Best active speakers Buying Guide: Welcome to What Hi-Fi?'s guide to the best active speakers you can buy in 2021.
Quick physics lesson: speakers can be categorised into two different species – active and passive. Passive speakers are your 'standard' driver-filled boxes that require an external amplifier to make a sound. Once the signal from the amplifier reaches these boxes, there's an internal, non-powered crossover built-in to filter the appropriate frequencies to each of the drivers.
Stay with us: there are also speakers that are passive in nature, but still have an amplifier built-in – often squirrelled away into one of the boxes. These beasts are referred to as 'powered', and are represented by most of the sub-thousand-pound products on this list.
Now, active speakers. These have amplifiers built-in too, but they have one dedicated for each 'way'. So, a two-way speaker with one tweeter and one mid/bass driver unit will have two power amplifier modules, one for each driver (or 'way'). These models are fed by an 'active' powered crossover that works at a much lower voltage than their passive cousins. That means the components can be optimised for precision rather than pure power handling, resulting in a potentially better integrated, more precise sound. (See! That was quick, wasn't it?)
While most of the products on our list look just like standard speakers, don't be fooled: there's a lot of clever processing going on inside these cabinets, and many of them support hi-res audio.
Some are also complete all-in-one systems, double as Bluetooth speakers and also have certain music streaming services built-in. Not only are these more practical and neater than a bunch of separate components, they're often cheaper too.
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Essentially, the Rubicon 2 Cs are an amalgamation of Dali’s five-star Rubicon 2 passive speakers (they borrow the drivers and cabinet construction) and the 2018 Callisto active speakers, from which they take the company’s capable Class D amplifier technology as well as the third box in the set-up, the Dali Sound Hub.
This Sound Hub is essentially the brains of the system – a streaming preamp that connects to the speakers wirelessly via Dali’s own proprietary network (on either the 2.4GHz or the 5.8GHz wi-fi band, depending on the location and quality of the connection) and transmits audio to them at 24-bit/96kHz.
The Rubicon 2 Cs’ presentation is wonderfully cohesive across the frequencies: highs, lows and mids are distinctly defined, yet never stray from their seemingly effortless coordination with one another.
With the versatile Sound Hub the final piece in the puzzle, the Rubicon 2 Cs make for an altogether appealing all-in-one solution. Our only gripe in an otherwise glowing review was that the hub itself doesn't match the aesthetic of the speakers – a small issue in an otherwise great-sounding proposition.
Read the full review: Dali Rubicon 2 C
A previous What Hi-Fi? Product of the Year (need we say more?), the LSX is actually an all-in-one system, comprising a network streamer, Bluetooth receiver and amplifier – all built into a pair of stereo speakers.
The speakers talk to each other wirelessly, so there's no need for a joining cable, although you will need to plug each speaker into the mains.
You have plenty of choices when it comes to sources: streaming comes either over DLNA or from Tidal (both from within the KEF Stream app), while Spotify Connect, Roon compatibility and Apple AirPlay 2 are also part of the package.
And the sound? As beautifully expressive, tonally even and rhythmically astute as you would expect given their lineage. The timing is spot-on, thanks to KEF's trademark-pending ‘Music Integrity Engine’ digital signal processing, which works to ensure accurate time alignment and phase coherence. It means the LSX has an assured approach to rhythms.
The cherry on the top? They come in a range of stylish colours to match your home decor.
They're not cheap and their aesthetic might not appeal to everyone, but if you want a wireless pair of standmounts that nothing comes even close to right now in terms of sound, you've found them. The Duos are deadly precise speakers with excellent clarity and speed of performance that make you want to dig out tune after tune just to hear what they can do.
The multi-room feature set, while not perfect (we'd prefer a single app to handle every function), is more than made up for by the superb audio performance. Bowers & Wilkins may have been late to the multi-room party, but boy it arrived with a bang – more fashionably late than annoyingly so.
The speakers bristle with raw energy, and the stereo imaging is completely on-point. They deliver a huge amount of power when called for, while serving up a delicate beauty in the quieter passages.
The downside? They will expose any flaws in recordings, so make sure your source material is up to scratch.
Read the full review: Bowers & Wilkins Formation Duo
With their retro wood-and-grey styling, these speakers will look at home on almost any surface, be it an office desk or a kitchen work surface. But they're not just lookers; they're the desktop speakers that come closest to sounding like a proper hi-fi set-up. So while they might be small, they are most definitely mighty.
The soundstage is gloriously spacious, giving each instrument enough room to breathe, and the sound is bathed in rich detail and fluid dynamics. Their timing is also a highlight. Put them in any room, and they'll immediately add character along with some brilliant sonics. Close your eyes, and you'll think there's an orchestra in front of you, not a pair of bookshelf speakers.
They've won our 'Best Desktop Speaker' Award for years on the trot, so you can be assured of their brilliance.
Read the full review: Ruark MR1 Mk2
Versatility is the name of the game when it comes to the Eggs. They work wirelessly or wired, and play nice with devices lacking serious amplification, like computers, portables and TVs thanks to their built-in 50W amplifier. They feel weighty and well built, and they come with connections aplenty for hooking up external sources.
No matter what you partner them with, sound dispersion is up to the task, making for a seamless and immersive experience. Plus there's a good level of clarity and agility on show.
According to KEF, these are the most “sophisticated and acoustically accomplished version” of the speaker, And based on our testing, we're inclined to agree. They shine whether you're listening up close or across the room. Integration is a particular forte: no matter where you stand in the room it is hard to tell where midrange ends and treble begins. Well worth shelling out for.
Another complete all-in-one streaming music system from KEF in the same vein as the LSX above, the LS50 Wireless are a great alternative to a full hi-fi set-up with lots of separate boxes.
They aren't truly wireless - both speakers need to be plugged into the mains, and this time there is also a cable connecting them. But it's still a neat option.
Their performance is very impressive indeed: there's a ton of detail to get your teeth into, and it's all delivered in an organised and stable manner. It's a refined listen, too, able to handle dynamic shifts without breaking a sweat, with a soundstage that opens up like a vista in front of you.
They picked up a 2018 What Hi-Fi? Award for their trouble and were even inducted into our Hall of Fame, making them an instant classic. Truly a brilliant buy.
These Dalis look just like their passive siblings save for a small LED on the left master speaker to denote the input you've selected. This master speaker holds the brains of the setup, including the 50-watt-per-channel Class D amplifier, a choice of physical inputs and the wireless components for Bluetooth.
Input-wise, there's not the biggest choice – just 3.5mm aux, digital optical and aptX Bluetooth. But that should be enough for most sources.
They're a bit more fussy when it comes partnering products, be it a CD player, streamer or laptop. Sure, you could buddy them up with so-so components, but you certainly won't get the best out of them.
With the right teammates though, they'll shine – a sound that's detailed and enthusiastic, with vocals that are full of expression. Spaciousness isn't an issue, and neither is scale or dynamics. And for all this, they're just flat-out fun to listen to. A great pair of floorstanders.
These might be considered a little basic in terms of what they do and how you set them up, but you won't hear any complaints from us; simplicity is no bad thing, especially when the results are as good as this.
There's no wireless connectivity, just RCA or balanced XLR inputs for connecting your source components. But they do feature adjustable controls for bass and treble, so you can fine-tune the sound to suit your room. Power comes from a dedicated 50-watt class A/B power amplifier module for each drive unit.
Sonically, they're very impressive. There's plenty of body in the mid-range, delicate control in the treble and bags of rhythm to get your head nodding. They also have a keen sense of punch and drive, the timing is spot on, and the dynamic range subtle yet extensive.
At this price, you'd be hard-pressed to find a group of separates to match this performance.
With Bluetooth, a 3.5mm headphone jack, compatibility with TVs, and an optical input that supports 24-bit/96kHZ files, you're not short of choice when it comes to sources you can play through the Xeos.
You're also spoilt when it comes to placement – the speakers have a switch that optimises their performance depending on where you put them, be it close to a wall, in a corner or out in open space. So you shouldn't have to rearrange your furniture around these.
For speakers so small, they have an impressively panoramic soundstage, and they stay sounding clean even at high volumes. The low-end also packs plenty of weight, while the timing remains unflinching no matter how complex a track you challenge them with. Compact, versatile, great sounding... who says you can't have it all? And from a pair of speakers that don't dominate the room, too.
Pull up a chair, because wherever you sit it'll sound fantastic.
Read the full review: Dynaudio XEO 10
Built for the recording studio, these pro-grade speakers are ideal for home use too thanks to some clever cost-saving measures employed by PMC. They are two-way active speakers with two Class D power amplifiers inside each nicely made cabinet. A 65-watt module drives the tweeter while the bass has a meatier 100-watt to work with. Connectivity is limited to a single balanced XLR analogue input and mains power - nothing wireless here.
Bed them in, and you could be forgiven for thinking you've been transported to the BBC's Maida Vale Studios where PMC's pricier speakers reside.
The sound is incredibly detailed, and tonality is spot-on. They even manage to control the bass when placed close to a wall, which is no mean feat. For a pro set-up without the price tag – though admittedly, with some of the bulk – look no further. An instant guest impresser.
Digital sound processing and analogue combine to great effect in these wireless wonders, and there are some nice design flourishes to show off (such as the ability to change volume by running your finger along the front edge of the top panel, like a fussy guest looking for dust).
Want to get the most out of them? In that case, you'll want Dali's Sound Hub, which is basically a wireless preamp that adds Tidal, Qobuz and Deezer music streaming, plus Bluetooth. Not cheap, certainly, but what price can you put on convenience? And it's a drop in the ocean compared to the overall cost of the speakers.
Rest assured, this set-up won't leave you disappointed – the sound is dripping with drive and energy, while the bass has plenty of precision, agility and texture. The imaging is also handled with aplomb, making for an expansive soundstage.
Read the full review: Dali Callisto 6 C
Weighing 36kg each and with a considerable asking price, the SCM40As are heavyweight in every sense of the word. But they're actually the cheapest way to experience ATC's studio-grade technology for yourself.
Unlike most small speaker companies, ATC makes its own drivers, giving it full control over every aspect of the sound. That means it can fine-tune the innards exactly to its desired specifications, fitting the cabinet perfectly. It makes for the perfect match of style with substance.
The SCM40A has three power amplifiers (and an active crossover) in each enclosure: there’s a 150-watt module for the bass driver, 60 watts driving the midrange, and a 25-watt amplifier just for the tweeter.
And it shows. Sonically these are masterful, magnificently detailed and less clinical than some 'pro' speakers, with a hefty low-end and a surprising amount of subtlety. At higher volumes, they're even more astounding. Sorry, neighbours.
Read the full review: ATC SCM40A
The Threes really are sophisticated boxes, crammed full of tech. Each of those six drivers are driven by a dedicated 250W Ncore Class D amplifier module and controlled by arguably the most comprehensive DSP (digital signal processing) we’ve come across in any speaker. There’s also digital-to-analogue and analogue-to-digital circuitry in each enclosure.
Make no mistake, these are highly sophisticated sound machines.
Fire up the Audio Threes and they sound great regardless of where you position them – they're incredibly agile and precise, particularly the bass, which partners with plenty of punch.
They also come with a Digital Hub, a preamp which is about the size of a paperback book. It adds a volume control and more inputs in the form of optical (24-bit/192kHz compatible), coax (24-bit/192kHz) and USB (24-bit/384kHz and DSD128).
If you want compact speakers that sound amazing in any room, these are the ones for you. Now you just need to find a spare £10,000.
Read the full review: Kii Audio Three