Active speakers combine all of the traditional components of a stereo system into a pair of speakers. The amplifier is built inside the speaker and it’s optimized to provide the best possible sound quality for that specific speaker. Most active speakers have a sufficient number of inputs for all of your playback devices and, in most scenarios, a pair of powered or active speakers require only a power source and a minimal number (if any) of cable connections.
The two biggest advantages of modern active speakers are 1) sound quality and 2) ease of use. An active speaker pair is able to deliver stereo sound in a way that popular Wi-Fi speakers, such as a single Sonos Play:5, simply cannot. The speaker-and-amp combo means that active loudspeakers have less moving parts; there’s no need for a separate receiver or an external amplifier, like you would need with passive bookshelf speaker system. And since most active speakers support both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth streaming, you can easily stream music using the service (Spotify, Tidal, Qobuz and Apple Music) you already use. Simply open your preferred music app, select the music and the source (your loudspeakers), and then press play.
Essentially, active speakers generally sound superior to traditional Wi-Fi speakers, and they’re just as simple and easy to control (there are a few active speakers, however, that don’t support wireless streaming). And with a multitude of inputs and connectivity options, they’ve way more versatile. In addition to streaming from your smartphone or laptop, it’s easy to connect most modern active speakers to your television or to your turntable, too.
Active loudspeakers won’t be perfect for everybody. They’re powered speakers, meaning they do require a power source, and aren’t portable. They’re notoriously powerful, so maybe not great for small rooms; and they’re more expensive thanks to there being more components inside each speaker. Active or powered loudspeakers also lock you into a “sound” that was selected by the designer based on all of the internal components (amplifier, DAC); unlike a passive loudspeaker system whose sonic flavor can be altered by changing the other components.
KEF released the LS50 Wireless II in late 2020 and they're essentially updated and better-sounding versions of the LS50 Wireless (released in 2018). They use the company's new proprietary Metamaterial Absorption Technology (MAT), which greatly reduces distortion. They have a new cone neck decoupler and motor system, which, again, helps eliminate distortion. The cabinet size has also been adjusted to give the speakers more bass. Finally, the LS50 Wireless II have adopted one of the best features from their smaller brethren, the KEF LSX, in that the two speakers don't have to be tethered together; this allows you to place the speakers further apart which is convenient, although it does mean that the speakers will sacrifice some audio quality.
In 2019, Bowers & Wilkins released the Duo as part of its Formation series, which also includes an all-in-one speaker, soundbar and wireless subwoofer. The Duo speakers take bits from the company's other high-end speakers; for example, they have the same carbon dome tweeter found in B&W’s 700 series and the Continuum cone driver from its 800 series. The other neat thing about the Duo is that, along with all its Formation speakers, they're are able harness leverage the company's new wireless mesh network technology (called Formation Wireless Technology) that enables them to stream up to 96/24-bit audio, which B&W claim is twice the fidelity of other high-end wireless speakers. Obviously, the price and look of these speakers might not be for everybody, but if you're looking for the best of the best in active speakers, these are certainly up there.
KEF introduced the LSX as a more affordable alternative to the award-winning LS50 Wireless, and for many music listeners, the smaller design may be a smarter buy. The LSX feature KEF’s signature Uni-Q driver array with a 4.5-inch midrange driver, and 0.75-inch aluminum dome tweeter which is powered by a 100-watt power amplifier inside each loudspeaker. The LSX can be set-up as a completely wireless system – meaning the two speakers don’t need to be wired together, like the LS50 Wireless, giving you more freedom to place them wherever you want around your room – but they can achieve higher resolution audio (up to 24-bit/192kHz) when tethered together. One aspect of the LSX that is somewhat glaring is the omission of an internal phono pre-amplifier, so be prepared to add your own if you want to listen to vinyl.
Released in 2021, the Q Active 200 are the company's first pair of active speakers. They can stream high-res audio (up to 32bit/192kHz) and are designed to compete with the likes of the KEF LS50 Wireless II. That said, the Q Active 200 are unique in a few key ways. First, the wired connections (such as HDMI, optical, RCA and line-in for a turntable) aren't into the rear of one of the speakers but built into a separate hub; this makes it easy to hide unsightly wires. And secondly, Q Acoustics designed them as stand-mounted speakers and developed a special "Tensegrity" stand to show them off and get them sounding best. The catch is that these special stands will cost you an extra $500.
Vanatoo has flown under the radar for a number of years with its Transparent One Encore active speakers; which are one of the best sounding active loudspeakers below-$1,000, but if you’re operating on a limited budget you need to pay close attention to their Transparent Zero desktop speakers which offer a lot more sound quality than you would expect for the price. The Transparent Zero support Bluetooth aptX, include USB, optical, and analog inputs, and 4 x 48-watt per channel class D digital amplifier. The 4-inch aluminum woofer, 4-inch passive radiator, and 1-inch soft dome tweeter offer a full-range presentation with surprisingly deep bass response considering the size of the cabinet. The angled-baffle makes them work well on desktops and bookshelves and that should appeal to students or people who work remotely.
Kanto is well known for its affordable active loudspeakers, and the TUK might just be its best. It has ribbon tweeters, which many higher-priced speakers have utilized for years, allowing them to deliver a superior level of detail and airiness. Each speaker has an AMT tweeter and a 5.25-inch aluminum midrange woofer, so in addition to playing rich, detailed audio – they also get loud; the TUK are particularly adept with electronic music, pop, and hip-hop. Kanto has wisely chosen to integrate a MM phono stage, USB DAC, headphone amplifier, and support for Bluetooth aptX HD making the TUK one of the most complete active loudspeaker packages available at any price. Pro tip: the optional stands should be considered mandatory. The TUK will appeal to anyone looking for a complete home or desktop system that comes with everything you need in the box to begin enjoying right away.
The Q Acoustics M20 HD is a bit of an outlier on this list because it's a wireless music system that doesn't have built-in Wi-Fi (meaning no AirPlay or Spotify Connect) like most other active speakers, but it does have built-in Bluetooth so it's still easy to stream music from your smartphone or computer. Other than that, the M20 HD is essentially a smaller version of the company's Q Active 200 speakers; it has similar features, such as Point to Point (P2P) cabinet bracing technology and support for high-resolution audio (up to 24bit/192kHz), and it has a number of analog connections (via optical and minijack). For the price, the M20 HD is a steal for people who are fine with Bluetooth-only streaming.
The AE1 are the one active speaker pair on this list that don’t support Wi-Fi and Bluetooth sources – you can’t stream music to them – but they have a huge sonic edge. They feature a full-range two-way design, with a rather robust 50-watt class A/B power amplifier in each loudspeaker. The AE1’s 5-inch woofer, and 1-inch metal dome tweeter have a directness about them that makes them sound far more authoritative than comparably priced systems. The AE1 offer transparency, detail, and impressive soundstage depth in a package that does not take up a lot of space. While you can connect sources to the AE1 directly and use its awkwardly-placed rear volume control, the better route is to connect the loudspeakers to an inexpensive pre-amplifier like the Schiit Audio Freya which will provide greater flexibility and more inputs. The AE1 may not offer the wireless flexibility of its rivals – but it beats almost all of them if sound quality is your biggest priority and don’t mind having to connect them to your playback sources.
With the Callisto 2C, Dali enters the active arena with a three-piece system (2 loudspeakers and Sound Hub) designed for stands or placed on a sturdy media credenza. Powered by a 250-watt class D power amplifier, the Callisto 2C’s 6.5-inch woofer, and unique tweeter array which consists of a 1-inch soft dome tweeter, and hybrid ribbon module can fill a large listening space with ease. The system produces an enormous soundstage with one of the smoothest sounding tweeters you’ll likely to hear. The Sound Hub – which is upgradeable, making this system somewhat format-proof for the foreseeable future– accepts digital and analog sources and transmits to the loudspeakers supporting up to 24-bit/96kHz playback. The system is also MQA-certified if you enjoy streaming from Tidal in that format. If you are looking for a full-range wireless active loudspeaker that can work with both music and movies, and you have a relatively large space to fill, the Callisto 2C might just be what you’re looking for.
(Note: The Callisto 2C cost $2,499/pair. However, you'll also need to purchase another component, either the Sound Hub ($899) or Sound Hub Compact ($499), which adds the wireless and analog connections necessary for the Callisto 2C to work as true modern active speaker system.)
The Fluance Ai61 is the company's newest pair of entry-level active speakers that are designed to partner with the company's turntables (must have a built-in preamp). The $300 bookshelf speakers have a built-in 120-watt amplifier and support a number of different connections, including RCA, Optical and USB. There's no Wi-Fi streaming (meaning no support for Spotify Connect or AirPlay 2), but they do have support for Bluetooth 5.0 so you can stream music straight from your smartphone or computer. Also, if the Ai61 speakers are too big for your needs, the Fluance Ai41 ($250) are essentially the same exact bookshelf speaker, just slightly smaller and more affordable. Both of Fluance's newest bookshelf speakers are available in a number of different finishes.
Audioengine’s A5+ Wireless speakers are exactly the same as company's A5+ speakers, only they have built-in Bluetooth and a 24-bit DAC, so you can stream high-resolution audio (Bluetooth aptX, SBC and AAC). The offer numerous inputs and connectivity options, so you can connect them to a turntable, receiver or desktop (as you them as super nice computer speakers). The downside is that they don't support Wi-Fi streaming and, if you're not going to use the Bluetooth streaming, you can pick up Audioengine’s several-year-old A5+ speakers and get the same audio quality for $100 less on Amazon.
The Audioengine A5+ Wireless are available in white or bamboo finishes, the latter being $50 more expenisve.