Active vs. Passive Subwoofer – Which one is better?

In a previous article, we talked about Woofers and barely mentioned what a subwoofer is. This time around let’s explore the subwoofer’s world and the two existing types: active vs. passive subwoofer.

This information will help you mainly if you are setting up your own home theater system, a subwoofer is a necessary purchase to get a great sound experience since the subwoofer is a specialized speaker that is designed to reproduce extremely low frequencies.

Active vs Passive Subwoofer

Are Woofers and subwoofers different?

Of course, they are! Woofers and subwoofers both reproduce low frequencies, in that they are similar, but the main difference lays in the frequency range they work. A woofer has frequency ranges of between 20Hz to 2KHz while a subwoofer is only capable of covering a much narrower frequency range of 20Hz to 200Hz.

In resume, a woofer is a specialized speaker; and a subwoofer is a specialized woofer that covers a more narrow frequency range. Some examples where a subwoofer is useful are reproducing specific low-frequency effects (LFE), such as earthquakes and explosions in movies, and for music, pipe organ pedal notes, acoustic double bass, and tympani.

What is a passive and active subwoofer?

I will define each in a paragraph, of course, we will dig deeper in the following paragraphs.

A passive subwoofer requires the use of an external power source, such as an amplifier or receiver.  Passive subwoofers are ideal for large rooms that may need multiple units and are preferred by home theater designers.

Active subwoofers, also known as powered subwoofers, include their own power source, such as a built-in amplifier. Active subwoofers are easy to set up and are best used in a single subwoofer configuration. Because of this, placement is more important with active subwoofers.

Active vs. Passive subwoofer – Which one is better?

Whether a subwoofer is passive or active will not determine its frequency response, build quality, or overall performance. Remember that your subwoofer must match your amplifier/receiver specifications. For a gratifying listening experience, all the elements of your sound system must be compatible, even the wiring is important.

Pros and cons of passive subwoofers

Remember that a passive subwoofer does not include a built-in amplifier, they need to be powered by an external amplifier, in the same fashion as traditional speakers. The important consideration is that since subwoofers need more power to reproduce low-frequency sounds, an amplifier or receiver needs to be able to output enough power to drive your subwoofer without draining the receiver’s or amplifier’s power supply and falling short for your other speakers.

Active vs Passive Subwoofer - back side passive subwoofer
The rear side of a passive subwoofer

Passive subwoofers – pros:

  • Cost: Passive subwoofers are often cheaper than their active counterparts. Due to the fact that they have less components inside.
  • Power: Consume less power (watts) and there is no need to have a power outlet nearby.
  • Set-up: You can have more than one subwoofer which could be crucial for large rooms.

Passive subwoofers – cons:

  • Receiver: You must match your receiver or amplifier specification to avoid the problem of inadequate power.
  • Receiver cost: Your receiver or amplifier cost will significatly increase based on the total power you need.
  • Wiring cost: The cables will carry both power and audio signal. Therefore, you will need higher quality cables.
  • Installation: More cables from your receiver to subwoofer are required. Hiding them will be more challenging.

Pros and cons of active subwoofers

A single unit that features a speaker/amplifier configuration in which the characteristics of the amplifier and subwoofer speaker are optimally matched and encased in the same enclosure.

Active vs Passive Subwoofer - back side active subwoofer
The rear side of an active subwoofer with an internal amp.

Active subwoofers – pros:

  • Installation: All you need is a single cable from your receiver output (Pre out /LFE output) to your subwoofer input(s).
  • Wiring cost: There is no need for special or extensive cabling; this makes set up extremely easy.
  • Receiver cost: Since the amplifier is already built-in in your subwoofer you don’t need a powerful receiver.
  • Design: Usually they are compact and can be easily placed in several locations of the room.

Active subwoofers – cons:

  • Buttons, switches and knobs: Watching the back of an active subwoofer for the first time could be overwhelming. The manual will be your best friend.
  • Cost: Usually they cost more than a passive subwoofer.
  • Power: They consume more power (watts) and also requires one power outlet nearby.
  • Compatibility: Requires that your receiver/amplifier has a subwoofer pre-out port.
  • Location: Placement becomes more important because only one subwoofer will be used.

Active vs. passive subwoofer – Conclusions

Once again, a subwoofer active or passive is not a parameter of its quality and performance. It’s all about accuracy and convenience. More importantly, the subwoofer must be under your budget.

Both active and passive subwoofers have their particular features, pros, and cons. If your AV receiver or home theater has an output labeled as LFE Out, Sub Out, or Sub Pre-Out. In that case, you should use one active (powered) subwoofer.

1 thought on “Active vs. Passive Subwoofer – Which one is better?”

  1. Hello, my name is MO, and I have a question about subs. I have the Klipsch Reference speakers and they suck up against my Receiver. I am using the Yamaha RX-Z9 170 watts a channel x 9.2. Will this sub work with what I am using for home theater. I blew the sub that came with the set and have to cut around the outside of the amp in the sub to attach a Bash 400-watt amp. Its just not powerful enough to play my classic Rock like I want. I did find a set of KLF-20’s and have run them together to give me 340 a channel on my front speakers so I can hear it as I did at the concerts from the 70’s. I found this on Amazon and want your or anyone’s advice on this Powered sub. Sound Town METIS Series 2400 Watts 18” Powered Subwoofer with Class-D Amplifier, 4-inch Voice Coil

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