of the musical detail is in the mids and highs. Low frequencies just don't have the same level of resolution. Think about what you go through when setting up a system. To dial in the bass, the main adjustment is to move the speakers around the room until you find the best spot. Mids and highs are different. Things like toe in, back tilt and specific areas of the room, like the first reflection, need to be dealt with. (I understand that there are other factors involved, and maybe even some overlap. Its just not practical to go over every single detail on a forum like this.

"From a marketing perspective it could be sales suicide since audiophiles basically reject fully powered loudspeaker systems. I'm just saying that the rejection is not based upon sound quality, but upon the perceived lack of upgradeability."

That may be the case sometimes, but not always. For he most part, its about sound quality. Your case will apply to people that shortcut the evaluation process. Buying from reviews, no demo..., and other similar short cuts. Others will put the time in to listen and evaluate before making a purchase. In my own experience, I've put many modest component systems next to expensive, active speaker systems, and was able to get much better SQ from the budget system.
Im considering Dynaudio xeo4 and Focus 200 XD as pretty much complete system and any insights would be greatly appreciated. Wish I could go to RMAF :-(
I've yet to see an active speaker do what mine do. Which is to say my speakers go down to 20Hz and yet are very easy to drive (98 db 1 watt/1 meter) and are very detailed (employing field coil drivers, which are to the dynamic cone world what ESLs are to the planar world).

Are there any actives that go to 20Hz properly?

While many transistor advocates say their amps are neutral, I've yet to hear one that does not impart a coloration- that of brightness and hardness. OTOH, I don't really go for that 2nd harmonic that tubes are known for and while it may come as a surprise to some, tube equipment does not have to have high distortion or even the second harmonic- that is all in the design. I say this simply as I have yet to see an active that uses a tube amp built-in.