The 10 Best Bookshelf Speakers
We spent 45 hours on research, videography, and editing, to review the top choices for this wiki. Boasting powerful sound in an impressively compact size, these bookshelf speakers will deliver a faithful reproduction of your music or a movie's audio track without looming large in your home office, den or living room. Offering connectivity to most devices via wire or Bluetooth, they're versatile and, in most cases, relatively economical. When users buy our independently chosen editorial picks, we may earn commissions to support our work. Skip to the best bookshelf speaker on Amazon.
Can You Hear Anything, Now?
Imagine you have a nightclub teeming with crazy patrons, each of whom represents a frequency range within a music file.
Then the fire marshal–let’s call him Marshal John Capital Ruthlessness–comes along, and he says the club is beyond capacity.
It seems that, for the most part, the desire to maximize the quality of one’s audio experience has all but disappeared from the populace. In many instances, especially among younger music fans, an effort to reach a baseline audio quality isn’t even there.
The music we experience today is predominantly digitized, compressed beyond oblivion to minimize the amount of space it takes up on a hard disk, or the amount of cellular data it consumes while you stream it. That results in far less space in which a music file has to breathe.
Imagine you have a nightclub teeming with crazy patrons, each of whom represents a frequency range within a music file. Then the fire marshal–let’s call him Marshal John Capital Ruthlessness–comes along, and he says the club is beyond capacity. So, he forces you to kick out some of the patrons. You start with the lowest and highest frequency ranges because they’re the least utilized by the bulk of musicians.
A week goes by, and everything seems normal again. Then, Marshal Ruthlessness shows up again and forces you to sacrifice another handful of ranges. This pattern continues until you finally have the average 192 kbps bitrate you find across the streaming industry, a bitrate that leaves a lot of sound on the cutting room floor.
The problem gets even worse when you pump that low-quality music through computer speakers or cheap ear bud headphones. In a sound environment like this, we need quality headphones or quality speakers like never before. The bookshelf speakers on our list offer a relatively inconspicuous means by which you can take even the poorest quality audio stream and project a clear and nuanced sound into your space.
The mechanisms of any speaker system are essentially the same, though the quality of certain ingredients, rather as in cooking, can make a big difference in the tasty tones they produce. You’ll usually encounter two to three cones for audio output on an individual speaker.
The first two, that are present almost ubiquitously, are the woofer and the tweeter. Traditionally, the tweeter handles the highest frequencies in the range, and the woofer handles the lowest. In a set of bookshelf speakers, however, both of of the cones creep a little more toward the middle than they would if they were incorporated into a more elaborate system.
That could save you valuable space if you’re tight on room, but the preamps in these are usually pretty middling in quality.
Occasionally, a set of bookshelf speakers will include a third means of audio output, often appearing as a hardened channel through which you can feel air passing. This third opening is sometimes a small, circular hole between the other cones, and other times it's a thin slot toward the bottom of the cabinet. These are bass reflex ports that pump out a little extra low end in support of that centrist woofer.
These are all important mechanisms to consider in your purchase, but you’ll also want to look at things like whether the speakers are active or passive. If you already have a good receiver set up in your home, or you’re planning to get one, a pair of passive speakers would be best. That way, you know that every dollar you spend on them goes into their housing and their sound quality, without extra circuitry taking up space and design.
With a set of active speakers, on the other hand, you can grab an RCA to 3.5mm cable and plug your cell phone right into the back of the unit, unless you have a newer iPhone, of course. That could save you valuable space if you’re tight on room, but the preamps in these are usually pretty middling in quality.
The last thing worth considering, especially if you’re down to two or three options the specs of which all seem like they compete pretty well with one another, is style. These aren’t the biggest speakers on the market, so they aren’t intended to be the centerpiece of any space, but when they’ve got music coming out of them, it’s a simple thing for anyone in your home to trace those vibrations back to their source. This comes down to a matter of taste, so don’t be ashamed to choose a speaker with good specs just because it’s pretty.
Vibrations In A Cave
Early man spent a lot of time in caves. Evidence of fires, meals, and artworks left behind on the walls of those caves all indicate that man was a dweller of enclosures long before he figured out how to build them for himself. Back in those cave, it had to be apparent to those early humans that their voices sounded different inside the cave than they did without. There was an echo, and a kind of amplification, as the vibrations of their voices bounded around off of the rock walls.
Even today, if you sit in the top row, you can hear two people talking on those stages.
They wouldn’t have had the science or the language to communicate this experience abstractly, but these had to have been the earliest kernels of individual understanding that sound could be changed by its environment.
Later, when the ancient Greeks built their amphitheaters, they constructed them in such a way that the voices of the actors carried upward and in the direction of the audience. Even today, if you sit in the top row, you can hear two people talking on those stages.
To help those voices of antiquity reach the back row over a rowdy crowd, however, the actors wore masks that included crude analogue megaphones in their mouths, amplifying the sounds of their words.
Once Edison came along with his phonograph, amplification was off and running toward ever-improving developments. The phonograph used a horn speaker, closer in relationship to the amplifiers in those Greek masks. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that a handful of audio engineers developed the technology that would combine to form the electrodynamic loudspeaker, the magnetic device we see in all of these bookshelf speakers and in almost every speaker system around the world.
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