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KIH #8 – Re-activating active loudspeakers

  • CIA. Call it active. One of the more obvious subjects in need of a shake down to keep it honest is the active speaker. It’s terribly unpopular but most unfairly so. Shy of cheap units meant as convenient computer speakers with USB inputs and on-chip amplification, serious active boxes have found precious little traction even though they’re the gold standard in recording studios. In hifi, speakers like the Manger MSMs1 and Klangwerk Ella 3 floorstanders and PMC AML2 monitor are the odd exception The latter actually stem from the firm’s pro division. The former two are routinely associated with the ‘lifestyle’ tag to connote modern and smart if perhaps not fully approved for the hardcore brigade.

    Ask any speaker designer. He or she will readily admit it. Electronic crossovers are far more precise than passive versions and not bedevilled by the same phase shift. Active drive without filter parts between amplifier output and voice coil is invariably better. Electronic compensation allows not only for tighter driver matching and strategic response linearization but also makes lower louder undistorted bass from the same size box.

    Ask the same designer why their portfolio includes no active model. The answer is as predictable as it is depressing. “Nobody would buy it.” True but very infuriating if your mission was to hand the end user the best most predictable performance for the most cost-effective price.


    Taking a cue sheet from the Swiss Ella 3, not only is its entire electronics module purely analog, it runs class G, an advanced form of class AB with sliding voltage rails for higher efficiency. Because each amp is dedicated to just one driver to know its exact load impedance, a clever circuit embedded in the feedback loop between voice coil and amp creates adaptive output impedance. This stabilizes damping factor which in a standard combination of amp and passive speaker is all over the place.

    Nearly all active boxes incorporate user-adjustable EQ for bass roll-off and often also treble trim. Many of the things audiophiles aim at in the dark with endless component and cable substitutions could be hit straight and the first time with the turn of a knob if they were active not shadow boxers.

    Seasoned audiophiles know perfectly well how the amp/speaker interface is the most critical junction in the hifi chain. They’re fully prepared to admit that having a designer lock it in fully optimized to remove all guesswork is a good idea. In theory. In practice they prefer the freedom to pick and choose their own. This combination is never fully or even mildly based on hard electrical facts. It’s about chance, trial and error and endless sell ‘n’ buy cycles with much unnecessary expense. Even in the best scenario it cannot be as tightly matched as an active equivalent. It’s not possible.


    After having established a solid rep in the pro sector, Finnish speaker company Genelec have in the past few years begun to move into the hifi sector. It’s a move many electronics companies have already made, from Bryston to Manley Labs, from Benchmark Media to dCS, from Antelope Audio to Weiss and many more. Unless they open a dedicated passive consumer division like ADAM, pro-audio speaker companies simply have a harder time of it. If one wants to sell consumers active boxes, connectors also must adapt. Our kind doesn’t use TRS at all and XLR only sparsely. Pro doesn’t do RCA. Genelec’s active consumer models reflect this properly.

    Still, audiophiles remain sceptic. They don’t believe that pre-installed amplifier modules inside speakers will ever be of equivalent quality to their standalone units. Given the inevitable pro connection they also question whether mastering needs—near-field use to eliminate the room, very high SPL, perfectly flat neutrality—translate satisfactorily in a living room’s ‘free space’ and to our often lower levels. The most satisfying in-room response tends not to be flat but exhibit a mild steady rise in the bass. Finally audiophiles don’t use their hifi as tool to inspect mastering errors. We view our gear as pleasure generators for an emotional experience. It thus could seems that diverging needs can’t agree on a common recipe to serve them both.

    The flip side remains that makers of audiophile-approved amplifiers design around unknown load impedances and for full bandwidth. Having to accommodate a truly vast range of wildly disparate speakers—dynamics, panels, hybrids, sealed, ported, high/low efficiency, from no to complex crossovers etc.–standalone amps by definition can’t be fully tailored, targeted and optimized. On distortion and nonlinearities, even the costliest passive speaker exceeds what’s standard and acceptable for dirt cheap electronics by a factor of at least 10. Combining these two worlds would do a lot of good, eliminate cables and move costly amplifier enclosures and face plates in the trash bin as deleted.


    Of course reviewers who write up classic hifi can’t own active speakers without eliminating separate amplifier assignments from their menu altogether. But end users are under no such obligation of self denial. If your priorities include integration (fewer and smaller boxes), EQ smarts, less cable salad and predictable non-lumpy turn-key performance, do not write off the category of active speakers. Not only is this approach far smarter electronically by circumventing the deplorable absence of fixed hifi standards, the fact that most active speakers are still found in pro-audio companies also means a more attractive pricing model with lower retail margins.

    As we saw at HighEnd Munich 2013, Avantgarde Acoustic of Germany just introduced a fully active 3-way hornspeaker with 64-bit DSP and digital inputs. On size it’s the most compact model in their catalogue. On price it’s their entry-level effort. On tech it’s the most advanced speaker they’ve ever done. Shouldn’t that tell us something? It’s time to join the CIA. Be all you can be. Oops, that’s the army. Never mind. Calling it active is the future.

    Further information: Genelec | SGR | Manger | Klangwerk | Avantgarde | PMC

    Srajan Ebaen

    Written by Srajan Ebaen

    Srajan is the owner and publisher of 6moons. He used to play clarinet at the conservatory. Later he worked in audio retail, then marketing for three different hifi manufacturers. Writing about hifi and music came next, then launching his own mag. Today he lives with his wife Ivette and Nori and Chai the Bengal cats in a very small village on Ireland’s west coast, between the holy mountain Croagh Patrick and the Atlantic ocean of Clew Bay in County Mayo’s Westport area. Srajan derives his income from the ad revenues of 6moons but contributes to Darko.Audio pro bono.


    1. If it weren’t for the review gig I’d have long since decamped to Adam Audio or SGR actives (or similar) and mated them with a DAC and pre-amp, although not necessarily in the same box. This piece also reminds me that the LS50 + off-board amplifier cannot unravel layers of sound quite as cleanly as the (otherwise inferior, cheaper) active KEF X300A.

    2. Love the actives. The space and simplicity. It can be on a very high level. I love the look of the Manger MSMc1 and the Grimm LS1. Like the Avantgarde, the Grimm has as onboard dac. The Boenicke SLS2 is one of my favorite speakers bar none. We’re hoping to pair it with a ReQuest Audio Beast in the coming weeks….and then take a lot of time off.

    3. I was mighty impressed by the Kyron Audio room at the 2013 AV Hifi show in Melbourne.

      High end speaker design, high end DSP (DEQX), high end active amps (Hypex N-Core).

      Not for the budget-minded, though!

    4. Well that’s exposing the elephant in the room! A very selfless article from a reviewer. Yes I have been enjoying some Emotiva Airmotiv4’s as my PC speakers for over a year now and really enjoy them. Am seriously thinking about going active with something more upmarket in my main system. Maybe you could keep a pair of active speakers on the go for DAC and preamp reviews.

      • Steve – a pair of actives for digital pre-amp reviews is VERY much on my mind. Although, I’m yet to be convinced that the bit-destruction of deep digital attenuation doesn’t reduce music’s tonal mass and compress its soundstage. Invariably, even with such digital pre-amps, a more traditional analogue pre-amp is still required to keep things meaty-beaty.

        • My project for a product design course at NCSU involved building a 3 way active speaker using Braun tweeters and midranges in addition to Kef B139’s in a quarter wave transmission line. I had a Pioneer series twenty active crossover and used SAE amps. Amazing, if I say so myself.

          That was 1976 and I’ve been wanting to do it again ever since . Maybe I’ll get that chance

            • Hi John..We’ll see. The comments here are spot on. A lot of audiophiles and dealers love the mix and match game but if given the choice an average music lover would love the bang for the buck and convenience of powered monitors. I spoke with my pals from Dynaudio at CES and they said that while some dealers and dyed in the wool audiophiles were having a tough time with their powered speakers , consumers absolutely loved them. Reminds me of the early days of computer audio when David Solomon hauled a hand built USB integrated amp around the country telling people it was the future of Hifi .. .. Consumers jumped all over it but quite a few dealers and traditionalist audiophiles were very skeptical.

    5. A great article by Srajan.
      As an active speaker user for the last 15 years or so, I can say that a well designed active speaker system always wins IMO.
      I have a pair of ATC’s flagship EL 150ASL and they are just amazing. I use them with Zodiac GOLD DAC.
      I would highly recommend active ATC, they are used by many major recording/mastering engineers and studios.
      BTW, I have no affiliation with ATC, they are not very well known in the consumer market and I feel it’s a real shame!
      Best regards.

    6. Active speakers are one of the darlings of audiophile snobbery – relentlessly dissed. But I still remember that active PMC I reviewed ages ago bi-amped internally with Bryston power. It was silly good, compact and for what it was/is fairly priced.

      With PCM-to-PWM tech making inroads (NAD, NuForce come to mind), that strikes me as perhaps ideal for a modern active speaker that takes digital signals directly, applies the necessary DSP for crossover, driver matching, response correction and what have you on said signal, then runs 64-bit volume and goes digital all the way to the switching output devices through a low-pass filter. Like John I find digital volume to take out chunks especially at lower volumes but with current DSP and proper gain matching (where the whole is designed to land in the volume control’s sweet spot at expected levels) it should be perfectly fine. After all, with such a speaker the designer would be in full control of just about everything…

    7. Excellent! The active model appeals to me greatly. Let’s not forget amp-on-board entries from Meridian, Linn, Dynaudio, KEF and Audioengine. Once wireless technology advances appropriately, what could be sleeker than a killer hi-res audio system consisting only of two speakers? That’s how many speaker manufacturers photograph their goods for advertisements anyway–two speakers set up in a high-end architectural environment with not a wire or any other component in sight. With a gorgeous pair of speakers like Martin-Logans, WAF would be off the chart!

    8. These days I look to the pro market first – Geithain, PSI, Quested, Spiral Grooves, Barefoot, Unity Audio, Adam, Focal…

    9. Good article Srajan. I’ve been looking into active monitors for a while now. Unfortunately there is a lack of reviews of active speakers for home use. For instance, the Focal Solo6 Be and Twin6 Be look like a great deal with top of the line woofers and tweeters and decent looking cabinets, but how are they for mid field use? For someone who usually sits about 5 feet away from his speakers, do they work as well as in the near field?
      You guys should start reviewing more equipment like this and perhaps the idea will gain traction. The multiplicity of boxes is absurd, the cost is higher and most likely the sound is worse.

      • Be assured that Srajan and I are both on the hunt for something active to write about.

    10. If we’re talking 2(.1) channel, I agree. I have active Audioengine A5s in my family room and, practically speaking, they work quite well in a space that does not have room for separate electronics. If we’re talking music/HT, then Houston we have a problem. How/where am I going to plug in my center and multiple surrounds? If I have a 5-channel (or more) receiver or amp for those, I might as well match them with passive mains.

      • Yeah, I too was gonna raise the issue of mains supply. My current speaker config is diagonal firing with the right speaker sitting a fair way into the room and nowhere near a wall socket. :/

      • I have the Audioengine A5s also and love them in a near-field set-up on a desk – the imaging is fantastic. However, when I put them in a large room they really lose something. I think this goes to an earlier comment on ‘design for purpose’. I’d be interested in active monitors for my second system (small-med lounge) but would want far-field rather than near-field design. Do the majority of active monitors for consumers achieve this, or do they carry-over near-field designs from their studio origins?

    11. Thanks Srajan,
      A timely article for me. I’ve recently decided to have an active three way custom built for me by Red Spade Audio here in Australia.
      The ability to use DSP to get most out of the drivers and the room is a big plus to me, not only that but I get to voice the speakers to my own preference with a few filters thrown in for variety. I will also be able to upgrade the drivers and be able to reset crossovers with minimum fuss.
      The expected flexibility and performance far outweighs the ongoing search of matching amps, room friendly speakers and cable changing.

    12. As John said already, we’re currently cruising Active Boulevard for some bruising action. John already identified a promising contender I said yes to. Now we need to see whether they want to play. Some of that could encounter pro vs. hifi, i.e. companies solid in the former field may be new to, insecure over or not interested in us types and our kind of subjective reporting for home use. That part remains to be seen but solicitations are underway -:)

      And as Topman Chief said, it also remains to be seen whether the traditional nearfield setup which at least the pro-oriented monitors are groomed for lends itself to a 2.5 – 5m distance type domestic application. Those are all fair questions which such reviews need to investigate. But I’m certainly excited about digging into it and learning something.

    13. Hello Srajan,

      This is a very good topic!

      As an amateur computer musician and audiophile in spe im really surprised why the audiophile community never talks about active speaker systems. Every (digital)musician knows there is an enormous offering in relatively cheap active speakersystems for homestudios offering high resolution dynamic sound reproduction that is much more analytic then this high end hifi equipment that often has a colored sound reproduction to please the senses.

      In the listening room i have two audio systems; an active yamaha HS 80 2 way monitor set ( probably the most sold speaker on the planet). Secondly i have the very sympathetic Hivi swans M3 3 way speakers paired with an rega brio R amp. The later costing around 3 times more than the hs80’s. I stream audio from my laptop through Focusrite Dacs to feed the amplification systems.

      Especially for electronic music with a syntetic soundstage originating from DAW’s like ableton cubase or protools ( wich is most music nowadays) sounds IMHO better on high resolution active speaker systems like the HS80’s than on systems with separates.

      I find myselve mostly playing chambermusic or jazz combos on the hivi’s cause with the 3ways speakers the detailing of the midfrequencies is simply richer or more sparkling to the ear (wich doens mean it reproduces the sound most analytical or natural).

      I have the feeling that most high end lovers talk about the sound but actually rather more enjoy the physical or visual appeance of their gear. It is very human to enjoy aestetic pleasure of nice equipment with strong and exclusive appearance and mix it up with sonic pleasure. So much for blind testings.

      Keep up the good writings, ps. i like the 6moons web a lot..

      regards from shanghai


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