Are Bookshelf Speakers Active Or Passive? Facts to Know!

Geek Musician is reader-supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through our links

Bookshelf speakers are among the most versatile of all speaker types available. This is because they come in different varieties and can be used with many different audio systems. In addition to these, they can be configured in multiple ways as well. Due to this, bookshelf speakers have become very popular.

Despite their popularity, quite a number of people are unsure as to whether bookshelf speakers are active or passive. Thus, I took it upon myself to research this subject. After hours of researching this, I have found the answer. Read along to find the answer to this and more.

Bookshelf speakers can be either active or passive. Active bookshelf speakers have internal amplifiers and power supplies that enable them to receive direct audio. On the other hand, passive bookshelf speakers must be connected to an external amplifier so that they can receive amplified audio from the external amplifier.

What are Bookshelf Speakers?

Bookshelf speakers are speakers that are primarily designed to rest on elevated surfaces like shelves, on top of tables, and on other surfaces apart from the floor. There are lots of speaker manufacturing brands that produce bookshelf speakers. Due to this, there are slight variations in the bookshelf speakers you see on the market.

That notwithstanding, all of these bookshelf speakers are functionally the same. Bookshelf speakers are made to be highly versatile and, depending on the model, can be used for almost any audio purpose. They can be used for many applications.

These speakers can be incorporated into full audio systems, home theater systems, and mixing studios. They can also be used for gaming applications, or in a simple system for playing background music.

There are many different configurations of bookshelf speakers. That is why bookshelf speakers are available in multiple sizes, capacities, outputs, and power levels.

Bookshelf speakers can be active or passive. Due to this, almost every brand that produces bookshelf speakers has both passive and active models. Bookshelf speakers operate in the same way as any other speaker type. Just like every speaker, bookshelf speakers must receive an audio signal as input.

This input must be of a compatible signal type for the speaker. In addition to all these, the speaker must receive power to function.

The good news is, both active and passive bookshelf speakers are widely available and are capable of being integrated into an existing audio system or deployed as stand-alone speakers for a new system. That is why they are used extensively in the audio industry.

The Differences Between Active and Passive Bookshelf Speakers

All passive and active speakers operate in this same way. The only significant difference is that passive speakers receive the necessary audio signal and power from an external amplifier whiles active speakers have an onboard amplifier and can receive signals directly.

Active bookshelf speakers have built-in audio amplifiers. Due to this, they can receive line-level audio signals and amplify the signal to speaker level internally. These active bookshelf speakers can receive input from almost any audio source and do not need to be connected to an external amplifier.

What this means is, active bookshelf speakers can receive an audio signal directly from audio sources, such as a computer, home audio system, audio interface, or even instruments if they are compatible. These speakers can receive input from almost any audio source and do not need to be connected to an external amplifier.

Another point is, active bookshelf speakers are individually powered. Every active bookshelf speaker must be plugged into its power outlet. By contrast, passive bookshelf speakers do not plug into individual power outlets and do not have built-in amplifiers. They have no integrated hardware other than speaker cones and drivers.

These passive bookshelf speakers must first be connected to an external amplifier that receives the audio from the signal source. The amplifier then amplifies the audio signal to the speaker level and sends that signal to the speaker via stereo speaker connections.

This amplifier unit also serves as the power to passive bookshelf speakers. Thus, an external amplifier powers passive speakers and controls the speaker’s volume, and levels.

What this means is, in a setup involving a passive bookshelf speaker, the speakers in the configuration serve as only outputs in the audio system.

How to Tell If Your Bookshelf Speakers Are Active Or Passive

Passive and active bookshelf speakers can appear identical when you observe them from the front. In most cases, active and passive speakers can be of the same size and have the same number of drivers. Due to this, they may show no indication of whether they are passive or active when you first set eyes on them.

Therefore, how can you tell if your bookshelf speakers are active or passive? If you have a set of bookshelf speakers and are unsure if they are active or passive, what are some of the things you can look out for to help you identify whether they are active or passive?

There are several ways to tell the difference between active and passive bookshelf speakers. However, the easiest external clue is to check whether the speaker has a power socket or a direct power input.

This is because passive speakers do not come with an internal power supply whiles active speakers do. Therefore, if the speaker has a plug for a kettle cable or another form of power cable, it is an active speaker.

Apart from what I have mentioned above, there are other ways of distinguishing between active and passive speakers. Therefore, if you intend to go in for a bookshelf speaker, you should look out for the following features;

Volume and/or Gain Control Dials

Active bookshelf speakers usually have volume and/or gain control dials. These volume and gain control dials are meant for regulating the level of sound outputted by the speaker. Unfortunately, passive bookshelf speakers do not come with this volume and gain control dial on them.

Multiple Audio Inputs and Connections to External amplifiers

Active bookshelf speakers usually have multiple audio inputs that accept line-level audio signals. On the other hand, most passive bookshelf speakers do not come with multiple audio inputs. To identify the type of speaker, you must assess the inputs for the speaker.

A passive speaker will always have a speaker cable input that serves as a connection to an external amplifier. This can be a positive and negative terminal or a speaker level ¼” input.

Active speakers do not have these inputs, as they receive line-level audio input from a standard ¼” audio cable or instrument cable, a 3.5mm audio cable, or even an XLR cable. Active bookshelf speakers have no connection to an external amplifier.

Power Function Indicator lights

Active bookshelf speakers have a power function indicator light that senses a connection to an electrical supply unit and the operation of the speaker. Passive bookshelf speakers have no power function indicator light.


Bookshelf speakers are available as either active or passive speaker units. Passive bookshelf speakers require an external amplifier unit to power them, as well as send audio signals. Without this unit, they will not function. Active bookshelf speakers come with a built-in speaker unit and do not need external amplification.

Neither speaker type is necessarily better than the other. Both speaker types have their place and are useful and in the proper configuration. It is essential to understand the speakers you have to get the most from them. Therefore, take the time to explore your speaker and the possible configurations you can achieve with them.