If you want a hi-fi system but are daunted by the prospect of multiple speaker and amplifier boxes, you may want to consider active speakers – that is, speakers with amplification built in.
While most of the active speakers on this 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 music streaming services built in. Not only are these more practical and neater than a bunch of separate components, but they are also often cheaper, too.
And we've tested every pair in our testing rooms to bring you our pick of the best active speakers you can buy. Read on to find out which suits you the best.
How to choose the best active speakers for you
Why you can trust What Hi-Fi? Our expert team reviews products in dedicated test rooms, to help you make the best choice for your budget. Find out more about how we test.
To decide which active speakers are best for you – or whether you want them in the first place – it's useful to know what they are and how they work. Stereo speakers can be categorised into two different species – active and passive. Passive speakers are your 'standard' driver-filled boxes that require an external stereo amplifier to make a sound. Once the signal from the amplifier reaches these boxes, an internal crossover filters the appropriate frequencies to each of the drivers.
There are also speakers that are passive in nature but still have an amplifier built in – often squirrelled away into one of the two boxes. These are referred to as 'powered' and this method is represented by most of the more affordable products on this list – such as Elac, Ruark Audio and Q Acoustics.
Now, active speakers. These have amplifiers built in as well, but this time they have one amp 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?)
Some active speakers like the Dali speakers below are just that and require sources to be connected to them; many, though, now have Bluetooth and even network streaming integrated, essentially making them all-in-one systems – such as the KEF LS systems below.
Which active speaker you choose should really be based on how much source integration you require. As with everything, streaming implementation costs and can affect the engineering of a product, so get a speaker with it included only if you intend to use the feature.
Best active speakers
The successor to the What Hi-Fi? Award-winning LSX, this second-gen version of the successful all-in-one system takes performance and functionality to the next level. Comprising a network streamer, a Bluetooth receiver and an amplifier – all built into a pair of stereo speakers – the LSX II is a great option for those looking for convenience and musicality in two compact boxes.
The original LSX offered plenty of choices when it came to sources – streaming over DLNA or from Tidal, Spotify Connect, Roon compatibility and Apple AirPlay 2 – but the LSX II expands on this with wider streaming support and the modern-day addition of HMDI ARC and USB-C for TV and laptop connectivity respectively.
Essentially, KEF has taken what was already a winning formula, introduced some key upgrades that improve functionality and usability, and without really altering the speaker hardware has produced a talented set-up that sings with any genre of music sent its way.
The KEF LSX II is a stylish streaming system that comes with none of the baggage and boxes a separates set-up brings. Nothing else really comes close at this level. The cherry on the top? They come in a range of stylish colours to match your home decor.
The Triangle AIO Twin may look like a pair of ‘normal’ speakers, but this is a fully-fledged, all-in-one versatile music system – akin to the superb KEF LSX II – but at half the price (£699 / $1000 / AU$1099).
This system can play just about anything, from Bluetooth streams from your phone to music files stored on your home network (wired ethernet and wi-fi) to even your vinyl records thanks to a built-in phono stage. It can also be a soundbar alternative for your TV.
All the major streaming services are supported – Spotify, Tidal, Deezer, Amazon Music, Qobuz – and you can also play internet radio using the excellent app. High-resolution audio support goes up to 24-bit/192kHz. Other physical connections include a digital optical input, an RCA analogue pair, a 3.5mm aux input, USB-A for charging your phone, and a subwoofer output. That's a pretty broad spectrum for its asking price.
This system is incredibly fun to listen to. It’s an enthusiastic performer, happy to tackle any music genre and recording quality, and simply wants you to enjoy the music being played. But there is also a mature sense of composure running through its veins that is really impressive. It organises the complicated strands of instruments and noises with confidence, and it's balanced across the frequencies: taut bass, clear voices and sparkling, clean treble that’s punchy but never bright.
It’s only with the built-in phono stage does it falter. While the peppy character remains the same, it doesn’t sound as clear, precise or expressive compared with the other inputs. The sound quality when streaming through wi-fi is far superior.
Like the very best kit, we want to keep on listening to the Triangle AIO Twin. And that’s the best recommendation we can give to someone looking for a neat, elegant system that does it (nearly) all. If you’re looking for a fun music system that also sounds hugely capable in hi-fi terms, and that you don’t have to pay over a grand for, this system is worth your attention.
Read the full review: Triangle AIO Twin
The Dali Oberon 1 C speakers are an impressively flexible proposition. That doesn't mean they are not well put together, rather that you can have them pretty much any which way you like (in terms of stereo speakers, at least).
The Oberon C active speakers ship with Dali's Sound Hub Compact which gives you access to aptX HD Bluetooth for wireless streaming, an HDMI ARC socket for connecting to your TV/AV system, plus RCA and subwoofer connections. If you want multi-room, courtesy of BluOS and DLNA playback, you will need to pay a small premium for the original, and larger, Sound Hub.
The speakers are largely unchanged from the passive Oberon 1, which are small and nicely made, with a mahogany coloured 13cm wood fibre mid/bass cone that is used in conjunction with Dali’s Soft Magnet Compound (SMC) technology and sits below the 29mm soft-dome tweeter in the familiar Dali arrangement. These are active speakers, though, so each unit here is fed by a dedicated 50W Class D amplifier.
Sonically, as we have come to expect from Dali, we are treated to a clean, precise and detailed sound. Instruments are rendered faithfully, there is a good sense of scale, and dynamics are impressive. Their size means you can only expect so much power and drive but, for small speakers and in small to medium-sized rooms, they are more than capable.
Active streaming systems are becoming increasingly common in this convenience-craving world, and the Dali Oberon 1 C are among the best examples we have seen at this level.
Read the full review: Dali Oberon 1 C
The follow-up to the outstanding KEF LS50 Wireless speakers improve on greatness – no easy feat, even for an audio brand as sure-footed as KEF.
Like their illustrious predecessors, the LS50 Wireless IIs serve as a superb all-in-one system by dint of their advanced connectivity. Improvements including upgraded components and a new KEF Connect app where you can access the likes of Tidal, Qobuz, Amazon Music and Deezer.
Not that you will need to reach for any of the aforementioned apps; these speakers are capable of streaming via AirPlay 2, Google Chromecast and Bluetooth, and are also Roon Ready.
KEF's striking design is matched by stunning sonics, enhanced by refreshed Uni-Q drivers and KEF's all-new MAT absorption technology. The presentation is spacious and the addition of the new MAT technology can be heard in the refined treble and clean mids.
Quite simply, if you are in the market for a high-fidelity all-in-one system packed with streaming smarts, this sophisticated sequel should be top of your list.
Read the full KEF LS50 Wireless II review
KEF redefined what you should expect from an all-in-one stereo system with the LS50 Wireless standmounters (above); and it has managed to raise the bar once again with the stunning LS60 Wireless floorstanders, which combine streaming smarts, amplification and stereo speakers into two slim (CD-width!) cabinets.
But the KEF LS60 Wireless isn’t simply tower speakers based on the bookshelf version. That description just doesn’t do it justice, and as you can see from the image and price tag, the company has thrown so much more at the LS60 that it's on a whole different level. If your interest is piqued, we really do recommend you read our in-depth review.
In a nutshell, though, the British brand has managed to combine impressive engineering and a comprehensive feature set with an attractive user experience and top it all off with fantastic audio quality. It’s a fine example of modern hi-fi and currently has no real rival if you are in the market for a convenient yet premium solution.
The LS60 Wireless system is a fantastic achievement and a fitting way to celebrate KEF’s 60th anniversary.
Read the full KEF LS60 Wireless review
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 preamplifier 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
These Acoustic Energy active speakers 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 is no wireless connectivity, just RCA or balanced XLR inputs for connecting your source components. But the AE1 Active 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, these speakers are very impressive. There is 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 would be hard-pressed to find a group of separates to match this performance.
Best powered speakers
With their retro wood-and-grey styling, these Ruark Audio speakers will look at home on almost any surface, be it an office desk or a kitchen work surface. But they are not just lookers; they are 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 will immediately add character along with some brilliant sonics. Close your eyes, and you will think there's an orchestra in front of you, not a pair of bookshelf speakers.
They have 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
The Elac Debut ConneX DCB41 are powered speakers that don't take up much space. The individual units stand around a hand-span high, fitting into most places with ease. Build quality is pleasing, good and solid. These speakers would be right at home on a desktop, but can also work in a decently-sized room next to your TV or stereo system provided you don’t require party levels.
It may lack network streaming smarts, but you do get Bluetooth aptX for playing songs wirelessly from your mobile device. You can also plug in your computer using the UBS Type B input (which plays hi-res tracks up to 24-bit/96kHz), or use the Elacs as a decent soundbar alternative thanks to the HDMI ARC and optical inputs. There's even a switchable input for line level sources or for hooking up a turntable – that's right, these speakers come with a MM phono stage built in.
You do get a remote control, but be warned: our one main niggle is that the volume knob (which can also toggle through the inputs) is awkwardly positioned on the back panel, making it tricky to reach.
Sonically, the Elac speakers provide a good level of detail, and they organise that information into a cohesive and musical whole. Use the digital inputs and it's a clear, balanced and insightful performer, and the understated way this system goes about its job is eminently likeable.
The overall presentation is controlled and even-handed in the manner of Elac’s award-winning Debut 2.0 series of passive speakers. These are speakers that fade into the background, letting the music take centre stage. We're big fans of speaker systems such as this, and the Elac's combination of size, features, performance and reasonable price (£529 / $595 / AU$900) means they get a hearty recommendation from us.
Read the full Elac Debut ConneX DCB41 review
How we test active speakers
We have state-of-the-art testing facilities in London, Reading and Bath, where our team of experienced, in-house reviewers test the majority of hi-fi and AV kit that passes through our door – including active speakers.
What Hi-Fi? is all about comparative testing, so we listen to every pair of active speakers we review against the current leader in its field to gauge how it compares to the best-in-class competition. We keep What Hi-Fi? Award winners, such as the Ruark Audio MR1 MkII and KEF LS50 Wireless II in this category, in our stockroom so we can always pit new products against ones we know and love. And we do our best to review as many new models in as many markets as possible to ensure our contextual knowledge is the best it can be.
We are always impartial in our testing and ensure we hear every pair of active speakers at its optimum, with sources we know and like. We test them in their best use case with different partnering source kit, whether that's with a phone or laptop playing from a supported streaming service or over Bluetooth, or with a wired source component. And we play plenty of different types of music through them. Naturally, we give them plenty of listening time (and time to run in), too.
All review verdicts are agreed upon by the team as a whole rather than an individual reviewer, to eliminate any personal preference and to make sure we are being as thorough as possible. There is no input from PR companies or our sales team when it comes to the verdict, with What Hi-Fi? proud of having delivered honest, unbiased reviews for decades.
You can read more about how we test and review products on What Hi-Fi? here.