Self-powered speakers have been around a lot longer than most people think. JBL was building self-powered studio monitors back in the 1960s, and in the early 1990s John Meyer (Meyer Sound Laboratories) devoted his manufacturing, research and development solely to active (self-powered) speakers. As a matter of fact ,Meyer said he hired an ad agency to research how people felt about powered speakers for sound reinforcement, and they came back after a survey and said that, “nobody wanted them.” That said Meyer released the MSL-4 in 1994. This was the first powered loudspeaker intended for concert touring. They obviously made a success of it and they haven’t looked back since.
On to my active audio odyssey. I bought my first self-powered sound system in 1999. I came across ISP Technologies at that year’s summer NAMM show in Nashville and was immediately impressed with the sound of these active enclosures. I ended up buying two 18”subs (900watts) and two 3-way boxes, each loaded with a 700 watt amplifier, electronic crossovers, time-alignment circuitry and enough magic beans to make them sound really good. I figured I could get great sounding speakers and lose the outboard amps and gear. As soon as I got the rig, I added it to my sound company arsenal and put it to work doing small gigs. During this same time I was doing audio installation work for churches, schools and just about anybody who would call me. So, I started talking up the advantages of self-powered speakers to my potential clients. That really didn’t go well at first. The acceptance of active speakers came along rather slowly even though they are common place today. So, I guess the question you will have to ask yourself the next time you are in the market for speaker is, “self-powered or not”?
That said, here are some of the pros and cons of both types of speakers. Let’s start with active speakers pros:
With a quality self-powered speaker enclosure you get a power amp (or amps) matched to the speaker components and factory tested for consistency and predictability. Just about all the components (with possible exclusion of EQ) are mounted inside the speaker enclosure. It is very difficult to blow up your active speakers because the quality systems have built-in limiting and overload protection. There is no audio signal loss due to long speaker wire runs compared to balanced XLR cables. Plus, they are easier to set-up for the average church volunteer. Most powered systems are plug and play.
The cons include:
They can be heavy. With the on-board amplifiers and other components, powered boxes can weigh twice as much as their non-powered counterparts. Installed powered speakers will need additional rigging and support over non-powered enclosures. You will need a source of electricity for your active speakers. So, if you intend on flying a system, get some Edison up to your boxes. When servicing your powered speakers you will usually have to get them down from their location and off to a repair shop. In other words what goes up must come down (eventually). I did a rather large installation in the South Bay area of Southern California about five years ago. I hung (rigged) very heavy self-powered enclosures about 16 feet up inside this church. I had suggested to the head pastor that they invest in chain motors to lower and raise the speakers for any servicing. That idea was too expensive so I rented a scissor lift and installed the speakers. Everything sounded awesome until about six months later when a lighting storm caused a power surge and blew the fuses in the boxes. The scissor would no longer fit down the aisle once the chairs had been installed but fortunately I had an 18ft a-frame ladder that got me up there. Of course had there been chain motors the speakers could be lowered and again raised with the flick of a switch. It pays to plan ahead.
Now for the pros and cons of non-powered speakers:
Pro wise, the non-powered passive speakers can be upgraded by changing just the enclosures or amplifiers or outboard gear rather than the entire speaker system. The audio signal comes from a single speaker wire instead of an XLR cable and an IEC electrical cable. They are lighter weight and generally easier to rig. They are also much lighter for portable systems. Service of the amps and speakers is more straight forward and simple.
The cons are:
There is more gear to keep up with. and even more for a portable system. You have speaker boxes, amplifiers, crossovers etc. There is the potential of the signal degrading or loss using long speaker wire runs. The amps must be matched ohm wise to insure optimum sound quality and volume.
If you plan on being able to move your sound system, either for out-reach events or between services, you should invest in an active audio system. It is so much easier to plug in a couple of speaker boxes and connect to the mixing board via XLRs than it is to set-up power amps, crossovers and speaker boxes and then connect to the mixer. To me it’s a no brainer. If you are going to move the system it has to be active. It’s pretty obvious how I feel about active versus non-active audio. I am a big fan of self-powered speakers and have been for some time. That doesn’t mean I don’t install passive systems or (more often) replace passive speakers or tired amplifiers. Of course I will do whatever the pastors or staff or managers want. I just love the blending of audio components and technology that most active systems offer. One thing for certain, it is a lot easier to sell a church on a self-powered system than it was ten years ago. Active audio is no longer in its infancy. It has evolved and matured beautifully over the years. So, if you are thinking of going in down the path of self-powered speakers, I don’t think you will be disappointed.