Bookshelf Loudspeaker Buyer’s Guide

The exponential growth of active/wireless loudspeakers has cemented its position as the future of loudspeakers within the home audio category, but that should not deter any music lover from considering a pair of affordable passive bookshelf loudspeakers which might offer superior sound quality compared to most active/wireless loudspeakers. The bookshelf loudspeaker in either format offers a compelling music experience that is room-friendly, cost-effective, and compatible with network amplifiers, turntables, and digital sources at every price point. There are hundreds of quality bookshelf loudspeakers to select from – but these should be on your shortlist entering 2020.

Paradigm Monitor SE Atom ($238.95/pair)

Never judge a pair of loudspeakers by its grille covers or its price. The Paradigm Monitor SE Atom will not impress with their boxy and somewhat austere appearance – and that’s exactly why you need to give these overachieving two-way bookshelf loudspeakers a serious listen. Where the rubber meets the road with these loudspeakers is when you remove the grille covers and discover that Paradigm is spoiling you with a scaled-down version of their X-Pal perforated phase-aligned tweeter and a robust 5 ½” mid-bass driver that belongs on loudspeakers that are double the price. The Monitor SE Atom are relatively easy to drive but take a significant step forward if you reward them with power. Tubes or warm sounding solid-state is the way to go if you want to hear what these loudspeakers can do. BUY HERE

Q Acoustics 3021i ($314.99/pair)

The updated 3020i is larger than its predecessor, featuring a new crossover, reinforced internal bracing, as well as recessed binding posts for those who may want to wall-mount or set-up close to the wall. Q Acoustics have gone the extra mile with the finish options as well; the glossy walnut and Arctic White give the 3020i a modern look that belie its price. The 3020i are not particularly difficult to drive but they benefit from some power; its 5-inch mid/bass driver is capable of respectable bass extension with the right amplifier. The 1” soft-dome tweeter balances out the warm tonal balance, and slightly recessed presentation of the speaker with some needed bite. BUY HERE

PSB Alpha P5 ($399.00/pair)

For almost forty years, Paul Barton has been engineering high-performance loudspeakers with a focus on value/performance. The Alpha P5 are small two-way bookshelf loudspeakers at a price point with a lot of competition – a scenario that makes it hard for products to differentiate themselves enough to be considered category leaders. Make no mistake, the Alpha P5 are remarkable loudspeakers with even modest amplification, but they blow past anything in their price range with a better amplifier with wonderful resolution, tonal accuracy, and a very dynamic presentation that makes them a solid long-term purchase for anyone who loves music. BUY HERE

Klipsch RP-600M ($629.00/pair)

The RP-600M have been a huge success story for Klipsch and helped renew interest in their more expensive Heritage-series loudspeakers at the same time. Despite their reputation for being forward/bright sounding, the RP-600M’s 1-inch titanium-dome tweeter with hybrid cross-section Tractrix horn never crosses a line that makes them sound etched or bright. Horns have ample detail, and it is their overall presence and strong dynamic capabilities that makes these speakers such an engaging listen. The RP-600M are a large set of bookshelf loudspeakers that require proper stands. While not bass monsters, the RP-600M are incredibly easy to drive and benefit from warmer sounding amplifiers. BUY HERE

Bowers & Wilkins 606 ($898.98/pair)

B&W prolonged the lifespan of the award-winning 685 S2 bookshelf loudspeakers before introducing the 606, but the wait was certainly worth it. A truly engaging pair of loudspeakers designed for both stand or media console placement, the 606 deliver a taste of B&W’s more expensive Continuum cone technology which is usually reserved for its more expensive models. Its 6.5” midrange/bass driver can deliver deep, tight bass that is well balanced against the rest of the sonic spectrum. The lively sounding tweeter will never fail to retain your attention, but don’t get the impression that these loudspeakers are bright sounding. They are engaging and very balanced sounding. BUY HERE

KEF Q350 ($699.99/pair)

The KEF Q350 bookshelf loudspeaker looks and sounds very little like its predecessor; thanks to the next generation of its Uni-Q driver technology with its tangerine waveguide on the tweeter which helps the concentric driver direct sound more evenly. The sleek minimalist design dispenses with everything but a clean looking baffle and is only available in either satin white or black. The Q350 are rear ported and require some space between them and the wall to retain their open presentation, while benefiting from boundary reinforcement. They are slightly more reserved sounding than some of their competitors, but they reproduce music with a greater sense of scale and coherency that is hard to resist. BUY HERE

Wharfedale EVO4.2 ($999.99/pair)

The first things you notice about the affordable EVO4.2 are their size and weight; very few bookshelf loudspeakers are 30 pounds and 18” tall. The robustness of their construction translates to their sound quality as well. Wharfedale has built a full-range sounding loudspeaker with layers of resolution, a laid-back sounding presentation that makes it compatible with a wider range of equipment, and an exceptionally airy sounding top end that you rarely find in loudspeakers below $2,000. The overall coherency and midrange transparency make the EVO4.2 one of the best sounding and affordable bookshelf loudspeakers you can find. The one caveat would be the need for heavy-duty loudspeaker stands between 18”-22” to place the tweeter at the right listening height. BUY HERE

Quad S-2 ($1,195.99/pair)

The original Quad ESL rewrote all of the rules when it comes to loudspeaker design and while it’s not reasonable to expect a two-way bookshelf loudspeaker to offer a similar level of transparency and midrange magic, the S-2 offers one of the best integrations of a ribbon tweeter and cone driver that we’ve ever heard at any price. The S-2’s ribbon tweeter delivers a reference-quality level of transparency and airiness at the top end that never gets hard, and layers of resolution, detail, and pacing that rarely show up in any loudspeakers near its price point. The S-2 are unforgiving of overly neutral sounding amplification or sources and require a robust 50-75 watts to really come alive. Drive them with the right amplifier and this may be the last loudspeaker you ever buy. BUY HERE

ELAC Carina BS243.4 ($1,379.98/pair)

ELAC’s Andrew Jones has a remarkable track record of designing both price-no-object and entry-level loudspeakers that deliver the sonic goods. It is his affordable offerings, however, that continue to inspire delivering sound quality that few designers have proven capable of squeezing out of two-way bookshelf designs priced below $1,500. The Carina BS243.4 raise the bar with its JET folded ribbon tweeter, and 5 ¼” aluminum cone mid/bass driver that can energize a room and create an enormous sounding soundstage when set-up properly. The Carina can sound a tad dry with the wrong amplification; tubes are a great option with these sleek looking loudspeakers which do require some power to open up. BUY HERE

Polk Audio Legend L200 ($1,799.99/pair)

Polk Audio have been manufacturing loudspeakers for over 40 years, and the LS200 might be one of their crown achievements. Unless your listening room is cavernous, the LS200 might be one of the best sounding full-range bookshelf loudspeakers we have come across in many years; they do require a lot of power to show off their capabilities and we would suggest 75-100 watts of power (not A/V receiver watts) as the bare minimum. The LS200 utilize Polk’s 1” ring radiator tweeter, and 6 ½” turbine cone midrange/bass driver with great sonic results. This is a bold and accurate sounding loudspeaker with a warm midrange and a lot of detail. BUY HERE

Sonus Faber Electa Amator III ($10,000/pair)

The original Electa Amator two-way bookshelf loudspeakers put rival manufacturers on notice almost 30 years ago that this Italian loudspeaker manufacturer was to be taken seriously. Sonus Faber has built some of the most gorgeous looking loudspeakers ever made – but the EA III raises the bar in a way that few will ever be capable of reaching in the category. Livio Cucuzza, Chief Design Officer for the McIntosh Group, has combined state-of-the-art drivers and a degree of finishing and craftmanship that you have to touch and hear with your own ears to appreciate. The price is very steep, and you’ll never appreciate them without the appropriate amplification, but these are art for the music lover who demands the highest level of sound quality.

Active/Wireless

Audioengine HD6 ($699.99/pair)

The HD6 offer support for Tidal, Spotify, and Pandora, and audiophiles who control their music collection via Roon can connect a Google Chromecast (which acts as a Roon-ready endpoint) to the HD6 via its optical input and stream high-res digital from their smart device. Offered in a multitude of finishes, including a beautiful looking walnut veneer, the HD6 include everything you need to get going in the box. With support for 24-bit/192kHz digital audio, Bluetooth aptX HD, a subwoofer output, and handy remote control, the HD6 are a true powered wireless stereo system. Vinyl listeners will need to provide their own external phono stage with the HD6. BUY HERE

Kanto TUK ($799.99/pair)

Integrating ribbon tweeters into entry-level bookshelf loudspeakers as they offer superior levels of detail and airiness has become the new norm in the category but getting it right has proven to be elusive for some. The Kanto TUK featuring an AMT tweeter, and 5.25-inch aluminum midrange woofer get it decidedly right. With an internal moving magnet phono stage, USB DAC, headphone amplifier, and support for Bluetooth aptX HD, the active TUK are a remarkable bargain. The top end can get a tad aggressive if pushed, but Kanto has included tone controls that bring things under control quickly. BUY HERE

KEF LSX ($999.98/pair)

Offered as a more affordable alternative to the award-winning LS50 Wireless, the LSX are available in a wider range of finishes but lack the full-range capabilities of its more expensive sibling. The LSX lack the scale and drama of the LS50 Wireless. Where the KEF puts some daylight between itself and almost all of its rivals is support for Roon, Tidal, Apple AirPlay 2, Spotify Connect, and one of the most intuitive control apps for iOS and Android devices. The LSX feature KEF’s signature Uni-Q driver array with a 4.5-inch midrange driver, and a smooth sounding .75-inch aluminum dome tweeter which are powered by a 100-watt power amplifier inside each loudspeaker. BUY HERE

Totem Acoustic KIN Play ($1,100/pair)

Totem Acoustics, as their name might suggest, build really inert loudspeakers. The Quebec-based manufacturer has been building world-class loudspeakers for over twenty-five years and the KIN Play represent their first foray into the active segment. Equipped with support for Bluetooth aptX HD for wireless streaming of high-res digital audio, the KIN Play also support 16-bit/48kHz via a smart device, and 24-bit/192kHz through its optical digital input. A single primary analogue input offers support for external devices such as an external DAC, or with the flick of a switch, an internal moving magnet phono pre-amplifier. Powered by a 240-watt amplifier, the KIN Play push tone and detail above all and offer tremendous performance for the money. BUY HERE

Acoustic Energy AE1 ($1,490.90/pair)

Acoustic Energy have had a lot of success building great sounding two-way loudspeakers, but this full-range two-way design is decidedly unique in a few areas. A 50-watt class A/B power amplifier in each enclosure, and the ability to connect to your pre-amplifier of choice allowing you to alter the tonal balance. The AE1’s 5-inch woofer, and 1-inch metal dome tweeter lean toward neutrality, making a tube pre-amplifier or warmer sounding source a good option. The AE1 are utterly transparent sounding, with layers of detail, tone, and impressive low-end response. No wireless capabilities but a level of sound quality that is high-end in every way. BUY HERE

DALI Callisto 2C ($4,750.00/pair)

One of the biggest negatives about active/wireless loudspeaker systems is that you are tied at the hip to a specific sound and ecosystem; unless that ecosystem happens to be one of the best at integrating dozens of streaming services. DALI has implemented BluOS from Bluesound and this MQA-certified and upgradeable three-piece system is about as future-proof as one can get in 2019. Powered by a 250-watt class D power amplifier, the CALLISTO 2C’s 6.5-inch woofer, and unique tweeter array which consists of a 1-inch soft dome tweeter, and hybrid ribbon module can fill a large listening space and offer world-class resolution.

Dynaudio Focus 20 XD ($5,999.99/pair)

Featuring custom Dynaudio drivers, brilliant industrial design, and a full-range sounding presentation that puts a lot of $20,000 systems to shame, the Focus 20 XD are a state-of-the-art active loudspeaker system at a very affordable asking price. Dynaudio have been one of the world’s leading manufacturers of high-end loudspeaker drivers for more than 40 years and the proof is in the sound quality of their entire line-up – but it’s really evident in the sound quality of the Focus 20 XD which feature a 150-watt amplifier inside each cabinet, and offer true wireless support for high-resolution audio digital sources. Users can tailor the sound of the Focus 20 XD with the Dynaudio Control app which aids with room set-up. The Focus 20 XD have a warm, and slightly laid back sonic presentation that works well with a wide range of music. Detail freaks will immediately notice the difference a quality tweeter can make – the benefit of designing everything in-house to the highest standards.

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