Darko: Active Loudspeakers

Moritzplatz, Berlin. Just Music is a store for musicians and DJs. Up on the the third floor is the loudspeaker section; on display, models from Focal, Eve Audio, JBL, M-Audio and Pioneer. For those who care for a splash of colour, there’s NOCS. For a more unusual form factor and a greater potential for high/er-end performance (with optional room correction), we look to Genelec. DJ stores like Just Music don’t sell passives. It’s actives or nowt.

Across town at Hansa we’d almost certainly find active loudspeakers perched above the mixing desk. You don’t have to go too deep into Google to find photographic evidence of active speakers from Dynaudio, PMC, Yamaha or ATC being used in recording studios around the world.

And yet at Hifi Im Hinterhof in Kreuzberg, one of Berlin’s most prestigious audio and home cinema retail outlets, we find active offerings from Genelec and Sonos drowned out by a chorus of passives from the likes of Audio Physic, B&W, Cambridge Audio, Dali, Harbeth, KEF and Monitor Audio - all of which require outboard amplification and loudspeaker cable.

This scenario isn’t atypical. Active loudspeakers are few and far between in the audiophile world. Audioengine are well-known as stalwarts of the audio show circuit despite the vast majority of their customer base living outside of the audiophile ghetto.

Making more upmarket in-roads are Dynaudio’s Xeo 2 - a terrific all-in-one solution for smaller rooms. For those wanting to drive a slightly larger space and prioritise imaging and layer separation, the KEF X300A Wireless are a terrific starting point.

Teufel are Germany’s biggest loudspeaker manufacturer. From their flagship store and online, they sell a range of loudspeakers, predominantly at more affordable price points, the majority of which are active designs. Also commonly seen in Germany’s big box retailers are active loudspeakers from Canton and Magnat.

Move beyond entry-level territory in the audiophile world and the active loudspeaker herd quickly thins: Dynaudio’s Xeo 4 and Xeo 6; Genelec 8351A, Manger S1; Avant Garde Zero 1; PMC AML-2, the latter skirting the pro audio world where talk of forensic listening might be a priority.

But not all active designs trade in down to the bone analysis of music. Many are most enjoyable, especially if/when EQ-d according to taste and one’s room. Perhaps the audiophile world needs to take another look actives?

Back at my apartment in Mitte, I sit in front of a pair of Genelec G Two (US$700/pair) fed by an AURALiC Aries Mini (also in white) and pull up some Grant Lee Buffalo with an iPhone app. With the amplifiers sitting inside the loudspeakers, this is a three box hifi system for small rooms. No outboard amplifier or loudspeaker cable required. (Side note: Hifi im Hinterhof recommend pairing the G Two with a Bluesound NODE 2).

It shouldn’t escape us that the Genelec/AURALiC pairing sells for a shade more than the 6m run of AudioQuest Rocket 88 wire that joins the neighbouring ELAC Uni-Fi F5 to a pair of PS Audio BHK monoblocks—amplifiers designed for optimal full bandwidth performance irrespective of the loudspeaker attached: planar or dynamic, ported or sealed. The PS Audios, like all standalone amplifiers, are a one size fits all design in which the audio signal is amplified before it is divvied up by the loudspeaker’s passive crossover network.

The baby Genelecs do it differently. It’s crossover first, amplification second. Each loudspeaker’s crossover is implemented with active (powered) components. It sends the split signal to a pair of amplifiers—one for the tweeter, one for the mid/bass—whose outputs are wired directly to the driver’s voice coil. With no interceding passive components, each amplifier’s raw power need not (necessarily) be so high. Many loudspeaker engineers also point to active crossovers being less prone to phase errors than their passive counterparts.

Furthermore, sitting post-crossover, each amplifier need only take care of a limited frequency range and—this is a biggie—its output can be tailored specifically to the driver’s impedance as it varies with frequency. This kind of optimisation just isn’t possible with a passive + outboard amplifier setup because the loudspeaker isn’t known.

Then comes EQ. On the rear of each Genelec loudspeaker dip switches accommodate adjustments to bass and treble according to taste and/or room/desk positioning.

KEF’s all-new LS50 Wireless (US$2200) offer similar EQ options via a smartphone control app: “How big is your room?” and “Are the speakers sitting on stands or a desk?” it asks; but perhaps the most compelling reason to go for the LS50 Wireless is financial prudence. The activated version gives us a hi-res network streamer and D/A conversion on top of bespoke amplification. It’s a high-end hifi system in a box.

We’d have to spend thousands (not hundreds) on an outboard amplifier to land the passive LS50 inside the same zip code as the active equivalent. And that’s before we even ask ourselves “Which DAC?” and “Which streamer?” KEF’s premium for going all-in on active? US$700. The KEF implementation differs from Genelec’s in that its crossover and loudspeaker optimisation are executed in the digital domain. Only after EQ is applied and the signal is digitally divvied up between drivers is it handed off to the D/A converters that precede each amplifier module: 30 watts Class A/B for the tweeter, 200 watt Class D for the mid/bass driver.

The Genelec and KEF argument for active loudspeakers could hardly be more compelling....

...and yet audiophiles continue to resist their charms. Why ride the agony and ecstasy of matching an outboard amplifier to one’s loudspeaker of choice when we know that, all other things being equal, it won’t perform as well as an equivalent active implementation?

We might liken the audiophile approach to system building to buying a car from two separate manufacturers: transmission from BMW; engine and chassis from Mercedes.

What if this mix-n-match lottery could be replaced by a middle ground where the two car companies consulted with each other?

Now our eyes turn to Vinnie Rossi and Spatial Audio’s Clayton Shaw. Rossi is working on an active crossover/EQ/amplifier LIO module for Shaw’s forthcoming X1 Uniwave loudspeaker. With the loudspeaker a known quantity, Rossi can tailor his analogue-domain active crossover and quartet of amplifiers (two per channel, one per driver) to optimise the X1 Uniwave’s performance.

Rossi’s amplifiers will talk to the X1’s drivers directly and their output impedance will be tailored to the corresponding transducer’s input impedance thus giving us damping factor consistency that might otherwise be all over the place.

As with the aforementioned KEF and Genelec loudspeakers, we trade amplifier flexibility in for a significant uptick in sound quality; an objective performance level unattainable by the same loudspeaker with passive crossover network and driven by an outboard amplifier.

Increasingly more manufacturers are seeing actives as a reliable direction for future product development.

Piquing my interest of late are Klipsch’s R-15PM that add Bluetooth to an otherwise TOSLINK- and USB-accessible DAC and, more unusually, phono pre-amplification. At US$499, they’ll make you look twice at a pair of Sonos Play:1.

Taking a more feature-trimmed route are the UK’s Acoustic Energy who have recently announced the activation of their AE1 loudspeaker: 2 x 50watt Class A/B amplifier per driver, per speaker and a 4th order minimum phase (analogue) active crossover. At £1200/pair, they’ll sell for only £200 more than 2011’s passive AE1 Classic.

Some audiophiles may still balk at an inability to roll their own amplification but others - myself included - are more than happy to sacrifice this BYO approach if it means no more loudspeaker cables, a lower system box count, room/position EQ and bespoke fit internal amplification.

BradleyP's picture

Since going active on my desktop, I'm totally sold on the idea for smaller speakers. I don't have any direct experience with the few bigger actives on the market, so I can't comment directly on those.

Dynaudio has even higher-end active floorstanders and stand mounts than those detailed here. Focal's pro audio is all active and audiophile-worthy. ATC offers both pro audio and active consumer floorstanders. A little more hunting will yield an even bigger list of possibilities. They are out there.

Can you imagine what Revel and Mark Levinson could accomplish together, or McIntosh and Sonus Faber? Alas, at that level, it may be more about system building and rotating than economy and technical optimization.

dysonapr's picture


All the boxes are ticked. Audio Nirvana achieved.

PDC's picture

That's when I bought Meridian 200 series kit along with their M20 active loudspeakers which I am listening to now. My ATC SCM 50 ASLT I've had for over 10 years.

Used to have some KEF 300X actives, but no longer.

Actives work for me!

PDC's picture

Oops, forgot my a/d/s 2002 speakers, no longer own either.

Socrates35's picture

Perhaps someone can explain something to me. In the vast majority of reviews of audiophile/ high-end equipment, professional reviewers stress how important they consider the isolation of components/ circuits/ what-have-you from extraneous unwanted interference/ vibrations/ etc. Yet now we are being asked to embrace wholeheartedly and unquestioningly speakers with their cabinet rigidity/ resistance to vibration compromised by the adding on of electronic components. AND conversely, by exposing those self-same electronic components to the unwanted vibrations by being coupled to multiple drivers/ cones etc.

solarophile's picture

Obviously audiophile generalizations must be taken with a "pinch of salt" and are not to be taken seriously.

I think we should follow the science first and foremost then add in the audiophile "folk wisdom" if it makes sense.

hifiart's picture

Re: Vibrations, I have a pair of KEF X300 Speakers (mentioned in the review), and they sound like shit. The only way they sound ok, is pointed backwards, towards the walls.

I worry about the vibrations, and the locations of the electronics inside of them.

The Genelec speakers at the top look ugly as shit also though Genelec as a company knows a thing or two about sound. :)

Perhaps one reason why audiophile reviews stress the isolation of components / circuits, extraneous unwanted interference / vibrations etc. is the symmetry of that the typical owners of such equipment have separated themselves and their families in their homes and wish to not have unwanted interference from others.

As for Focal professional audio, it is only at the level of the Focal Twin 6BE that they sound half-ok, and that's half-ok.

Active studios - studios with actual active use - use speakers like Westlake Audio's SM1 - with external 4-way active crosser - actualy a 5-way speaker, and typically 5 of them (identical).

The price of each speaker is about 1/3rd (200K) that of Wilson Audio's new Master Chronosonic - talk about Chrono (Judge Dredd). :)

That, or Ocean's Way.

You'll also see many less in use studios (mastering, though quite good) use audiophile speakers like TAD.

hifiart's picture


You'll see that the reviewer is not concerned with vibrations in this case he has his speakers before plastic blinds - which can vibrate a lot - and his equipment on filing cabinets - which are prone to vibration, also.

johndarko's picture

Not so fast. Those pics were shot in a room 16,000kms, 7 years and several house moves away from where I am now.

johndarko's picture

Your experience with the X300 KEFs doesn't reflect my own but I wonder why you bought them if they sound so bad that you need to aim them at the front wall?

johndarko's picture

It's a question of weighing up the pros and cons: do the possible losses of having transducer vibrations so close to the electronics outweigh the benefits of an active x-over etc.?

DH's picture

In addition to Kef, Dynaaudio, and ATC, more "audiophile" actives are coming on the market: Kii Audio, Dutch and Dutch, etc.

The simple truth is that even an audiophile can get much better bang for the buck with actives and all-in-one speakers than is possible with separates.

The future will be with actives. They will become more and more prevalent.

johndarko's picture

On the increasing prevalence of actives in the audiophile space, I agree with you.

garrettnecessary's picture

On the Grimms the optimization is to the individual speakers -- i.e. not a Seas Driver but this particular driver. So each speaker and pair has individually matched amps and crossovers.

monetschemist's picture

I'm a big fan of active speakers. My nice old Linn Keilidhs have been active for some years. Generally Linn speakers are built to be run either passive or active, which seems to me like a fine idea.

Maybe you could take a look at digital crossovers implemented with FIR filters? There are cheap (e.g. MiniDSP) - moderately expensive (e.g. DEQX) options for this. In exchange for going digital, FIR filters offer tuning that will get both frequency response and phase response flat.

Here is a nice explanatory article


wgb113's picture

After being on the music gear merry-go-round for years I moved to a house with an office that I could use a dedicated space to listen to music. It was small so space was at a premium. I started off with a pair of Quad 12L actives, an iMac with my 16/44 AIFF CD rips, and a Benchmark DAC1 USB.

What a fun, simple, good sounding setup!

I upgraded to a pair of Dynaudio BM5AmkII powered monitors and things improved again. Bring in a Benchmark DAC2 HGC and things were rolling.

Then I got a couple of itches...I wanted more bass and those black 12" round things caught my eye.

I tried to integrate a sub with the Dynaudio/Benchmark setup and just couldn't get it to work. That combined with wanting to bring in a turntable led me back to the traditional passive route. I swapped the Dyns for a pair of KEF LS50 and a Parasound A23 power amp, using the DAC2 HGC as a preamp. It was a little better but things still weren't great. The KEFs had even less bass than the Dyns and the sub integration was still a challenge. I decided to treat the room acoustically.

That further improved things somewhat and then I bit the bullet, sold off the Benchmark and Parasound, went to a McIntosh integrated, a Schiit DAC, and brought in a second sub. I lived with pretty much that exact setup for close to four years, before swapping out the KEFs for B&W 805s and the Schiit for an Oppo HA-1.

I'm now in the process of blowing up most of that system. A pair of KEF LS50W arrived last week and I've been absolutely smitten. It's unbelievable to me how much more KEF has managed to squeeze out of an already amazing speaker by adding the amplification/DSP. They're better in every single regard than the passive version I had. For the first time, I could contemplate not needing a sub (but I probably will). Sure you give up some flexibility and some will fret over DAC obsolescence but they'd be missing out on some amazing sound.

Setups like this - BYOS - are now what I'd recommend to anyone looking to get into this hobby of ours.

koblongata's picture

Anyone had experience with Goldmund? They ARE high-end, for sure... eye watering price tag... Thought they are quite famous in this regard, their active design really intrigues me.