First, I’m fairly new to this whole audio thing, so what do I know. But I have spent a couple hundred hours studying the field over the last year, and I’ve done it with relatively non-biased eyes because I don’t have a dog in the fight.
Unjaded Observer Advantage
So you get the benefit of a perpetually curious super-nerd who hasn’t already spent tens of thousands of dollars on one solution or another. Which, as it turns out, counts for a lot.
First, what’s the debate? The debate is active vs. passive speakers. Or, to put it another way—the old-school way vs. the new and technology-powered way. A lot of it comes down to amplification and digital to audio conversion, and where and how those happen.
Many who get bit by the audio bug end up listening to systems instead of music.
With old-school systems going back decades, the DAC and the amps have been separate from the speakers. So the speaker is “passive” and must have power pushed into it to make sound. A newer (and rising in popularity) method of doing this is to have the amps and the DACs right in the speakers themselves, so all you need to do is power them and send them a digital signal.
The old-school audio community and wine communities have a lot in common.
Basically, the old-school types hate the new stuff. They think it’s a Satanic Dungheap. And they’re happy to tell you as much. They think it’s all about pairing this with that, swapping stuff in and out, trying different cables, and taking a wine connoisseur approach to things. Adjust, taste. Enjoy. Discuss. Etc.
What the traditional audiophiles won’t tell you is that they’re addicted to upgrades.
Which would be totally fine! But there’s a trap. The trap is that much of this audiophile community is over-indexed on the chase. For far too many of them, it’s not about the music. Or even the gear! It’s about changing the gear. It’s about looking for the next big upgrade to get that one extra squeeze of happiness from your system. Until you hear someone else’s system and you’re thrown into an existential crisis and you have to sell everything and start over from scratch.
Perpetual Optimization is a common proxy for meaning.
And don’t get me wrong, I’m actually super attracted to this. This pursuit game is a common one, especially for men in their 20’s and 50’s. The whole idea of optimizing a system is highly seductive. I get it. So I’m not hating here.
Now, enter the newcomers—many of which you can find over here at Audio Science Review. First, they tend to be Objectivists, meaning they value measurement and blind testing far more than the old-schoolers who often think their ears are the only measurement they need.
But most importantly for today’s topic, they believe in the active way of doing audio in a room. And I think they might have a point. Specifically, here are the two reasons I think active will win over time.
- Pairings Are Everything: If you hang around in any audiophile forums or channels you’ll find everyone talking about how this amp pairs with this DAC and this speaker. Ad infinitum. It’s one of the primary topics, and this is precisely what active systems do so well because all three were designed to work perfectly together.
- The Room Matters More Than Most Know: At the very high-end of audio you start to realize that a $10,000 system in a great or treated space can sound like a $50,000 system. And a $200,000 system in a bad room can sound like a $50,000 system. The room matters. A lot. And these new active systems aren’t just shooting out air: they’re using the latest technology to control how the speakers emit sound, they’re using technology to adjust their sound with EQ, and—most importantly—they’re using measurement techniques to optimize the sound of the entire system within a given listening space.
These are huge. Again, in the traditional/passive world these account for a massive percentage of your results. If you have a bad pairing, or a bad room, you can end up with a crap system—even if you spent a lot of money.
Active systems technology will improve far faster than the quality of traditional components because the latter is so much older and more established.
With active systems that are perfectly paired, work synergistically together between the highs, mids, and lows, and adjust their sound based on the space they’re in, you’re getting an automatic boost in overall experience that people would kill for in the passive world. All because of new technology.
Putting love into anything can be fun.
This starts to look like a battle between the old Mustang 5.0 that’s had $50,000 of love put into it over the last 20 years, vs. the Tesla Model 3 that destroys it off the line every time.
Now that analogy only works for a specific measurement, which is acceleration off the line. But that happens to be one of the most traditionally coveted metrics in car-loving history. And my argument is that this passive vs. active situation is very similar when it comes to overall sound quality.
Get Off My Lawn™
You’ll still have people at the audio and car shows showing off their super expensive old-style stuff. And pouring tons of love into their equipment—which is wonderful—but they’re going to look the other way when some 20-year-old drives through in a Tesla looking for a race. Or showing off a full Genelec active system where the monitors, woofers, and subs all work together to do exactly the right thing at the right time for the room that they’re in.
That’s the audio equivalent of zero to sixty in 2.9 seconds.
And here’s the crazy part—the active world can keep getting better! There is plenty of room to grow in the fast-moving world of technology when you fully control the amps, the DACs, the speaker designs, and you have all that adjusting dynamically to the room.
Anyway, those are the two main reasons I think active will win:
- Innately Optimized AMP/DAC/Speaker Pairings
- Technology-based Room Optimization.