Putting together a PA system can be challenging since there are so many options out there. One of the key considerations is whether or not to go with powered or passive PA speakers. Historically, passive PA speakers were the only thing available — you simply purchased the speakers along with a separate power amplifier that was matched as closely as possible to the power handling of the speakers (i.e., 800 watts peak power at 8 ohms). While it was the only option available, it was not a perfect science.
These days, the emergence of powered speakers has taken on the industry by storm. The manufacturer has done all of the homework for you, using complex R&D to craft a perfectly-matched amplifier right into the cabinet of the speaker itself. This means you’re getting the fullest, best sound possible out of your PA speakers. Not only that, but you don’t have to worry about the amplifier being too strong (possibly blowing your speakers) or too weak (possibly doing damage to the amplifier). There are no long stretches of precisely-gauged speaker cables needed — powered speakers are fed by a line-level signal right from your mixer or sound source, which is typically a convenient — and grounded — XLR cable.
Another advantage comes into play when you add powered subwoofers to your set up. In a traditional passive speaker/sub set-up, you also needed to purchase additional rackmount equipment consisting of a crossover which would feed the lows into your passive subs, and the mids/highs into your mains. This meant using more cables to connect the outputs of your mixer into the crossover, and then the crossover into the corresponding power amps. And as we audiophiles know, more cabling is always the weakest link in that the more analog connections the signal is being fed between, the more chances of the signal suffering degradation. Most powered subwoofers solve this dilemna by incorporating a crossover right onboard, such that the powered sub will capture all of the lows for itself, and then regulate all the mids/highs out to your powered mains, with no additional equipment or noisy/messy cabling needed.
Since you’ll spend about the same amount of money on a complete powered setup as you would on a non-powered setup, I usually recommend the powered route to my clients as a no-brainer. One exception would be clients that have a pre-existing non-powered setup who are looking to replace certain components (i.e., a power amp or speaker that went bad). But when starting from scratch, powered is most definitely the way to go!
If you have any questions about PA speakers – or pro audio gear in general – feel free to give me a call or drop me an email – Tyson