What Are Powered Speakers?

Instead of connecting your source device to a stereo, connect powered speakers

To get audio from a media streamer, CD player, TV, PC, or another audio source device so you can hear it, it must be connected to either a stereo amplifier, stereo or home theater receiver, or "powered speakers."

Klipsch ProMedia 2.1 Channel THX Certified Powered Speaker System
Klipsch ProMedia 2.1 Channel THX Certified Powered Speaker System. Image courtesy of Amazon.com

How Speakers Work in a Nutshell

Speakers make sound by vibrating. They need the power to vibrate the speaker's surface at a level that will move enough air to produce sound waves that we can hear. The speakers we connect to our AV receiver or stereo amplifiers are passive speakers that require power from the amplifier to which they are connected. Without connecting to an amplifier, the speaker drivers don't have the power to vibrate the speakers and reproduce the sound.

Powered vs. Passive Speakers

Traditional speakers are referred to as "passive speakers". They require power (in addition to the audio information) to be fed to them from an external source (such as an amplifier or home theater receiver) to produce sound. On the other hand, powered speakers. have their own amplifier built-in to provide power to the speaker. This means all you need is an audio source signal to produce sound.

When you connect a source to these speakers the music will come through the speakers at a volume that can be controlled and loud enough to hear without the use of an additional external amplifier.

Powered speakers usually have their own volume controls, and sometimes bass/treble controls.

However, instead of traditional speaker wire used in passive speakers (which supply both power and the audio signal, powered speakers connect to its music source using a "line input", such as the red and white, right and left cables used to connect the sound from a CD player, TV or component to an amplifier or home theater receiver.

You might find that powered speakers that are designed to connect to a computer will only have headphone mini-connection (3.5mm) and not the auxiliary line-in interconnect ports. For these speakers, you will need adapter cables that have to interconnect red and white cables on one end and a headphone (mini) jack on the other end.

Amazon Basics RCA to Mini (3.5mm) Stereo Audio Adapter Cable
Amazon

In addition, some higher-end powered speakers also feature digital optical inputs, which provide better sound from source devices that also include this type of connection option.

Digital Optical Cable Tip and Connection Example
Images by Robert Silva

Select Powered Speakers are sold in matched pairs. One speaker will house the input connections and amplifier for both speakers and connects to the second speaker via a proprietary or traditional passive connection.

Edifier R1700BT Powered Speaker Set
Edifier

Powered Speakers and Wireless Connectivity

Another use for powered speakers is in wireless speaker systems. In this type of setup, instead of connecting audio cables from your source device to the powered speaker, a transmitter connects to your source device (provided with the wireless speaker package). The transmitter then sends any outgoing audio signals from the source directly to the targeted wireless speaker(s), which have their own built-in amplifiers as required, which in turn produces the sound.

Also, in the portable speaker category, the increased use of Bluetooth and other wireless technologies allow compatible devices, such as smartphones and tablets, to transmit music wirelessly to a powered speaker that has a Bluetooth or other type of compatible wireless receiving capability built-in, such as AirPlay, DTS Play-Fi, Yamaha MusicCast, Denon HEOS.

MartinLogan Crescendo X Wireless Speaker
MartinLogan

Powered Speakers In Place of a Stereo or Home Theater Receiver

There are advantages to using powered speakers instead of a stereo or AV receiver. When you connect your audio source directly to powered speakers, you don't need to walk over and turn on the stereo or receiver. Instead, you can start music playing immediately from the controller, or, in some cases, a controller app for iPhone or Android devices. Also, in the case of wireless speakers, you don't have all that connection cable clutter.

Using Powered Speakers With a Stereo or Home Theater Receiver

Despite the advantages of using powered speakers in place of a Stereo or Home Theater Receiver, it may be practical to connect them to a receiver in some cases, especially if you have a lot of audio sources connected to the receiver. Depending on the brand/model of the receiver, you may be able to send audio from one or all of the sources connected to your stereo or home theater receiver to a powered speaker.

You can't connect a powered speaker to traditional speaker connections on a stereo or home theater receiver, but there is a workaround.

If the stereo or home theater receiver has preamp outputs for either the main/surround channels or Zone 2 functionality, and your powered speaker has either an RCA or 3.5mm input (requires adapter), you can connect them to a receiver's preamp or Zone 2 outputs.

Onkyo TX-NR696 Home Theater Receiver Zone 2 Line Out
Onkyo USA

In addition, although you can't connect a wireless powered speaker directly to a stereo or home theater receiver, using the same preamp or 2nd Zone outputs, you can connect a Bluetooth transmitter to the receiver and stream music to a compatible Bluetooth speaker.

If you have a different type of wireless powered speaker, such as Sonos, Amazon Echo, or Google Home, select stereo and home theater receivers have the ability to stream music to those also, controllable by voice and/or a compatible smartphone app.

It's also very common to use a wireless powered subwoofer with a home theater receiver. The subwoofer provides a transmitter than can connect to the receiver's subwoofer preamp output.

Klipsch R-10SWI Wireless Subwoofer with Transmitter
Klipsch

Price, Configuration, and Quality

As with all speakers, the price of powered speakers varies with speaker quality. You may be familiar with powered speakers that connect to a computer that can run anywhere from $10 to $99 for a basic speaker or system for use with a smartphone, laptop, or PC to hundreds (or thousands) of dollars for higher-end systems that are more applicable to the home theater environment.

Powered speakers (whether wired or wireless) can some as a single unit designed for portable use, a basic two-channel configuration for use with for a PC or modest setup, high-end two-channel setups, or in 5.1 channel configurations that can deliver a more surround sound type of listening experience for higher-end PC gaming or home theater setups.

Just as with traditional speakers, along with price and configuration, the sound quality of powered speakers varies widely. Those made for portable or desktop listening applications typically provide basic sound quality, as do many Bluetooth or powered smart speakers. However, there are powered speakers available designed for series music listening (often referred to as powered monitors) that are used in recording studios, and homes by serious music or home theater fans.