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Speakers. Active or Passive ???

Discussion in 'Home Cinema Speakers' started by uncle eric, Mar 7, 2003.

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  1. uncle eric

    uncle eric
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    First of all, let’s get the subjectivity thing out of the way.

    Whether passive or active, the job of the speaker is to quite simply disappear. Ideally, the listener would want to listen to the music or soundtrack and not the speaker. Neutrality (and accuracy) is the key here. And yes, some speakers are measurably more accurate than others.

    Sadly, there is no such thing as the perfect speaker. Many folks spend much time looking and listening for as near neutral a speaker as possible and it really can be an arduous task. So much so that I believe listening itself is no easy thing.
    Although it sounds pretentious, some of the hugely experienced high end guys (and I'm not talking about 19 year old What Hi Fi reviewers) are almost connoisseurs at this and are actually very good at describing the character or "flavour" of a given speaker.

    In fact, some actually liken audio listening to wine tasting. Can you taste a red wine and tell me about its components or character. Some folks can. In fact, Charlie Whitehouse can probably tell you the region of origin never mind the country.

    Of course, we'd always get the "I know what I like the taste of" brigade. They are also right. If they like the character or "flavour” of a given speaker that’s all well and good. I guess it's like looking out of rose coloured windows. EVERYTHING looks nice. Key word here being nice. What happens if there’s something not just "nice" but really stupendous worth seeing outside the window and the rose tint is obscuring this fine detail that we would love to see/hear? Sorry, rose tint only. Now if it was a CLEAR window, we would see this beautiful thing in all its glory. Hence, neutrality is everything.


    Going back to listening. For example, even the most mundane function such as volume (or db level) can have a huge overall influence on the way we perceive a speakers performance. With most speakers, whether passive or active, your sensitivity to bass and treble increases disproportionately as the volume goes up. Therefore, all things being equal, (and that in itself is impossible) what may sound hugely dynamic with tons of drive played at 85db in a dem room, may sound weak, weedy and woolly played at lower listening levels in your own room. The high frequency snap and thick round bass that you thought this speaker had, is simply not there anymore. In fact, it may well have been that the speaker you listened to in an earlier dem room at lower levels and didn't think much at the time, may have been a far better option. The art of listening is indeed perilous. I'll try and get back to this at some point in the future.

    There are lots of other areas in which we can go sideways such as equally important acoustics (which is in fact part of the speaker), peripheral equipment such as the hugely important front end, and IMO most important of all, source material.
    Whether your system is £100 or £100,000, I'm afraid it's rubbish in, rubbish out.

    For the sake of simplicity, we will assume "all things being equal".

    Now. Active or passive.
    Ok, preconceived ideas for the above and how far from the truth.
    I remember a great quote by Billy Woodman of legendary ATC that for truly accurate, read neutral listening (essential for mastering, mixing and recording purposes) most Hi Fi speakers or Studio monitors were not suitable to deliver the accurate sonics needed. The thought behind this was that while good Hi Fi speakers had reasonable sound quality, they lacked dynamics. Conversely, most studio monitors have good dynamic range but relatively poor sound quality. Taken as an average, and from the hundreds of speakers I've heard thus far, I agree with this 100%.
    *A side note here* I keep reading that nearfield professional speakers are not much good in the home. This is the biggest pile of poop ever. The vast majority of these speakers are tailored to perform at the optimum listening distance of 10/12 feet. I'll take a guess and say that 80-90% of us listen at this distance. For instance, I happen to watch/listen exactly 11ft away.
    I would hazard a guess that Martin Tyler does so at approx 10 feet away while Ian is approx 12 ft away. Matt, I'd say you're around 12ft away, correct me if I'm wrong.
    All speakers, have an optimum listening distance. Ask your speaker supplier/manufacturer.

    As most know what a passive speaker is and how it works, I'll go straight into the strengths and weaknesses of active speakers.


    The cons,
    You're stuck with what you have. With a fully active system, or a hybrid speaker with "powered" woofers, there is no upgrade path. Not enough power, lowly circuit design, or simply rubbish parts quality, you have nowhere to go but the skip.

    Other negatives, as Brian (JSW) witnessed recently, all active speakers are not created equal. For example, certain manufacturers may have chosen some components correctly, but fell short in other areas.
    There are competent speaker designers out there who really don't have a clue about amplifier design, or simply underestimate the value of putting resources into high quality electronics, and as a result ends up with a product that is far inferior to the competition.

    Some "high-end" loudspeaker manufacturers, particularly small specialist companies, simply don't have sufficient engineering facilities to put together an amp worthy of their fine speakers. The staff in these companies are often divided into two groups. They employ experts in cabinetry, French polishing etc and turn their speakers into fine pieces of furniture. They also employ folks with ears to design and customize the sonic colorations of loudspeakers through trial and error of swapping passive crossover components. However, neither of these folks are comfortable or even competent with electronics design. If you mess up a passive speaker, it sounds awful. If you screw up an active one, things go BANG.

    One thing I have found with some of the lower end active speaker manufacturers is this fixation they have about trying to get small speakers to play really, loud with lots of treble and upper bass. In fact, some of these response peaks were so obvious even with brief listening, it made me wonder if they actually made their speakers less accurate so as to make them sound more superficially detailed. In a visit to a recent Pro gear show in London, the floor was filled with duelling actives. Adzman, you would have loved it.
     
  2. uncle eric

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    Well, from the above, actives seem to stink. Wrong!!!
    All things being equal, they are better in many ways.

    Billy Woodman’s research has shown that active speakers, due to each drive unit amp operating only over a restricted frequency band, will have much lower amplifier bourne amplitude intermodular distortion than the same passively driven speaker over the full frequency range. BW has effectively demonstrated that there is a full 20db (that’s huge in sonic terms) difference in amplitude distortion in favour of the active system.
    What this means is that on average, for a given amount of amplifier power, an active speaker can be expected to produce some 6db more level than the equivalent passive system.

    *Note* Amplitude is the instantaneous magnitude of an oscillating signal (in this case, sound pressure). Peak amplitude being the maximum value. Amplitude distortion refers to the wave shape of a given signal.*

    Another major positive for the active camp is that the most critical match in the entire path of the audio system, namely, amplifier, crossover, and loudspeaker chain, can be approached as a whole, far more efficiently, each component working in its most optimal scenario, achieving potentially far superior results to a more conventional passive approach. Instead of inserting lossy passive crossover components to filter frequency ranges and flatten driver response by altering the signal after the amplifier, an active system performs the same task before amplification. The result is a much more efficient system, where everything put out by the power amplifier goes directly to the transducer, unhindered by resistors, capacitors, or inductors.
    While we are talking about efficiency, it's well noted that most active systems are approx twice as efficient with their amplifier power than passive ones.

    Going back to dreaded crossovers, unlike passive crossovers, active crossover components are completely isolated from the impedances of loudspeaker drivers. At high output levels, drivers heat up. The hottest part is where the heat begins, which is the voice coil. As the voice coil heats up, the coil resistance increases, and suspension compliance changes. Therefore, the passive components are no longer dealing with the original situation they started with, and the driver impedance changes. The filtering characteristics of the passive crossover begin to move, and because of this, either work less efficiantly at low output levels, or work less efficiantly at high output levels. Active systems by their nature are completely immune to this behaviour.

    Perhaps one of the most important areas of advantage over passive systems is the relationship of the loudspeaker to the amplifier When a manufacturer builds a high-performance amplifier, the amplifier must accommodate a wide range of loudspeaker impedances, some of which may be very unusual. In order to do this, the high end manufacturer needs not only good design, but to massively overbuild for extreme variances in loudspeaker loads. This usually translates into big, heavy, and expensive. Unfortunately, this overbuilding usually yields benefits not in proportion to the effort. Alternately, if the amplifier manufacturer/designer had a specific loudspeaker in mind, he could have designed the amplifier to deliver the full capability needed for that given speaker without worrying whether something weird and wonderful might happen along the way.

    In the real world, outboard amplifiers themselves are often an inefficient allocation of manufacturing resources, and therefore money, when it comes to cost/performance gains. Of course, we're still better off than using an under-powered receiver, but by using massively overbuilt products, we often use and pay for more than we need for a given application, and get less from what we put in than if the same amplifier were designed as a dedicated unit for a particular loudspeaker, be it passive or active. Of course, in the vast majority of cases, particularly at higher output levels, extra power pays off big time, not only in sheer volume, but lower distortion hence clarity.

    Finally, going back to critical listening. If I had to choose a section of a given frequency band that "does it for me" and I wasn't allowed to choose bass, it would be mid-range. Mid-range is all important. And it was the mid-range accuracy of the M&K actives that first grabbed my attention.

    J. Gordon Holt once said, "If the midrange isn't right, nothing else matters" I couldn't agree more.

    Midrange may not be the most active band of the frequency spectrum, particularly in many of today’s discrete recordings, however, mid-range is the "cement" that ties in the frequency spectrum as a whole thus allowing us to hear recorded material much more coherently.

    Why is it so important? Firstly, there is much energy in that part of the spectrum. Not only does midrange contain huge amounts of energy but it also coincides with the most sensitive part of our hearing which is in effect around 700/800Hz to 3/4Hz. The human ear is also much more sensitive to this range in terms of small changes to volume/level difference and even frequency response in this zone. We've developed this "sharpness" to this region through evolution. Basically, most everything that makes a noise goes through this mid-band section.
     
  3. Gordon @ Convergent AV

    Gordon @ Convergent AV
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    I'm with you on the active front Eric. I would add something to the mix though....

    There are some manufacturers who actually build their active crossover networks to be seperate boxes to the loudspeaker itself. I can think of three off hand. With such a scenario you have the benefit of being able to make the system better by utilising higher performance amplifiers at a later date. There is of course the argument that this is not as cost effective because you are, once again paying for casework that wouldn't be required if it was in a speaker or that an amplifer designed to work in a passive system may not be as good for the task as one designed for a dedicated drive unit and frequency range.....but then what about the fact electronic components are microhonic...is sticking your amplifier and active crossover inside a speaker cabinet such a good idea?

    However I believe that a good amp is a good amp. I wish the guys who make, what I consider the best amps and speakers would get together and try and come up with something astounding, but it's never going to happen.

    Gordon:clap:
     
  4. uncle eric

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    Absolutely, and this is why I stayed away from actives for so long. It didn't seem like a good idea to me. Then I heard some. The world changed.

    Some of the amplification used by the high boys M&K, ATC, Mackie to name but a few is dam good. I would go as far as to say that the end result of my M&K actives are, at the bare miniumum, the equivalent of M&K passives with Bryston amplification. Multiply that by 7 and you'll soon see that this makes sense from an economical point also. How much does 2100 watts of Bryston power cost?
     
  5. Spligsey

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    Good work Uncle E.

    The best 2 sets of actives i have ever heard (without spending £5000 for a pair etc) are Eric's M&K MPS2510P's, which have a tremendous Midrange & whistle clean output & PMC's AML1's which are utterly brilliant full stop.

    There will obviously be others, but i haven't heard them.

    There's a whole list of mastering suites & music studios that agree that the M&K's are pretty on the mark, & of course, PMC use Bryston amplification, which we all know are rather nifty..

    Anyone lucky enough to have a 6-7 speaker setup with these units is rather lucky indeed.

    Probably save you a few pence as well, as the need for speaker cable goes for a burton, (and there's plenty of people who pay large amounts for some high-end exotica cable with a name like 'Dust-Glow' or 'Fluid-Raw' or 'Over-Priced-u-bet').

    I dont have the technical background to waffle on about this & that, but on the whole, i prefer Studio monitors (passive or active) to domestic Hi-Fi stuff......But i suppose i'm used to using studio based monitors, so that's understandable.

    I also like Dynaudio, Mackie, Quested & Genelec.

    Adz.
     
  6. EvilMudge

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    Glad someone piped up with a thread like this, as I was about to try to compile a list of Active studio monitors to audition.

    My current thinking (in order of cost):

    ATC; Active 10s and 20s
    M&K; MPS 2510Ps (Eric, I might be paying you a visit soon.)
    PMC; AML 1s.

    Anyone else think that Behringer Truths would make the coolest PC speakers?:D

    Gordon, would two of the companies you were thinking of be Linn and Naim?
     
  7. uncle eric

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  8. EvilMudge

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    Cheers Eric.

    What I meant was that the Behringers were so cheap (half the price of even the ATCs) that for the money having two of them put either side of your screen couldn't be beat.
     
  9. Gambit

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    This is totally of topic, so feel free to ignore:D If this needs a different thread then please start one or I will, I dunno.
    First off, if you start listening to speakers without enjoying it then get out, right now. Why continue with a hobby (and, at the end of the day, thats all it is- this industry is not essential or needed by anyone) if you're listening to speakers which give you no pleasure. If you review high-end speakers, then most high-end speakers have some redeeming qualities that will make them enjoyable- if you (or anyone else, for that matter) is going to pay a lot of money for a speaker, then there must be something in there worth it. If not, then a manufacturer can say hello to Bankruptcy, right here, right now. Every speaker I have listened to has some good features and some bad. I admit openly I haven't listened to the same extent as some of the members on this board yet i do sell a wide range of budet to high end speakers, and therefore must know about them all and I can say that I find some good features in them all. I also belive that speakers are all down to what you listen to- Opera and Castle speakers are very laid back and therefore ideal for classical or certain jazz music, yet can cost as much as say Dyn Contour series speakers which I would prefer as they are faster and more forward. Each and every speaker, despite what a manufacturer may claim, adds or subtracts from the finished product, there's no such thing as a perfectly neutral speaker (which is what uncle Eric is hitting on) so what you listen to will, IMO, decide on which speaker you like, thats part of the attraction of hifi for me, it's pruely a personal thing.
    The other thing is, Uncle Eric, I know you're not slagging youth with the above statement but it's a proven fact that your hearing degrades after 21(?) therefore some of the youth can be very good reviewers, providing they have expireince (which I am certainly not claiming to have, I probably haven't listened to half as many speakers as uncle eric has) but please don't discount youth purely on the fact that some of the younger posters on this board think they know a lot when know nothing. One of my favorite saying from a book is that universities absorb knowledge- students come thinking they know everything and go away knowing they know hardly anything therefore the building must have absorbed their knowledge :D I have nothing but time for the guys who know their stuff on this board and do take in what is said, despite not posting too often on real hifi issues- I like 2 channel too much and sometimes dont have access to the high-end stuff CJ goes on about in hifi talk :rolleyes: :D . but my point is I think, in context, the youth can make a relevant contribution to discussions like this. Again, I don't think this is super relevant here but maybe a tangent thread need to be started?
     
  10. martintyler

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    Yep, about 10 feet it is :) and my 2510P's sounds great at that distance.
     
  11. EvilMudge

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  12. Gordon @ Convergent AV

    Gordon @ Convergent AV
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    Indeed Linn and Naim were two of the three. The third is a sub-woofer manufacturer. Any guesses?

    The first active speaker I heard were Wharefdale Diamonds. Of course they weren't active at all. They were powered.

    The first real active system I heard was in 1988 and it was Isobariks. Sounded pretty good but not quite right. The next was Aktiv Kabers. Now, if anyone wants a deifnative demonstration of the difference an active crossiver makes to accuracy and efficiancy of the power amp to drive unit coupling try and find someone who can do you a passive to active Kaber dem. Even though the cost difference was huge, when I worked in retail we sold more active than passive Kaber systems by a factor of 6 to 1 probably.

    My own favourite aktiv system is Linn Keltiks driven by 4 Bonnec Alto power amplifiers and Linn's own active crossover. I have never heard a better 2 channel audio sound, ever. I had Keltiks myself for several years when I lived in London and always loved the effortlessness of active operation.

    I do not believe that all active systems are better than all passive systems. I do believe that if designers know what they are doing then they have a chance to create a superior performance for less money with an active speaker system

    Gordon
     
  13. uncle eric

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    Gambit,
    Very good points indeed.
    And I totally agree that first and foremost, music and soundtracks are there to be enjoyed which is why people buy them. Including myself.
    However, as mentioned, the end result is always better if the studio or mastering facilities have accurate, neutral equipment to record with. Because of this, I've no doubt that by squeezing the maximum quality out of a recording, for obvious reasons, many of us enjoy the end result a tad more as a poor recording can potentially spoil our enjoyment. Obviously this depends as much on the expertise of the recording engineer as it does on the equipment but on the whole, studio's mainly employ skillful people. That is except for the plonkers who recorded Paul Wellers acoustic album. What a mess.

    You're right of course, I wasn't having a dig at 19 year olds. If you've been folllowing the forum for the last year or so you'll know that I was having a go at What Hi Fi employees. I really believe these people do more harm than good to people starting out in this hobby.

    There ARE a few decent UK publications as there are a few good reviewers (SMR, Ken Kessler, Martin Colloms and a few more) but sadly (or should I say luckily), none of these guys work for What Hi Fi. Do you blame them :rolleyes:

    All the best
    Eric
     
  14. uncle eric

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    Agree 100%
     
  15. uncle eric

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    Gambit,
    Just one other thing.
    Some of us make a living from this industry which means we have to set aside our enjoyment (very difficult sometimes) and listen and judge the sonics and the influence the hardware is having on the end result. How else are we to pick good hardware from the bad. If I didn't do this, and dishonestly recommended hardware to my customers without listening to it, (and it does happen in low end mags) that would put me in their class. I like to think some of us are better than that.
     
  16. Lowrider

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    Many people say that active is better for bass, but not for mids and treble...

    To me what matters is personal preference, not so much if I am waisting some money, or technical aspects...

    And so far the best I´ve heard, I mean what I like most, is first order passive xover with active subwoofers...

    For music that is, active is very impressive with movies...
     
  17. Ian J

    Ian J
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    Gambit is one such who earns a living from AV and Hifi retail and there is a lot of truth in what he says.
     
  18. EvilMudge

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    :lesson:Those would be the people who know little about crossover design.:laugh:

    BTW I'm currently trying to build an active crossover, or more specifically, an ultra low pass filter with an extremely high Q factor. It is NOT in any way what most people would call easy.:suicide:
     
  19. Lowrider

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    Sorry Mark,

    Please explain what you mean... :confused:
     
  20. EvilMudge

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    Sorry Lowrider.

    Passive crossovers are a trade off between linear frequency response up to the crossover point and phase delay around the crossover, you can minimise one with an increase in the other. Or you can make your crossover so complex that it draws more power than speaker itself.

    Active crossovers (analogue) are much better, you can minimise response and phase errors, which is much MORE important in the treble region.

    The best crossover would be a digital one, like the Dynaudio Airs have, or the Meridian DSP series.
     
  21. Lowrider

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    I used to think that digital xovers didn´t have any of the problems of analog designs, like phase shift, for instance, I was shocked to learn it is otherwise... :eek:

    I know that passive xovers rob a lot of power, I just said some people say they sound better for mids and highs...

    Also that I never heard an active speaker that I liked very much...
     
  22. EvilMudge

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    Yeah, digital done badly can be worse than analogue. Digital done right should always be superior though. It's a matter of cost. Meridian are the only consumer speakers I can think of with a digital x-over, and it's not perfect yet.

    Humans are much more sensitive to phase error than they are to frequency response, and this sensitivity increases with frequency, so this is minimised and linear frequency response goes out of the window.
     
  23. NicolasB

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    I have to say that (if we ignore active subwoofers for the moment) then all the active speakers I have actually listened to fell into one of three categories:

    1) Distinctly Unexceptional Sound For The Price;

    2) Very Nice-Sounding But Grotesquely Expensive;

    3) Very Good Value For Money But Somehow Still Not Quite Above My Inbuilt Minimum Acceptable Quality Threshold.

    Obviously I try to keep an open mind about these things, and I'm happy to acknowledge the theoretical advantages of amplification downstream of the cross-over; but I think it doesn't do to get too hung up on whether something should sound good as opposed to whether it actually does.

    One time I dipped into the forum on the Tag McLaren website, and somebody there was arguing that the Arcam P7 amplifer couldn't possibly sound as good as the Tag 5x100R because the Arcam wasn't a true multi-monobloc design - the 7 channels draw their power from a pair of transformers rather than having one each. Certainly the Arcam is built like this, and certainly many high-end amps are effectively multiple monoblocs and that may be why they sound good. But that doesn't alter the fact that if you actually listen to a P7 and a 5x100R side-by-side the Arcam (in my opinion) stomps all over the Tag.

    So clearly one shouldn't be put off by the idea of active speakers - but they are by no means a panacea either. Any individual product should be considered on the merits of what it sounds like rather than on what its design principles are.
     
  24. Ian J

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    An interesting analogy could be made in the kitchen. A container half-full of sand with bits of rubbish and chemicals in it mixed with hot water should taste foul but millions will swear that Pot Noodle is one of life's delicacies.
     
  25. stranger

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    it stinks too.
     
  26. Gordon @ Convergent AV

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    If Gambit works in hi-fi retail should it not say so in his signature.....isn't that a rule around here?

    Nicholas: Of course the proof of the pudding is in the eating, just as you say.

    Gordon
     
  27. uncle eric

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    I thought we were meant to keep quiet the fact that Gambit is Julian Richers son :eek::eek: :D
     
  28. EvilMudge

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    I think Gambit is a little different from Gordon and Eric, in that I'm fairly sure he's employed by someone purely as a salesman, and has not to my knowledge ever advertised the name of the shop he works for.
    Someone higher up the chain of command might be able to confirm or deny this.
     
  29. Ian J

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    It's true
     
  30. uncle eric

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    :D :D
     
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