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, often tucked in between vinyl collections the size of complete walls. They still offer the best balance between audio quality and size, and are so well established that even now manufacturers’ new models always seem to feature the near-obligatory bookshelf variety, usually sporting the letter B somewhere in the model title. Here are this year’s best - and they’re suitable for just about any music setup.
We know you can spend huge amounts on speakers. Our list is meant to reflect the best speakers for most people. If you're looking for super-high-end speakers, we list a couple a little further down, just for fun. Most models these days - certainly the ones most people will be looking at - are below $1000, which is great for the budget. We've included a selection of the best on the market here, plus at least two picks for those with serious money to burn!
The prices are always quoted for a pair of speakers (with the exception of the MartinLogans and the absurdly expensive Magicos), and starting at the very top, we make sure that the models in question represents the very best in quality and performance. Our picks have already made a name for themselves - most of them you will know already, and if there are brands which sound unfamiliar, let us assure you that they are anything but generic. Dimensions and wattage are quite similar and consistent for this speaker format, but we do try to make a point about varying connectivity and specs such as driver and tweeter sizes.
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: Nothing not to like.
Our first pick goes to this pair made by SVS, a company possibly best known for their subwoofers. Already graced with several industry awards, the SVS Ultra range and this pair in particular seem to have immediately taken a place amongst the most highly-regarded models on the market. Paying a grand is hardly cheap, but here your hard-earned cash buys you an exquisitely-tuned pair of reference monitors - better, we think, than more expensive models like the KEF LS50. Those are superb, but we prefer the SVS.
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. It has 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 is impressive that the low frequencies don’t sound over-cooked or wooly - instead there is a tremendous sense of definition. They would be happy connected to any decent hi-fi amp or receiver, but in all honesty, they deserve better than just decent - 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: 25W-100W Per Channel
Driver Sizes: 5”, 1” Tweeter
What We Like: A crowd favorite that always gets the job done.
What We Don't: Very pricey.
Were it not for the staggering pricetag, this pair would probably pip the SVS Ultras…just. The KEF LS50 speakers have won stacks of awards, and rightly so: they represent everything that we love about bookshelf speakers, from excellent design to superlative sound quality.
It’s the latter that we want to talk about a little here. The LS50s have a richness in tone and a certain musicality that other speakers struggle to beat. They have an amazingly fast response, and despite offering breathtaking clarity, they provide just enough colour to generate excitement. The sound is by far and away the best reason to pick up a pair of these, but the design also makes it worthwhile. The iconic curved front, the central driver that resembles a hubcap, and a variety of colors means that this is a speaker that you won’t want to just hide away on a bookshelf. Pair this with an amplifier like the NAD C326BEE, and you’ll have a serious winner. If the price ever drops on these below the $1,000 mark, expect some serious arguments in the TMS offices about whether KEF should topple SVS’s crown.
See the KEF LS50
Suggested Amplifier Wattage: 30W-120W Per Channel
Driver Sizes: 6.5" midrange, 1" tweeter
What We Like: Solid sound for the price.
What We Don't: A touch overrated?
You probably think we’re crazy. What’s a $250 pair of speakers doing above the Bowers & Wilkins? Or Sonus Faber? That’s because, for sheer value-for-money, these extraordinary speakers are unbeatable. We initially put them lower, but we’ve spent a little more time with them now, and we think they deserve to be in the top three. For most people, this will be all the speaker they need. The sound quality doesn’t really touch the SVS or the KEF - and arguably the B&W - but we still stand by our choice, especially since sound is only one aspect.
Although speaker designer Andrew Jones is more commonly associated with Pioneer, he's designed products for other manufacturers, too, including ELAC. When these were released in 2015, they were absolutely raved about, and while we think a lot of it was hyperbole, they still offer very, very solid sound for the amount of money you pay, easily comparable to others on this list. The deep, rich lows and detailed highs are gorgeous, and we think the build quality is fabulous, too.
See the ELAC B6 Debut
Suggested Amplifier Wattage: 25W-100W Per Channel
Driver Sizes: 5“ midrange/woofer, 1" tweeter
What We Like: Fantastic B&W sound.
What We Don't: A little old now - and not quite as good as the SVS or the KEF.
It’s been out for a few years, but this surprisingly affordable Bowers & Wilkins bookshelf speaker is still among their best offerings. The second version of the 686 offers a similar build to the legendary 685s, with the distinctive tweeter design, and the subtle elements that denote a very classy set of speakers. The company’s 600 series has always been good, and we think this is among the best out there. Definitely a top five.
The B&W house sound is a thing of beauty, and one of the true pleasures of listening to music. There’s no denying that these are expensive speakers – perhaps a little too expensive for what you get – but they offer so, so much, with elegant and detailed sound that puts them head and shoulders above the competition. While we don’t think they offer as much value for money as the ELAC Debut B6 speakers, they’ll definitely be at home in any hifi setup.
See the Bowers & Wilkins 686 S2
Suggested Amplifier Wattage: 20W-200W Per Channel
Driver Sizes: 6.5“ midrange/woofer, 1" tweeter, 6” radiator
What We Like: Unreal bass and design.
What We Don't: Not very subtle!
This is arguably the flagship bookshelf speaker of the manufacturer we affectionately refer to as Def Tech. The D11 is the apex of the Demand Series, and definitely in the top five speakers available right now.
Should you buy it over the slightly cheaper B&W 686 S2s? The defence: it has absolutely superb design, and its combination of a good-sized woofer with a six-inch passive radiator means the low end really delivers. The case for the prosecution: what it has in bass, it loses in the subtlety department, meaning these speakers aren’t nearly as detailed as others. It’s the kind of thing that we frown upon, because really, bookshelf speakers shouldn’t be worrying too much about the low end. It’s important, but it’s something that can always be rectified with a decent subwoofer, and so we prize detail and midrange over thumping bass. Don’t get us wrong: these are still great. Just not our first choice.
See the Definitive Technology Demand Series D11
Suggested Amplifier Wattage: 30W-150W Per Channel
Driver Sizes: 6”, 1.15” Tweeter
What We Like: The customizable looks and the audio quality.
What We Don't: An extra set of panels will cost you…an extra $150 (cough).
The Italian company Sonus Faber has already made a few waves in the speaker market with its innovative designs, audio quality. Luckily their price tags are very competitive for such personalized stylings, and the Sonus faber Chameleon Bs (the upgrade to the original Chameleons) are genuine hard hitters, quality-wise. The famed Italian approach to stylish interior design has clearly rubbed off in the design concept here. We prefer the look of the KEF LS50s above, but these are nothing to sniff at. For some reason, they remind us a little of an Italian racing car - something about the angles!
The Sonus Fabers’ entire cabinets are covered in leather, driver flanges embellished with aluminium trims, and the side walls have a structure that houses exchangeable side panels, for which you have a choice of six optional colors: hence the name. Let’s be honest though, the sound quality is what you’d be spending your money on here, and this two-way system (one driver, one tweeter in each enclosure) means business, characterized by an even delivery across the frequency spectrum. Considering the slightly smaller drivers (6”) it is a no brainer that despite the more-than-capable bass content, these will blossom so much more if combined with a worthy subwoofer. Given that the B&Ws are only $1 more expensive at the time of writing, that’s our pick, but these are a worthy alternative.
See the Sonus Faber Chameleon B
Suggested Amplifier Wattage: N/A
Driver Sizes: 5.5”, 1” Tweeter
What We Like: Big sound, classic looks, wireless music streaming.
What We Don't: Top frequencies slightly subdued.
Audioengine are a company that we had to work very hard not to swamp the list with. They 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, and the HD3s below. 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. In terms of looks, you have the three bookshelf classic examples to choose from: Cherry, Walnut and Black. The ‘forward’ bit is clearly about the fact that this pair features built-in monoblock power amps (75W each), audio inputs (RCA, Minijack, Optical) and wireless Bluetooth streaming, which is great. They a much better value proposition than the (still excellent) HD3s, below.
Not just any run-of-the mill Bluetooth audio either: 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
Suggested Amplifier Wattage: 20W-250W Per Channel
Driver Sizes: 6.5“ midrange/woofer, 2.4" x 1.25” transducer
What We Like: Great soundstage and detail.
What We Don't: Unexciting sound, too expensive.
While we have a lot of respect for MartinLogan and what they do, we think these are far too expensive to rank higher in the list, especially compared with the joys you can get from models like the SVS, the B&W and the Sonus Faber. In addition, while we do think the audio quality definitely has its points, it’s far from the most exciting sound we’ve heard, with the dynamics occasionally sounding a little bit lifeless.
That’s not to say these are bad. They are, after all, on this list. And while the sound can be unexciting, what these speakers do offer is some very decent detail and precision, as well as a wide soundstage that is a joy to hear. This is largely thanks to the rectangular transducer above the woofer – an unusual choice, but one that we think (mostly) works well. It’s definitely not the best speaker available, but it’s worth a look. Also, note that if you’re buying these on Amazon, you’ll need to buy two – the listings that we’ve seen are only for one speaker, at approximately $600 each.
See the MartinLogan Motion 35
Suggested Amplifier Wattage: 25W-100W Per Channel
Driver Sizes: 5.15”, 1” Tweeter
What We Like: Terrific dynamics.
What We Don't: Don’t truly distinguish themselves from the ones above them.
If we had a choice, we probably wouldn’t pick the Wharfedale Diamond 220 over the more sonically-accurate HD6s. But that doesn’t mean they are bad, just not quite on that level. This British brand does make some truly magnificent products, and while the Diamond 220s aren’t at the very top of this list, they are still an excellent alternative in this particular price range. At $349 for a pair (and with a price that occasionally fluctuates) you’d be crazy not to get them if they pop up as a bargain.
When we listen to them, we loved the dynamics and the tightness of the bass. The 220s possess an articulation and level of detail that was extremely impressive. Paired with a good amplifier, these will quickly become the heart and soul of any audiophile setup. It must be said that we aren’t wild about the design, but that’s down to personal preference more than anything else, and we can certainly see them fitting quite happily into most rooms. They’re certainly an improvement on the clunky predecessor! Not the best… But when you have models this good, that’s not necessarily a serious problem.
See the Wharfedale Diamond 220
Suggested Amplifier Wattage: 100W-400W Per Channel
Driver Sizes: 6.5” woofer, 1” Tweeter
What We Like: A great upgrade on an already great line.
What We Don’t: Still not really good for big rooms.
The RP-160M speakers build on a very audio speaker legacy, as well as the company’s renowned reliability and functionality. They have a reasonably high sensitivity, meaning the volume they put out is very good, especially for larger rooms. Compare their 96dB sensitivity to that of the SVS and the KEF at numbers one and two on this list, both of which are less than 90dB, and you get the picture.
With a peak power rating of 400 watts, these will be able to handle just about any amp you can throw at them, although we wouldn’t advise using one that puts out less than 100 watts per channel continuous. The gold and black design and the trademark horn enclosure really do set the sound apart, delivering rich, glorious audio that will satisfy just about anybody. If you haven’t had the pleasure of checking these out, do, because for the price, the audio delivery of the RP-610Ms is close to stunning. They aren’t the flashiest of speakers, but in audio terms, they offer phenomenal bang for the buck, and we think they’re very deserving of a place on this list.
See the Klipsch RP-160M
Suggested Amplifier Wattage: 20-150W Per Channel
Driver Sizes: 5.25” woofer, 1” Tweeter
Weight (Each): 12.3lbs
What We Like: Great sound, terrific clarity.
What We Don’t: Perhaps a little underpowered?
We criminally left PSB off this list before – an oversight that our fans on Facebook quickly gave us hell about. We are pleased to say that after having heard a pair, we think they deserve a spot here. The design may recall that of the Klipsch models like the RP-160M above, but the Imagine XB is a model all on its own.
The biggest selling point here is the careful tuning and build that has gone into creating this, meaning you get clarity that is absolutely second to none. Although these aren’t what you’d call reference-grade speakers – as in, completely neutral – what they offer is realism and life that has to be heard to be believed. Although we think they’re are tiny bit underpowered, and don’t get as loud as we’d like, they still managed to deliver some of the better audio quality on this list. And if you do like the sound, and want to kit out your room with PSB audio equipment, the company offers plenty of other speaker types
See the PSB Imagine XB
Suggested Amplifier Wattage: N/A
Driver Sizes: 2.75”, 0.75” Tweeter
What We Like: Splendid ease-of-use, great Bluetooth sound, solid bass.
What We Don't: Not super loud.
Remember what we said about flooding the list with Audioengine? Well, we restrained ourselves, but we couldn’t resist sneaking in the younger brother of the HD6s. The HD3s are a pair of Bluetooth powered desktop speakers, tiny and compact, and although we were sceptical of Bluetooth audio, they won us over.
In our full review, we said, “There’s no denying that the HD3s are pricey. At $399 on Amazon for a pair, you’ve got to be pretty keen on getting an upgrade to your existing system to buy them. But it will be one hell of an upgrade, and given how well-designed they are, and how excellent the overall sound quality, we got no hesitation in giving these a big thumbs up.” Their small size and subsequent volume limitations stop them from challenging the big dogs on this list, but if you simply want a pair of Bluetooth speakers to go on either side of your laptop, these are absolutely the ones you should go for. And by the way, set up and connection as a total breeze. Read our in-depth review.
See the Audioengine HD3
Suggested Amplifier Wattage: 25W-120W Per Channel
Driver Sizes: 6.5”, 2.25” Radiator (instead of a Tweeter)
What We Like: Audiophile-grade sound for less.
What We Don't: Nothing. We’re fans.
We are fans of Cambridge Audio here at the TMS. Mostly renowned for their smart wireless systems, the Aero 2 represents one of their more traditional designs. Or does it? Although very much your average bookshelf speakers in looks, the Aero 2s hide an innovation or two up their collective sleeves. The curiously-named Balanced Mode Radiator for instance. Handling far lower frequencies than just the sparkly tops normally reserved for tweeters, they are the key to the sound of this pair.
The reason for the use of the BMR is the all-important frequency cross-over point, which is like the border between two neighbouring nations (normally the main driver and the tweeter). The human ear easily picks up such frequency transitions if they are quite high in the spectrum (or crudely implemented). Since the BMR isn’t a tweeter, but a mini speaker driver, covering the frequency range from a much lower point than a regular tweeter, it allows the woofer to be entirely optimised for efficient bass response, effectively becoming a subwoofer. The result? A silky portrayal of mid and top frequencies, which are so crucial for recorded human voice, guitar, string instruments and so much more. For the price, these are stupendously good speakers and represent a brave engineering concept.
See the Cambridge Audio Aero 2
Suggested Amplifier Wattage: 25W-125W Per Channel
Driver Sizes: 7“ midrange/woofer, 1” tweeter
What We Like: Decent update…
What We Don't: …but doesn’t quite go far enough.
On a previous version of this list, we featured the original Dali Zensor, saying, “The Dali Zensor 1s are perfectly formed, and if perhaps not the biggest or the loudest of the pack, they deliver exactly what you’d expect: honest clarity, and no hype or pretence.” While we love those speakers, and hoped to put subsequent versions higher on the list, we just don’t think this quite gets there.
You still get some very decent specs. The woofer is larger, by nearly a whole two inches, and you get some additional sensitivity and power handling. Is that really worth an extra two hundred bucks? Um. Look: these are very good speakers, and will do one hell of a job, but there’s absolutely no reason that you shouldn’t seek out an earlier version of these, unless you absolutely need that smidgen of increased power. We did enjoy hearing these, but we like our updates to be a little bit more impactful. These aren’t iPhones we’re talking about.
See the Dali Zensor 3
Suggested Amplifier Wattage: 230W+ Per Channel
Driver Sizes: 5.25" woofer, 4" midrange, 1" tweeter
What We Like: A modern classic, highly reliable.
What We Don't: Overpriced, needs a powerful amp.
Although they're a little bit old, and we think they still cost a bit too much, the Pioneers, with their innovative triple-driver up-firing design, are still the model of choice for many. This is because they deliver rounded, powerful sound with good depth and detail, and are absolutely dead simple to use. Although to be honest, they aren’t nearly as good as something like PSBs, which offer more refined sound.
They do, however, have some tricks. interesting part is the up firing Dolby Atmos driver, making these ideal for use in a home theater setup, perhaps as a pair of front or height speakers to reflect the audio off the ceiling. We wouldn’t make them your first option for this – we think the treble is a little harsh and overcooked, and we thought (and still think) it was overhyped when it was released, but the ‘Spebs’ is still a very, very good speaker. Plus, in all the time we've known about these, we've never known one to break. Even after prolonged use. If reliability is what you want, then these are what you should go for. Oh, and they regularly undergo price cuts, so watch Amazon for bargains.
See the Pioneer Elite SP-EBS73
Suggested Amplifier Wattage: 25-75W Per Channel
Driver Sizes: 5” woofer, 1” Tweeter
What We Like: Solid performance at a good price.
What We Don’t: Drastically overhyped.
The 3020s have had quite a bit of hype in their release life. We don’t think all of it is justified – for all their charms, these aren’t going to trouble the upper reaches of this list. Instead, what you have here is a good, solid, basic bookshelf speaker system that delivers quality sound at an affordable price. Better than the HD3s though? Probably not.
We do like the low end, which is helped along by a driver that incorporates some interesting materials, like “paper and aramid fibres”. Overall, the sound is rich and clear, with a sense of heft and weight that we’ve come to expect from Q Acoustics. These are far from the best speakers on this list, but they offer lovely detail, and the build quality is excellent. That being said, these do feel slightly longer than most bookshelf speakers, so take their dimensions into account while you’re planning. All in all: a solid entry for Q Acoustics, and we can’t wait to see what they do next. Be warned: their availability fluctuates on Amazon; at least they’re selling well! Be prepared to go direct if this is the case.
See the Q Acoustics 3020
And For When You Win The Lottery...
Suggested Amplifier Wattage: 50W+ Per Channel
Driver Sizes: 7”, 1” tweeter
What We Like: Extraordinary sound.
What We Don’t: Billionaires only.
Some things in life are just plain ridiculous. $25K for a pair of bookshelf speakers is right up there. Magico is an ultra-exclusive speaker brand, and you're not going to find these bumming around eBay, but if you ever strike it big, then you should check them out. And by the way, they don't go on bookshelves. They come with specially-modded, acoustically-dampening stands that make your sound extra-crispy...
As you'd imagine, the quality of these is just on another planet - reviewers have reported almost religious experiences while listening to them. We’d love to say we were among them… But, shockingly, Magico have yet to contact us to offer us a review model. In any case, Alan Sircom of HiFi+ reported that “Rival manufacturers will need a solution that challenges this speaker, fast.” God knows what they plan to do. Short of sacrificing to the dread god Baphomet whenever you turn the power on, you’re probably not going to get sound much better than this.
See the Magico Q1
Suggested Amplifier Wattage: Unknown
Driver Sizes: 8”woofer, 4” midrange, 1” Tweeter
What We Like: Crystal-clear audio.
What We Don’t: Definitely not for everybody!
Technically halfway between bookshelf and floorstanding, but who cares? We should say that we’ve seen the price fluctuate on these – from $10,000 to $4,000. They are definitely not available on Amazon, but if you can get them for a low price, you’re in for a bargain. These are some of the best bookshelf speakers available.
With three drivers, which incorporate ultra-light and ultra-stiff beryllium dome tweeters for advanced detail in the highs, you’re not likely to find much to complain about here. The sound has to be heard to be believed, with an extraordinary depth and texture. While these might not quite touch the heights of the $25,000 Magico Q1s, they are still among the best out there. Although pro tip: you’re going to want to spring a couple of grand for the optional stands, because there’s no way you’re going to nestle something this good and solid earth.
See the Revel Gem2
|SVS Ultra||$999||20W-150W||8Ω||1 x 6.5", 1 x 1"||87dB||19lbs|
|KEF LS50||$1,200||25W-100W||8Ω||5”, 1” Tweeter||85dB||15.8lbs|
|ELAC B6 Debut||$280||30W-120W||6Ω||1 x 6.5", 1 x 1"||87dB||14.3lbs|
|Bowers & Wilkins 686 S2||$900||25W-100W||8Ω||1 x 5", 1 x 1"||85dB||10.1lbs|
|Def. Tech. D. Series D11||$999||20W-200W||8Ω||1 x 6.5", 1 x 6", 1 x 1"||90dB||15lbs|
|Sonus Faber Chameleon B||$899||30W-150W||4Ω||1 x 6.5", 1 x 1.15"||87dB||5.5lbs|
|Audioengine HD6||$749||N/A||N/A||1 x 5.5", 1 x 1"||Unknown||37.9lbs|
|MartinLogan Motion 35||$1,200||20W-250W||4Ω||1 x 6.5", 1 x (2.4" x 1.25”)||93dB||18.5lbs|
|Wharfedale Diamond 220||$349||25W-100W||4Ω||1 x 5.15", 1 x 1"||86dB||11.7lbs|
|Klipsch RP-160M||$438||100W-400W||8Ω||1 x 6.5", 1 x 1"||96dB||19.9lbs|
|PSB Imagine XB||$500||20W - 150W||8Ω||1 x 5.25", 1 x 1"||89dB||12.3lbs|
|Audioengine HD3||$399||N/A||N/A||1 x 2.75", 1 x 0.75"||Unknown||11.7lbs|
|Cambridge Audio Aero 2||$250||25W-120W||8Ω||1 x 6.5", 1 x 2.25"||90dB||15lbs|
|Dali Zensor 3||$595||25W-125W||6Ω||1 x 7", 1 x 1"||88dB||13.9lbs|
|Pioneer Elite SP-EBS73||$498||230W+||4Ω||1 x 5.25", 1 x 4", 1 x 1"||85dB||15.7lbs|
|Q Acoustics 3020||$290||25-75W||6Ω||1 x 5", 1 x 1"||88dB||10.1lbs|
|Magico Q1||$25K||50W+||5Ω||1 x 7", 1 x 1"||86dB||60lbs|
|Revel Gem2||$10K||Unknown||6Ω||1 x 8", 1 x 4", 1 x 1"||86.4dB||32lbs|
*SAW = Suggested Amplifier Wattage
**Imp. = Impedance
- What Are Bookshelf 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
- Placement Explained
- Speaker Stands Explained
Bookshelf speakers are designed to be used as part of a discrete audio system. You are not 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 bookshop; they’re meant to be off on their own, away from everything else. Typically, these are easy to spot. They’re big, boxy, and usually have one small driver (the tweeter) and one big one (the woofer). You can usually cover these with a mesh grille, which makes them a little easier on the eye.
Prior to the 1960’s, 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 without exception floorstanding models – huge, bulky and very expensive.
This was until bookshelf speakers were invented and popularized (by Edgar Villchur at Acoustic Research), and their name really 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 designs and 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 actually 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 smaller 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 hifi 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.
Bookshelf speakers are traditionally Passive, meaning that they need to be powered by an external amplifier. A classic hifi 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 clearcut when matching passive speakers to an external amp, as you’d ideally have to know whether they are compatible. The good news is that the vast majority of bookshelf speakers follow the traditional specs – they’d be between thirty and fifty watts each, making a stereo pair perfectly matched to regular A/V receivers or hifi amps.
We always advise to trust your ears - if something is not sounding completely right, it probably means that there is a reason for it. A common sonic artifact 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 half way) 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’.
Just like with wattage, you’d rarely need to worry about impedance figures as they are largely optimized for regular home audio setups. Those rare instances where you might to match impedance would be in situations where you happen to have two pairs of bookshelf speakers and want to string them up to one power amp. You’d need to make sure that your amp or A/V receiver has a 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 4 ohms, the rule goes that when the amp is working at 8 ohms (powering a pair of 8 ohm speakers), it can only deliver half the wattage of its 4 ohm potential – which in this case would be 50 watts. This might sound too much like a maths 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 8 ohm speakers, as the combined impedance of the four 8 ohm speakers to 4 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 96dB Klipsch RP-160M – 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.
Back up for a second. We’re assuming that you already have an amplifier (and of course a media source such as CD player, 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 a very long way away (over 50 feet), you might be better off with a ticker wire (12 or 14 gauge), which is also recommended for lower impedance speakers (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, please, 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 the their sealed design and internal woofers can only manage certain bass frequencies.
Adding a sub 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).
To be honest, 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 is 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 really is that most bookshelf speakers are sold in pairs – for a classic 5.1 set up 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.
Very often 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.
Speaking of ‘tuning’, as noted in our list, some cheaper models may have some 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 and so on.
Not surprisingly, many hifi stores demo their products on speaker stands. These really improve the stereo imaging and the frequency response. 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 will at least for sure make the music sounding a tiny bit better!