What is the Difference Between Active and Passive PA’s?

Fender PA System

Two Main Types of PA Systems

In the world of portable and permanent PA systems, you will usually hear the words “active” and “passive” when describing the type of PA system being used.

This blog will explore what the real differences are, the pro and cons, and why you may want to use one over the other.

A lot of the audio world is making the switch over to active PA systems, as they generally require less gear to transport, are easier to setup, and require a lot less knowledge of audio to run properly.

That’s not to say passive systems don’t have their place or advantages. A lot of engineers swear by their passive systems and believe it is always the way to go.

The Passive System

A passive system will contain one of two setups.The first one is a powered mixer (a mixing console with a built-in amplifier), sending both audio and electricity to a set of passive speakers. Powered mixers tend to be “fatter” and more box-shaped than a standard passive mixer, and they will have 1/4″ outputs for the main channel as opposed to XLR.

The second option is a passive mixer going into a power amp into a set of passive speakers. A power amp is a type of amplifier meant to send large amounts of power to your speakers.

The main advantage of powered mixers is that you don’t have to carry around both a mixing console and a heavy power amp. However, if you need a lot of power for your speakers, powered mixers generally don’t stack up to a really powerful standalone amplifier.

One disadvantage however is that for the less technically inclined, it can be a bit confusing to understand the wattage and ohms of an amplifier and how it needs to match the speakers you are connecting. For a set of passive speakers to sound like they are suppose to, you need to make sure your amplifier is sending the correct amount of power with the correct amount of ohms (resistance). Without this, you risk your speakers being too low, blowing out, or not getting any sound at all.

For permanent installations, AudioLink Services can advise you on the best configuration for your room, assist you in your choice of equipment, provide the required equipment and assist you with the installation.

The Powered System

A powered setup requires only a passive mixer and one or more powered speakers. All powered speakers have at least one input on the back (either 1/4″ or XLR) so you can plug a microphone or iPod directly into it, meaning you don’t even technically need the mixer for it to work. A mixer gives you the option for way more channels, control of EQ and control of volume, among other things.

Powered speakers always need to be connected to a power source, that means a wall outlet or power strip. Then using an XLR or 1/4″ cable, they plug into a mixer and all your other sound sources are run through the mixer. That’s it. Setup is straightforward and as long you have the appropriate wires and power sources, you are good to go.

There are many different brands of powered speakers and they all have a pretty unique sound. Some are more advanced than others, coming with built-in EQ presets, limiters, and even WiFi. Always trust your ear and go by what sounds best when deciding which one to buy.

What type of program will you be producing?

Depending on what type of event you are running, there are certain things you may want to consider when deciding between passive and active PA’s. DJ’s, churches, rock bands, and BBQ aficionados these days are predominantly using powered systems. Passive is considered more “old school” yet some engineers and performers still prefer the sound of a passive system.

For simplicity, ease of use, and plenty of volume, powered speakers are great. For vocalists, big DJ rigs, and church pulpits, a couple of powered speakers with some powered sub woofers can give a massive, satisfying sound. For portability as well, powered systems can be easy to transport, and quick to break down and set back up if they need to be taken somewhere else.

Passive systems are generally used for larger venues and spaces, allowing all of your amplifiers, mixers and outboard gear to be in one place for full control. Also, if you want to run multiple speakers over various distances, you only need to run one wire to each speaker and daisy chain them together – no need to worry about connecting the speakers to a power outlet.

Again, these types of rigs are more complicated and may turn away someone who just wants to “set and forget.”

Try Before You Buy

Many stores have systems in stock that let you hear and test out different equipment. If you are unsure about what you want, want to hear what something sounds like, find out from your local music store what gear they have available for demo.

Or comment below with any questions or concerns and our staff here at AudioLinks will be happy to assist you.