Active vs Passive Subwoofer — Which Is Better for Your Home Theater?

active vs passive subwoofer

To set up a home theater system flawlessly, you need to know the difference between an active vs passive subwoofer. Otherwise, you might purchase the wrong type of subwoofer and end up with an incompatible system.

To help you understand the differences between the two, our expert team has put together a guide of everything you need to know about active vs passive subwoofers.

What is a Subwoofer?

Let’s start off by explaining what a subwoofer[1] is. It’s the part of your home theater sound system that can reproduce low frequency sounds in the content. Don’t confuse a subwoofer with a woofer. While they are both responsible for the low frequencies, the subwoofer has the capability of going even lower in frequency compared to the woofer.

Subwoofer from Klipsch 7.1 RP-260 Reference Premiere Surround Sound Speaker Package

If you enjoy high quality music and are a stickler for mid-range to low frequencies, subwoofers are an indispensable part of the bass in a surround sound speaker. Subwoofers can be split into two main categories, which we will now look at in more detail.

Passive Subwoofer

A passive subwoofer is a subwoofer that doesn’t have an internal power source. In other words, it requires an external receiver or amplifier. Let’s get to know the passive subwoofer and see if it’s the best match for your home setup.

Pros

Cons

Active Subwoofer

Contrary to a passive subwoofer, an active subwoofer, sometimes referred to as a powered subwoofer, has its own power source built in. In other words, it has a self-contained receiver or amplifier in its system.

close-up of a Sony subwoofer

Pros

Cons

Differences Between Active vs Passive Subwoofers

Now that you know a little bit more about the main differences between active vs passive subwoofers, our experts are going to dive into more detail about the makeup and build.

Components

As we mentioned before, the main difference in the components of an active and passive subwoofers is the internal power source, which is either an amplifier or receiver. 

A powered subwoofer is perfectly configured and optimized to work with your home theater speakers. You won’t need to source your own components, find the right cables and match the power handling output of the active subwoofers to the external amplifier.

Sony HT CT180 Subwoofer

Since there are less components, it’s also easier to set up and you won’t require as many cables for the powered subwoofers.

On the other hand, passive subwoofers do not have a power source built in. While this can pose as a hassle for those who are not familiar with these speakers, it can give users more control over their entire speaker system and also opens doors for more customization down the line.

Due to passive subwoofers requiring more components and having a more complicated setup to work, you will need to use more cables.

Power

When setting up your home theater speaker system, the power output level is imperative to the performance. A powered subwoofer requires more wattage to work because of all the components embedded inside. A single passive subwoofer alone will not take as much power supply from your home theater speaker system.

While the single passive sub doesn’t require as much wattage, it will demand more effort on your part when sourcing the external amplifier. You have to make sure the power output is compatible and measure how much power your entire home theater setup needs, before deciding on getting the right one.

Design and Setup

There are pros and cons to the design and setup of active subwoofers and passive ones. The powered subwoofer is commonly used in a home theater that only has one single subwoofer. They are also built and designed to maximize Low-Frequency Effects (LFE) channels, which will generally result in better bass sound quality.

Active subwoofers are often smaller than a single passive subwoofer and don’t take up much room. This also gives users the freedom to move them around to find the sweet spot in your room. However, keep in mind that active subwoofers are often heavier because they contain more components. There are some active subs in our list of best subwoofers under 500 which can deliver powerful and low frequency bass and sound in your room. 

Klipsch RSB-14 SoundBar Subwoofer

Since the cables used for powered subwoofers are for audio only, it also gives consumers the choice to place it further away in the room from the receiver, amplifier or TV.

On the other hand, passive home theater subwoofers, while larger, can give you more control over your whole speaker equipment. They are also highly compatible with a receiver or amplifier because most of these devices are created to have a subwoofer speaker output.

If you have many subwoofers in your home speakers, the passive subwoofer is the best choice.

Price

We also touched upon this briefly in the beginning. While the passive sub on its own is the cheaper option, the cost can increase immensely when you account for all the other components you need to set your home theater. In our expert opinion, our team believes the cost can balance out because the passive sub has a lower impact on your power bill.

Active subwoofers do come at a higher cost, but that’s the price of convenience. The best subwoofer speaker under 200, for instance, already has all you need without you having to locate other parts to complete your setup. As mentioned, they do require more wattage, which will result in more expensive utility bills.

subwoofer

Another thing active subwoofers have over the passive ones is higher quality sound. Since they are optimized for LFE, you will also get best sound and audio quality for the higher price.

Our team reminds you not to look at the price range when choosing a powered subwoofer or a passive one. What’s most important is the quality of the low frequency sounds it can reproduce and what’s the best choice for your setup and needs.

Connectivity Options

Both powered subwoofers and passive ones offer hard line connection via the subwoofer speaker output. This will allow you to connect passive subwoofers to a receiver and amplifier, and powered subwoofers to other devices.

However, since wireless connection technology is growing more prevalent, your subwoofer may be able to convert to cableless. Only active subwoofers can connect wirelessly without the addition of a wireless kit, meaning you can purchase already wireless options off the shelf.

SVS SB-1000 Subwoofer

If you have a passive subwoofer however, it’s still possible to enjoy a wireless connection with the addition of a wireless kit. This will allow your subs to connect to your system without cables running on the ground.

FAQ

How do I know if my subwoofer is active or passive?

You will know if your subwoofer is active or passive with the presence of an amplifier or receiver. If your subwoofer doesn’t include one, then it is a passive sub. If your subwoofer has one built-in amplifier or receiver, then it is an active or powered subwoofer.

Does an active subwoofer need an amp?

No, an active subwoofer does not need an amplifier. This is because to be considered an active or powered subwoofer, there is already a built-in amplifier. All the components in the active subwoofer are already optimized for easy use without the need to search for another amplifier.

Can you run a subwoofer without an amp?

Yes, you can run a subwoofer without an amp or amplifier. The amplifier is used to boost the low frequency sounds and bass range of your surround sound setup. If you have an active subwoofer, there is no need to purchase an external amplifier. However, a passive sub can still be used without an amplifier.

Conclusion

There is no clear winner between the passive vs active subwoofer comparison, since it’s all about your personal preference for your home theater system setup.

Our experts suggest the addition of a subwoofer to help reproduce low bass signal more accurately. Once you have more enhanced bass in your music, the mid range frequency will also improve. 

The main difference between these two types of subwoofers is the presence of an amplifier. If you want less hassle and only have one subwoofer, then the active one is the superior choice. For those who want more customizability down the line, the passive subwoofer will grant you that.

Polk T15 with tv and subwoofers

Want to boost the sound quality of your speaker or subwoofer? Then learn how to hook up your devices using two separate amplifiers here. It can offer deeper bass and better sound quality.  

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Writer

Willie Greer
Willie Greer
Willie Greer is the founder of The Product Analyst. A cinephile, he has made it a personal quest to achieve the awesomest home theater possible. He now shares what he has learned through the years on the site, and has enlisted the help of tech-savvy colleagues in providing more insight about today’s most sought-after gadgets.