What's the difference between an active and passive PA speaker?

DJ playing live with PA speakers at his side
(Image credit: Getty/Slavica)

PA systems may be a vital piece of the live music scene, but a lot of musicians would admit these black boxes are their Achilles heel. Now, while some live sound equipment can be tricky to get your head around and even be intimidating to set up, the truth is PA speakers are relatively simple once you learn a few simple concepts. 

Easily the most frequently asked question when it comes to these systems is; what's the difference between an active and passive PA speaker? Well, today, we're going to walk you through everything you need to know about an active and passive system, and we'll even give you a few recommendations as well. 

So whether you're in a band and you're not sure which style of system you require, a solo performer looking to upgrade your current setup or a venue owner looking to improve the sound of your open mic nights, you'll be sure to learn a thing or two about active and passive PA speakers. 

Main differences 

PA speaker on stage

(Image credit: Getty/aire images)

Okay, so when it comes to PA speakers, there are two main types - active and passive. Now, while both styles of PA fundamentally do the same thing, there are a few key differences between them. In a nutshell, active PA speakers are powered internally due to the power amp being built directly into the speaker unit. This means the speaker is entirely self-sufficient, requiring no external equipment to work. Passive speakers, on the other hand, require power from an external source - such as a power amp or powered mixer - to function. 

Now, as you'd expect, both options have their own unique advantages and disadvantages. Active speakers have become very popular among everyone from large ensembles to small bands, duos and solo performers because of their ease of use and quick setup time. The lack of an external power amp means less equipment to carry to a show, and better yet; they often come loaded with contemporary features such as Bluetooth audio, built-in effects such as reverb and delay, and even rudimentary EQ controls. 

That said, they do have a few drawbacks. As the amplifier is built into the speaker, it's not possible to upgrade it without buying a completely new speaker, and if the power section goes down at a show, you need to send the entire speaker away for repair - which can lead to you being short of a speaker. 

Conversely, passive speakers don't suffer from the same problems. If your speaker blows during a gig or your amp stops working, you can simply replace the faulty element, and you're up and running in no time. However, you do require a little more know-how when pairing your speakers with a suitable power amp or powered mixer. Get this wrong, and you can damage your speakers. To match the speakers correctly, you'll need to pay careful attention to the speaker's power handling and impedance. 

Which should I buy?

Crowd enjoys an outdoor concert

(Image credit: Future)

Now, whether you are seeking the best PA systems for a band or the ultimate busking rig, you need to do your research, weighing up all the pros and cons of each speaker style. If you are looking for a no-nonsense approach to sound reinforcement, then we'd highly recommend going down the active route. We really are living in the golden age of active speakers, with the units being lighter, more powerful and more durable than ever before. That said, make sure you take the time to carefully consider the exact wattage you require, as well as the number of inputs and any extra features. 

For PA systems that won't be moved often, such as a venue, church, school or practice studio, then passive could be the best way to go. Not only are they easily expandable, they are often cheaper to fix and easier to maintain - and if they aren't getting moved around, then you don't need to worry about carrying around the extra equipment. 

If you are planning to opt for passive speakers, then make sure you spend an equal amount of time choosing the amplifier as you do the speakers, as the right power source will make all the difference. 

Is this your first time looking at PA equipment? Here are six tips for buying your first PA system.  

Active PA recommendations

Passive PA recommendations

Looking for more live sound gear? Our expert buyer's guides are here to help 

Daryl Robertson
Senior Deals Writer

I'm a Senior Deals Writer at MusicRadar, and I'm responsible for writing and maintaining buyer's guides on the site - but that's not all I do. As part of my role, I also scour the internet for the best deals I can find on gear and get hands-on with the products for reviews. My gear reviews have also been published in prominent publications, including Total Guitar and Future Music magazines, as well as Guitar World.

I have a massive passion for anything that makes a sound, particularly guitars, pianos, and recording equipment. In a previous life, I worked in music retail, giving advice on all aspects of music creation and selling everything from digital pianos to electric guitars, entire PA systems, and ukuleles. I'm also a fully qualified sound engineer who holds a first-class Bachelor's degree in Creative Sound Production from the University of Abertay and I have plenty of experience working in various venues around Scotland.