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Here’s everything you need to know about built-in speaker systems

29 August 2018

Built-in amplifiers in speakers are a common feature. But what separates them from speakers with a plug-in amp?

There’s an impressive array of speaker systems to choose from. However, all of them fall into one of two categories: active or passive. Roughly speaking, whether the speaker is active or passive will depend on its relationship with its amplifier: active speakers have built-in amplifiers, while passive speakers require external ones.

Each type has pros and cons. We’ll take you through the differences between the two speaker types, and help you make a decision on which is best for you.

Speakers and amplifiers

Speakers can’t work without an amplifier. This is because the electrical signal created by your playback device or line-in instrument isn’t powerful enough to get a speaker cone to move and create sound on its own.

To help illustrate this, consider how a microphone works: a it records sound through a diaphragm, which has to be very small and very sensitive to capture all the minute details in a waveform. Consequentially, the microphone can only create a small electrical signal.

However, we need a stronger signal to excite and drive the speaker cone, and the resulting acoustic waveform has to be representative of the original waveform. So, the amplifier takes this weak signal and increases it to a level significant enough to make some noise. The larger the cone (or the more cones you need to move), the more powerful the amplifier needs to be.

Active speakers

These types of speakers are essentially 'all-in-one' systems, as the amplifier is built into the loudspeaker cabinet itself. This tends to make active speakers convenient; everything is built into the speakers themselves and there's no complex setup. However, it also makes them heavier and more limited in use, as they're usually not designed for you to add additional speakers to your existing setup.

Pound-for-pound, active speakers are often more expensive than passive setups too, and each speaker will require a hookup to the mains.

That being said, active speakers usually sound better than their passive counterparts. This is typically due to the system — and its various presets — having already been optimised by the manufacturer. This is something you’d otherwise have to do by hand with a bespoke, passive system.

Passive speakers

In contrast to active speakers, passive systems require an external amplifier and mixer, plus the cabling needed to route sound from the amplifier. Instead of being 'all-in-one', you could think of them as being 'modular'. They have great potential for expansion and upgrading, provided you have a capable amplifier.

There’s a big caveat with passive speakers: compatibility must be considered. Adding additional speakers or components of the wrong power rating or impedance can damage your hardware.

It’s often easier to repair passive setups, as the failure of one component doesn't stop the rest of the speakers from working. This is important for scenarios such as a live gig where the failure of the entire system could be catastrophic.

What makes a quality speaker?

Disregarding where the amplifier is placed for the time being, a speaker's sound quality is the result of several factors, including the overall design of the system and the materials used in its construction. The interaction between all of these components can make or break a system in terms of sound quality.

Put simply, a speaker manufacturer typically tries to pick the best materials that they can afford, and then tries to build the most efficient and aesthetic system possible from them.

Manufacturers pay particular attention to the speaker cone, using a variety of materials from paper to polymer fibres. They look for something that is rigid and sensitive enough to clearly amplify all the nuances of an electrical signal, and not soft enough to flex, which can cause sound distortion.

There isn’t really one ‘optimal' material or cone configuration, although manufacturers and engineers often have personal favourites.

Active vs passive: what’s best?

Neither set up is really any better than the other, they just have different uses. It's a trade-off of simplicity versus flexibility: what do you want to use your speaker system for?

As a general rule, the large sprawling setups you see at live music venues or places with large speaker systems are passive, as audio engineers and musicians prefer the flexibility and redundancy. By contrast, most people prefer their home speakers to be active, as they’d rather opt for the simplicity and easy setup.

If you have limited space, prefer simplicity, aren't too concerned about speaker weight, and have a little more money to spend, you may want to consider an active speaker setup.

As an alternative, passive may be for you if you're after a more flexible setup and want to be more hands-on with your component matching. If you're not fazed by additional wiring, EQing, choosing the right components, and need a system that can be upgraded over time, this is definitely an option to try.

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