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Powered vs. Passive Speakers: Why Nobody Is Wrong

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One of the most common questions we hear from churches is whether they should purchase powered speakers and subs, or use passive (unpowered) speakers with amplifiers.

This is, of course, entirely dependent on the situation. Just a few of the questions we ask in return are: “Will the system be portable or installed?”, “Will the connections on the installed speakers be easily accessible?”, “Will the people using the portable system be able to lift the speakers?”, “Where is electricity more readily available?”, “Is there an air-conditioned spot close to the where the amplifiers will be?”, and so many more.

The long and short (or the “light and heavy”) of it is that you need to think about your application. I personally love using powered speakers for portable church systems, since there are fewer cables to lug around, and I’m strong enough to manhandle the speakers on and off poles. I’ve seen portable setups become semi-installed setups because the people using the system were not able to move the speakers. I tend to prefer the use of passive speakers for installation, but there are many cases where powered speakers are much more practical.

Here are some pros and cons of powered vs passive:

Powered: Passive:
Predictable: amplifier is matched to the speakers, and the factory has tested it. Flexible: allows for potential upgrades without replacing both the amp and speaker.
Negates the need for an additional equipment rack for amplifiers. All components are in one convenient package. They can be connected directly to a mixer or sound source. More gear to keep up with, and the amplifier must be located relatively close to the speaker.
Greatly reduces audio quality & level loss over longer cable distances, due to the differences between balanced audio wire and speaker wire. More potential for signal loss over long distance, but gets signal from standard speaker wires rather than needing both XLR and power.
Portable powered speakers require more lifting power. Installed powered speakers require additional rigging and support in the room. Lighter weight, simpler to rig in an installation, and easier to lift for portable systems.
Often the amplifier is tuned to the speaker, so little to no equalization is necessary. The amplifier needs to be matched to the speaker for proper sound quality and volume.
In powered speaker installations, amplifier service must be done at speaker location. Service of the amplifier or speaker is more straightforward. The amplifier is easily accessible, and either component can be exchanged for a temporary one.
Simple setup and easier to understand  for people unfamiliar with sound systems. Traditional method, so more people will be familiar with the setup.

Hopefully you are armed with a little more knowledge – now for some help with the decision making. First, if you are working with a consultant or A/V installation company, describe your situation and concerns and see what they would recommend. They work with this gear day in and out, and are used to dealing with the benefits and drawbacks of powered and passive speakers.

Prioritize your requirements and desires. Even if you feel a powered speaker is better for your portable system, it’s not a good choice if you or the person using it can’t lift it or move it. On the other hand, you may be slightly uncomfortable with the concept of powered speakers, but if there’s no good location for an amp rack and the speakers would be reasonably accessible, powered speakers may be a better installation choice. If either powered or passive speakers would meet your requirements, then see which type satisfies more of your desires.

Finally, if you’re still struggling with the decision, and you’ve done your due diligence on choosing the best option for your church, then pray and rely on God to give you an easy, calm feeling about one versus the other. If this is a big decision, it shouldn’t be rushed – let God do his part. Otherwise, try not to stress. Just pray and go as you feel led.

About the Author

Mark HelmsSystems Designer, Certified Church ConsultantView all posts by Mark Helms

A ProAudio.com Company