Ever since the glory days, when hi-fi systems were integrated and even color-matched to the furniture, bookshelf speakers have been the beating heart of the party. They still offer the best balance between audio quality and size, and deliver huge bang-for-the-buck. Here are this year's best bookshelf speakers - they're suitable for just about any music setup, and any budget. Worth noting: the prices below are always quoted for a pair of speakers unless noted otherwise. For more background information on bookshelf speakers, see our comparison table and buying advice below the picks.
Suggested Amplifier Wattage: N/A
Driver Sizes: 5" Full Range, 1" Tweeter
What We Like: One of the best bookshelf speakers we’ve ever heard - irrespective of price.
What We Don't: Volume issues, Bluetooth 4.2 only.
Never in a million years did we think a pair of wireless speakers would claim the top spot on this list. The Kanto TUK managed to change our minds. We fully anticipate some grousing in the comments about how traditional passive speakers will always be better than active, wireless models, but our response to those folks is simple: you haven’t heard the TUK. Their Air Motion Transformer Tweeters (previously used on high-end models from the likes of ELAC and MartinLogan) result in absolutely extraordinary detail. We couldn’t believe just how rich and sumptuous the sound quality was, and for once, a set of speakers more than lived up to the considerable hype. We thought the Bowers & Wilkins 607 were the best speakers around, but their number one spot was short lived. The TUK slams them firmly into second place.
The TUK aren’t perfect. They offer a slightly dated Bluetooth version and we found it difficult to get a precise volume. But the sheer range of features, including a phono input for a turntable, makes up for it. The glorious design, along with the brilliant sound quality, make these even more of a winner. You could argue that they’re expensive for the casual listener. If that’s you, we recommend checking out something like the ELAC Debut 2.0 B6.2, which are less than half the price. For the rest of us? We’ll be rocking out with Canada’s finest...Read our in-depth review
See the Kanto TUK
Best Budget Bookshelf Speakers
Suggested Amplifier Wattage: 30W-120W Per Channel
Driver Sizes: 6.5" Midrange, 1" Tweeter
What We Like: A genuinely great update on what was already a very good speaker.
What We Don't: We think they should be even cheaper.
The original B6 Debut was an excellent speaker. Former Pioneer designer, Andrew Jones, knocked out the park, creating a bookshelf pair that delivered solid sound at a great price. It's absolutely our top choice for a sub-$500 pair - if you're on a budget, these $300 speakers will give you all you need, and more.
The sound is a touch more aggressive than the original B6, which is something we really like. There's a ton of power and punch in here, and we really did feel like we were getting a genuinely new product, rather than just a simple update. The design has been freshened up, too, in contrast to the slightly old school stylings of the original - although, the new model is a couple of pounds heavier. This was always a speaker line that could stand against its competitors, and this definitely remains one of our favorites. Compared to other speakers from folks like Edifier and Q Acoustics, the ELAC is, by far, the winner. By the way, we've also heard the newer Carina speakers from ELAC, and...well, they're good, but not as good as the Debut.
See the ELAC Debut 2.0 B6.2
Best High-End Bookshelf Speakers
Suggested Amplifier Wattage: 20-200W Per Channel
Driver Sizes: 6.5" Full Range, 1" Tweeter
What We Like: The best bass we’ve ever heard on a pair of bookshelf speakers.
What We Don't: High price, enormous size.
Were it not for their hefty price and even heftier weight, the Polk Legend L200s would beat the Kanto TUK to the number one spot. They are, in a word, incredible. We have never – not with any other bookshelf speakers – heard bass as deep, dark, and powerful as what came out of the L200s. Polk have released some very middling gear over the years, but the new Legend series is jaw-dropping - a stunning return to form. The L200s provide significantly better sound than more expensive speakers, and if you have money to spend, they’re an outstanding investment. Audiophiles will tell you that $1,799 is too little for a great pair of speakers. Those people just haven't heard the L200s.
One thing that may turn away potential buyers is their absolutely enormous size. The L200s are significantly larger than every other speaker on this list, making otherwise sizeable speakers, like the MartinLogan Motion 35XTi, look positively puny. The styling is also unique with a vibe of something you’d find in Darth Vader’s private office. These are minor issues for some, but may be a bonus to others. The L200s may not be for everyone, but if you can afford them, they will provide one of the most incredible audio experiences money can buy.
See the Polk Audio Legend L200
Best of the Rest
Suggested Amplifier Wattage: 30W-100W Per Channel
Driver Sizes: 5" Full Range, 1" Tweeter
What We Like: Magnificent audio quality, impeccable design.
What We Don't: The 607s require more careful positioning than other bookshelf speakers.
Bowers & Wilkins are onto a major winner with the 607s. Although we think the Kanto TUK offer more dynamic sound quality and far better stylings, the audio here is unreal. What's crazy to us is how dynamic and fun the sound is, while still retaining an extraordinary level of detail. The 607s look, feel, and sound like they should cost much more, and in terms of being the best speakers for most people, they are very close to the top.
At a push, you could say that they require more careful positioning, meaning they are slightly less versatile and have a smaller sweet spot. But we never found this to be a huge problem, and given the fun we had with the speakers, we don't think it's going to be an issue. If you're after a pair of bookshelf speakers to last you a thousand years, and deliver stunning sound all the while, the Bowers & Wilkins 607s are an excellent choice.
See the Bowers & Wilkins 607
Suggested Amplifier Wattage: 25-75W Per Channel
Driver Sizes: 5" Woofer, 0.9" Tweeter
What We Like: Great looks, excellent treble, compact build.
What We Don't: Other models offer more for the same price.
We weren't huge fans of the original Q Acoustics 3020 speakers, which we felt were over-hyped. The 3020i speakers fare better. Listening to them, it feels like there have been some improvements in the high-end, which is a little more refined and clean - the originals had highs that were a touch brittle. The bass, too, has improved – despite the small size of the speakers, you get some decent low-end here. Their size makes them a compelling option.
The biggest problem? In a world where the ELAC Debut 2.0 B6.2 speakers exist, these are never going to be a primary choice. The ELAC speakers offer much more for exactly the same price, as long as you can deal with a larger body. However, the 3020i speakers remain an excellent alternative, especially where size is a factor. These little beasties to make sense for desktop use, but not when there are better speakers available for a full hi-fi system - although if you want a tiny footprint, you'll be very happy with these.
See the Q Acoustics 3020i
Suggested Amplifier Wattage: N/A
Driver Sizes: 6.5" Woofer 1" Tweeter
What We Like: Sharpens everything we liked about the original Ai40s.
What We Don't: Doesn't fix our biggest gripes.
Fluance retain their crown. If you want a pair of wireless bookshelf speakers, the Ai60s are unquestionably the ones to go for. They keep everything we liked about the Ai40s, which include the bouncy, lively sound and engaging mid-range. We directly compared these to several other wireless speakers, including the Kanto YU6, below, and these quickly became firm favorites.
We still aren't huge fans of the ho-hum looks, which are one of the few things that hasn't been improved. The other one is the bass. Despite having larger drivers, which should, in theory, have a nominal effect on the low-end, the bass is still a little bit all over the place. You still have to connect the speakers with dedicated wires; given that other companies, like KEF, have made strides in this area, we'd like to see the tech trickling down to budget wireless speakers at some point. All the same, the Ai60s are excellent. If you're considering buying a pair of wireless bookshelf speakers, these are absolutely the ones to go for.
See the Fluance Ai60
Suggested Amplifier Wattage: 20W-150W Per Channel
Driver Sizes: 6.5” Woofer, 1” Tweeter
What We Like: Superb clarity, classy looks.
What We Don't: Don't offer the value of the B&W 607s or Kanto TUKs.
We adore the SVS Ultras, which were previously number one on this list. Their demotion is only because of the excellence of the Bowers & Wilkins 607 and Kanto TUK, both of which offer sound that is just as good at a more affordable price. The SVS Ultras are a little louder (87dB sensitivity versus 84dB for the B&Ws) and more powerful, but still can't avoid the drop into second place. However, they are still an exquisitely-tuned pair of reference monitors - better, we think, than more expensive models like the MartinLogan Motion 35XTis. Those are superb, but we prefer the SVS speakers.
The company's approach to cabinet design and material choice has resulted in a super-transparent sound reproduction - especially in the critical mid-range spectrum. They have a wide soundstage, and an unbelievable low end for the 6.5" driver size. Featuring a 1.7" acoustic port obviously aids the bass content, but it's impressive that the low frequencies don't sound over-cooked or wooly. Instead, there's a tremendous sense of definition - a good amp will make them sing. It's also worth noting that the company make several other fantastic monitors, like the much-loved Primes, but we still prefer the Ultras.
See the SVS Ultra
Suggested Amplifier Wattage: N/A
Driver Sizes: 5.25" Full Range, 1" Tweeter
What We Like: Truly unbelievable sound quality, incredibly realistic soundstage.
What We Don't: Dull and overly functional design.
The Totem Acoustic KIN Play tick all the boxes. These wireless bookshelf speakers may have a slightly clunky name, but you’ll forget all about it once you hear just how amazing they sound. They deliver incredible realism, particularly in the stereo image. You’ll believe that the sound is coming from all around you, not just in front, and the level of detail is ridiculous. The audio is tuned to perfection, and you get full access to aptX Bluetooth. We’d put these up against the likes of the Polk Legend L200s - the Polks would win, but it’s a very close competition.
We aren’t wild about the design, which is a little dull for our tastes. Compared to the Kanto TUK or the Martin Logan Motion 35XTi, the Totem Acoustic KIN Play look underdressed. Despite the boring design, the speakers offer incredible sound for the price. In terms of value, this is the high-end speaker we’d go for. Totem, a company from Montreal, aren’t well known outside the world of high-end audio, but perhaps it’s time for that to change. The KIN Play are truly special. By the way, Totem recently released the KIN Play Mini, a smaller version that goes for around $850. Having heard both, we don’t think the money you save is worth the sacrifice - the original KIN Play are far superior.
See the Totem Acoustic KIN Play
Suggested Amplifier Wattage: 20-100W Per Channel
Driver Sizes: 5.25" Full Range, 1" Tweeter
What We Like: Crisp, clean sound that competes with better-known brands.
What We Don't: Design is a step back from previous models.
Aperion Audio Have been making great gear for years. The Novus are their latest creation: a pair of affordable bookshelf speakers that go toe-to-toe with other models in this price range. While they don’t quite have the flair and capability of the less expensive ELAC Debut 2.0 B6.2, our top budget pick, they’re an excellent alternative if the ELACs are sold out. The audio quality they provide is crisp and powerful, with excellent detail on the highs. They particularly excel as part of a home theater setup, and conveniently, Aperion offer them both as stand-alones and as part of a surround sound package.
However, we aren’t wild about the design. Compare the Novus to a previous set of speakers from Aperion, the Verus III Grand Bookshelves. Those oozed class and style with their burnished wooden cabinets; the Novus look muddled by comparison. That aside, we think the Novus are a superior choice over more expensive speakers, like The Sixes from Klipsch. You’ll get an excellent pair of speakers if you choose the Aperion Audio Novus.
See the Aperion Audio Novus
Suggested Amplifier Wattage: 10-90W Per Channel
Driver Sizes: 5.25" Full Range, 0.75" Tweeter
What We Like: Ridiculously good audio quality for the price.
What We Don't: Requires careful pairing to get the best sound.
PSB’s new Alpha P5 got a lot of love when they debuted at this year’s CES in Las Vegas, and for good reason. The unusual design, which places the full-range driver on top, and the eyebrow raising technology inside them solidifies Alpha P5s ingenuity against the competition. We think they sound superb, easily comparable to the fantastic ELAC Debut 2.0 B6.2. They have a relatively small footprint, a wide soundstage, and are a breeze to set up and use. For under $500, there are very few speakers that could beat them.
We do, however, think that they require careful pairing in order to get the best sound. They have a relatively narrow power range compared to other speakers on this list. We found that Class D amplifiers – the nomenclature refers to the type of amp circuitry, and you’ll find it listed in your amp’s spec sheet – gave the best results. Funnily enough, one of the best combos we came across was the Alpha P5s and the NAD D 3045 amp, both of which come from companies under the same parent.
See the PSB Alpha P5
Suggested Amplifier Wattage: N/A
Driver Sizes: 6.5" Woofer, 1" Tweeter
What We Like: Great bass, with real detail.
What We Don't: Very small sweet spot, meaning they need careful positioning.
At some point, someone in the marketing department at Klipsch must have sent a plaintive email asking the engineers not to call the speakers things like R278JHI-X V2. In our opinion, that was a good move. It means we get things like the wonderful wireless speaker The Three, and these, a powered pair of speakers known as The Sixes.
Powered bookshelf speakers are becoming more common - the Kanto, above, and Audioengine, below, work the same way. You don't need an amplifier to power these - they're quite capable of producing a decent volume, with a sensitivity of 106dB. Compare that to the similarly-priced Definitive Technology Demand Series D9, which sounds slightly better, but don't get nearly as loud, at 88dB. And while we do love elements of the sound here – the bass in particular is fantastic, delivering real detail – there are some slightly finicky elements that we didn't like. For starters, we found that the sweet spot - the listening area in which you get the best sound possible - is quite small. Stepping back to the side, even by a couple of feet, meant a noticeable reduction in sound. It was surprising to hear, and an issue we haven't encountered much before. We still like The Sixes, but because of this, they can't be our first choice.
See the Klipsch The Sixes
Suggested Amplifier Wattage: 20-250W Per Channel
Driver Sizes: 6.5" Woofer, 4.5" Tweeter
What We Like: Stellar detail, elegant design.
What We Don't: Slightly fatiguing midrange, a little overpriced.
The MartinLogan Motion 35XTi is a significant improvement on the original 35XT. Like the Kanto TUK, there’s an AMT tweeter on each speaker, and the result is exquisite detail and realism. These are among the most elegant speakers we’ve tested, with distinctly more style than big bruisers like the Polk Legend L200s and SVS Ultras. The design is elegant, with the distinctive MartinLogan base plate and a sloped cabinet.
We first heard the Motion 35XTi at an audio show and loved them instantly. However, after having had a pair in our testing room for a few weeks, we are less sure. They are very good, occasionally great, but they aren’t as perfect as we remember. The mid range can be a little harsh at times, especially in the upper reaches. It doesn’t have the finesse or clarity of something like Bowers & Wilkins 607. That’s a shame, but it certainly doesn’t remove these speakers from competing. If you like beautiful things, and appreciate detail and clarity, then the MartinLogan Motion 35XTi are a natural choice.
See the MartinLogan Motion 35XTi
Suggested Amplifier Wattage: 20-120W Per Channel
Driver Sizes: 6.5" Woofer, 1" Tweeter
What We Like: Bright and exciting sound.
What We Don't: Old-school design may be a dealbreaker.
Wharfedale have been making speakers for over eight decades. The Denton 85 are something of a celebration for them - a throwback to their storied past. These speakers are almost unconstrained in their excitement. They are bright and lively, with huge detail in the highs, and they really excel when playing music with a high dynamic range, like film soundtracks. We’d happily compare them to competitors like the Klipsch The Sixes. The Klipsch speakers are a bit more restrained and assured, but the Denton 85 stole our hearts with their rambunctious presentation.
The speakers are designed to look old school and, if you’re into that sort of thing, you’ll love them. But there’s no denying that the design is an acquired taste and definitely not for everyone. If you want a more modern design, try the Aperion Audio Novus, which are a little less expensive. By the way, there’s a larger version of the speakers called the Linton, which come with built-in stands. They are fantastic, but our hearts remain with the Denton 85.
See the Wharfedale Denton 85
14. KEF LSX ($1,165)
Suggested Amplifier Wattage: N/A
Driver Sizes: 4.5" Full Range, 0.75" Tweeter
What We Like: A superb update to a classic speaker.
What We Don't: Requires two apps to run, which is absurd.
The KEF LSX is a wallet-friendly update to a classic pair of wireless speakers: the LS50 Wireless. This model knocks almost $1,000 off the price, while retaining the original’s looks, charm, and sound quality. The audio these speakers put out is phenomenal, with rich stereo detail that other wireless speakers just can’t match. At the time of writing, you can stream via Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Spotify Connect, Tidal, and DLNA. There’s even Apple AirPlay 2 functionality, which is good news for iPhone users. We also adore the design of the KEF LSX, which will blend effortlessly with any room. These are some of the more compact speakers on this list - they’re dwarfed by models from Klipsch and Totem - but they’ve earned their spot.
If the KEF LSX have a flaw, it’s in their app control. You need two apps to run the LSX speakers, one to control the streaming, and one to actually control the speakers themselves. That’s fairly ridiculous and it seems utterly bizarre that KEF couldn’t combine the two. All the same, we think this update is spectacular and will recommend KEF’s models to even more listeners...Read our in-depth review
See the KEF LSX
Suggested Amplifier Wattage: N/A
Driver Sizes: 4” Woofer, 0.5” Tweeter
What We Like: One of the best powered speakers around.
What We Don't: Lacks volume and sublety.
Edifier (which we've also seen written, confusingly, as Edifer, with no second 'i') aren't regarded as a particularly high-end manufacturer – something we don't mean as a criticism. They produce excellent, affordable speakers and headphones, and in our opinion, the R1280T is one of the best they put out. It combines affordability and value with decent sound, and for smaller spaces, it is absolutely ideal.
Unlike many of the speakers on this list, the R1280T are powered set of speakers, in that each one contains its own amplifier. That makes it easy to connect up to the playback source using a simple RCA cable with no separate amplifier, similar to the Audioengine HD6 – although of course, these aren't wireless, and the audio quality of the HD6s is markedly superior. But you do get a hell of a lot for your money here, including remote, and the ability to fine-tune the sound using built-in EQ knobs. Audio quality is good, if not mind blowing. While not super-loud – the speakers max out at 21 watts per channel – the definition and detail should be more than enough to satisfy most people. If you're looking for a passive speaker set at around the same price point, try the Dayton Audio B652 Air, below. If you want the best wireless speakers, the Kanto YU6, above, will fit the bill - although they are more expensive, at $340.
See the Edifier R1280T
Suggested Amplifier Wattage: 30-120W Per Channel
Driver Sizes: 5" Woofer 1" Tweeter
What We Like: Great looks, wide sweet spot.
What We Don't: Perhaps a little too bright.
Very few bookshelf speakers look as good as those offered by Canadian manufacturer Fluance. They also don't usually cost $200 a pair, which these do. With their black-and-yellow colorway and robust cabinets, these speakers are eye-catching and fun.
When we tested them, we did sometimes feel like the sound was overly bright – not to the point of harshness, just with a little bit too much emphasis in the high-end. It meant that they were slightly fatiguing after a few hours. In our opinion, they aren't quite as good as the Q Acoustics 3020i, which retail for only a little more. That being said, they are still an excellent alternative, and if you can't find any of the speakers at the top of this list, these are absolutely worth your time. It's also worth mentioning that they have what feels like a very wide sweet spot, meaning you can position them just about anywhere in the room, and still get good sound. This makes them perfect if you are pressed for space...Read our in-depth review
See the Fluance Signature Series HiFi
Suggested Amplifier Wattage: N/A
Driver Sizes: 5.5” Full Range, 1” Tweeter
What We Like: Big sound, classic looks, wireless music streaming.
What We Don't: Top frequencies slightly subdued.
Audioengine have a huge lineup of fantastic speakers, and although we still prefer the models above for clarity, you have to work quite hard to make speakers as fun as these. Audioengine describe their HD6 powered speakers as 'retro-forward' in design, and we can see that the retro element probably comes from the wood finishes. The 'forward' bit is clearly about the fact that this pair features built-in monoblock power amps (75 watts each), audio inputs (RCA, Minijack, Optical) and wireless Bluetooth streaming, which is great. In our opinion, these aren't as much fun as the Kanto YU6s, above, but they definitely offer more power, and an improved bass response.
The HD6s support the higher quality aptX audio formats, which sound more detailed. If you decide to use the HD6s with a receiver, remember that the speakers are already powered, so use the receiver's RCA outputs. Of course, the Audioengines can also be connected to your receiver via their digital connection for an even better audio quality.
See the Audioengine HD6
18. NHT C3 ($668)
Suggested Amplifier Wattage: 50-150W Per Channel
Driver Sizes: 6.5” Woofer, 2” Midrange, 1” Tweeter
What We Like: Great sound that has stood the test of time.
What We Don't: Quite old now, boring design.
NHT make a whole range of speakers, both floorstanding and bookshelf. This is by far and away still their best design, one that has hardly changed since its inception in 2003 (this version was released a few years ago), and one which still competes quite happily with the SVSs of the world. In that way, it’s a bit like the Sennheiser HD600 headphones: variations may be released over the years, but you are never going to touch the original.
That being said, it certainly looks like it came from 2005. The speaker design is angular and boxy, with only slightly concave upper edges to indicate any sort of flair. The sound, however, is pure magic. Paired with a good amplifier – one that delivers over 50 watts of power at 6 ohms – it can create genuine jaw-drop moments as your music unfolds itself. It’s one of the better-sounding models on this list, and we’d argue that it’s definitely worth a place here. Be warned: they don’t sell pairs on Amazon, so you’ll need to buy two of them.
See the NHT C3
New Bookshelf Speakers Coming Soon
This year is gearing up to be a big one in the world of bookshelf speakers, with several promising releases on the horizon. One of them is an update to The Sixes, by Klipsch, featured on the list above. Confusingly, the new speakers are called The Fives. And even more unusually for a pair of bookshelf speakers, The Fives have an HDMI input. This is something we’ve never seen before. Klipsch are marketing them as a soundbar substitute, and given the company’s reputation for sound quality, we can see them pulling it off. These will be released in a few months.
We’re also looking forward to receiving our review pair of Q Acoustics 3030i speakers, which are an update to their 3020i line, currently in the top five on this list. The 3030i speakers have a larger woofer and come with dedicated stands. They should cost around $399 a pair when they’re available, and we’ll bring you our impressions soon.
|Kanto TUK||$800||N/A||Unknown||1 x 5", 1 x 1"||Unknown||11lbs|
|ELAC Debut 2.0 B6.2||$300||30W-120W||6Ω||1 x 6.5", 1 x 1"||87dB||16.3lbs|
|Polk Audio Legend L200||$1,799||20W-200W||4Ω||1 x 6.5", 1 x 1"||85.5dB||22lbs|
|Bowers & Wilkins 607||$600||30W-100W||8Ω||1 x 5", 1 x 1"||84dB||10.4lbs|
|Q Acoustics 3020i||$315||25W-75W||6Ω||1 x 5", 1 x 0.9"||88dB||6lbs|
|Fluance Ai60||$300||N/A||N/A||1 x 6.5", 1 x 1"||Unknown||14.7lbs|
|SVS Ultra||$999||20W-150W||8Ω||1 x 6.5", 1 x 1"||87dB||19lbs|
|Totem Acoustic KIN Play||$1,250||N/A||Unknown||1 x 5.25", 1 x 1"||Unknown||15.85lbs|
|Aperion Audio Novus||$599||20W-100W||4Ω||1 x 5.25", 1 x 1"||85dB||10.1lbs|
|PSB Alpha P5||$399||10-90W||8Ω||1 x 5.25", 1 x 0.75"||89dB||10.15lbs|
|Klipsch The Sixes||$799||N/A||N/A||1 x 6.5", 1" x 1||106dB||17.7lbs|
|MartinLogan Motion 35XTi||$1,400||20W-250W||8Ω||1 x 6.5", 1 x 4.5"||92dB||18.5lbs|
|Wharfedale Denton 85||$899||20W-120W||4Ω||1 x 6.5", 1" x 1||95dB||20lbs|
|KEF LSX||$1,165||N/A||Unknown||1 x 4.5", 1 x 0.75"||Unknown||7.9lbs|
|Edifier R1280T||$100||N/A||N/A||1 x 4", 1 x 0.5"||85dB||10.8lbs|
|Fluance Signature Series||$200||30-120W||8Ω||1 x 5", 1 x 1"||85dB||9.7lbs|
|Audioengine HD6||$699||N/A||N/A||1 x 5.5", 1 x 1"||Unknown||37.9lbs|
|NHT C3||$668||50W-150W||6Ω||1 x 6.5", 1 x 2", 1 x 1"||87dB||16lbs|
*SAW = Suggested Amplifier Wattage
**Imp. = Impedance
***Sens. = Sensitivity
***Wt. = Weight (Each)
- What Are Bookshelf Speakers?
- How We Chose our List of Bookshelf Speakers
- Wired vs. Wireless Speakers
- Passive vs. Active Speakers
- Impedance and Wattage: How to Match Amps and Speakers
- Sensitivity Explained
- Speaker Connections Explained
- Bookshelf Speakers vs. 2.1
- Bookshelf Speakers vs. Surround Sound
- Bookshelf Speaker Placement Explained
- Speaker Stands Explained
Prior to the 1960s, home audio entertainment was mostly in the shape of integrated radio or record player units sporting built-in amps and speakers. Standalone 'high fidelity' speakers were, at the time, pretty much floorstanding models – huge, bulky and very expensive. Bookshelf speakers are different. They are designed to be used as part of a discrete audio system. You shouldn't be connecting them to your surround sound system - although, you probably could with a little tinkering. Instead, what you're doing is pairing them with an amplifier, or a dedicated player, in order to create a single, self-contained system. Hence the use of the word bookshelf; they're meant to be off on their own, away from everything else. Typically, they are easy to spot. They're big, boxy, and usually have one small driver (the tweeter) and one big driver (the woofer). You can usually cover these with a mesh grille, which makes them a little easier on the eye.
This was until bookshelf speakers were invented and popularized by Edgar Villchur at Acoustic Research, and their name came about from the speaker enclosures' size – they were big enough to live on a bookshelf and yet reproduce a full range of frequencies, often matching the frequency response of larger floorstanding units. It's easier said than than done to manage such a trick – up to that point in time, smaller speakers were famed for their thin and brittle sound that couldn't match the sonic oomph of ported - also known as bass-reflex - floorstanding speaker designs.
The invention of air suspension - also known as acoustic suspension - speaker enclosures was the real game changer. Instead of using ported design, the boffins at Acoustic Research came up with a sealed cabinet design. Those being nearly airtight, helped the air inside the cabinet act as a sort of a cushion, or even a spring behind the woofer, aiding its retraction. This significantly reduced excursion of the bass woofer and delivered a tighter, richer and more controlled sounding bass, and in turn that gave bookshelf speakers the much flatter frequency response they are famed for. They certainly sounded awesome. So, the name bookshelf speakers stuck around and countless music lovers living in small apartments created a huge demand for this compact speaker format – a trend continuing until today. The key thing to remember is there's a subtle difference between bookshelf speakers and computer speakers. Bookshelf speakers are more geared towards hi-fi sound - in other words, with separate amps and subwoofers. Computer speakers, or desktop speakers, are more likely to be made for use with computers and laptops, despite the similar size and design.
If you haven't read our in-depth explainer on wired vs. wireless speakers, here are the Cole's Notes. With the ever-growing world of wireless technology, it's archaic to believe that a wireless speaker will never sound as good as its analog source. Some of the wireless speakers on this list - the Audioengine HD6, for example - have a powerful sound that could have us convinced they were wired. We even have many examples of high-end wireless speakers, complete with aptX Bluetooth - the leading Bluetooth technology at the moment - which cost thousands of dollars and could knock any of these out of the park. Many wireless speakers are fully capable of producing a sound that you will love, and bookshelf speakers are no exception. Wired or not, you can get a great sound out of your bookshelf speakers, and shouldn't correlate wireless with lesser-quality.
The greatest advantage to having wireless speakers is lack of clutter. If you've ever tried to set up a 5.1 system, you certainly understand where we're coming from. While wireless bookshelf speakers aren't usually truly wireless - they often require a cable to connect the right and left channel - they seriously reduce the amount of cabling running across your desk, or below. Another serious advantage to wireless speakers is not having to plug into them via an analog input. Wireless speakers are equipped with Bluetooth or Wi-Fi (sometimes both), meaning you can pair to them via your smart phone or laptop. We found this very handy during our office testing, making switching between multiple sources effortless. In cases like the Fluance Ai60, they were perfect for boosting our laptop sound, and creating a wide soundstage that could have seriously had us fooled. Now, those speakers are worth their value!
Bookshelf speakers are traditionally Passive, meaning that they need to be powered by an external amplifier. A classic hi-fi component system featuring bookshelf speakers would normally consist of your source media players (CD, MP3, DVD, BluRay, etc) connected to a receiver/power amp which itself feeds the speakers in stereo (one channel per speaker). Increasingly, you might run all their media off a PC or laptop. If this is the case, instead of a full receiver, you might opt for a simple stereo amp (receiving audio directly from your computer’s soundcard) to power your pair of bookshelf speakers.
Active (self-powered) bookshelf speakers are becoming increasingly popular too. In this case, each will have its own built-in power amps (two actually, one for the woofer, one for the tweeter), and all they need is an audio feed - a mini-jack from your smartphone or a tablet, or if you are using an A/V receiver, the main Line Out (normally RCA) connected directly to the powered speakers’ input. Perfect example: the Audioengine HD6, one of the few active speakers on this list. No amp matching needed here. Note: you really don’t want to connect power amp outs (from a receiver) to active speakers! Things may get a little…smoky.
You might be a little confused with the wattage/impedance/sensitivity figures in the table above - that's the suggested amplifier wattage thing. Not to worry - we've got an entire explainer on those specs here. Here's a shorter version, if you don't want to click through.
Wattage is important – and that's before you've even bought your bookshelf speakers. We'll ignore active pairs here – they are all internally matched, wattage-wise. Things may get a little less clear-cut when matching passive speakers to an external amp, as you'd ideally have to know whether they are compatible. Fortunately, the first part of that is easy. Let's take the ELAC Debut 2.0 B6.2, which have a suggested amplifier wattage of between 30 and 120 watts per channel. That means that all you need to do is find an amplifier that puts out a wattage in that range, and you'll be good to go. A common problem when (mis)matching speakers to an amp is when the amp is too powerful for your speakers – when this is the case you will find your optimum volume level on the amp dial reduced. You will find that turning the volume higher than a certain level (say halfway) results in a flabby, tearing sound known as speaker distortion. Prolonged playback in such conditions may result in blown drivers. The other way round is equally problematic – when an amp is too under-powered for your speakers. This scenario normally involves the amp clipping and going into the 'red' as it struggles to deliver the wattage - if you keep pushing it, it would just go 'boom'.
Impedance is something you also need to pay attention to. You'd need to make sure that your amp or A/V receiver has an equal or lower impedance figure than that of the speakers. Here's a good place to note that amps utilize their full potential wattage at their lowest impedance. For instance, if an amp is rated at 100 watts at four ohms, the rule goes that when the amp is working at eight ohms (powering a pair of eight ohm speakers like the SVS Ultra), it can only deliver half the wattage of its four ohm potential – which in this case would be 50 watts. This might sound too much like a math lesson, but many people use this rule to their advantage – to get the amp's full power working, they simply would add another pair of eight ohm speakers, as the combined impedance of the four eight ohm speakers to four ohms, thus matching the amp's impedance figure!
This is a measure, quite simply, of how loud a pair of speakers will go at a given volume. Really, that’s all there is to it. Measured in decibels, sensitivity (sometimes referred to as efficiency) is a good way of working out the volume that a pair of speakers can deliver. It’s measured in decibels, and as the amount of sound produced when a certain amount of power is put into the speakers – usually one milliwatt.
Using these, you can compare different speakers and see how they measure up in terms of loudness. A speaker with a lower sensitivity may struggle to fill anything beyond a small room, whereas one with a higher sensitivity – such as the 92dB MartinLogan Motion 35XTi – Will put out significant volume for the same amount of power, making them ideal for large rooms. However: be careful of putting too much emphasis on sensitivity. Although almost all manufacturers listed, what they don’t do is list the amount of power they are applying. This is an standardised across the industry, so there are variances between manufacturers. If you’re choosing a pair of speakers based on sensitivity, keep this in mind. The specs can be fudged.
We're assuming that you already have an amplifier - and of course, a media source such as a laptop or a wireless streamer. What you need to look for to get them connected to your amp are the binding posts on the rear of the speakers, which are normally red and black rotaries that can be screwed up and down. Occasionally, they'll take the form of little squares you can insert wires into, labelled plus/minus.
Next up, buy some speaker wire - this is relatively cheap. If you are wondering what to choose, you should normally go for a 16-gauge, which is perfect for regular bookshelf speaker impedance (the majority is rated at 8 ohms). If you're going to be positioning things over 50 feet away, you might be better off with a ticker wire at 12 or 14 gauge, which is also recommended for speakers of 4 or 6 ohms. Once you cut off a decent length of wire, use a boxcutter to strip the insulation off either end. You should be left with a short length of copper wire, which you should twist into a tight coil. You can then insert this into the binding posts on either end, separating speakers right and left, and being sure to screw red into red and black into black. Please take care doing this - and make sure the amplifier is unplugged. If you don't, things might not work right at best, or go bang at worst. This system works for the bookshelf speaker model type known as passive – they don't have amplifiers or internal power included, and so need to draw their power from an external amp.
Bookshelf speakers are famed for their flat response – they are quite fair to the music content (as intended by the music producer), reproducing the recorded material ‘as it is’ and not ‘blanketing’ the audio with their own specific character. That said, they are universally small- to medium-sized (with the exception of things like the Magico Q1, which are insane-to-ridiculous-sized, and cost $25,000 - small wonder they aren't on our list!). Their sealed design and internal woofers can only manage certain bass frequencies.
Adding a subwoofer makes a bookshelf speaker speaker into a 2.1 system and everything starts to sound seriously impressive, as the crucial mid and upper frequency detail is backed up by a fully extended low bass. How do you add a sub to a pair of bookshelf speakers? Let us start by saying that most subwoofers are self powered. You don’t need separate amplification for them. Adding a subwoofer is therefore really straightforward if you are using a receiver, as most current models have a dedicated and clearly-labeled subwoofer audio output. Just connect to the sub, turn up the level (at the back of the sub) to your liking and you’re set. Things may get a bit blurry if you aren’t using a receiver. Say you’re running just a stereo power amp. How would you patch that sub in this more spartan approach? Quite simple, really. Subs come with audio inputs and outputs, so the approach here is to plug your source into the subwoofer first and feed the audio outs from the sub into your amp’s inputs (or powered bookshelf speakers audio ins).
These two setups work well together. There's nothing to say you can't incorporate your bookshelf speakers into a multi-speaker 5.1 or 7.1 setup. You would, of course, need a capable surround A/V receiver with ideally enough power to match your speakers. As always, it's OK (and sometimes even recommended) if your amp/receiver has a little more wattage than your speakers. Each speaker needs to connect to its own power outlet (black to black, red to red, as explained above). The only catch is that most bookshelf speakers are sold in pairs – for a classic 5.1 setup, you might have to buy three pairs and a sub, and leave one speaker in storage. Or just make it a novelty coffee table ornament. We don't know. Whatever. If you decide to go this route, then we suggest you use the bookshelf speakers as your front left and front right speakers in the surround setup.
More often than not, bookshelf models are aimed at a particular sweet spot – it may be your seat in front of your computer, or the sofa. Manufacturers strive to optimize this sweet spot, and some models are naturally better at this than others. What you could do to improve your listening experience, though, is to try and level your speakers so the tweeters are at the same level as your ears. The best listening spots are roughly where you form a triangle with the speakers, and they are at an equal distance from your left and right ear. You may need to experiment; some speakers, like the Klipsch The Sixes, need a little bit more fine tuning to get the best out of them.
Speaking of 'tuning', as noted in our list, some cheaper models may have issues with frequency 'holes' or even worse: over-emphasized frequencies. Most receivers have very capable EQ processors built in, or even self-calibrating frequency modes. These can really do wonders and can 'cure' such little imperfections. Bookshelf speakers used in surround modes, would have to be placed in the now established traditional way – front center, front left and right, rear left and right and so on, depending on the size of the format – 5.1, 7.1 etc.
Not surprisingly, many hi-fi stores demo their products on speaker stands. These improve the stereo imaging and the frequency response. At The Master Switch, we use Sanus stands to mount our speakers; they are both practical and affordable, and isolate well.
The opposite scenario - of placing your brand new pair on a large oak table, for instance - might make things sounding quite boomy, as furniture tends to vibrate with the music, enhancing certain frequencies. Speaker wall brackets are another good option – they can be a little more discreet, though not invisible. If these choices spoil the vibe and the look of your music room, they'll at least make the music sound a tiny bit better!