Deciding between active and passive PA speakers is a lot like choosing between Pizza Hut or Taco Bell. They’re both great, but they hit very differently depending on your mood.
The main difference is that active PA speakers act as all-in-one units, while passive speakers need a little help from supporting hardware to get going. Since that makes absolutely no sense as an explanation, let’s dig a little deeper into the differences between active vs. passive PA speakers.
What are active PA speakers?
Active speakers (also called powered speakers) are like that overly ambitious friend who can do it all. They love running on the treadmill, working 12-hour days, and still maintaining their 17 hobbies. Where do they find the time!? I can’t even seem to get out of bed and have coffee before— Sorry…
Tangent aside, active speakers contain the amplifier and the speakers in the same unit. All you need to do is plug into a power source (hence, the “powered” part), and they’re ready to make some sweet, sweet music. Think of it like the combo amp of the speaker world.
Many powered speakers also contain basic mixers with EQ functions to dial your tone to perfection. They’re perfect if you want an all-in-one speaker that can do it all (bunch of show offs…).
The benefits of powered PA speakers
Being the over-achieving friend of the speaker world definitely comes with some perks. Here are the main reasons musicians tend to lean toward powered speakers for their live sound setup:
- Plug and play. The speaker and amp are all in the same package. Instant sound. Just add power!
- Easier to transport with fewer pieces.
- Speakers come pre-tuned to the amplifier. No compatibility or power issues.
- Built-in mixer and EQ helps you create the perfect sound without needing extra equipment.
- Super easy to set up.
- Some come with battery units, so you can jam anywhere your gigs might take you.
- Can act as a standalone PA system if you don’t want to invest in more equipment. Like we said, overachiever…
The not-so-good parts of active speakers
Nothing in the world is all unicorns and puppy dogs (unfortunately). And you know that over-achieving friend definitely isn’t fun to hang out with all the time… Here are some of the downsides to adding active speakers to your live sound rig:
- More built-in parts mean more weight. Bring your forklift or get ready for a sore back after gigs.
- If either the speaker or amplifier breaks, you’ll have to swap out the entire unit rather than just fix the individual parts.
- When a powered speaker goes down mid-show, there’s no swapping pieces. The whole unit has to go.
- Usually have a higher price tag compared to their passive counterparts.
- Need to be plugged into power. You better put your speakers close to an outlet or bring plenty of extension cords.
What are passive PA speakers?
If active speakers are the overachievers, passive speakers (aka unpowered speakers) are that person in the group project who relies on the support of others to get by.
Unlike active speakers, passive speakers are literally just speakers — no internal amplifier or mixer included. That means unless you want to use the speakers as a silent end table for your living room, you’ll need to hook them up to a powered amp or powered mixer.
On the other hand, you also don’t have to worry about plugging them into a power outlet, meaning fewer cables.
But just because they need a little help from other equipment doesn’t mean passive PA speakers are inherently worse than active speakers. A well-oiled team is often better than a superstar individual in certain situations.
The benefits of passive PA speakers
You might think unpowered speakers are just lazy, relying on other equipment to get the job done. But there are plenty of benefits to using passive speakers, like these:
- Easy to build and upgrade your perfect rig. Swap out different amps, mixers, and speakers to fit your needs without needing to replace everything.
- Fewer parts mean fewer pounds. Passive speakers are typically lighter weight compared to their active counterparts.
- Easy maintenance. If something goes down, you can simply swap out the broken part without replacing your entire rig.
- Make EQ changes from a centralized mixer, rather than running around changing each individual speaker (great for permanently installed venue speakers).
- Carry fewer wires (and deal with less tangles) without needing power cords for each speaker.
- Lower price tag means a happier wallet.
The downsides of choosing unpowered speakers
What was that about unicorns and puppy dogs? Oh right; here are some of the downsides to adding unpowered speakers to your live sound rig:
- Needs more equipment. You can’t just buy the speaker. You’ll need a powered mixer and/or powered amplifier. Better hire a roadie for your next show!
- Compatibility issues. Some amps and speakers don’t mix. You’ll have to check things like power ratings and impedance to make sure all the parts of your live sound setup will play nice together.
- More parts mean more cost overall. Yes, the speakers themselves are cheaper, but you still have to buy a powered amp and mixer to complete the set.
Should you get passive or active PA speakers for your next gig?
If both passive and active PA speakers are so great, how do you choose which one to get!? Luckily for you, here’s a handy-dandy cheat sheet to help you determine which is best for your style:
- Singer/songwriter or acoustic duos – One or two active speakers will give you enough juice to play coffee shops and bars without needing to drag a bunch of equipment everywhere.
- Mobile DJ – Grab a powered speaker with possibly a subwoofer for portable and easy-to-set-up sound that’s powerful enough to blast your beats.
- Small venues – Two or more active speakers will get it done on a budget. Easy to carry and store. Might think about going with passive speakers and a power amp if you want to expand any time in the future.
- Medium and large venues – Go for multiple passive speakers with power amps and a centralized mixer. Gives better and easier control over the sound, more power, and easier maintenance. Can permanently install passive speakers and manage other components from one location.
Best active PA speakers
You’re looking for a little more activity from your PA speakers, and you’ve come to the right place. Here are the top picks for best active PA speakers the AMS gear nerds could find:
QSC K12.2 12" 2000-watt powered speaker
When you absolutely, positively must be heard, look to the largest member of the K.2 series from QSC. The K12.2 active PA might only have a 12” speaker, but don’t let its size fool you. This thing packs a whopping 2000-watts of venue-shaking power for nearly any application.
But QSC didn’t just go for power. The K12.2 is as nimble as it is loud. Use the built-in LCD screen on the back to manage every aspect of your mix and EQ levels — which is especially useful if you don’t plan on using a mixer.
You can even save recallable scenes to swap between applications like stage monitor, dance music, acoustic, or whatever else you might need it for without manually adjusting the speaker every time.
Whatever you plan to use your active PA speaker for, you won’t be disappointed with the QSC K12.2.
Check out the QSC K12.2 powered speakers
Electro-Voice EKX15P 15" 1500-watt powered loudspeaker
Known for their attention to detail and outstanding sound quality, the sound experts at Electro-Voice have done it again with the EKX15P active PA speaker.
You’ll definitely be heard in nearly any venue with an incredible 1500-watts of power blasting from the 15” speaker.
And you can rest assured that the audience will hear every minute nuance of your sound with special transducers designed and engineered by EV to produce incredible wide-range frequency response. You might not even need a subwoofer with lows like that!
All this amazing sound is easy to manage with an onboard EQ that’s controlled by an LCD screen on the back of the speaker.
Check out the Electro-Voice EKX15P powered speakers
Electro-Voice ZLX-15BT 15" 1000-watt Bluetooth powered loudspeaker
Want the sound quality from an Electro-Voice speaker and be able to play your favorite jams via Bluetooth between sets? Look no farther than the ZLX-15BT active PA speaker.
With 1000-watts of premium power, the ZLX-15BT is loud enough to play just about any venue and portable enough that it won’t break your back while carrying it to the gig.
For musicians on a budget, this speaker comes in at just under $600, and with the built-in EQ and LCD screen, it’s easy to manage your sound without needing to buy a mixer. You can even save your favorite mixes with five user-programmable presets to swap venues with the turn of the control knob.
Powerful, portable, affordable — what more can we say!?
Check out the Electro-Voice ZLX-15BT powered speakers
Best passive PA speakers
If you believe teamwork makes the dream work, an unpowered speaker might be in your future. We sent the AMS gear nerds into the warehouse to find the best passive PA speakers available, and here’s what they found:
Peavey SP4 dual 15" 1000-watt unpowered speaker
What’s better than one 15” premium BWX Black Widow speaker? Two! That’s right; Peavey went and crammed two of these bad boys into the SP4 passive PA speaker to bring up to 4000 watts of peak sound to a venue near you!
Not only can this speaker really pump the noise, but it’s also quasi-three-way and full-range bi-ampable. Since that sounds like complete gibberish, it means you can hook this speaker up to two separate amplifiers (and if you get fancy with the connectors, three (hence “quasi”)) for even more control of your sound and how it’s projected.
The brilliant engineers at Peavey also made the SP4’s horn to aim 10 degrees down, so the sound hits your audience right in the face, rather than flying over their heads. There’ll be no escaping your amazing tunes!
Check out the Peavy SP4 unpowered speakers
Peavey PV115 15” 400-watt unpowered PA speaker
If you’re looking for some real bang for your buck, the Peavey PV115 passive speaker packs 400 watts of program power (800-watt peak) for a price that won’t leave your wallet’s ears ringing.
You might not get all the bells and whistles, but this workhorse is built for the stage. With dual 1/4-inch inputs for chaining or bi-amps, a full-metal perforated grill, 3/4-inch MDF construction, and metal handles for easy carrying, the PV115 is ready to take whatever beating you can give it and come out the other side sounding just as good!
Need a little more low end? Pair your PV115 with the Peavey PV118 subwoofer to really round out your sound and bring the bass!
Check out the Peavy PV115 unpowered speakers
JBL JRX215 15” 1000-watt unpowered PA speaker
Audiophiles know to go to JBL for the best audio quality, and they don’t disappoint with the JRX215 passive PA speaker. Although this speaker might be on the affordable side, it doesn’t skimp on power. You can rock up to 1000 watts of peak power to blow the roof off nearly any venue.
Beyond power, this speaker also features a one-inch polymer diaphragm compression driver, advanced network topology crossover design, high-voltage capacitors and inducers with heavy-gauge wires and massive cores, and progressive transition high frequency waveguard!
(Basically, it provides all the amazing sound quality you’d expect from JBL.)
If you like what you see but wish it came with a little more power, you’re in luck! JBL also makes a larger JRX225 passive PA speaker that comes with dual 15” speakers for up to 2000 watts of venue-shaking power!
No matter which speaker you choose, you definitely won’t be disappointed with the power and quality that pours from the JBL JRX series unpowered speakers.
Check out the JBL JRX215 unpowered speakers
Blast your sound with the right PA speakers
Just like with anything in the music gear world, choosing between active vs. passive PA speakers will ultimately depend on how you plan to use them.
If you just need something small, portable, and easy to set up, powered speakers might be the way to go. If you want something with a little more oomph that can give you a more customized sound, unpowered speakers with a good powered amp and mixer will definitely get the job done.
If you’re still not sure which type of PA speaker is right for you, give us a call at AMS. Our customer service reps are musicians too, so we can point you in the right direction to suit your needs. Plus, we always love to talk about gear!
And if you don’t end up liking your choice of speakers, no sweat! We offer a 45-day money-back guarantee, so you can send them back and try something else. At AMS, we want you to find the perfect gear for your sound, no matter how many tries it takes. Now pick some PA speakers and go make some noise!