Passive Bi-amping

DonH50

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I first heard the term “passive bi-amping” a couple of years ago on an audio forum. I was responding wrongly to a question about bi-amping because the concept of “passive” bi-amping was new to me. When I found out what was meant, I was a little perplexed as to why anyone would do it! Seems like a marketing ploy to me… Since the subject keeps appearing, I thought it worthwhile to express my thoughts on the matter.

Bi-amping to me has always implied a line-level crossover between the preamp and power amplifiers. That way, the power amplifiers are used only in a limited frequency range, and their outputs applied to the appropriate speaker driver with no (or limited) passive crossover components. Eliminating the speaker system’s passive crossover and connecting the amplifiers directly to the drivers can improve the damping factor and allows much more flexibility in crossover design. Of course, not all of us are equipped to redesign our speaker’s crossovers. When I used bi- (tri-, or more-way) amplified systems I generally followed the manufacturers’ recommendations.

Many pro systems are designed for this but fewer home systems. Furthermore, I have noticed not all systems treat those terminals on the back the same way. In fact, my limited experience with a handful of systems indicates the consumer speaker’s high and low terminals rarely bypass the internal crossover; they just connect to the low- and high-pass filter sections, not directly to the drivers. For most consumers, this is probably good, but in my mind defeats the purpose of using multiple amps and electronic (passive or active) crossovers. Of course, with passive bi-amping it makes sense, since there needs to be filtering somewhere before the drivers.

Passive bi-amping does not utilize line-level crossovers; instead, two power amps are driven full-range into each speaker’s high and low terminals. The crossover (technically now split into a LPF and HPF) inside the speaker provides the filtering (“splitting”) of signals appropriate to each driver. The amps thus still provide a full-range signal, but the speaker’s crossover rejects the out-of-band signals to each driver.

A few key points:

  1. Each amplifier requires the same voltage drive as a single amplifier since they each have the same signal. There is no voltage headroom benefit.
  2. Because the load (speaker) is essentially an “open” in the unused frequency band, less current output is required from each amp. For example, the bass amp drives the woofer, but there is essentially no high-frequency current since the crossover “blocks” the HF energy. The opposite is true for the HF amp; the voltage swing is the same as a single amp, but there is almost no LF current so the net power per amp is less. Of course, this could potentially cause stability issues with the amp. Higher-order crossover networks may load the out-of-band frequencies to reduce their input into the drivers, increasing power dissipation the amps (which are driven full-range in a passive bi-amp system).
  3. There is no net system power increase at the speakers assuming the amps have the same voltage rails (e.g. inside an AVR or multichannel amplifier with the same power voltage rails to all amps). If you had a 100 W amp before, passive bi-amping does not give you 200 W to the speaker. You have split the load into two frequency bands, but the net power is the same to the speaker. That is, 100 W to the lows and 100 W to the highs is the same as having a 100 W amp that covers the entire frequency range. It is not the same as driving the speaker with a 200 W amplifier; to increase the power, you need to increase the voltage rails.
  4. In fact, there is more power lost, since the amps are not 100% efficient. That is, it actually takes more energy from the power supply to passively bi-amp than if you used a single amp. This is also true for active bi-amping, but in that case we can choose lower-power amps for the highs (which rarely need the same power as the lows) and realize net power savings. That does not happen with (typical) passive bi-amping.
  5. There is no damping factor improvement over a single amp since the speaker crossovers are still in-circuit. One of the benefits of active bi-amping is direct connection from amp to driver, providing better driver control; this is not true in passive bi-amping. The lossy, passive high-power internal speaker crossovers must remain in place else out-of-band energy wil be applied to the drivers (causing at least distortion and quite likely destruction). This defeats one of the main reasons for bi-amping.
  6. There is no longer electrical interaction among drivers with passive (or active) bi-amping. (There may still be mechanical coupling if the drivers are not isolated from each other.) That is, if the woofer starts to distort the input signal through electromechanical forces, it no longer modulates the HF amp’s output. One plus for bi-amping, active or passive.
  7. If the amps share a power supply, as do most AVRs and many (most?) multichannel amps, then modulation between high and low amps can still occur through the power supply. This can also happen with active bi-amping, although separate amps are the norm in the pro world. At least when I have done it…
  8. There may be some distortion reduction since power output is lessened in the amps. I suspect this is not significant, but it should happen due to the lower current draw. The catch is that the voltage swing of each amp is unchanged, so any distortion related to voltage swing is not changed. Only distortion components depending on output current may be reduced. That is design-dependent, but since most amps are primarily voltage-mode amps, I suspect any distortion reduction is small.
  9. You have two amps now so presumably noise is a little higher since you have two uncorrelated noise sources. At the speaker outputs I suspect it’s a wash since only a reduced frequency band gets through the drivers to hear.
  10. Thermally it is a loss since no amp is 100% efficient. There is always a little “waste” power that gets turned into heat, both standing bias current (especially if not class D amps) and losses through the components in the amp. Thus passive bi-amping will cause your AVR/amp to run hotter than if using a single amp (assuming unused channels). It is worth noting that amplifiers are typically most efficient at maximum output; the HF amp is probably loafing most of the time and thus wasting power and generating heat.
So, there are some potential benefits, but I suspect they are inaudible (I have not tried passive bi-amping so cannot say). And a lot of drawbacks. The major benefit is mostly mental, IMO; users can now use their “extra” amp channels. Whether this benefits anyone other than the electric company I cannot say, but I strongly suspect not…

I did simulate a passively-bi-amped system just for grins. I used a simple first-order (single LC) crossover at 1 kHz and modeled the speakers with ideal 8-ohm resistors. I assumed 80 V rails (theoretical rails for a 100-W amplifier) and drove a relatively small signal into the speakers (1 Vpk at 100 Hz, 0.1 Vpk at 10 kHz). In the schematic below, the top is the single-amp system, and the bottom the passively bi-amped system. There is an input stage at left, combining the 100 Hzand 10 kHz signals to drive the amps, E1 – E3. (SPICE purists will note I did not need the dependent sources for this, but it makes the picture easier to follow.) I ran the simulation for 400 ms to allow the RMS power calculations to reach their final values.


Schem..JPG

The top plot shows the input signal; the “fuzz” is the 10 kHz signal riding on the 100 Hz tone. The second plot shows all the speaker voltages; note the woofer and tweeter signals are identical for the two systems as desired. Since I used only a first-order network, there is a little modulation of the tweeter by the low-frequency signal and vice-versa.

plots..JPG

The third plot from the top shows the amplifiers’ average output powers. The single amp (P1) outputs 63.12 mW; the bi-amp system’s amps output 62.5 mW (P2, woofer) and 8.84 mW (P3, tweeter). Note that superposition does not apply with power, and P1 does not equal P2+P3. The extra power? Lost, wasted…

Looking at the power actually delivered to the drivers, the woofer (P1W, P2W) receives 61.89 mW and the tweeter (P1T, P2T) 1.239 mW for both systems (identical as expected). The power dissipation of the amplifiers, assuming 80 Vpp power rails, is 7.11 W for the single amp (Pd1), 7.04 W for the woofer amp (Pd2), and 1.00 W for the tweeter amp (Pd3). As expected, using two amplifiers costs a little power. This also highlights the inefficiency of amplifiers with relatively low output power. Unfortunately for our power-mad egos, average output is more often in the 100 mW to few Watt range than anything like 100 W.

FWIWFM - Don
 
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fas42

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From my experience it makes sense as something that will achieve "better" sound then just the single amp. Most power supplies are a long way from being perfect, and most amplifying circuits are susceptible to power supply modulation. If the latter were not true, then passive bi-amping would make little difference but it obviously does for a lot of people, so it's one reasonable way of getting around the some of the deficiencies of their equipment ...

Frank
 

DonH50

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Unless the amps have separate supplies, supply modulation is still a problem with passive bi-amping... For me, "obviously does for a lot of people" is very subjective; I have no way of proving or disproving any of that, not enough sampling.
 

fas42

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I think in the majority of multi-amp systems there would always be a level of local bypassing in every amplifier module. My experience is that high frequency glitches in supplies do the most damage, and of course a capacitor in exactly the right position in a circuit is worth 10 further away in the main power supply bypassing, as far as high frequencies are concerned. Many amplifiers have great PSRR, so long as you don't check how they perform at those nasty upper frequencies!

Frank
 

amirm

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Great article as always Don. Like you, I had a double take when I first heard about passive bi-amping. I like that the distortion from one amp doesn't bleed into other as it is easy to create harshness induced by the lack of drive for the woofer. But lots of other benefits are left on the table as you mention.
 

puroagave

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i first heard of passive bi-amping from Richard Vandersteen, about the time bi-wiring, tri-wiring, etc was becoming popular in British speakers (late '80s?). back in the day, another adaptation i recall from steve McCormack when the Mod Squad ws still around, was to use two stereo amps with a y-adapter at the input effectively creating a mono amp for each speaker but with their separate channels driving the low and mid-high frequencies separetly - a configuration Richard recommended on the Vandersteen model 4 which was his flagship at the time. He was one of the first US designers to completey separate crossover circuits for each driver.
 

wgscott

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Would there be any benefit to active bi-amping (i.e., with an active crossover) while leaving the passive crossovers in the speakers in place?

It seems that is, in essence, what one does with some of the velodyne subs that have speaker level input and output.
 

Phelonious Ponk

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Don it would be great if, some time, you could do a breakdown like this for active biamped systems. I have come across some explanation of the benefits I clearly hear, but none as clear and methodical as the above.

Tim
 

Vincent Kars

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Funny, being totally unfamiliar with the pro-world, bi-amping is using 2 amps to drive a passive speaker for me. When reading an article by a pro about bi-amping it always take some time before I realize this is about using an active cross-over.

Likewise the phrase “passive bi-amping” is new to me. But very apt.

Any thought on a typical audiophile issue as vertical or horizontal (passive) be-amping?

5. There is no damping factor improvement over a single amp since the speaker crossovers are still in-circuit. One of the benefits of active bi-amping is direct connection from amp to driver, providing better driver control; this is not true in passive bi-amping.

Might it be that there is a slight improvement because driving 1 speaker over a low or high pass filter is a less complex load for the amp than driving 2 speakers over a high + low pass filter
 

DonH50

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Would there be any benefit to active bi-amping (i.e., with an active crossover) while leaving the passive crossovers in the speakers in place?

It seems that is, in essence, what one does with some of the velodyne subs that have speaker level input and output.

You don't get the fine driver control (higher damping factor), and have to worry about interaction among active and passive crossovers, but the other benefits apply as in the opening post. If there is an additional passive crossover in the sub, you may gain some by not sending lower frequencies to the mains than they can handle (there is typically no roll-off on the bottom end in the speaker itself other than acoustic/mechanical).
 

DonH50

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Funny, being totally unfamiliar with the pro-world, bi-amping is using 2 amps to drive a passive speaker for me. When reading an article by a pro about bi-amping it always take some time before I realize this is about using an active cross-over.

Likewise the phrase “passive bi-amping” is new to me. But very apt.

Any thought on a typical audiophile issue as vertical or horizontal (passive) be-amping?

Might it be that there is a slight improvement because driving 1 speaker over a low or high pass filter is a less complex load for the amp than driving 2 speakers over a high + low pass filter

I have to check the context now whenever I see anything about "bi-amping".

Horizontal vs. Vertical amps: If you use one amp per side you have better channel isolation and any power modulation is "all together" with the signal. You can also place the amp physically close to the speaker and use very short cables from amp to speaker. If you use one amp to power bass channels and one to power highs, there would be less modulation of highs by lows (and vice versa) through the power supply (etc.) In an active system you can also use a smaller amp for the highs. I have done it both ways and am not sure there's a clear winner, but sonically most (including me) prefer to use a big honkin' amp on the bass and smaller, "smoother" amp on the highs. The most popular combo (in the audiophile world) that comes to mind is a SS or hybrid bass amp and tube mid/upper amp. That is what I used to do with my Maggies.

It is possible the load is "easier" on the respective amp channels due to separating the low and mid/high impedance variations. That would be quite speaker- and amplifier-dependent, natch.
 
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DonH50

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I think in the majority of multi-amp systems there would always be a level of local bypassing in every amplifier module. My experience is that high frequency glitches in supplies do the most damage, and of course a capacitor in exactly the right position in a circuit is worth 10 further away in the main power supply bypassing, as far as high frequencies are concerned. Many amplifiers have great PSRR, so long as you don't check how they perform at those nasty upper frequencies!

Frank

True, PSRR and CMRR could be better at high frequencies (where I agree they tend to fall). As I said, I have always used separate amps in the sound reinforcement arena...
 

DonH50

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Don it would be great if, some time, you could do a breakdown like this for active biamped systems. I have come across some explanation of the benefits I clearly hear, but none as clear and methodical as the above.

Tim

Active bi-amping uses a line-level crossover (which can be active or passive) to separate the frequency bands before the power amps. This allows the crossovers in the speakers to be bypassed and the amps to be connected directly to the drivers. Individual amplifiers can be optimized for each frequency band. A more powerful amp is often used for the bass, and a lower-power design for the mid/high range (which typically requires much less power). This also allows users to choose the “flavor”” of amp desired, e.g. SS class AB (or D) for tight bass and lots of power in the low-range amp, and a tube or hybrid design, perhaps class A, for the upper frequencies.

Some points to consider:
  1. Amplifier power can be optimized for the frequency band, providing appropriate headroom without wasting energy. There is no more power gain than with a passive system, but power can be distributed more appropriately since each amp carries only a limited frequency band instead of running full bandwidth.
  2. Without the passive speaker crossover in series between the amp and speaker (driver), driver control (damping factor) is improved, power loss in the crossover is eliminated, and impedance is generally more predictable/controlled.
  3. You do need more amplifiers, which means more space, potentially more waste power and heat, more cables/interconnects, and of course you need a crossover (again, line-level, active or passive). Matching the “sound” of the amps to each other and to the speaker can be a challenge; you probably do not want a drastically different sound in the two frequency bands (a SET mid/high amp and high-wattage SS monoblock does not strike me as a good match, though I am sure it has been done; it also depends on the speaker design, of course).
  4. The crossover (typically) provides great flexibility, allowing users to select and optimize crossover frequencies, slopes, phase, level, etc. Without the trade-offs of high-power passive components the speaker design can be optimized and interaction among drivers minimized. High-order slopes are relatively easy to realize, and an active line-level crossover adds buffer amps and enables fine control of crossover parameters not possible with a fixed in-speaker crossover. This implies having the knowledge and equipment to adjust and optimize the crossover…
  5. There is no electrical interaction among drivers with active (or passive) bi-amping. (There may still be mechanical coupling if the drivers are not isolated from each other.) That is, if the woofer starts to distort the input signal through electromechanical forces, it no longer modulates the HF amp’s output; they are separate amps.
  6. If the amps share a power supply, then modulation among channels can still occur through the power supply. If discrete monoblocks are used for all channels, this is a non-issue. If stereo amps are used, you must choose to use an amp per side or one amp for lows and another for highs. A single amp per side pretty much eliminates crosstalk between L/R channels, but since you’ll have to size the amp for the largest signal (bass), one channel will be run very lightly. You also lose the ability to select high and low amps for “taste”. You gain the ability to use very short speaker cables by placing the amps near the speakers. Using separate high and low amps allows power optimization and selection for sonic “taste” in each band and is probably the more common approach.
  7. Again, there may be some distortion reduction since the amps are not required to handle full-range signals (and drivers). And again, I suspect this is a minor matter. However, it may be arguably better with active bi-amping since the amps no longer need to handle the entire frequency band and signal levels, eliminating some of the potential for distortion caused by high-level lows modulating low-level highs.
  8. You again have two amps now so presumably noise is a little higher since you have two uncorrelated noise sources. At the speaker outputs I suspect it’s a wash since only a reduced frequency band gets through the drivers to hear.
  9. Thermally, active bi-amping allows you to utilize a lower-power mid/treble amp, so power loss and thermal issues (heat) are less a concern than with passive bi-amping, which almost requires matched amplifiers (since all amps handle the full signal band).
To my mind, the ability to refine the crossover network and eliminate the passive crossovers are the biggest benefits to active bi-amping, with optimizing the amplifier choices close behind.

As always, FWIWFM - Don
 
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Robh3606

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The crossover (typically) provides great flexibility, allowing users to select and optimize crossover frequencies, slopes, phase, level, etc. Without the trade-offs of high-power passive components the speaker design can be optimized and interaction among drivers minimized. High-order slopes are relatively easy to realize, and an active line-level crossover adds buffer amps and enables fine control of crossover parameters not possible with a fixed in-speaker crossover. This implies having the knowledge and equipment to adjust and optimize the crossover…

Hello Don

Are speaking about Digital Speaker Controlers in this case. The only analog crossovers I am familiar with where you can readily change out crossover slopes and frequencies are either card based or jumper/switch bassed and I don't think any of them tackle phase. If there are analogs out there that have that kind of flexabillity could you please share them.

Thanks Rob
 

microstrip

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Don,

As my speakers (electrostatic SoundLabs are not very efficient and have a complicated load - impedance varies between 90 and 1 ohm, with large phase angle variation) and allow bi-wiring, I have used them in by-amping for some time. The amplifiers were two conrad johnson premier 350 and there was a significant difference in sound between using a stereo amplifier or bi-amping with two amplifiers. Unhappily I never tried using just one channel of each stereo in a dual mono configuration and one should also consider I am not using a typical speaker.

It seems to me that a an immediate consequence of bi-amping will be that the currents flowing in each amplifiers will be lower, implying that power supply requirements for each amplifier will change and thermal effects due to power will also be lower. We also know that the distortion spectrum of amplifiers changes a lot with impedance - may the different loads that each amplifier sees in bi-amp mode also have a contribution.
 

DonH50

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Hello Don

Are speaking about Digital Speaker Controlers in this case. The only analog crossovers I am familiar with where you can readily change out crossover slopes and frequencies are either card based or jumper/switch bassed and I don't think any of them tackle phase. If there are analogs out there that have that kind of flexabillity could you please share them.

Thanks Rob

Now, digital, yes. There are quite a few analog units that offer great flexibility in crossover frequency and gain settings, fewer with slope control, and I am not sure I have seen any with phase control (in days gone by I used an analog all-pass filter to change phase, and there were a few commercial units that offered that control). I don't have a list but did a search a few months ago. I ended up getting a donated dbx unit from mep that allows me to vary crossover frequency and gains but not slope; I did find units that offered everything but phase control but do not recall them offhand. It was a short list, and some were pretty expensive (for me, anyway). I'll (or you'll) have to dig up the threads in which I discussed my crossover search.
 

DonH50

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Don,

As my speakers (electrostatic SoundLabs are not very efficient and have a complicated load - impedance varies between 90 and 1 ohm, with large phase angle variation) and allow bi-wiring, I have used them in by-amping for some time. The amplifiers were two conrad johnson premier 350 and there was a significant difference in sound between using a stereo amplifier or bi-amping with two amplifiers. Unhappily I never tried using just one channel of each stereo in a dual mono configuration and one should also consider I am not using a typical speaker.

It seems to me that a an immediate consequence of bi-amping will be that the currents flowing in each amplifiers will be lower, implying that power supply requirements for each amplifier will change and thermal effects due to power will also be lower. We also know that the distortion spectrum of amplifiers changes a lot with impedance - may the different loads that each amplifier sees in bi-amp mode also have a contribution.

Tube amps and difficult loads, I can see why even passive bi-amping would help. I consider that a special case, and a good one! I have done similar with various 'stats through the years, but always had a crossover before the power amps.
 

JackD201

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My problem with active crossovers is that as they say, they aren't made equal. I used a slew of active crossovers in my days in sound reinforcement. Some were better than others and that's true for both analog and digital active XOs. While I can't deny the lack of efficiency in a passive bi-amp configuration, in my case where my loudspeakers have fully separate crossovers for the separate modules and these crossovers employ driver correction circuits, the ability to tailor my Midrange and Highs by using different amplifiers from medium powered tube amps to high powered solid state, gives me a degree of freedom I thoroughly enjoy.

Sure the DEQX can do driver correction as well but really, I'd have to move these behemoths to my friggin' driveway just to get the necessary conditions for proper measurements. It's fine for Albert, my speaker designer, whose personal system is a set of the same speakers run fully active with digital active XOs. He's got a huge factory to do proper measurements in.

To me it's not about power but subjective quality. Then again, I'm just a consumer not an engineer. My only responsibility is getting sound I like.
 

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