Tech advice: Active stereo speakers advantages

The latest range of flatscreen TVs look stunning. With larger, more detailed pictures and sleeker style, they just keep getting better. Sadly, not every aspect of TV performance has kept up. TV Cabinets that are just millimetres thick look fantastic but do nothing for speaker efficiency. This has meant that as TV screens get bigger and bolder, the average TV’s sound remains… well, average!

A quick and easy solution is to add a soundbar. It’s certainly something we’d recommend, as a soundbar ‘fills out’ the sound, giving a richer tone and greater sense of realism. In short, everything sounds much more like it does in real life. Premium soundbars also ‘steer’ the sound around your room for much more immersive audio. As good as they sound, however, there is an even better option to consider – active stereo speakers.

Active speakers usually look like a pair of standard speakers. The difference is they have amplification built-in. This means you can do away with a separate amp and go right ahead with plugging in your TV and other components – just as you’d do with a soundbar, in fact.

The question you’re probably asking is, why go for active speakers over a soundbar? Well, the main advantage is stereo imaging. Surround sound aside, what any speaker system attempts to do is recreate a soundstage. Imagine a stage in front of you and then place where all the individual performers are on that stage – or even off stage. If you close your eyes, you could point out each, individual performer onstage. Be it music or drama, everyone has a ‘place’ on the stage. This is what’s known as stereo imaging and it’s what active stereo speakers usually do so much better than soundbars.

Speaker and amplifier design also play heavily into the creation of a quality soundstage. (Image by audioengineusa.com)

The reason why active speakers image better comes down to two main factors. The first is that they are physically separated. Placing a speaker either side of your TV, rather than in front of it, gives a wider spread of sound. A wider spread of sound gives more space for each of those performers to ‘breathe’. It improves what’s known as the sound ‘separation’, making it easier to pick out and follow a particular instrument, singer or actor. Secondly, the shape of active speakers means they ‘push out’ the sound over the soundstage more effectively than soundbars. For the best sound imaging, speakers should be vertical and, preferably as thin as possible. Some of the speakers that do this best and deliver ‘holographic’ sound are very narrow, yet deep. Unfortunately for soundbars, they tend to be wide and shallow, meaning they just don’t image the sound as well.

Shaped better for staging the sound, active speakers are often less compromised in other respects, too. To allow a clear view of the screen, soundbars have to be low in height. This restricts the size of speaker driver units. The laws of physics dictates that the smaller the drive units, the smaller the sound. Ever wondered why so many soundbars come with a separate subwoofer? This is precisely why. Simply put, many soundbars can’t deliver a deep, full-range sound, without the assistance of a dedicated, boxy subwoofer. Most active speakers are different in that, just as with regular speakers, using larger drive units of 150mm – 200mm in diameter is easily possible. Ultimately, this gives active stereo speakers their deeper, more powerful sound. If you want even more bass, it’s still possible to add a subwoofer in most cases, of course.

In terms of pricing, active speakers tend to mirror soundbars. We have a wide range, with models from around £100, right up to some very special DALI Rubicon 6C’s that cost over £5000. Just as with soundbars, the sweet spot is around the £400 price point. This gets you an impressive choice, including models from premium brands such as, Klipsch and Monitor Audio. Spend a little more, however, and you could get something really special. Sub-£1000, one of our favourite pairs of active speakers have to be the KEF LSXs. Using KEF’s Uni-Q technology, the design places both speaker drivers on the same axis. With all the sound coming from a single point source on each speaker, you get super-precise sound with incredibly lifelike imaging. The sound is so immersive that you might be surprised that it comes from just two speakers. Although it’s personal taste, we also reckon the LSX speakers are also by far the best-looking speakers in their class – luxury Kvadrat textile wrap and all.

So there you have it: just some of the reasons why we’d suggest choosing active stereo speakers over a soundbar. As ever, we’d always recommend you trust your own ears and take a listen to the differences for yourself, so why not visit your local store for a demo. You can also visit our website to see the full range of models available. Trust your ears!

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