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Published Jul. 19, 2021

Despite the prevalence of wireless earbuds and portable Bluetooth speakers, there’s something new in the air. That something is high-quality, space-filling audio—the kind of rich response you find in the best bookshelf speakers. While many still listen to music on budget ’buds and battery-powered “smart” speakers, there’s a growing appreciation for lossless, immersive audio on streaming services — like Apple’s Spatial Audio — multidimensional home theater, and analog warmth from vinyl and even cassettes. And higher fidelity is often accompanied by an appreciation for listening on top-notch systems. Regardless of the source, the best bookshelf speakers present audio with a true stereo soundstage and a vastly improved sound compared to your computer speakers, TV speakers, and most compact wireless speakers.  

What to consider when shopping for the best bookshelf speakers

Bookshelf speakers—sometimes called standmount speakers because they’re often placed on stands rather than shelves—are smaller and usually less expensive than floor-standing speakers. Their relative affordability is because bookshelf speakers may have a more narrow frequency range, less power, and less presence in the low-end than the best floor-standing speakers, but that doesn’t mean their sound quality is significantly less than that of floor-standers, which can be overkill and unimpressive if you don’t have a properly sized, optimized space or won’t play them loudly enough to make them necessary. 

For small to mid-sized rooms at middle-to-mildly loud volumes, bookshelf speakers stand at the locus between price, footprint, and performance, while also presenting an enormous amount of options in the price range, design, and features. That means there’s something for everyone, but also there are several factors to consider, including size, price, appearance, and compatibility with the devices and electronics you will use with the speakers. 

Bookshelf speakers are not standardized in size to all fit on, say, the average Ikea bookshelf. They vary in dimensions, so figure out where you will put them and measure the height, width, and depth you have available for the speakers. Also settle on your target price range, since bookshelf speakers can cost tens of dollars on the low side and thousands of dollars at the top of the line. 

The devices from which you want to playback on the bookshelf speakers will also inform your decision. If you’re a vinyl lover, you’ll need phono inputs for a turntable. If you want the convenience of streaming from your phone, you’ll need Bluetooth or some other wireless capability, and so on.

The visual style of a bookshelf speaker set may be the first priority for some and the last for others, but with all other factors being equal, you will still have a variety of speaker aesthetic designs from which to choose, so pick something you’ll be happy to see every day in what’s likely to be a prominent place in the space the speakers occupy. 

Finally, you have to know whether to purchase passive or active (powered) speakers. The last thing you want to do is to buy a set of passive speakers that you thought were active, or vice versa.

Passive vs. powered bookshelf speakers

Before shopping for bookshelf speakers, you must know the difference between passive and active—also known as powered—speakers. Passive speakers require some kind of external amplification from an audio/video receiver, digital audio converter (DAC), or amplifier component. Passive speakers tend to only have speaker wire hook-ups that connect to the amplifier, which has inputs for your audio devices and other electronics. 

On the other hand, active speakers are powered with internal amplification, thus the “powered” label. Active speakers also have all their own connections for audio or even video devices, but the quantity and variety of those connections are features that differentiate sets of powered speakers and also can affect their price. 

Audiophiles often lean toward passive speakers because they allow the users to try out different amplifiers and DACs and to upgrade components as their taste or budget dictates, all while keeping the same speakers. Passive speakers don’t have to plug into a power outlet, which may open up more placement options for them in your space. Without the internal amp electronics, passive speakers can be lighter and possibly smaller than active speakers while offering comparable sound.  

Active speakers’ advantages include simplicity of setup and fewer overall components and cables. Theoretically, the amplifier within a set of powered speakers should already be a good match for the speakers’ capability. 

Whether you opt for passive or active speakers, there are plenty of options at all price ranges to suit a variety of needs. And both passive and powered bookshelf speakers can pump out the kind of satisfyingly spacious stereo sound that single-unit Wi-Fi and Bluetooth speakers, TVs, and laptops cannot match. 

Do you want more bass?

The smaller size of bookshelf speakers imposes some natural limitations on the bass that emanates from them. Woofer sizes in the speaker systems in this round-up range from 4 inches to 5.25 inches. Bookshelf speaker woofers don’t come much larger than that, and they have to take care of mid-range frequencies alongside the low end. Even though some bookshelf speakers exhibit impressive bass response, the physical size of a woofer within a speaker does matter for moving enough air to create the kind of low-end thump that shakes the room while you’re shaking your butt. Boosting the bass through EQ can have some effect, but won’t let you exceed a speaker’s inherent limits. Too much EQ boosting in the low-end can result in subtle-to-nasty distortions.

Larger floor-standing speakers have larger low-end drivers on average than bookshelf speakers, so they are capable of more rumbling responses. However, they also tend to cost more and take up more space. 

Bookshelf speaker users can instead add a subwoofer to their system. Subwoofers are dedicated to low frequencies, usually in the 20-200Hz range. When paired with a bookshelf speaker system, subwoofers almost always extend the frequency range of the system lower and relieve strained bookshelf speaker woofers of the burden of creating all of the bass tones. With a subwoofer, you can crank the bass higher without distortion to experience the full power and presence of music, movies, and games that the artists originally intended.

Once you commit to expanding your frequency horizons with a subwoofer, any choice you make will let you enjoy the low-end of your music and other audio not just in the auditory space, but also in the physical space with bass response that you can feel.

The best bookshelf speakers

An excellent set of bookshelf speakers will enhance your listening experience with a wider stereo image and a richer, more vibrant sound than what you get from a TV, laptop, or the average connected speaker. There is abundant variety in this category, so the following list identifies the best bookshelf speakers for different situations, desires, and budgets.

Best for audiophiles: KEF LS50 Meta

Return of the Kings

A revered bookshelf speakers is updated with even greater accuracy and detail. KEF

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KEF speakers, particularly 2012’s LS50, have dazzled audiophiles for years, but the updated LS50 Meta two-way bass-reflex speakers take the stunning clarity of sound to an even higher level. A new 12th-generation Uni-Q driver, which embeds the 1-inch tweeter within the 5.25-inch woofer to give the LS50 Meta ($1,499 a pair) a stark, single-cone look, integrated with new, proprietary Metamaterial Absorption Technology (MAT) for reducing distortion. The result is a beautiful design and an even more satisfying sound. The speakers deliver a frequency response of 47Hz-45kHz and a maximum output of 106dB from a relatively compact enclosure of 11.89 inches (H) by 7.87 inches (W) by 10.94 inches (D). Because the LS50 Meta is a passive system you’ll need to supply it ample power, and the NAD D 3045 is an excellent, unobtrusive 60W-per-channel hybrid amp/DAC for building a system that projects powerful sound without taking up much space (it’s also a convenient hub for digital and analog connections, plus adds a subwoofer output).

Best for cinephiles: Klipsch The Fives

Socket To Me

Generous connectivity lets these speakers unify your entire entertainment system. Klipsch

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The Fives ($600 a pair) flaunt a retro-chic style in both black and walnut finishes, but they also accommodate a technologically diverse modern lifestyle with connections for your turntable (RCA phono/line), mobile devices (Bluetooth and line Aux input), gaming consoles (digital optical), computer (USB), and, most uniquely, your TV (HDMI ARC). Just connect your flatscreen, set the output to PCM stereo, and you’ll get to enjoy video accompanied with rich mids and clarity emanating from the 1-inch titanium dome LTS tweeter and long-throw 4.5-inch woofer. You select the input from a dial on these powered speakers or from the remote control, which can also control your TV’s volume, a rarity for bookshelf speakers. The Fives are somewhat large for bookshelf speakers at 18.5 inches by 17.5 inches by 13.5 inches, but they get loud. Their maximum output reaches 109dB with a frequency range of 50Hz-25kHz. For even more thunderous vibes from movies, games, and music, connect a subwoofer from The Fives’ Sub Out. Two subwoofers that have earned reputations for an all-around excellent low-frequency roar include the $129 Polk Audio PSW10 10-inch subwoofer, which delivers 100W of power and a frequency response of 40-160Hz from a simple, all-black cube design that can fit into most home listening setups. For a step up in power, size, and price, with an appropriate step down into the lowest depths of bass, try the $299 BIC America Acoustech PL-200II 12-inch powered subwoofer, a 1000W behemoth with a gut-punching 22-200Hz frequency response.

Best for cord haters: Audioengine A2+ Wireless

Compact Cordless

Get the highest level of convenience for the smallest of spaces. Audioengine

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Audioengine combines a non-intrusive footprint of 6 inches by 4 inches by 5.25 inches with versatile connectivity and crisp sound in the A2+ Wireless powered speakers for bookshelves and desktops. This small set ($269 a pair) utilizes ¾-inch silk dome tweeters and 2.75-inch aramid fiber woofers, with a 60W peak power total, max output of 88dB, and a frequency response of 65Hz-22kHz. There are analog RCA and minijack connections, as well as USB for computer audio. But the juice comes from Bluetooth 5.0 for compatibility with high-quality audio streaming codecs like aptX HD for Android users (up to 570 kpbs) and AAC for iOS users (up to 256 kpbs, with no additional loss from conversion).

Best for minimalists: Sonos Five

Smart Simplicity

These speakers connect through the air, alone or in pairs. Sonos

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Three tweeters and three woofers help the most powerful speaker from Sonos stake the best claim to providing stereo sound from a single, horizontally placed unit. In addition, placing two Sonos Five speakers ($1,000 a pair) vertically automatically pairs them to emit beautiful, true stereo separation with a wider soundstage. In the vertical position, one Five speaker takes up 14.33 inches by 8.03 inches by 6.06 inches of space, and its output has been measured at approximately 23Hz-18.8kHz for the frequency range and a peak volume of 94dB. A single line input lets you connect turntables, disc players, and more, but the Sonos Five thrives on being its own source using Wi-Fi (or wired Ethernet) for playback of streaming audio over Apple AirPlay 2 and the Sonos S2 app, which purportedly integrates hundreds of streaming services for listening to music, podcasts, audiobooks, and Internet radio. Also, optimized placement is far less labor-intensive than with some standard speakers, consider there’s no stringing of speaker wire or fiddling with EQs as Trueplay software tunes the Five based on the acoustics of your room.

Best for music producers: PreSonus Eris E4.5

Make and Pump Hits

These cover creatives as both studio monitors and everyday playback speakers. PreSonus

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Small-studio musicians, producers, and DJs alike love the PreSonus Eris E4.5 powered monitors for their accurate, reference-level sound coming from compact speakers that merge studio monitor and bookshelf speaker attributes. The Eris E4.5 ($200 a pair) has both bare speaker wire inputs, RCA inputs, and balanced ¼-inch inputs, as well as a front-facing power switch, volume control, headphone jack, and aux input. Its 4.5-inch, woven-composite woofer, and 1-inch silk-dome tweeter pump out a maximum volume of an even 100dB with a frequency response of 70Hz-20kHz. The 9.45 inches by 6.42 inches by 7.09 inches monitors also come in a Bluetooth-equipped model for $30 more, but if you have a little extra space and don’t need the front-panel features, also check out the Pioneer DJ VM-50 studio monitors if you’re building a more traditional workstation/listening post.

Best for under $100: Edifier R1280T

C-note Stereo

Look no further for the best-performing bookshelf speakers for limited budgets. Edifer

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While there are even lower-priced bookshelf speakers, the compact and attractive wood-veneer Edifier R1280T delivers a surprisingly warm and balanced sound for just under $100 so that music lovers on any budget can enjoy a step up in sound. These powered speakers take up only 9.5 inches by 6.9 inches by 5.8 inches of space and come with cables for the two aux inputs, a remote control, and removable cloth grilles. The maximum output is 96dB with a frequency range of 75Hz-18kHz coming from the 4-inch woofer and 13mm (roughly a half-inch) silk dome tweeter. For $10 more, you can score the R1280Ts with subwoofer output so you can boost that bass.

Best for tuning up tuning in: Tivoli Audio Model One Digital (Gen. 2)

Boxed Up Not Boxed In

The Tivoli Audio Model One Digital (Gen. 2) puts a retromodern spin on a wireless speaker. Tivoli Audio

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The DNA of the Tivoli Audio Model One Digital (Gen. 2) traces back to 2005 and a mid-century-styled tabletop radio. The latest permutation of that analog original, however, adds AirPlay 2 and Google Chromecast to increase the connectivity and clarity for audiophiles (and others) who have embraced streaming. The Tivoli Audio Model One Digital (Gen. 2) (which we thoroughly reviewed here) can still pick up DAB/FM radio broadcasts, but it can also present anything your smartphone throws at it with a rich, detailed response. Admittedly, this speaker isn’t stereo and won’t have anywhere near as robust a presentation as others in this round-up. But not every bookshelf is a big bookshelf and sometimes you just want a convenient concert for one in the living room, kitchen, etc. Perfect to nestle between art books or cookbooks, this is a compact wireless speaker that sounds as good as it looks. And it looks gooooooood.

FAQs

Q:

What should I look for when buying bookshelf speakers?

When buying bookshelf speakers, the main attributes to look for are the size, price, appearance, and compatibility to fit your needs. There is also the consideration between passive and active speakers. First, decide where you want to put the speakers and figure out the speaker height, width, and depth that will fit into that space since bookshelf speakers vary a fair amount in size. Also decide how much you’re willing to spend, as bookshelf speakers can cost less than a hundred or all the way up to thousands of dollars. You also need to make sure prospective purchases have the connectivity you want, whether it’s phono inputs for a turntable, Bluetooth for wireless streaming, and so on. If you want to purchase or already have a stereo receiver or amplifier, you can opt for passive speakers; otherwise, you will need active speakers, which are already powered with amplification. Finally, with all your other needs met, you can choose the speakers whose looks best match your style.

Q:

Do bookshelf speakers sound good?

When it comes to sound quality, bookshelf speakers occupy the space between larger and more expensive floor standing speakers at the top of the food chain and lesser options such as single-unit Bluetooth speakers and the built-in speakers of your computer, TV, phone, or tablet. Bookshelf speakers also range in price from about $25 at the obscenely low end to $25,000 a pair for some of the most expensive audiophile speakers. So the sound quality among the massive number of available bookshelf speaker systems varies significantly. However, in general, all of them give you the advantage of listening to true stereo speakers and many of them do sound quite good. At a minimum, they represent a step up from the built-in speakers of TVs, computers, and mobile devices.

Q:

Are Dayton Audio speakers good?

Affordable bookshelf speakers like the popular Dayton Audio B652 and B652 Air are not the absolute best speakers sonically, but they consistently rate as one of the best buys for low-cost, passive bookshelf speakers. They earn praise for both their respectable build quality and a sound signature that includes decent bass and smooth high frequencies for their price. The B652 Air set adds a ribbon tweeter for a more accurate treble definition.

The final word on choosing the best bookshelf stereo system for you

Bookshelf speakers offer a relatively quick and painless way to improve your audio listening experience, beating built-in device speakers and single-unit wireless speakers without having to give up the expense and real estate that floor-standing speakers require. Finding the best bookshelf speakers for you comes down to settling on your preferences for size, price, connectivity, and style and then narrowing down the wealth of options that exist as both passive and powered bookshelf speakers.

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