Best active speakers Buying Guide: Welcome to What Hi-Fi?’s guide to the best active speakers you can buy in 2019.
Quick physics lesson: (we promise quick!) speakers can be categorised into two different species – active and passive. Passive speakers are your standard speakers, requiring an external amplifier to make a sound. Once the signal from the amplifier reaches them, there’s an internal non-powered crossover built-in which filters the appropriate frequencies to each of the driver units.
There are also speakers that are passive in nature, but still have an amplifier built-in. These beasts are referred to as powered, and are represented by most of the sub-thousand-pound products on our list.
Active speakers have amplifiers built-in too, but they have one dedicated for each ‘way’. So, a two-way speaker with a tweeter and mid/bass will have two power amplifier modules. These models are fed by an ‘active’ powered crossover that works at a much lower voltage than their passive cousins. That means the components can be optimised for precision rather than pure power handling, resulting in a better integrated, more precise sound.
While most of the products on our list look just like standard speakers, don’t be fooled: there’s a lot of clever processing going on inside these cabinets, and many of them support hi-res audio.
Some are also complete all-in-one systems, with Bluetooth and certain streaming services built-in. Not only are these more practical and neater than a bunch of separate components, they’re often cheaper too. And with Black Friday around the corner, it’s a good time to be keeping an eye out for bargains.
Looking for some active speakers? Have a little look at what’s on offer.
They’re not cheap and the aesthetic might not appeal to everyone, but if you want a wireless pair of standmounts that nothing comes even close to right now in terms of sound, you’ve found them. The Duos are deadly precise speakers with excellent clarity and speed of performance that make you want to dig out tune after tune just to hear what they can do.
The multi-room feature set, while not perfect (we’d prefer a single app to handle every function), is more than made up for by the superb audio performance.
Read the full review: Bowers & Wilkins Formation Duo
This is actually an all-in-one system, comprising a network streamer, Bluetooth receiver and amplifier, all built into a pair of stereo speakers. The speakers talk to each other wirelessly, so there’s no need for a joining ethernet cable, and they come in a range of bright but stylish colours. But you will need to plug them into the mains.
You have plenty of choices when it comes to sources: streaming comes either over DLNA or from Tidal (both from within the KEF Stream app), while Spotify Connect, Roon compatibility and Apple AirPlay 2 are also part of the package. And the sound? As beautifully expressive, tonally even and rhythmically astute as you would expect given their lineage.
With their retro wood-and-grey styling, these speakers will look at home on almost any surface, be it an office desk or a kitchen work surface. But they’re not just lookers – they’re the desktop speakers that come closest to sounding like a proper hi-fi set-up.
The soundstage is gloriously spacious, giving each instrument enough room to breathe, and the sound is bathed in rich detail and fluid dynamics. Their timing is also a highlight. Put them in any room, and they’ll immediately add character along with some brilliant sonics.
Versatility is the name of the game when it comes to the Eggs. They work wirelessly or wired, and play nice with devices lacking serious amplification, like computers, portables and TVs thanks to their built-in 50W amplifier. They feel weighty and well built, and they come with connections aplenty for hooking up external sources.
No matter what you partner them with, sound dispersion is up to the task, making for a seamless and immersive experience. Plus there’s a good level of clarity and agility on show. Well worth shelling out for.
Another complete all-in-one streaming music system, the LS50 Wireless aren’t really wireless – both master and slave speaker need to be plugged into the mains, and there’s a cable connecting them. But still, it’s a lot neater than a full hi-fi set-up with lots of separate boxes.
And the sound is very impressive indeed – there’s a ton of detail to get your teeth into, and it’s all delivered in an organised and stable manner. It’s a refined listen, too, able to handle dynamic shifts without breaking a sweat, with a soundstage that opens up like a vista in front of you. A brilliant buy.
These Dalis are a bit more fussy when it comes to what kit you partner them with, be it a CD player, streamer or laptop. Sure, you could buddy them up with so-so components, but you certainly won’t get the best out of them.
But with the right teammates, they’ll shine, with a sound that’s detailed and enthusiastic, and vocals that are full of expression. Spaciousness isn’t an issue, and neither are scale and dynamics. And for all this, they’re just flat out fun to listen to. A great pair of floorstanders.
These might be considered a little basic in terms of what they do and how you set them up, but you won’t hear any complaints from us; simplicity is no bad thing, especially when the results are as good as this.
There’s no wireless connectivity, just RCA or balanced XLR inputs for connecting your source components. But they do feature adjustable controls for bass and treble, so you can fine-tune the sound to suit your room. Power comes from a dedicated 50W class A/B power amplifier module for each drive unit.
Sonically, they’re very impressive. There’s plenty of body in the mid-range, delicate control in the treble and bags of rhythm to get your head nodding. At this price, you’d be hard-pressed to find separates to match this performance.
With Bluetooth, a 3.5mm headphone jack, compatibility with TVs, and an optical input that supports 24-bit/96kHZ files, you’re not short of choice when it comes to sources you can add. You’re also spoiled when it comes to placement – the XEO 10s have a switch that optimises their performance depending on where you put them, be it close to a wall, in a corner or out in open space.
For speakers so small, they have an impressively panoramic soundstage, and they stay sounding clean even at high volumes. The low-end also packs plenty of weight, while the timing remains spot-on whatever you throw at them. Compact, versatile, great sounding… these speakers have it all.
Read the full review: Dynaudio XEO 10
Built for the recording studio, these pro-grade speakers are ideal for home use too, thanks to some clever cost-saving measures employed by PMC. They are two-way active speakers with two Class D power amplifiers inside each nicely made cabinet. A 65W module drives the tweeter while the bass has a meatier 100W to work with. Connectivity is limited to a single balanced XLR analogue input and mains power – nothing wireless here.
Bed them in, and you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve been transported to the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios where PMC’s pricier speakers reside.
The sound is incredibly detailed, and tonality is spot-on. They even manage to control the bass when placed close to a wall, which is no mean feat. For a pro set-up without the price tag, look no further.
DSP and analogue combine to great effect in these wireless wonders, and there are some nice design flourishes to show off (such as the ability to change volume by running your finger along the front edge of the top panel). To get the most from them, you’ll need Dali’s £549 Sound Hub, which is basically a wireless preamp that adds Tidal, Qobuz and Deezer music streaming, plus Bluetooth.
It won’t leave you disappointed – the sound is dripping with drive and energy, while the bass has plenty of precision, agility and texture. The imaging is also handled with aplomb, making for an expansive soundstage. Worth every penny.
Read the full review: Dali Callisto 6 C
Weighing 36kg each and costing £6000 per pair, the SCM40As are heavyweight in every sense of the word. But they’re actually the cheapest way to experience ATC’s studio-grade technology for yourself. Unlike most small speaker companies, ATC makes its own drivers, giving it full control over every aspect of the sound.
The SCM40A has three power amplifiers (and an active crossover) in each enclosure: there’s a 150 watts module for the bass driver, 60W driving the midrange and a 25W amplifier just for the tweeter.
And it shows – sonically these are masterful, magnificently detailed and less clinical than some ‘pro’ speakers, with a hefty low-end and a surprising amount of subtlety. At higher volumes, they’re even more astounding. Sorry neighbours.
Read the full review: ATC SCM40A
The Threes really are sophisticated boxes, crammed full of tech. Each of those six drivers are driven by a dedicated 250W Ncore Class D amplifier module and controlled by arguably the most comprehensive DSP (digital signal processing) we’ve come across in any speaker. There’s also digital-to-analogue and analogue-to-digital circuitry in each enclosure.
Fire up the Audio Threes and they sound great regardless of where you position them – they’re incredibly agile and precise, particularly the bass, which partners with plenty of punch. If you want compact speakers that sound amazing in any room, these are the ones for you. Now you just need to find a spare £10,000.
Read the full review: Kii Audio Three