The amplifier and crossover section (and in many cases the integrated DSP) can be matched to the tweeter and woofer, and even take into account the sonic characteristics of the enclosure, resulting in a speaker system with less distortion, more useable dynamic range, and better power consumption.
You may have heard such speakers referred to by two different labels: "powered" and "active." There is some overlap in the use of these terms, and not all manufacturers make a distinction between them. But technically speaking, a powered speaker is simply a speaker with an amplifier built in, likely with a passive crossover after the amplification stage. In other words, a powered speaker is functionally little different from having a separate amp and speaker cabinet, with the exception of the fact that they're contained in one box.
An active speaker, by contrast, relies on an active crossover and, in most cases, discrete amps for each driver, along with digital signal processing that might serve as a limiter or serve some other function.
Powered and active bookshelf speakers come in a variety of sizes. Larger offerings, like the JBL 308P MKII, can measures as much as 16.5 inches tall by 10 inches wide and 12 inches deep, which may put them out of the running for those looking for a more compact solution.
At the other end of the size spectrum, you'll find diminutive active speakers like the SVS Prime, which measures just 10.25 tall by 6 inches wide and 7.25 inches deep. There are even smaller powered speakers on the market, but none deliver the high-impact performance we've heard from the SVS Prime.
No matter their size, a good pair of powered or active bookshelf speakers can serve as the heart of anything from a desktop audio system for gaming, music, movies, and teleconferencing all the way up to a full-blown audiophile system in a dedicated two-channel listening room.
Supported by the recent additions of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity along with RCA, Phono, HDMI eARC, optical and digital inputs, these systems make for a wide range of use cases while being super easy to setup and operate. Some powered or active bookshelf speakers are packed with all manner of tweakability, but at the cost of ease of use. Some lean hard on plug-and-play functionality, but at the expense of connectivity.
There's no right or wrong approach, of course; it's all about finding the right active or powered speakers for your needs, which can be tough given the variety across this category. Hopefully, this guide will cut through some of the clutter. We've broken our picks out into four distinct categories—the best powered speakers for desktop systems, the best for wireless streaming, the best for audiophiles, and the best for content creators—but, of course, there is a lot of overlap. So be sure to read the entire guide to figure out which of these systems best fits your needs and preferences.