When we talk about subwoofers, we often mention the categories ‘passive‘ and ‘active.’ But what does this refer to, and what sets these two types of subwoofers apart? In short, a passive subwoofer requires an additional power source, which is where amps come into play.
On the flip side, active subwoofers don’t require an external amplifier to operate; rather, they have one integrated amplifier. Your pick in the passive vs active subwoofer debate will significantly affect your sound system’s performance and consistency.
Deciding between them is tough, particularly considering the fact that the absence or presence of a built-in amplifier doesn’t noticeably impact the speaker’s sound quality. It is more about convenience. Let’s explore the key differences between these two types of subwoofers.
What Is A Passive Subwoofer?
A passive subwoofer needs an external amplifier to work. It only has a loudspeaker and no built-in amplifier. The external amplifier sends audio to the passive sub through connecting wires. The good thing about this type of subwoofer is that you have the freedom to choose. It means you get to determine how much power is right for completing your home cinema system.
The irritating thing regarding passive subwoofers is dealing with lots of cables. Also, it’s a bit more complicated to use compared to active subwoofers, where you only need to plug in and play. People who have custom home theater systems often use passive subwoofers.
They might mount passive subwoofers on a wall as a step of a custom setup. Passive subwoofers are usually cheaper compared to active ones. However, if you go for a more powerful receiver and a custom setup, the cost can go up.
A great thing about passive subwoofers is that you can connect several units together for dynamic or bigger home theater rooms. This way, you can spread the bass around your room without making the sound messy or stressing about uneven distribution.
What Is An Active Subwoofer?
Active subwoofers are called powered subwoofers as well. These subwoofers come equipped with all the components inside, eliminating the need for extra amplifiers. With their built-in amplifier, active subwoofers pair well with speakers. Active or powered subwoofers make for an excellent addition to your home cinema audio system as they offer an all-in-one solution.
Furthermore, when you use an active subwoofer, you avoid the hassle of dealing with cords, and at times, they come in a wireless form. Equipped with crossover and volume controls and sometimes equalizers, an active subwoofer allows you to optimize and adjust the sound to suit your preferences easily.
Setting it up is very easy; just connect the passive subwoofer to the sound source and power it. However, keep in mind that active subwoofers need more power (watts) to operate. While the impact on your power bill might seem small, it’s worth noting. Also, you have to be cautious about the placement of the active subwoofer to benefit from its capabilities fully.
Since active subwoofers come with everything you require for the best bass sound, they usually cost more than passive subwoofers. Notably, when Dolby Digital 5.1 became the DVD standard, it introduced a new benchmark. With one Low-Frequency Effects (LFE) channel and five main channels, Dolby Digital 5.1 opened the door for a dedicated bass channel.
This channel still exists on Blu-rays, DVDs, and more. Active subwoofers take advantage of this dedicated channel, delivering high-quality sound from one single unit, eliminating the need for multiple units.
Passive vs Active Subwoofer: The Key Differences
Actually, it doesn’t make that much difference if the subwoofer is passive or active. Determining which one is better is challenging. First and foremost, you need to consider qualities like whether it is built from top-quality materials, has a wide frequency range, impedance, sensitivity, and sometimes even the quality of wires.
However, some of the most crucial characteristics to consider when buying between these two subwoofers are given below. After checking these characteristics, you can easily decide whether to proceed with a passive or active subwoofer.
The major difference between active subwoofers and passive subwoofers is their internal component differences. Active subwoofers typically need only one wire for operation and connection. They generally come with a built-in amp, making the setup process simple with customizable bass and optimized performance via dedicated controls.
On the flip side, passive subwoofers need additional amplifiers, complicating the setup process and making sound quality dependent on the capacities of the provided amplifier. They also need a power cable and a wire for audio signal transmission to operate smoothly.
Active subwoofers are crafted to give you great sound with clear and precise bass. They can achieve this because they have a built-in amplifier that works well with the subwoofer’s drivers. On the contrary, passive subwoofers depend entirely on the capacities of an external amplifier. In this case, the sound quality can be influenced by the performance of the amplifier.
For a passive subwoofer to work well, it needs a powerful enough power source to generate rich and deep bass. If it doesn’t get that, it won’t work properly. Passive subwoofers also don’t use as much power as active subwoofers. As a result, you can save money on your electric bill.
A built-in amplifier gives just the right amount of power to an active subwoofer to create sound. Also, an active subwoofer takes the pressure off the receiver, letting it use more power to make your speakers perform better.
When talking about design, comparing passive and active subwoofers is difficult as they are both usually cube-shaped units. However, you can also find them in tube-shaped units. Passive subwoofers don’t come with an integrated amplifier, and thus, they’re more lightweight and smaller.
Also, many passive subwoofers have in-wall models, allowing you to mount them on the wall. In contrast, active subwoofers are generally heavier and bigger due to incorporating an internal amplifier. However, if you’re looking for a subwoofer for a big room, this likely will not be a significant concern for you.
A setup with an active subwoofer looks tidier because of fewer cables or none at all if it has a wireless connectivity option. This also provides more options for you regarding where you can place it.
Bass Control Options
Active subwoofers offer advanced bass control options, allowing customers to finely adjust the crossover frequency and customize the bass response for their audio system. They have integrated volume control. This makes it convenient for users to fine-tune the bass output as per their preferences via a remote control or straight from the subwoofer.
Additionally, active subwoofers frequently have built-in equalization options, providing users the flexibility to fine-tune the bass response and customize it to the room acoustics or their listening choices.
On the flip side, passive subwoofers might lack these advanced bass management features and rather depend on the external amplifier’s bass settings, resulting in less versatility.
For passive subwoofers, volume control is managed by the external amplifier, which might need access to the amplifier’s controls and additional adjustments to alter the bass levels. Moreover, they might not include a built-in equalizer, which limits customization to the equalization settings of the external amplifiers.
Setting up passive subwoofers is very complex because they need extra equipment to work, and hence, you’ll need to handle lots of cables. To get it right, you’ll need to have specific information about frequency ranges AND power levels to select the right amplifier. If there’s a mismatch, both the device and the subwoofer might blow.
It also means when picking a passive subwoofer, your choices are limited because you can only select from models that match your amp or receiver. On the other hand, active subwoofers are much more effortless to install. Even beginners can install them easily with the assistance of a user guide. With active subs, you won’t face issues regarding power supply and compatibility. \
They usually don’t have limitations or demands on preamps or receivers, allowing you to attach them to any part of your audio system. It is a plug-and-play solution. Also, you don’t need to attach the active subwoofer to a receiver if you prefer not.
Connecting a passive subwoofer to the subwoofer output or the amplifier’s LFE is easiest with an RCA cable. If your passive subwoofer is already connected to an amp, you can then attach it to the receiver using a traditional subwoofer pre-out. However, old receivers generally do not come with a dedicated subwoofer output.
In such a situation, you can use speaker connectors for the connection. Passive subwoofers work well in acoustic systems that have two or more subwoofers. On the other hand, connecting multiple active subwoofers can be tricky because most audio sources have just a single output for an active subwoofer.
Active subwoofers connect to a receiver through a dedicated subwoofer output. This kind of connector is found in most speakers as well, making it easy to connect your subwoofer to them. Only active models come with built-in wireless connectivity options. In addition, you can fine-tune a wireless connection with a wireless transmitter or receiver kit. However, for passive subwoofers, you won’t find a wireless connection.
When you compare the prices between active subwoofers and passive subwoofers, you won’t find a big difference between them. The gap isn’t that noticeable, and neither will cost you a lot since both types come in a broad range of premium and affordable options.
Passive subwoofers are usually thought to be less expensive compared to active ones because you don’t need to pay extra for an internal amplifier. However, the necessity of an amplifier or receiver can bring extra costs. Most amplifiers and receivers usually cost more than subwoofers. Also, you’ll require good-quality cables to deliver signal and power.
If you already have every needed component, getting a top-quality passive subwoofer will not be an expensive purchase. But in many circumstances, an active subwoofer is the more budget-friendly choice.
Even though they cost more initially, they come with everything you need for operation, including the wire. However, keep in mind that active subwoofers use more power, which can add to the total cost of your electricity bills.
Which One Should You Choose?
If you’re seeking a ready-to-use and easy solution, then an active subwoofer may be your best option. It’s ideal for people who are less familiar with audio systems and want robust, low-pitched sound without difficulties.
On the other side, for audio enthusiasts aiming to maximize the power and quality of low-frequency sounds, a passive subwoofer paired with a top-quality amp could be the perfect choice. It lets you tailor the sound system to your particular requirements and enhance audio performance. So, in the passive vs active subwoofer battle, which is the winner?
Well, there’s no clear winner in this battle. Every type has its own strengths and weaknesses, and neither is superior. In fact, the best option is the one that suits your personal needs. Remember, if the subwoofer isn’t installed correctly or doesn’t fit your audio system, neither the passive nor active subwoofers will sound great.
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