Best active speakers Buying Guide: Welcome to What Hi-Fi?'s guide to the best active stereo speakers you can buy in 2022.
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. Read on for our pick of the best active speakers we have tested.
How to choose the best active speakers for you
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 boxes. These beasts are referred to as 'powered' and this method is represented by most of the more affordable products on this list.
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 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. If you are after a pair of compact speakers for desktop use, powered speakers such as the affordable Q Acoustic and Ruark offerings below should be just the ticket.
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.
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 Dali Oberon 1 C review
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.
They are not cheap and their aesthetic might not appeal to everyone, but if you want a wireless pair of standmount speakers that nothing comes even close to right now in terms of sound, you have 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 would 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 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 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
The Q Acoustics M20 are a pair of powered speakers designed to work wherever you feel like putting them. They also have a lot of useful connections on the back – TVs, CD players, turntables and laptops can also be wired to the M20 through optical, RCA line-level, aux and USB Type B connections. And there's wireless Bluetooth streaming, too. One speaker in the pair is the mains-powered 'master' and feeds the other through a supplied piece of speaker cable.
Versatile, simple to use and nicely put together – crucially, they also sound the part. The M20 speakers sound full, loud, spacious and energetic. For relatively affordable speakers that pack in quite so much, we are impressed how refined and detailed they manage to sound.
Q Acoustics has released an unfussy, just-add-source set of powered speakers that we find impossible to dislike. With all of the amplification squirrelled away in the master speaker and the plethora of connectivity and placement options covered, the M20 is far more likely to become your entire music system than it is simply your new desktop speakers – and for this money, you will be hard pushed to better the sound quality with hi-fi separates.
Read the full Q Acoustics M20 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
The Focal Shape 65 are far from the first pair of studio monitors we tested here at What Hi-Fi? but they do offer something a little different from the majority of monitors to have passed through our listening rooms. Transparency is paramount here, with the Focals delivering a sound that is at times unforgiving (the treble is quite sensitive) but there is no arguing with the amount of detail.
Versatile in terms of positioning, you will be treated to impressive stereo imaging however you settle down in front of them. They don't major on bass weight but there's good punch and control to low frequencies. We do find timing sometimes slips up a touch, not ideal for a monitor, but it's about the only wrong step the Shape 65 speakers take.
Detail levels are superb and even aspects such as the sensitive treble response and staid dynamics will work in the favour of many musicians and producers. As a tool, these active monitors are hugely adept.
Read the full Focal Shape 65 review
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.
Weighing 36kg each and with a considerable asking price, the SCM40As are heavyweight in every sense of the word. But they are 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 are even more astounding. Sorry, neighbours.
Read the full review: ATC SCM40A
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 KEF LS50 Wireless II in this category, in our stockrooms 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.