To Amp or Not to Amp

In an audiophile context, “active-vs-passive” has nothing whatsoever to do either grammar or aggression. It’s the terminology which describes what at first appears to be a very simple choice for hi-fi purchasers to make.

First, the definitions: Passive speakers are the most common type, the term referring to stand-alone loudspeakers which require external amplifiers to power (or “drive”) them. Active speakers are those which come with built-in amplifiers, and could also describe everything from a TV to a table-top radio to a mobile phone to a hearing-aid. In each case, the amplifiers are an intrinsic part of the package.

Both passive and active speakers have been around since the first electronic sound systems replaced the cylinder and early wind-up gramophones in the 1920s, which used simple horns to extract the sound from the “needle”. These were called “acoustical” systems, and were limited for both sound quality and maximum volume (or “playback levels”). Electricity changed all that, improving the sound and volume, thus enabling speakers to fill cinemas for “talking pictures” and to serve for public address functions.

Until the 1950s, when separates hi-fi systems first appeared, nearly all but enthusiast-owned, home-built systems were active. The typical home system was housed in a single unit, usually in the form of a console that combined a radio, a record player and the necessary speaker and internal amplifier. What changed everything was the arrival of stereo in the mid-1950s, which required two loudspeakers, ideally separated by at least 2 metres. The solution? A system situated inbetween, usually with a record deck, tape machine and FM tuner, feeding the amplifier which were connected by speaker wire the two loudspeakers.

While the wires from the amplifiers to the speakers may have caused some domestic battles, this became the dominant format for a high-quality, home sound system. Because it consisted of separate components including sources (records, cassettes, tuner and/or tape), amplifiers and speakers, enthusiasts learned from the outset that the best sound quality was often obtained by mixing units from different manufacturers.

Companies swiftly specialised, leading to producers solely of speakers, amplifiers, record decks or tape equipment. Larger firms, including all of the major Japanese brands, argued, however, that if all of the components came from the same maker, it would eliminate any chance of mismatches or incompatibility.

As convincing an argument as that presented, enthusiasts ignored it, citing as analogies that car makers don’t make tyres or batteries, and the best camera lenses weren’t necessarily made by the camera producers. But above all of the one-make systems was the raison d’être of being an audiophile: the eternal search for the best sound possible.

In the late-1970s, though, certain manufacturers argued that, yes, you can get away with choosing any source you like from any brand, especially tape decks, tuners and (by the mid-1980s) CD players because they all produce “line level” output and work into any integrated amplifier or pre-amp. Speakers, however, presented a different dynamic behaviour to the signal from the amplifiers, with all manner of electronic concerns ranging from sensitivity to impedance to the sound quality itself. Supporters of active speakers were difficult to contradict.

Active-vs-passive thus became yet another sub-genre of high-end audio, alongside analogue-vs-digital, transistor-vs-valve and other divisive themes which delight audiophiles. One area where active proved particularly attractive was in studios, for a number of practical reasons including space-saving and the elimination of a stage of wiring but the home user remained resolutely wedded to passive speakers and the need to – or joy of – selecting one’s preferred amplifiers.

What has changed everything, creating a “perfect storm” that has revived the development and sale of active speakers, is the combination of wireless streaming, the desire to eliminate clutter, the dearth of space in urban dwellings, the growth in and near-universality of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity, and the explosion in the popularity of installed systems and sound distributed through the house. Additionally, and – one cannot avoid admitting this – there is the shrinking of the “high-end” or “audiophile” market.

What we are left with are manufacturers who, with, like KEF, as much as 60 years’ experience, can ensure that their active speakers sound as good as (or nearly as good as) their passive equivalents. A simple test, which any customer really must undertake if as-yet-undecided, is to compare side-by-side, for example, KEF’s passive LS50 Meta next to the active LS50 Wireless II alternative. The final choice will be made through a mix of what one hears and what one needs, especially if space, wiring or other hi-fi necessities need to be addressed.

“Either/Or” scenarios often seem like coercion, but that’s not the case because the final selection is made by the end-user. When asked about active-vs-passive, I always provide an analogy that most people comprehend: do you prefer a manual gearbox, or an automatic? It’s that simple. Especially if you hate the idea of wires snaking around your room.

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