Common Audio Fallacies: “Powered Speakers Aren’t Hi-Fi Grade"

Audioengine A2+ Powered Speakers With internal DAC.  The best computer speakers ever made. $249 on iHi-Fi.com.

Audioengine A2+ Powered Speakers With internal DAC.  The best computer speakers ever made. $249 on iHi-Fi.com.

Some audio lovers may harbor a prejudice against any speakers that have internal amplification.  Is a categorical rejection of powered speakers justified?  Or does such a stance keep you from enjoying some great price/performance in hi-fi speakers?  This post explores the truth about powered speakers in today’s audio markets and also provides hot tips on getting started in computer audio.

When I was a redheaded, freckle-faced grade-schooler, my parents visited friends who shared their interest in Big Band music.  Mom and Dad were excited about how wonderfully real and lifelike swing-dance jazz sounded on carefully configured audio system based on a wire recorder as the source.  For them, dancing together in the nineteen-fifties was more fun and exciting when the music sounded more like live performances than their AM radio.

Jump to the mid-eighties.  The audio hobby had been in full swing for decades before personal computers began to gestate in California garages and corporate minds.  The first personal computer speakers that came out were designed compact and very cheap.  They required internal amplification to boost sound levels because primitive sound cards didn’t have the power to drive more than headphones.  

Cheap speakers and amps in a small format do not make good music, of course.  So as the PC juggernaut invaded companies, dorm rooms, and households worldwide, those crappy-sounding little plastic computer speakers spewing robotic voices became symbols of bad audio in the mass mind.

Powering speakers internally runs against the grain of classic “serious” component audio configuration where a turntable feeds an external preamp, then a separate amplifier, then speakers.  This system architecture originated to the benefit of audio gear suppliers and audio lovers alike.  An audio lover could improve their music in smaller, less expensive increments by upgrading specific sections when ready. Component suppliers could sell individual units when an audio lover was ready to upgrade a section.  

Although integrated consoles were available at times, the “component system” became the foundation of the audio hobby -- an unspoken expectation, if not a de-facto standard, for high fidelity.  Speakers were “supposed to be” separate from amplifiers and systems are “supposed to have” a preamp.  

From time to time, a bold and daring company has the audacity to make a true hi-fi grade speaker good enough to entice a buyer to leave behind both their speakers and amplifier at the same time.  Maybe even the preamp as well, depending on the situation.  Putting an amp inside doesn’t necessarily make speakers sound bad.  In some cases, it’s the best design approach.  Have you been drawn into false expectations about internally amplified speakers?

ATC SCM20ASLT Towers are active (powered) speakers.

ATC SCM20ASLT Towers are active (powered) speakers.

On the other side of the universe from wretched little computer speakers, ATC (Acoustic Transducer Company) is the very definition of high-end audio and, surprise -- a number of their speaker models are internally powered.  ATC is an ultra-high-end company that sells some of the best speakers ever made to some of the most discerning listeners ever born.  Their endorsements read like a who’s who of the professional music world including dozens of highly respected, successful, and notable career musicians, technicians, and producers. 

To produce the audio perfection they stand for, some of their designs encompass both the amplification and the transduction of the music signal into sound.  Some ATC speakers are full acoustic suspension designs, an unusual approach these days when most speakers are bass-ported to require less power and be producible at lower costs.  On their  website, take a look at the customer list.  It’s impossible to not be impressed.  

A rapid evolution called “computer audio” is well under way in yet another corner of the audio universe.  It was inevitable that powered computer speakers would grow up to blur the line between computer speakers and home audio systems as digital technologies emerged.  Now that digital tech has come to dominate and rule the professional audio world, honest-to-gosh high fidelity, powered “computer speakers” are coming out well under $1000 from forward thinking companies like Adam Audio and Audioengine.

Adam Audio makes some great-sounding professional studio monitors for well under $1000.

Adam Audio makes some great-sounding professional studio monitors for well under $1000.

The classic “serious audio” configuration has been transformed.  The LP turntable and its successor, the CD player, went away or at least moved aside to make room for digital sources.  The new standard configuration is simply a computer (or device) and good powered speakers.  No external amp.  No preamp in the mix.  And maybe a powered (very hi-fi) subwoofer gets included.  Of course this can coexist and mingle happily with remnants of formerly glorious old-school audio setups.

It’s simply no longer required to follow the old component audio scheme when high quality sound reproduction happens at around $500 as with the A5+ from Audioengine.  These speakers are the basis for my own very worthy home system.  They are satisfying successors to my former high-end tube audio components that drove passive speakers that were formerly considered advanced and exotic.  Not ATCs (I wish) but you get the idea.  Putting amps inside speakers doesn’t make them bad.  The A5+ speakers will do until I can afford some ATCs. 

Audioengine A5+ Powered Speakers have plenty enough power to drive even a larger room.  From $399 on iHi-Fi.com.

Audioengine A5+ Powered Speakers have plenty enough power to drive even a larger room.  From $399 on iHi-Fi.com.

Audioengine also engineered yet another astounding feat of powered speaker development, the A2+, (top photo above) which now includes a nice DAC bundled inside a powered "computer speaker" that knocked the socks off Stereophile Magazine's reviewer.  I don't recommend these for a main system but as a personal stereo or the best computer speakers ever made, they'll do just fine.  These are just the thing for a low-risk entry into the world of computer audio.

A lot has happened in home audio since the nineteen-fifties.  Let this be lose-an-audio-prejudice day.  Invite a pair of reasonably priced, yet truly hi-fi, powered speakers home for dinner.  Then brandy in the listening room.  Jazz vocals into the night.  You might even let them stay to make fabulous music as the soundtrack for the rest of your life.