A “bookshelf” speaker is a type of home hi-fi or home theater loudspeaker that is small enough to sit on an open shelf or table or be placed on stands designed for such speakers. Despite their name, these speakers really shouldn’t actually be placed inside enclosed bookshelves – for reasons we really can’t get into here, it’s never a good idea to place a cabinet (in this case, a loudspeaker) inside another cabinet (the typically enclosed bookshelf)…it is truly a recipe for sonic disaster.
No, to be most effective, bookshelf speakers should be treated to their own high-quality stands and positioned into the listening space a bit, as opposed to sitting close to the wall. Indeed, if space in your listening room is tight and you’re looking for a hi-fi speaker solution that won’t necessarily break the bank, bookshelf models may just be the ticket.
In this buying guide and FAQ summary, we’re going to cover just about everything you need to know about selecting bookshelf speakers at every price range under $100, under $200, and $300 – and what to watch out for along the way.
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Factors to Keep an Eye On When Shopping for Bookshelf Speakers
Bookshelf speakers, like every other type of loudspeaker, come with an array of basic factors to consider, preferably before they’re purchased; whether it’s a bookshelf model or massive refrigerator-sized floorstander, the following elements are shared amongst all speaker systems in one way or another.
Matching Amps with Speakers
There’s a classic phrase that’s often thrown around audiophile circles when it comes to amplifier power: There is no such thing as having too much. While that’s true to a certain extent, it’s still important to make sure a speaker’s maximum power rating at least somewhat matches an amp’s output specifications.
Here’s the kicker that many people won’t tell you about, though: It’s far better to have copious amounts of clean, steady current (power) than to crank up an inefficient or poorly-designed amp that can’t feed a speaker what it needs – a scenario that eventually turns into much-dreaded distortion.
Contrary to rumors that have swirled around out there in audio circles for decades, it’s a distortion that can kill speaker drivers, not excessive amounts of power.
What you want to look for when trying to match up the bookshelf speaker of your choice with an amplifier are specifications – that is, what is the speaker’s “RMS” (or continuous) power handling capabilities (as well as its “peak,” or maximum rating), and how does this compare to what the amplifier is putting out?
You may also want to consider whether you need a stereo receiver, integrated amplifier, or separate preamp and power amplifier combo, the differences being that a stereo receiver is basically an amplifier with a radio tuner built-in, while an integrated amp removes the tuner section from the equation for arguably better sound quality. For dedicated hi-fi fanatics, only a true “separates” system will do – and this consists of a power amplifier, preamplifier (to switch between sources and control volume), and other various components that are desired.
Still, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if it’s a receiver, integrated amp, or power amp – amplifier ratings as they relate to the speaker you’re choosing must be considered.
Here’s the most important thing to know about impedance: The lower the number, the more difficult it is for an amplifier to drive that particular speaker.
A “standard” or “nominal” impedance in the world of home audio (mobile audio is another matter altogether when it comes to impedance) is eight (8) ohms, and speakers with this specification will normally output a great amount of sound without needing too much amp power behind them.
Once you drop down to speakers with four (4) or six (6) ohm ratings, the design becomes a bit more exotic and demanding, which is why you usually see truly expensive speakers boasting lower impedances.
If you plan on mating your new bookshelf speakers with a relatively low-powered amp/receiver (anywhere from 40 to 80 or so watts-per-channel), look for speakers with an eight (8) ohm rating to wring more performance out of them; if money is no object and you plan to purchase exotic, esoteric-branded speakers with lower impedance ratings, be sure the amp or receiver you’re connecting them to can drive such loads.
In a general sense, it’s fine to connect higher-impedance speakers to an amp – but what you don’t want to do is plug low-impedance speakers, such as four (4) ohm models, into an amp that specifies a minimum of eight (8) ohm limit.
This is a very controversial subject amongst audio enthusiasts, mainly because it’s just so subjective, generally speaking; what’s most important to remember here is that you shouldn’t get too caught up in what amp/receiver manufacturers claim their products put out, power-wise.
Some amps rated for, say, 75 watts-per-channel sound “more powerful” at a given volume than some claiming to output 100 watts-per-channel or more. We can’t tell you how many examples we’ve seen confirming this phenomenon, though it occurs more in the home theater receiver market than it does in hi-fi.
When matching up your bookshelf speakers with an amp or receiver, ensure the speakers’ power handling ratings (mainly the continuous/RMS spec) seem logical for the RMS power output as stated by the amp’s specifications.
Continuous power is where the magic is at, because “dynamic” or peak power is essentially a measure of an amp’s maximum power output when pushed beyond its continuous rating (we’re talking peaks of power for milliseconds during a song with dynamic swings, which isn’t a real measure of everyday, real-world audio situations).
Also, take note of this: Speaker manufacturers seem to rate power a little differently from one another; a few high-end brands have been moving away from offering “continuous power” and “peak power” ratings to favor “recommended amplification” ratings instead.
For example, KEF simply states “amplification requirements: 25 to 100 watts” for its well-received LS50 speakers, while Ascend Acoustics still provides minimum recommended power, maximum continuous power, and maximum short-term peak power ratings for its models.
Suffice to say, you need to study your bookshelf speakers’ specifications.
This spec, similar to the aforementioned impedance, comes down to this: Speaker sensitivity – many times erroneously referred to as speaker efficiency – is used to determine the amount of power necessary to drive a given loudspeaker.
The more “inefficient” a speaker is, the more difficult it is for an amplifier (or a receiver’s amplifier section) to drive it; or, to put it another way, the lower a speaker’s sensitivity rating – expressed in decibels (dB) – the more amp power you’re likely going to need to drive it.
Technically speaking, sensitivity is a measurement of the amount of sound output derived from a speaker with only one watt of power input from an amplifier, usually measured with a microphone connected to a sound level meter placed one meter in front of the speaker.
There are some speakers, such as those produced by the Klipsch company, that boast significantly higher sensitivity ratings compared to other brands – some approaching 110dB, which equates to 100 times the output of a speaker rated at the more typical 90dB sensitivity. This means that speakers of this kind don’t require gobs of power to drive comfortably, or even into the ear-piercing territory.
Like with everything else we purchase in life, there are build quality differences between bookshelf speakers – the key is to look for certain elements when shopping for your next pair because these, most of the time, can make or break the sound experience.
However, just because a speaker may exude a “premium” appearance, it’s not always the case as you dig deeper; look for nice weight and heft when you lift the speaker (if you’re actually shopping in a store; browsing internet outlets makes this a bit harder to accomplish) as well as for high-quality binding posts for securing the wires in back.
Additional build quality characteristics to look for when shopping for bookshelf speakers are nicely rounded corners that resist chipping and a magnetically-attached grille.
Bookshelf Speakers FAQ
Some of the more recurring questions we receive concerning speakers revolve around the following four topics:
Active vs. Passive speakers
Bookshelf speakers vs computer speakers
Bookshelf speakers vs 2.1 speakers
Bookshelf speakers vs soundbar
Active vs. Passive speakers
Active speakers contain a built-in amplifier and simply need a power source to operate, where passive speakers – most quality speakers designed for mid- or hi-fi setups – require an external power amplifier (or receiver) to operate. Computer speakers normally come as active types, with the amp built-in, so all you would need to do is plug them into a power outlet and then to the computer.
Bookshelf speakers vs 2.1 speakers
In-home theater, systems are referenced based on their speaker arrangements – hence five surround speakers plus a subwoofer is known as “5.1.” In two-channel audio, or hi-fi, most setups are referred to as “2.0” systems, as there are two stereo speakers connected to an amp or stereo receiver, but over the past few years more hi-fi enthusiasts have been adding subwoofers to stereo systems to add low bass to their favorite music, hence the moniker of “2.1.”
Because bookshelf speakers aren’t capable, on their own, of providing the kind of bass punch tower speakers can – and some of those can even benefit from the addition of a sub – it is common to see a pair of bookshelves paired with a subwoofer in modern hi-fi systems.
Bookshelf speakers vs soundbar
Being that we just touched on the subject of home theater, we’re going to now take a brief look at yet another trend that’s sweeping that sector – and that is the exploding popularity of soundbars. With the advent of super-slim flat-panel televisions, the idea of a full-blown five, six or seven-channel surround speaker system connected to seemingly complex electronics has fallen out of favor with most homeowners.
Into this mix has come the soundbar, a one-speaker package that is mounted along the bottom of a television screen, designed to mimic the performance of an audio/video receiver (AVR) and surround speaker array by bouncing sound around the room. As you can imagine, this is a much different approach from bookshelf speakers, which stand alone and, in a surround system, would flank the television screen on the left and right.
The following are additional frequently asked questions we receive regarding bookshelf speakers:
Depending on whether it’s a Small or Large Room, Does Speaker Size Matter?
Most bookshelf speakers are in and around the same size, and all are rectangular in shape, more or less. Indeed, if you are planning a system for a formidably large room, bookshelf speakers may not be the way to go; in these cases, tower speakers make more sense, as they traditionally handle more power compared to bookshelves and can fill a larger area with sound. For an average or small room, bookshelves should do just fine.
As we covered, bookshelf speakers should ideally be placed on appropriate stands, and these should enable the speakers to sit at ear-height when you’re in your primary listening position.
Do Bookshelf Speakers Need a Subwoofer?
A subwoofer is not required – but if you like your music to have a bit of a low-end “punch,” adding one is not a bad idea.
Are Bookshelf Speakers Full-Range Speakers?
No — to be considered “full range,” a speaker must boast at least a tweeter, midrange driver, and woofer; bookshelf speakers, in general, contain tweeters and midrange drivers, which is why pairing them with a good subwoofer is ideal for a full-range experience.
Are Bookshelf Speakers Good for Home Theater?
Yes – but for maximum impact, a subwoofer should be used in home theater applications, as film soundtracks contain an “LFE” channel (Low-Frequency Effects) that can only be replicated by a sub.
Can Bookshelf Speakers be Used as Front Speakers?
Yes – though we recommend choosing a pair on the larger side for front-channel duty.
How Much Does Cable Quality Matter?
This is a very controversial subject – most of the time, ultra-expensive speaker cable and interconnects are just “snake oil”…in other words, they’re not worth the money. On the other hand, you don’t want to go super-cheap on connectors, either, so be sure to buy a good quality speaker wire at a reasonable price. From our perspective, online vendors such as Monoprice and Blue Jeans Cable manufacture quality cable at very affordable rates.
What Are the Top Brands in the Industry?
With a dizzying array of sizes, styles, and brands available in the loudspeaker category, this question is almost impossible to answer; however, in terms of sheer popularity, some names that should be considered include Polk Audio, Klipsch, KEF, JBL, Infinity, Dynaudio, Bowers and Wilkins, Bang and Olufsen and Definitive Technology.
Last update on 2021-02-13 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
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