Powered vs Passive Speakers: Which One Is Better For Home Theater? - Rolling Stone
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How to Choose Between Powered and Passive Speakers For Your Home Theater

Both styles of speakers are great — here’s how to decide between them

Audioengine A5+

Amazon

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Speakers are one of the most important components you need to consider when building your home theater system, and there are a lot of options available. You can pick bookshelf-sized speakers, or floor standers, choose a compact sound bar, or a full 5.1 surround sound setup. One of the less talked about decisions is whether to get active (powered) or passive speakers.

We’ve broken down the pros and cons of both types of speakers below, and recommended a pair in each category once you’ve decided which style is right for you.

If You’re Short On Space, Powered Speakers Have The Edge

The biggest difference between passive and powered speakers is the way they’re amplified. Passive speakers need to be hooked up to a stereo receiver, which sends an audio signal from your home theater gear (a turntable, lets say) to them. You can’t plug your turntable directly into passive speakers, they need to be connected to the receiver with speaker wire all the time.

Powered speakers have an amplifier built into them, so you plug them into an outlet, and they’re all ready to go. They’re designed with a wide assortment of inputs (ports), so you can plug all of your home theater components into them directly. Because the amp is built in, powered speakers are basically an entire home theater system in one box.

If you don’t have a lot of space, it’s tempting to get a pair of powered speakers and be done with it, but there are some trade offs you need to keep in mind.

If You Like Choice, Passive Speakers Are a Better Fit

The most significant advantage passive speakers have over powered one is that there’s a lot more of them out there. With powered speakers, you’re pretty much resigned to getting a stereo pair of bookshelf speakers — or a 2.1 system that includes a subwoofer.

Passive speakers are available in all shapes and sizes, and you can integrate speakers from different companies into a single system. You also get to pick the exact stereo receiver you want to get, and upgrade it over time without having to replace your speakers.

Home theater systems that use passive speakers are more flexible, although having more choices does add a layer of complexity when picking the right ones. With powered speakers, what you see is what you get.

Passive Speakers Have More Space For Bigger Drivers

The powered and passive speakers we’re recommending are roughly the same size (both are bookshelf style speakers), but that doesn’t mean they’ll sound the same. Because powered speakers have an amplifier inside, it means they typically have smaller drivers (the part of a speaker that produces sound).

Bigger drivers generally create clearer, better balanced sound, and allow the speaker to get louder. This isn’t to say powered speakers will sound a lot worse (I’ve gotten great results from both types of speakers), but it’s something you should definitely be aware of.

On the other hand, the amplifier inside powered speakers were specifically designed to get the best sound out of that specific set of speakers. You can pair any passive speakers with any amp, so there’s no guarantee you’ll get perfect results, and may end up with a worse sounding setup.

The Bottom Line

If you’re short on space, don’t want to hand-pick your audio components, and want a simple, clean setup, powered speakers will fit your needs. If you prefer choice, don’t want bookshelf speakers, or eventually want to work up from stereo to surround sound, passive speakers are what you need.

1. Polk Audio LSiM 703

Polk Audio LSIM 703

Amazon

If you’ve decided passive speakers are the way to go with your home theater system, Polk’s LSiM 703s typify what makes the style great.

The bookshelf-sized speakers are 16.8-inches tall, and have three drivers: A 6.5-inch midbass, for the middle frequencies, a 3.5-inch woofer for low frequencies, and a 1-inch tweeter to handle high frequencies. By dedicating an individual driver for the bass, mid-range, and treble, you’ll be able to hear the different elements of your music a lot more clearly.

Polk designed the LSiM 703s cabinets to minimize sound reflecting off the back of the speaker, which improves their performance. Each driver is in its own chamber, so they don’t interfere with one another, and you get more accurate sound.

The final reason to get the LSiM 703s is that they’re designed as part of a set of home theater speakers. Polk has made floor standing speakers, a center-channel speaker and a subwoofer, so you can start with the LSiM 703s, and built a well-balanced surround sound system over time.

2. Audioengine A5+

Audioengine A5

Audioengine

Audioengine’s A5+ are the right pair of powered speakers for anyone looking for a compact, stereo home theater system.

The bookshelf speakers are 22-inches tall, and have two drivers: A 5-inch woofer that handle midrange and low frequencies, and a .75-inch tweeter that handle treble frequencies. I’ve tried other Audioengine speakers and have always liked how they sound, but there’s no way to add a subwoofer to round out the bass if you like music with a lot of low frequencies.

Audioengine built a lot of ports into its A5+ speakers, which makes them capable of handling any stereo components you may have. They have one set of RCA (red and white) inputs, a set of RCA outputs, an AUX (3.5mm) input, and a Bluetooth antenna. The RCA inputs can be used to connect the speakers to a TV or turntable, while the AUX input would be great for computers. The A5+’s Bluetooth antenna allows you to stream music from your phone, tablet, or computer wirelessly from up to 150 feet away.

Audioengine includes a remote with the speakers that lets you adjust their volume, turn them on and off, or put them into sleep mode. The speakers will automatically detect which one of your stereo components is on and making sound, so you don’t have to switch inputs, which is a nice touch.

If you want a set of great sounding home theater system (or computer speakers), Audioengine’s A5+s are the right choice.

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