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Passive. Active. Two very different types of speaker. So, what’s the difference? Here’s all you need to know

“Should I get active speakers? I’ve heard a lot about them but I don’t really know what they are.”

It’s a common dilemma. Active speakers are often shouted about as being The Best Thing To Happen To Your Hi-Fi Since Banana Plugs. But what are they? What makes them different from passive ones? Aren’t they just for computers?

No. No, they most definitely aren’t. But before we answer that more fully, let’s take a look at the tech behind them and their passive counterparts…

OK. What’s a passive speaker?

Dynaudio Emit M10: passive speakers done right

Passive loudspeakers need an external amplifier to work. They’re by far the most common type of speaker out there – you’ll probably have more than one pair in your house already.

Without going too deeply into physics, the signal from the amplifier travels along the speaker cables in the form of electrical current, and induces movement in the voice-coil attached to the back of the speaker cone. That in turn moves the cone, which moves the air, which results in the sound you hear.

In speakers with more than one driver – a tweeter and a woofer, say – the signal is split into the frequency ranges those particular drivers handle best. (After all, you won’t get much value out of sending bass to a tweeter.) This happens in the crossover, which is essentially a collection of capacitors and resistors that do the filtering.

Passive speakers give you scope to change or upgrade your speaker cables and amplifier whenever you like – it’s the traditional “hi-fi” way of doing things. They’re also lighter than their active cousins, and usually less expensive too. However, more cables and more kit equals the potential for interference in the signal chain, mismatched components and the distinct possibility of ending up going down the rabbit-hole swapping, tweaking and agonising over what makes up the overall system.

What’s an active speaker, then?

The Dynaudio Focus 30 XDs' LED displays provide info on their inputs, volume level and operation

Active speakers don’t require an external amplifier – and, in the case of Dynaudio’s Focus XD and Xeo ranges, don’t even require a physical connection to your sources (more on that in a bit).

Instead, they’re mains-powered and have their own on-board amplification. In fact, true active speakers (as opposed to the basic powered speakers you might have on your computer desk) have an amplifier for each individual speaker driver, and also active crossovers. So if you have a pair of four-way speakers like the Focus 60 XD, you’ll have four amplifiers in each cabinet.

That means their designers get far more control over how they sound. While in a passive system, you can switch amplifiers, cables, and the like, in a pair of active speakers each amplifier is individually tailored for its own driver. You can’t swap them out like you can in a passive system, of course – but then you shouldn’t need to if the engineers have done their job properly.

Because all the electronics are inside the speaker, the signal path is far, far shorter (meaning less potential for interference, and a cleaner sound). It’s all self-contained, the components are consciously chosen to work together so there’s no possibility of mismatching, and it’s a far neater set-up overall.

Next to passive speakers, actives are heavier and pricier – but when you offset that extra cost against buying a rack full of components, it doesn’t seem quite so daunting.

And, of course, Dynaudio’s active speakers retain all the DNA of their legendary passive brethren. All that expertise, passion and craftsmanship (they’re designed and engineered from the ground up at the company’s headquarters in Skanderborg, Denmark) has been carried through.

Are active speakers analogue?

Not necessarily. Some actives are, of course. But others, like Dynaudio’s Focus XD and Xeo ranges, can be used with the digital output of your source – be it a streamer, CD player, or anything else with a coaxial or optical connection.

In the case of the Xeo 2s, you plug the optical cable right into the back of the speaker; with the Focus XD range, there’s a coaxial connection round the back. The Xeo 4 and 6 come with the wireless Dynaudio Hub (optional for the Xeo 2) that takes the digital signal from your source and then streams it wirelessly via Bluetooth to the speakers. Both the Focus XD and Xeo ranges are also compatible with another wireless connection box called the Dynaudio Connect, which acts in much the same way as the Hub, but adds Wi-Fi and other additional capabilities into the mix.

Whether wired or wireless, the source signal stays in the pristine digital domain for as long as possible, only becoming analogue at the last moment. Because it’s all digital, Dynaudio’s engineers have been able to use advanced digital signal processing (DSP) technology to give it a helping hand in the crossover and elsewhere in the speaker.

That doesn’t mean changing the sound, however. It means giving you scope to move the speaker back to a wall, for instance, without making it sound different. Think of it as a steady hand on the tiller than a wild-eyed co-driver grabbing the wheel.

The Connect (top) and Hub allow you to stream digital and analogue sources wirelessly to Dynaudio's Focus XD and Xeo speakers

What about Hi-Res?

Xeo 2: better connected than the average speaker

All of Dynaudio’s active speakers will accept Hi-Res Audio through their direct digital inputs or wireless streaming boxes.

The Xeo 2s can play back hi-res through their integrated optical digital connection, and the Focus XDs via their coaxial – so if you’re hooking up a hi-res-compatible hi-fi streamer you can get that high-quality goodness from source to driver. Both speakers can also play hi-res wirelessly up to 24-bit/96kHz via the Connect box.

Meanwhile, the Xeo 4 and Xeo 6 downsample hi-res streamed via the Hub or Connect to 16-bit/48kHz – so you can still plug your hi-res source in, and stream its music to any Xeo speakers anywhere in your house.

How about the music on my gadgets?

The Xeo 2 has built-in Bluetooth, so you can stream audio directly from your device – anything it can play, be it internet radio, Tidal or podcasts. The Connect box can do all that too, but takes things a step further with built-in Spotify Connect support, allowing it to get music directly from the ether.

So. Which is best? Passive or active?

Neither. Both. If you’re an inveterate system-tweaker, then passive is probably best for you. If you prefer less clutter and less hassle (not to mention more versatility when it comes to streaming), then active is well worth a try.

Which active? If you’re a sucker for connectivity, just plug the Dynaudio Hub or Connect box into your music sources, connect a pair of Xeo 2s, and go. If you want to carry your hi-res 24-bit/192kHz material all the way from the source to the driver, it’s got to be the Focus XDs.

For more information on Dynaudio’s active speaker range, click here >>