Good bookshelf speakers are a must for every music lover. They’re timeless and classic, but they’re still the life of the party. Nobody can deny their functionality, yet we all kind of take them for granted. But first, let’s go back to the basics.
In this article, we’ll tell you all about bookshelf speakers, what to look for when buying them, as well as what the best speakers available are at the moment.
Why bookshelf speakers?
Firstly, what makes bookshelf speakers… well, bookshelf speakers?
Their name suggests it already. They’re loudspeakers designed to be placed on an elevated surface area, such as a bookshelf. These speakers aren’t known for their excruciating loudness, but they are known for having crisp, high-quality sound and being great value for money. Their elevated position allows them to deliver great sound quality throughout your room.
That, of course, requires the speakers to actually be good. That’s what we’re here for, though, to tell you what makes a speaker good and help you cut through the noise and shortlist.
A bit of history
Bookshelf speakers started their journey in the 1950s with the advent of home sound systems and have been popular with audiophiles ever since. Originally, speakers would have been sizeable floor-standing beasts, relying on their mass and size to produce quality sound. It wasn’t until the 1960’s and really the 1970’s that smaller “bookshelf speakers” became popular, although in fairness these were pretty damn big too. Although they were much more expensive back then, their demand was high and boomed as modern techologies and mass production reduced their size even further in the 90’s.
Luckily, now bookshelf speakers are more accessible, as well as affordable. Pretty much every typical household can afford to own a pair; believe it or not, you can even get a fairly decent set complete with built-in amplifier for less than $100. Now don’t get me wrong – those sub-$100 speakers won’t please the ears of a true audiophile, nor anyone who’s seriously into their music, but we are fortunate enough to be living in an era where relatively excellent sound is no longer only for the elitists – you can even afford to buy your mum a decent set so you don’t have to suffer the tinny sounds when you visit for dinner.
The Main Features of Bookshelf Speakers
Before you actually go out and buy any speakers, even if they seem like the best buy speakers, you should learn what their main features are and what some of the specifications mean.
Most bookshelf speakers have similar features, but there are some differences that you should be aware of. We’ll discuss this in the next couple of paragraphs.
Passive or Active?
Passive speakers require a power amplifier in order to work. Classic bookshelf speakers are usually passive, which means that they won’t work on their own and require an amp. Most bookshelf speakers are passive, although we are starting to find more quality “active” speakers entering the market, which are ideal for those who have little space or, for whatever reason, like to move their speakers from place to place such as for parties.
Active bookshelf speakers are self-powered. They don’t require a power amplifier (or receiver), because they already have one built-in. The only thing you need to do is connect the speakers to the audio feed, typically with an RCA or a standard jack or even wirelessly.
Wired or Wireless?
There’s a certain stigma surrounding wireless speakers. Many people say that their sound quality is poor and that it could never reach the quality level of wired or analog speakers. However, whilst they might not be suitable yet for the needs of a fussy audiophile, this kind of thinking is quite outdated. Nowadays, technology is so advanced that almost anything imaginable is possible, including decent wireless speakers.
Much as these wireless speakers are incredibly popular, we’ll not be covering them in this piece as there are not many budget wireless bookshelf speaker systems on the market that can compare to wired (there are however great wireless soundbar speakers which we will cover in another guide).
Understanding bookshelf speaker specifications
Speaker specifications can be confusing. If you’re a budget audiophile the main two sound specs you should be looking at are sensitivity and wattage.
Wattage is the operating electrical power of the speaker. We start with it first, because it is the most commonly cited spec (however not necessarily the most important!). While browsing through different models of speakers and their specs, you’ve probably come across the ‘wattage’ section. Every speaker has its own wattage and wattage range. But what does that mean for you, the buyer and user?
Wattage is not the only factor when it comes to volume. Sensitivity (dB) is actually more important.
Assuming it is a passive speaker, that means that you’ll need an amplifier that puts out a wattage range suitable those speakers. If you don’t, you run the risk of blowing out your speakers or ruining your drivers. And believe us, you don’t want that (see impedance for more details).
Always look at the RMS or “Continuous Power” value – if a manufacturer only provides “peak power” a good ballpark is that RMS is around 30%; so 150W peak power is approximately 50W RMS. To get an idea of how loud your speaker will go, you’ll need to consider the sensitivity value which we’ll look at next.
Sensitivity of the speaker drivers basically tells us how loud a speaker can go with a unit of wattage. The measure is given out in decibels (dB). This feature enables you to compare speakers according to their loudness, however it is also related to Wattage; the dB rating is what can be delivered with 1 Watt of power – that’s why some brands also use the term “efficiency” to describe dB.
The higher the sensitivity, generally, the louder the speaker is. When looking for speakers, 88dB is about average, below 84dB is poor and above 92dB is excellent.
Without going into too much detail, you need to know both wattage and sensitivity to know how loud your speaker will go – very often, the speaker with the largest wattage is not the loudest due to poor sensitivity 😉
The impedance of a speaker is also something that’s important at the high end, though it’s kind of complicated to explain and not overly important for us due to the type of speakers we review which are generally a bit more budget-friendly. Impedance is resistance to power and the lower the impedance, the less resistance the speaker gives to electricity. Lower impedance allows electricity to flow through the speaker more easily.
Although that may be true, you need to be careful about matching the speaker impedance with the amplifier. For example, a 4-ohm speaker is insanely powerful and therefore requires a much more powerful amplifier. Standard bookshelf speakers usually have 6 or 8 ohms and most amplifiers within your price range will suffice. Still, you need to make sure that the amplifier matches, to avoid blowing everything out.
If you connect a speaker to an amp that is too powerful, you risk blowing it almost immediately. If you connect a speaker to an amp that is too weak, you risk blowing it by demanding too much from the amp, turning it up and sending distortion to the speaker. We don’t want either! So always look at the recommended amplifier power for your speaker.
The main other audio specification of interest is frequency range – the larger, the better. The lower the number of Hz, the deeper the bass and the higher, the higher the highs. However bear in mind range of audible frequencies for humans is 20Hz to 20,000 Hz. More or less than that and it won’t really matter!
And finally, look at feature specifications such as connectivity – if you’re using your speakers in a standard bookshelf setup, whereby the speakers are connected to an amplifier/receiver then this is not an issue, however if you’re looking at active speakers you’ll want to check if it’s a good fit for your needs. Does it have the connections you need? Do they have bluetooth connectivity?
A final note on speaker specifications
Sadly, not all speaker manufacturer provide the spec’s we’d like to know for “easy” comparison – and even if we do have all the specs, they don’t necessarily equate to quality.
Your listening habits and home environment
The problem with specifications is that they can only tell you so much, and they are often unreliable and differ from manufacturer to manufacturer. They can only provide limited insight as to their quality, definition and how suitable they might be for your use case.
One of the first things you need to consider when buying speakers is the environment in which you are going to use them. Is it a large or small space? Are you listening to EDM or classical? Or do you plan on integrating them into a home cinema system for watching movies?
Hard and glossy surfaces are bad news for sound. So if you’re in a tiled room with wall to wall windows consider a rug and set of curtains or drapes to calm that echo.
Size (and weight) matters: For great sound, you need to make sure your speakers are positioned correctly and securely – is your bookshelf big enough? Is it strong enough? Or do you need speaker stands? Have you got space for speaker stands? Do you need speakers that can be wall-mounted? Are your walls strong enough? These are all things you should consider from the get-go as squeezing your speaker into an unsuitable space is never desirable.
If your room is large and spacious, you’re going to want larger, beefier speakers to fill that space. Possibly even consider floor-standing speakers. However, remember that speakers which are too large will perform poorly in a small space and sound muddy.
Usage matters: For listening to classical music you will be seeking clarity and detail (the Bose 201 speakers are good for those on a budget), whilst EDM listeners will likely give heavier weighting to bass and volume (most likely adding a subwoofer). Do you plan to move your speakers regularly? Then you might want to consider the all-in-one active speakers or even a bluetooth soundbar.
So, what makes the best bookshelf speakers? Is it the wirelessness, the price, or the sensitivity? That’s your call.
There are so many different bookshelf speakers on the market right now, and they all vary when it comes to cost and specifications. One thing is for sure, though — you need to do your research before purchasing the speakers. Here’s some advice — it’s easier if you know what you want; is space or volume important? Clarity or cost?
So, if you’re in the mood to buy yourself a pair of these (g)oldies, you’re in luck. We’ve got lists of the top speakers on the market under $200 and reviewed the best bookshelf speakers under $500.