Active problems

June 14, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

I have always been enamored with the idea of building a state-of-the-art active monitor. Yup, what a great product that would be.

Only, there’s no room for customizing.

One of the things we as audiophiles do is tailor our sound systems to our tastes. If I am unhappy with the top end of my system I have a plethora of choices in amps and cables to change that top end.

Not so much with active loudspeakers.

So the challenge in an active speaker is getting something so flawless that no one pines for something better.

That’s certainly a tall order but one I believe is actually possible.

Maybe someday.

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34 comments on “Active problems”

  1. That’s true, one has two choices less at least (power amp and speaker cabling).

    For sophisticated setups with less need to compensate for flaws, imo the advantage of the matched active amps to the chassis (as well as additional customization options of the active crossover) overrule the missing power amp choice and even more relevant, even overrule the fact that a certain grade of power amp can’t be built into a speaker at all (heavily biased Class A, SET, OTL etc.), which imo is the main compromise.

    But I understand the hesitation of manufacturers, especially those who sell power amps themselves 😉 It’s honorable that you as one of them, think about active speakers at all.

  2. Paul, you continually ignore the fact that DEQX in Australia have been making digital crossovers for years, I’m very happy with mine, it does impulse response correction and frequency response correction along with user set parametric equalisers. They’ll be bringing out a new range later in the year.

    As you know I use Directstreams as my dacs.


  3. Through much of my audio ownership the standard audio set-up was source (T/T, CD, streamer), integrated amplifier and passive speakers. Not really changed in 40 years. The practical issue against active speakers for domestic use was always been size and weight of Class A/B amplification. Perhaps the leading UK brand of consumer active monitors, ATC, achieved a balance by using drivers with relatively high sensitivity (88-91dB/1m/1w) allowing a main amplifier of only 200w, which lose a bit of linearity at the bottom end. But it’s a formula that has worked. They only use Class A/B.

    Now that there is high quality Class-D amplification that is small, light, runs almost cold and is a lot more cost-effective, active speakers are a completely different proposition and are likely to increasingly dominate the audio market.

    I have 24 active speakers in my ceiling, with 75w Class D amplification, a complete wireless streaming system and lighting. They measure 4.56″ high and 3.65″ in diameter. They fit in the palm of my hand and are hifi quality. They run cold enough to require less than 1″ clearance from the floor above. You just can’t do that with A/B, you house would catch fire.

    So I must disagree. I think the reasons against consumer active speakers have been more practical, which has now changed with good Class D. One of the great advantages of active speakers is that the amplifiers are perfectly matched. Cables cannot improve the sound, they can only degrade it less, and speaker cables are the worst, so one of the great benefits of active speakers is no speaker cables.

    1. Hi Steven,
      Doesn’t ‘Naim’ make an amplifier with an internal active crossovers & three separate
      (treble, mid, bass) power amps in one box, or did I just have a wet dream recently?

      1. Martin, your brain has not yet turned to mush. Naim do an external active 3-way crossover. Ironically, when I moved to streaming in 2009 the first system I heard was Naim into 3-way ATC passive using the SNAXO crossover. There was a terrifying number of boxes involved, given each Naim amplifier has its own 24v power supply. I can’t imagine how much the Naim side would have cost.

        A good example of a bad dealer demo, as I might have liked the speakers (I didn’t), but the dealer knew from the outset that the power side was completely inappropriate for my budget, so listening to it was pointless.

        1. LOL…”Martin, your brain has not yet turned to mush.”
          …may I point out that there is still time 😉

          I’m sure that I saw something from Naim that had three
          separate sections (individual power amps) inside…I’m
          going to go & see if I can track it down again; but don’t
          hold your breath.

  4. If the listening room and passive loudspeakers are the weakest links in a stereo chain isn’t it a must to go for active loudspeakers with integrated DSP? You will have dedicated amp modules for each type of driver and no huge power losses and phase problems when using a single big amp where you need endless time for finding synergies by rolling amps, speaker cables and power cables. And for those who fear cabinet vibrations affecting sound quality you can offer “outboard” electronics. I would chose the speaker-version with digital input.

  5. Space for customization, or better space for playing. I am solving a dilemma. I’m looking for a way to improve my system within my budget, and as I’m to still going class better, it seems to end as all in one component (Marantz MODEL 40n). It will hopefully play better music, but what shall I play with?

  6. “Some Day Never Comes”

    As far as perfect that’s a tall order. There’s always the incremental step way which has been eluded to many times so far. If the thought process is to put All the electronics in the speakers to eliminate any interconnect wires then I’m out.

    1. If the intermediate thought process was to build a couple of smaller mono racks one for each speaker (say a new two way purpose designed speaker) that has a class D for the lower end and a smaller AB for the upper up end and then some sort of a sonically pure adjustable electronic crossover (dsp?) my interest would be peaked. Each rack could be designed to be isolated and fit under or just to the side of the speakers.

      Granted that doesn’t eliminate all the interconnects. It goes a long way to shortening speaker wires. Just wishful thinking….

  7. Paul, Please, before you do an active monitor can you finish the new Ted Smith DAC and and the Octave music server. Please, my world needs these more than an active monitor!

    Off topic: My June issue of HiFi News & Record Review finally arrived. This is the one that has the FR30 on the cover. Their opinion of the speaker – OUTSTANDING!
    You really nailed it, congratulations to the entire PS Audio team.

  8. Dear Paul, as a very happy owner of your excellent PSA DirectStream Power Plant 12 I‘am a very satisfied owner of the active monitors RL901K from Musicelektronik Geithain too. There’s enough space for personal adjustments. Therefore the guys from MEG have supplied the monitors with so called Room Compensation. You only have to open the backdoor by unscrewing 4 screws and then you‘ve access to a set of five adjustable resistors. So come on, who if not you is able to design and build a very superb active monitor? When I am on a classical concert I also can’t change the effects of room acoustics or hurry to the stage and ask for changing cables on a rock concert too. Kind regards from Germany Ronny

    1. I have nothing agaisnt active monitors and in fact we have designed several, with the latest being the heart of Octave Studio’s Control Room A.

      My problem with them is the market. For now, there’s only a very small market of people who want them in their homes. As we establish ourselves as speaker manufacturers and get accepted into the market, we will eventually play with some active monitors. But, for now, the aspen series will remain passive.

      1. There is a market, but it is probably under-supplied. The problem is that the point of high-end active systems is to employ extensive DSP. The Linn Exakt system is a good example, amazing DSP that took many years to evolve from a fairly basic active speaker using their own Class D power supplies and amplifiers, a system costs approaching $100,000. It’s a very long game plan, not just one product at a time.

      2. Do you explicitly use the term „monitors“ in connection with the active speaker idea, because you only see a meaningful market in the studio environment due to limited space for power amps and the general openness of the professional scene towards active concepts?

        May be a wise concept for a first step.

        I personally see different demands for active speakers in studio or lower cost Hifi environments vs. bigger active high end speakers in terms of full DSP/Class D use vs. DSP/AB or only AB use.

      3. Maybe your viewing angle is too small, Paul, concerning the market segments? I would agree that within the audiophile market of eternal tinkerers there is no demand. But as far as I can see the majority of young music lovers go for active wireless speakers and for active wireless headphones. I am pretty sure that traditional audio companies will never give up the “endless” optimization of classic multi-component audio chains with an infinite number of tweaking possibilities (staring with power regenerators to anti vibration platforms to all kind of exotic cable designs and external power supplies – not to mention most esoteric (snake-oil) accessories. And authority-bias and expectation-bias will always guarantee new turnovers. But I am pretty sure this niche will dramatically shrink – that why there are now Giga-buck systems out there to limit the decrease of turnovers. But shouldn’t stereo systems show a cost reduction as we see in other areas (see computer, TVs, etc)? The same problem of shrinking interest we face in the market for digital cameras with interchangeable lenses. The majority of photos is made with the help of smartphones with most sophisticated picture processing.

      4. It’s much easier to convince someone they need to upgrade their speakers then it is that their beloved amplifier is no longer needed. If you’re going to do active speakers might need to still keep the passive ones available.

  9. As other posters have shared above an active speaker with DSP has myriad adjustment. No need for it to be “perfect” for everyone.

  10. I’ve been running a custom set of Linkwitz Orions since 2006. Like most audiophiles, I still suffer from audio lust and appreciate the many fine products out there. But then I fire up my Orions and it all goes away. They really are my “forever” loudspeaker. I love what they do on voices and acoustic instruments. True magic to my ear. I’ve been to too many audio shows and have heard systems that only a Russian oligarch could afford. Nothing I hear makes me want to give up my Orions. Few visitors leave my home without envy.

    All of the Linkwitz designs use active crossovers. The current rev of the Linkwitz LX521 looks like something only an audiophile could love, but has no need of subwoofers, and never ceases to amaze. Last November the San Francisco Audio Society hosted a listening session of the LX521 at the home of Don Naples. More than one visitor was making plans to get into a set of the LX521.

    As others here have mentioned, class D amps make commercial active loudspeakers much more available. Most of your pro gear these days is powered as active systems because of this, and a lot of lower cost consumer gear is as well.

    1. Joe, I too am a Linkwitz Labs fan. I started with the Orions and now own the LX521.4 and time and again come away from audio demos of other systems thinking what I have is wonderful! Glad to hear there is another lucky guy out there with a set.

  11. Active, with DSP for room correction, on the mid-bass and sub-bass. Then whatever the audiophile chooses for midrange and tweeter. In my opinion this is the ideal setup – performance and choice.

  12. The fully active digitally controlled loudspeaker dream has already been realized, via the German made, DSP active wave focusing monitor, designed primarily for mastering studio use. It is the Kii Three speaker that Bob Katz, states is the most accurate and refined speaker he has ever used or heard.

    1. And again a “newcomer” (start-up company) in the audio business – as Grimm Audio or Devialet. Don’t expect real (!) innovations from traditional audio companies sticking to their proven business model – they mostly create pseudo-innovations. A similar situation was seen in turntable design where ELP Corp., Japan, released the laser turntable (initially developed by Finial, USA), a sacrilege for traditional manufacturers of turntables and tonearm and cartridges. Or just take Tesla for their sacrilege integrating batteries and an electric motor into a Lotus Elise – everything controlled by a single (!) central computer.

  13. Paul,
    Time to make PS Audio plate amps with DSP (i.e. miniDSP but with the PS amp design).

    I’m a diyer when it comes to speakers, currently use a miniDSPhd and bi-amp to a 3way speaker (use a passive for mid/tw beyma coax), but have built a full active with one of their plate dsp units- not bad, but IF ONLY PS Audio Amp design..

    1. I agree with your implied support/critique of MiniDSP. I think its ultimately just a matter of brining this technology to scale. If there is a point in the future where a company like MiniDSP is selling 10x the number of units, the cost to increase component quality or sophistication of the design likely becomes trivial. But, at present, for every one of you, there is an ocean of customers that would never consider any of the products MiniDSP offers.

  14. I just heard an interview with Jack Oclee-Brown, the guy that designed the Kef LS60… everything sounded pretty incredible for the price point. And, from what he said, there is quite a bit of customization that can take place just by changing settings within their app. He made it sound like they intentionally throttled-back the amount of available customization because they did not want to overwhelm customers with all the possibilities.

    Ironically: as DSP and basic computing technology continues to progress and becomes more mainstream within the HiFi community, I bet we will someday look back on separates and think their primary flaw was that they lacked the ability to be customized.

  15. I am not a fan of active speakers, simply because I did not spend the last two decades refining my system, buying, trading, replacing, refining, and ultimately getting to the point where my signal chain needs are met, to now chuck it out the window for some prepackaged off the shelf speaker matched amp pair. Yuk!

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