Active sonar uses a sound transmitter and a receiver. When the two are in the same place it is monostatic operation. When the transmitter and receiver are separated it is bistatic operation. When more transmitters (or more receivers) are used, again spatially separated, it is multistatic operation. Most sonars are used monostatically with the same array often being used for transmission and reception. Active sonobuoy fields may be operated multistatically.

Active sonar creates a pulse of sound, often called a "ping", and then listens for reflections (echo) of the pulse. This pulse of sound is generally created electronically using a Sonar Projector consisting of a signal generator, power amplifier and electro-acoustic transducer/array. A beamformer is usually employed to concentrate the acoustic power into a beam, which may be swept to cover the required search angles. Generally, the electro-acoustic transducers are of the Tonpilz type and their design may be optimised to achieve maximum efficiency over the widest bandwidth, in order to optimise performance of the overall system. Occasionally, the acoustic pulse may be created by other means, e.g. (1) chemically using explosives, or (2) airguns or (3) plasma sound sources.

To measure the distance to an object, the time from transmission of a pulse to reception is measured and converted into a range by knowing the speed of sound. To measure the bearing, several hydrophones are used, and the set measures the relative arrival time to each, or with an array of hydrophones, by measuring the relative amplitude in beams formed through a process called beamforming. Use of an array reduces the spatial response so that to provide wide cover multibeam systems are used. The target signal (if present) together with noise is then passed through various forms of signal processing, which for simple sonars may be just energy measurement. It is then presented to some form of decision device that calls the output either the required signal or noise. This decision device may be an operator with headphones or a display, or in more sophisticated sonars this function may be carried out by software. Further processes may be carried out to classify the target and localise it, as well as measuring its velocity.

The pulse may be at constant frequency or a chirp of changing frequency (to allow pulse compression on reception). Simple sonars generally use the former with a filter wide enough to cover possible Doppler changes due to target movement, while more complex ones generally include the latter technique. Today, pulse compression is usually achieved using digital correlation techniques. Military sonars often have multiple beams to provide all-round cover while simple ones only cover a narrow arc. Originally the latter was often scanned around mechanically but this was a slow process.

deep sea sub

One useful small sonar looks roughly like a waterproof flashlight. One points the head into the water, presses a button, and reads a distance. Another variant is a "fishfinder" that shows a small display with shoals of fish. Some civilian sonars approach active military sonars in capability, with quite exotic three-dimensional displays of the area near the boat. However, these sonars are not designed for stealth. When active sonar is used to measure the distance from the transducer to the bottom, it is known as echo sounding. Similar methods may be used looking upward for wave measurement.

Active sonar is also used to measure distance through water between two sonar transducers or a combination of a hydrophone (underwater acoustic microphone) and projector (underwater acoustic speaker). A transducer is a device that can transmit and receive acoustic signals ("pings"). When a hydrophone/transducer receives a specific interrogation signal it responds by transmitting a specific reply signal. To measure distance, one transducer/projector transmits an interrogation signal and measures the time between this transmission and the receipt of the other transducer/hydrophone reply. The time difference, scaled by the speed of sound through water and divided by two, is the distance between the two platforms. This technique, when used with multiple transducers/hydrophones/projectors, can calculate the relative positions of static and moving objects in water.

In wartime, emission of an active pulse is so compromising for a submarine's stealth that it is considered a very severe breach of tactics.