Beginner’s Guide

Active vs. Passive Speakers: Which Is Best For Your Home?

Black Five next to a turntable on a console

If you’re in the market for a new speaker or home audio system, you may be wondering which type of speakers make the most sense for your listening style. There are lots of features to consider, from the speaker’s design and size to its connectivity options. But before you research any further, your first step should be deciding whether you want active speakers or passive speakers.

In this guide, we’ll clarify the difference between active speakers and passive speakers. We’ll also review some key factors to consider when deciding between the two. Whether you’re dreaming of a dedicated listening space or a multi-room audio setup that plays music or podcasts throughout your home, we’ll help you figure out which speaker type is right for you.

What are active speakers?

Active speakers, also known as powered speakers, are speakers that contain a built-in amplifier, or “amp” for short. Because the amp is already inside the enclosure, an active speaker doesn’t require an external amp as a source of power.

If your speakers plug into an electricity source, there’s a good chance that they come with a built-in amp. Most Sonos speakers fit this description, including Era 100 and Era 300.

Why is an amp necessary? Most audio sources send an electrical signal to speakers that tells them which sounds to produce. But this signal is usually too weak to actually produce sounds on its own. An amplifier boosts the signal’s power, which ultimately results in the sounds you hear from your speakers.

If you favor a streamlined setup with fewer components, an active speaker may be right for you. Not only are active speakers easier to install out of the box, but they also eliminate any concerns about finding an amp that works in harmony with your speaker.

This all-in-one approach to a speaker system is appealing to many listeners, but you may prefer to tinker and tweak your system’s individual components — from the speakers right down to the amp. If so, passive speakers could make more sense.

What are passive speakers?

Passive speakers, also known as traditional speakers, lack a built-in amp, which means that they can’t actively amplify the signal coming from an audio device. In order to use passive speakers as part of your sound system, you’ll need to rely on an external amp or AV receiver to power the audio signal.

Passive speakers come in all shapes and sizes. For example, in-ceiling and in-wall passive speakers are designed to be unobtrusive and to blend seamlessly with your home decor. And aside from their appearance, passive speakers may be engineered to reproduce specific frequencies of sound. Subwoofers, for example, specialize in low frequencies, while tweeters specialize in high frequencies.

So, why use passive speakers if you’ll end up needing more components? Because for some listeners, this is precisely the point. A passive speaker system offers the flexibility to mix and match a range of specialized components, or to upgrade to a higher-quality amp in the future without having to replace the speakers, too.

This flexibility comes at the cost of convenience, though. Passive speakers typically require a wired connection and a more complex setup process. And to avoid damaging your speakers or external amp, passive speakers must be paired with an amp whose power output matches the speakers’ impedance. You shouldn’t have any issues finding an amp that falls within your speakers’ specified impedance range, but it’s another thing to worry about.

Amp placed on a bookshelf
Family standing in kitchen with several in-ceiling speakers overhead

Key considerations between active and passive speakers

Now that we’ve defined our categories, we can tackle a central question: Should you buy active or passive speakers? Active speakers are probably a better solution for simple, everyday listening, but passive speakers could make more sense with certain audio setups. Let’s take a closer look.

Ease of set-up

Active speakers are usually considered easier to set up than passive speakers. For one, the built-in amp eliminates the need to connect an external amp. This isn’t just a matter of “one component is easier to keep track of than two components.” Because the built-in amp is already matched to the speaker’s drivers, you don’t need to deal with equalizing or adjusting the settings on your amp to achieve a high-fidelity sound.

With that said, if you prefer an out-of-the-box solution that will sound good without much tinkering, an active speaker is probably the way to go.

Winner: Active speakers


If your speakers’ looks and location matter as much as its sound, passive speakers may offer more flexibility. Because these speakers don’t need to house a powered amp, they tend to come with slimmer and less obtrusive enclosures that can be installed discretely throughout the home.

For example, some listeners prefer architectural speakers that are discreetly installed into a room’s walls or ceiling. These types of speakers are often passive to allow for more customization in their placement. Of course, some active speakers, such as our soundbars, also feature a sleek design that can seamlessly blend into most home theater setups.

Winner: Passive speakers

Sound quality

You can achieve high-fidelity sound with both active and passive speakers.

Yes, passive speakers allow for more customization. And their enclosures often have room for larger drivers, which are typically associated with better sound quality. But unless you’re an audio pro or have a good ear for balancing frequencies, you may find it more difficult to achieve a balanced, neutral sound with passive speakers.

Active speakers also have some design benefits that may enhance their sound quality. Aside from their matched amps and drivers, active speakers don’t require long speaker cables leading from the amp to the speaker. These cables are included inside the enclosure and are usually quite short. In general, the shorter the cable, the better the sound quality, so this is typically a good thing.

Winner: Tie

Active or Passive, Sonos has a Solution

Whether you choose to go with active or passive speakers, Sonos has a solution for you.

Premium active speakers such as Five and Era 300 surround you with immersive sound, thanks to amplifiers that are precision-tuned to the speakers’ unique architecture.

And if you’re looking for a more discreet solution, our architectural speakers are a passive option that blend in with your home’s design and pair perfectly with an amplifier like Sonos Amp. Though they often require more work to set up, passive speakers don’t have to be intimidating. Sonos can even help you find a custom installer for your passive speakers, should you choose to go that route.

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