Why are we so passive?

In high-end audio the passive speaker is the norm. Active speakers may not be rare, but are definitely uncommon. What's the buzz on active?

Is active just another marketing scheme?
Is there really any difference between active and passive?
Why don't more audiophiles go active?
Why don't more manufacturers produce active speakers?
At what price point, if any, would you consider going active?
Most audiophiles don't like active because it limits the variables they can fiddle with. While there are many successful active designs, there are many more passive simply because the market prefers them. Technical issues do favor the actives.

i agree with you kr4. audiophiles sometimes get bored with the sound of their stereo systems. replacing the amp and/or the speaker cable is an obvious way to change the sound.

further, active speakers are generally limited to "box" designs. i have never seen an active panel speaker.
The best speaker makers aren't the best amplifier makers
active is always better (foolproof), but since the object is to buy and fondle and resell, active speakers are not popular. in professional circles, it rules.
There is nothing wrong with passive. You can get very good sound from passive speakers. Although active speakers often sound better where both options are available and direct comparisons can be made.

Active speakers allow for a greater degree of precise driver integration. They eliminate loss of power in passive crossovers, and they dramatically reduce IM distortion from one amp powering several speaker drivers. However, you get what the designer has intended and this is certainly a limitation for those who like to fiddle.

Active is generally well accepted in recording studios where ultra high fidelity and translatable consistent sound is demanded, with looks being much less relevant. Listeners at a studio are in the know about music and have a job to do and prefer a reference sound to "sugar-coating"; if they are to be impressed then it is the actual sound that will carry the day not the "look". The locaton is also an "industrial work" setting with gear expected to last many years. In the past, monitor consistency and match with other studio gear was so poor that engineers did not trust their work until they had tested the mix on a variety of cheaper home audio type speakers. Today that happens much less often, as active speakers have created very reliable and consistent high quality sound.

Audiophiles also care about the sound but often balance these requirements with how things look, as, after all, it is a domestic environment. They may want their susbstantial investment to be visibly self evident too, even to casual non-audiophile observers. They also like some individuality to their setup with a tweak towards their tastes (accuracy is second to a tailored sound for maximum personal enjoyment). Like a sports car with go faster wheel hubs and other largely symbolic styling, such as aerofoils and stripes and things that identify newer versus older models; the look in a domestic setting is relatively important to most audiophiles.

So the absence of a big chrome monster power amp or an array of glowing tubes is, IMHO, a significant drawback of active speakers to most audiophiles.

Furthermore active speakers, being work horses, mostly tend to be big ugly, boxy and extremely heavy ....rather than tall narrow and elegant. Big, boxy and ugly being the requirements of good sound quality - especially if accurate bass reproduction is desired.

Given the restrictions, however, I suspect that a another significant advantage of a high end active speaker is that the sound has often been lab tested to be as close as possible to neutral, natural and transparent; therefore active speakers are generally less likely to fatigue a listener after several months and cause "upgradeitus". Although,like passive speakers, active speakers will still suffer heavily according to the quality of room acoustics (room acoustcs being probably the most common reason people remain frustrated and keep changing gear).
Using a monoblock close to the speaker gives you the choice of amps and speakers. Much the same advantage. I always wondered about having an amplifier exposed to such high energy vibrations in the cabinet, but then I worry and think too much about audio anyway! I like the flexibility and have the room to have both.
Very few are that good, and the ones that are cost way more than most would enter into vs. buying a good 2000 to 5000 dollar amp seperate, and a pair of 6000 dollar speakers..= 11 k vs 15 grand plus pair of ATC's and have to run power cords, interconnects etc.. all over the room.. Not to say this is not fine, cause I would say many actives at the same price points of fine passives would be just as good, just not as conveinent and or normal to the standard thinking audio guy. So like anything else somebodys gotta take a back seat to the norm. even if in ways its superior.
Mrtennis: There have been active panel (ELS) speakers in the past and there's no reason why there should not be.

Tarsando: They may not be the best amplifier makers but they can be and they can certainly collaborate or OEM the amps from others.

Jaybo: Agreed.
Shadorne: good response, but: "Listeners at a studio are in the know about music and have a job to do and prefer a reference sound to "sugar-coating"; Really? alot of musicians don't know crap about good sound. Just look at all the photos of "artists" with the Yamaha NS-10's in the background... yeah like that's some kind of "reference"
Xiekitchen, while it is beyond me to speak for all musicians, the ones that have come accross my path, have tended to be players of music, and listening was reserved for live players, anything else was just background, so it may be incidental what they have, when they can play and produce or listen in on others who can for what they want.
The guys out there using speakers with no crossovers are basically using an active configuration. The amplifier is still directly coupled to the driver. Just no amplifier inside the speaker. So there are many using active designs..just not in the way you probably think. Being able to choose the amplifier in an active setup is fun and educational.
active speakers often sound better where both options are available and direct comparisons can be made.
Exactly. Also, any passive spkr will reach a performance ceiling if only due to the existence of a filtering/equalising unit (xover) between source and spkr.
Really? alot of musicians don't know crap about good sound.
Really? How on earth do you believe they got their diploma then? Mail order?
I think you meant, some musicians do not seem interested in the hobby of sound reproduction and, thereby, in matters of neutral / coloured / etc sound reproduction. Cheers
Really? alot of musicians don't know crap about good sound. Just look at all the photos of "artists" with the Yamaha NS-10's in the background... yeah like that's some kind of "reference"

Funny you should mention these. The NS-10's have almost a cult following. In the past, studio monitors were not reliably accurate...they were impressive but differed from studio to studio significantly...nobody could trust their mix and so the legend of the NS-10 was born. These very cheap crappy speakers simulate what most consumers have at home. In the past audio engineers relied on the NS-10's to check that their mix would translate well to a home audio system (i.e. for example it wouldn't blow up the speaker with too much LF or it would sound ok when played loud where most consumers speakers start to compress). This need became so prevalent (the problem of mix translating to cheap consumer gear) that some people just mixed or mastered straight to NS-10's.

As I mentioned, active speakers have largely caused the industry to converge on a much more accurate and consistent lab tested sound (for sure studio speakers still sound a little different from model to model but much less so than in the past). This has largely negated the need for NS-10's to test a mix.

Therefore, I don't think the NS-10 implies musicians know crap about sound - it was just a tool that worked well. After all musicians want their sound to translate as well as possible and compete with what else is out there. (Lately this has led to "CD loudness wars", which is a whole other topic where there is intentional destruction of sound quality by artists and producers)

I do agree with you that musicians are like the rest of us and there are varying degrees as to how much they care about sound. For example, INXS were so fanatical about sound that they had their own studio, Rhinocerous Sydney. Mark Knopfler, David Gilmour and several others are the same. Of course, having the luxury of your own high end studio means that you have already made it big, as a musician. Recently PC's and software are making home studios much more affordable and democratizing music production a little, for example Creed's big hit album was produced for only a few thousand dollars. However, high quality production is still pretty expensive and requires expertise and most musicians still rent everything and pay by the hour for experts.
Why do some high end speaker manufacturers insist on external crossovers?


They want it out of the box, and the same goes for amps as well.

Many of us like tube amps. They would not work well inside a speaker.

I own small Genelec powered monitors (and powered sub) for my video and audio mix suite. Genelecs (especially the new 8000 series) are considered some of the better powered pro monitors.

Their waveguide tweeter sounds very good and for a metal box the entire speaker is very coherent.

Do they compare with my Cerious Ceramic speakers and Atma-sphere OTL tube amps? No.

I'm not saying Active speakers are bad in any way, and I think for an all digital system, delivering signal digitally to speakers is a fantastic idea, where the D/A and amp is all inegral and has very short analog runs inside. Of course what do you do when D/A's become better or we get a new standard?
{Genelec Actives} Do they compare with my Cerious Ceramic speakers and Atma-sphere OTL tube amps? No.

I bet they don't. Two very different sounds. Both are good but serve a different purpose. Active speakers are definitely not for everyone.
Because this hobby is less about sound and technical sense and more to do about personality, ego and self reflection through one's system.
To Ojgalli, I believe we all missed what you asked, Ha, and its pretty funny.. To your question on are they gimmicks or marketing " NO " They are a completely different design than any Passive if they are a real active speaker, and I think it should be pointed out too, that most will think an active speaker is one with an amp built into it, much like a subwoofer.. Which is yes an active speaker, only cause it has an electronic Crossover/filter, not a passive " Inductor, Resistor, Capacitor " Network, but yes there are some passive sub's as well... A true active speaker has nothing to do with the fact the amp is internal, as a matter of fact most of the time this would be costly and worse due to the heat restrictions and vibration in a speaker cabinet..

For example a 3 way active speaker would need 3 electronic stereo crossovers, no passive, thats what makes it active, and also this would mean it must have 3 stereo channels of amplification as well opposed to one.. or like I stated a subwoofer is a single channel and is crossed over, but its not a full range speaker and would be still considered active, but only for low frequencys.

This is why its pretty expensive to do active is mostly in part to the extra channels of amplification needed for a full range speaker opposed to a sub, and the electronic crossovers all separated such as ATC's actives, which is a reason their actives are like double or 3 times I believe the cost of the passive versions ATC builds.. In a way I totally believe Actives are far better, Or sometimes even better no crossovers at all like in a single driver full range system can be even cheaper with amps just feeding an FRD directly.

So don't get confused ACTIVE SPEAKERS do not necessarily Have AMps built in only, they have much more hardware in the initial design of building Electronic crossovers that are Far less loss over a standard " Inductor, Resistor, Capacitor " Type Bread board crossover you are use to seeing built into a speaker, and Actives can have all this externally of the speaker or built in, so both ways is possible and does exist.. And its also important to remember a True Active speaker again for example a 3 way Will Have an Amplifier channel powering the tweeter by itself, the Midrange by itself, and the woofers by itself after already being processed by an Electronic Crossover to feed each one, which means you need 6 Channels of Electronic crossovers(3 stereo L & R), and 6 Channels of amplification, which should really answer your question I hope of why they are not as common, or why should they cost much more... Yes the passive Driver devices "speaker cones " and the cabinets they are built into is virtually the same, but it stops there, the processing and amplification of the speakers is completely different from a Passive speaker, if its a true active system.
Lush, Agreed, but the few moments when we occasionally break free of our earthly trappings and simply hear the music are truly glorious.
gmood1? What designs out there, that you can name off the top of your head are either "crossover-less" or have a "minimal" crossover, of some sort? I for one would appreciated a list.
I used to have Sonus Faber Electa/Minima Amators, which used a very simplistic crossover, and THEY WERE VERY VERY DYNAMIC for two way monitors! Infact, it really made me notice how much more "dynamically right" and exciting speaker sound can be. Infact, my Sonus speaker STOMPED my Thiel 2.3's into the dust, dynamcally! (Only thing with those speakers was that the sound "varied", depending on how the power fluxtuated at my home. The speakers sounded decidedly better durring the day, when power was low out of the wall, and sounded kinda dull at night, when power was high!...strange.)
I, to this day, tend to look for designs that offer this approach, maybe even "no crossover" at all.
Any considerations out there would be appreciated. I like to keep up on the stuff.
Very informative post.. yeah I kind of knew all that. It just irks me, like the new cd I purchased, John Mclaughlin's "Thieves and Poets" I think(?) and there in the background are those damn Yamahas... my favorite guitarist in the whole world with those Yamahas! Now if they were NS-2000's with the beryllium domes...
Undertow has added some good points. For example, an active speaker allows the designer to control phase more precisely. Actives have less compromise than passive crossovers; less trade offs in power loss on passive elements, keeping phase changes minimal whilst balancing frequency response (the kind of issues that make some people swear by single drivers...although a single driver has trade offs too....but that is another story).
Flrnlamb, Most of the crossoverless types available are full range single driver type systems.. Using like Lowther, and Fostex drivers for example.. To get extreme lows or highs some systems will keep the important midband which is mostly the meat of the music and where most find music to fall apart or be its harshest or not detailed enough, and then simply add an active subwoofer, or even Tweeters to extend the range out further from the top or bottom.
has anyone mentioned price? owning a nice amp and being able to upgrade spkrs w/o having to replace amp is a waste of $$. it does not make sense to re-purchase amp everytime you want to change out spkrs. as noted above, tubes in a spkr cabinet is a heckuva challenge as well
has anyone mentioned price? owning a nice amp and being able to upgrade spkrs w/o having to replace amp is a waste of $$."

Not sure, the statement seems like it is cancelling itself out..

But anyway, Active Tube speaker systems is fine, you put the amps on the rack, not in the speakers, again the reason some are very confused it seems.. You could turn any speaker you wish to be an active speaker if you wanted, you would have to get in them, disconnect the Passive crossovers completely and run direct to the drivers, and then of course have an electronic crossover capable of all the settings you would need in front of the amps.. Again this would not be a conventional or simple way, and is not necessarily the most cost effective, however can be done...
maybe i am unclear on precise definition of term 'active speaker' in regards to OP. i asumed active was describing speaker with amp built in. if so, i meant to say that if one wanted to upgrade speakers one would have to purchase an entirely differnt built in amp as well which would increase overall cost. is it just me who has this confusion as i see that some are defining the term differently. i see marketing that uses 'active speaker'to mean speaker 'with built in power supply'. ala 'active subwoofer'. i think this term may be used in different contexts to mean different things?.
I guess the point is there are SELF Powered speakers, commonly called Active, but are Not necessarily Active speakers in the true sense.. And then there are True Active Speakers…Which in most cases would be best done with external amps and external electronic crossovers, which again any speaker system essentially could be converted to be an Active system, The Generic word Active does not define " Internal power amps " as many seem to believe, Active means Electronic Filters and separate power channels for each driver.

So back to the first question, Why not build more "Self Powered" speakers is really what people seem to want… mainly cause the cost and quality is going to be worse in most cases than running a separate 2 channel or pair of Mono block amps on your rack… True Actives "Internally powered & filtered or externally powered " are a whole different ballgame is all people need to realize I guess.
I have a question are Meridian Speakers an active system? Or are they just passive crossovers with internal mono amps running all drivers?
Are you confusing the issue? Active speakers have amplifiers and active subwoofers do, too.

Active speakers make the most sense on all technical levels. The audio community doesn't seek the best engineering principles to acheive this, they rely on sex appeal with a sense of pride and complication.

This link with Bob Stuart talking about active designs should really open peoples eyes in engineering terms.


I'm afraid Meridian and B&O are some of the very few companies developing these systems which IMHO will be mainstream in consumer grade electronics in 10 years. Active designs in my opinion aren't supported as they should be because the typical music 'lover' is really a 'tweak' lover and therefore doesn't want to commit to a music system that he doesn't get to engineer himself (at least in his head) and play around with numerous variables (cables/pre's/amp's etc...). But that's just my opinion, what do I know?

I am glad to see a consumer brand embracing active speakers...until now it has been only computer speakers and pro gear where you find active speakers (pros began to embrace active speakers about 20 years ago...)

As Meridian correctly states they have a lot of technical advantages....which may or may not be enough to conquer the consumer market. Time will tell...perhaps the already wide acceptance of active subwoofers among consumers is the"Trojan horse".
thanks for clarification undertow. i apparently used the 'common generic' definition.. my bad. fwiw, cos. have been selling all in one designs for decades. technical issues aside, if there was a way to satisfy both a lover of chamber music and a heavy metal fan in one design it would have been achieved by now. i presume most a-goners have fairly well trained ears tuned to their musical preferences and living conditions etc. so i do not see a market selling packaged systems to this crowd. but as lush says: that's just my opinion, what do i know.
I've worked with both active and passive loudspeakers, and both can sound great. Or terrible... design and execution are, as always, the keywords.
For myself I'm considering going more or less active. I'd like to purchase a second (Threshold) poweramp, have them matched and remove the crossover in my Apogees. Filtering would be done by a modified Behringer active crossover placed between the pre- and poweramps. But since that will require some investments and I'm a little short (as always actually) on cash it'll probably won't be soon.
And if you use a ribbon or compresion driver with active you still need a passive after active to keep driver from damage when amps are turned on so active powered is not the end all be all.Many ways to design hiquality loudspeakers no one way:) And to me thats why its interesting if computers could design crossovers and loudspeakers as well as humans we wouldnt have a hobbie nothing to talk about except music but hey that might be a good thing;)
The current Meridian D series take digital input and divide/EQ before the power amps.

both a lover of chamber music and a heavy metal fan in one design it would have been achieved by now.

Good point. The desired tailored coloration of many audiophiles means that "foolproof" active speakers are unattractive in many cases.

However, funnily enough, Michael Bishop at Telarc (well respected classical audiophile recording label) and ACDC (no introduction necessary) both agree on the same active speakers. So it might be possible to make a design that satisfies both camps.
with enuf $$$ a single package ultimately may be produced to satisfy all. makes me think of the car homer invented in the simpsons. btw, in that episode did anyone notice the thiel like speakers in uncle herbs' mansion? danny devito did the voiceover...
does a manufacture who is a speaker designer necessarily have a good ear ? he may select an amp which creates an unbalanced frequency response. when it comes to audio or life, one size (sound) does not fit all.

if i like set amps, and like a speaker, i might not purchase the speaker if it is designed with a solid state amp. it's an inflexible approach, regardless of the technical justification.
it's an inflexible approach, regardless of the technical justification.

True. It is certainly not popular with anyone looking to tailor the sound in a specific manner. Definitely a good reason why it may never get traction with audiophiles despite all the technical advantages.
It would be hilarious to speak with engineers some 20-40 years ago and ask them where they think we'd be in 2007. Fastforward...and the same people want tubes, vinyl, horn's...which really begs to ask a question...where will we be in 20 years and how much progress has the 'hifi' world made?
nailed it lush! mankind is always reinventing the wheel and calling it advancement and evolution! and kudos for using the term 'begs the question' correctly. tastes come and go but they are always relative and subjective. fwiw, the concept of evolution in general is very recent in the human experience. altho i do loves my xrcd's and dsd discs.
This article asks the same question:

Audiogoner "Dlanselm" in describing his ATC active speakers in his virtual system states:

"ATC Anniversary 50's (Best "real world speaker"). These do not require $30,000 worth of amps. They have awesome tone and impact the Second best midrange of all speakers. However, they are not the last word in treble or bass response. They do bring electrostatic-like cohesiveness to drivers. They have awesome "tube like", or "music like" tonality in the midrange, not lush "tube like", think Vac PHI 300 or your own personal best tube reference. Then, imagine a very good solid state amp on the bass. Basically, you get great tone from top to bottom, with great image palpability and natural image size.

By far the best sonic value for the dollar, and a damn fine speaker and amp combo regardless of value. To beat them you would need to spend an ADDITIONAL minimum $40,000 on speakers, amps, and speaker cables."

Maybe it is not more expensive to do "active" after all.
FANTASTIC NEWS! we can now shut down this industry once and for all. should be no more than 6-8 mos before we have all replaced the second rate set ups we assembled. i never thought i would live this long, now if we can just reverse global warming within the next few weaks we really got it goin on. nothing like superlative to get my VISA card swiped. anybody with vintage mac amps ... i will pick up for $20 and travel fare.
Are you being sarcastic? :)

From my very small knowledge and experience base, it just seems obvious that there are just a lot of ways to skin the cat. It also seems obvious that active speakers are not a passing fad and may take a larger share of the market in the future. Wasn't that the question to start with?